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Muckle Flugga Lighthouse
Muckle Flugga, north of Unst, Shetland Isles, UK
associated engineer
David Stevenson
Thomas Stevenson
date  1854, 1855 - 1857
era  Victorian  |  category  Lighthouse  |  reference  HP605196
ICE reference number  HEW 2576
This is Britain’s most northerly lighthouse. It was known originally as North Unst Lighthouse but its name was changed in 1964 to Muckle Flugga, the name of the tiny island on which it stands — derived from the Old Norse for ‘large steep-sided island’. The present lighthouse replaced a temporary light, which had been built to aid those sailing to the Crimean War.
The Shetland Islands lie between the Faroe Islands to the west and Norway to the east, and have only open sea to the north as far as the Arctic Circle. The Faroes are nearer to Unst than Edinburgh. The site for the lighthouse, on a precipitous pyramid of rocks rising 61m above the sea, is frequently overtopped by unbroken waves.
However, by 1851 it was clear that a lighthouse was needed in the northernmost reaches of Scotland and by 1853 war with Russia was imminent — the Crimean War broke out in October that year and continued until February 1856. To safeguard the much increased naval presence near this unlit coast, the Admiralty commissioned the Northern Lighthouse Board to erect two lighthouses in the Shetlands as a matter of urgency. Work had already begun at the other site, Out Skerries (HU701718), and was completed in 1854.
David Stevenson (1815-86) became Engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1853, succeeding his elder brother Alan Stevenson (1807-65) who was in poor health. One of his first tasks was to build a temporary lighthouse on the Muckle Flugga Rocks north of Unst. Stone for the project was quarried from the rocks themselves but everything else had to be brought in by boat.
In August 1854, a level platform was cut into the top of the rocks and a flight of rough access steps was hewn down to sea level, all by men dangling from lifelines. The 122 tonnes of materials and supplies were carried up the steps on the men’s backs, including the iron lighthouse keepers’ huts. Cement mortar was used for the first time at a rock station. Amazingly, the construction was completed in just 26 days and the 15.2m high temporary light was lit on 11th October 1854.
Following severe storms during the first winter, when the lighthouse was damaged and the protective wall round the station torn down, the keepers feared for their lives. It was decided to make the light permanent. Initially, the interested parties disagreed over whether to continue with a light at Muckle Flugga or to re-site it further south at Lamba Ness (HP674156) in the Orkney Islands.
However, the order for work to resume at Muckle Flugga was given in June of 1855, the year that Thomas Stevenson (1818-87) joined his brother as a joint Engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board. Work began at once.
As the rock at Muckle Flugga shattered easily and importing alternative stone would have been difficult, the Stevensons chose to build the new lighthouse from brick. It was an untried experiment in such an exposed location but bricks were easier to manhandle than stone blocks.
The workmen were housed in an iron hut and the materials needed were raised from sea level on a steep railway powered by a 7.5kW steam engine. To shelter the station from further storm damage, a masonry wall 1.5m high and 600mm thick was built round its west and north sides. The 19.5m high conical lighthouse tower has walls 1.1m thick, and its foundations are built 3m into the bedrock.
The lighthouse and its ancillary buildings were constructed by direct labour and were completed in 1857 at a cost of £36,000. The fixed light was exhibited for the first time on 1st January 1858. It was manned by a team of six keepers, with three on duty at any one time for a month term.
Muckle Flugga also had a separate shore station, built in 1856, at Burrafirth (HP616136) on Unst. It comprised a two storey accommodation block and two single storey cottages for off-duty keepers and their families, a storage shed, a stone slipway with a cast iron derrick and a water cistern.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) sketched Muckle Flugga in June 1869 while on a visit there with his father, Thomas Stevenson, and may have used the island of Unst as the inspiration for Treasure Island.
In 1927-28 the fixed light was changed to a flashing one, with a nominal range of 40.7km.
New keepers’ dwellings were built in 1968-69 to replace the cramped quarters in the lighthouse itself. The light was converted to electricity at about this time and a helipad added later. The tower is still as robust as when it was constructed, though rock stabilisation has been carried out to secure the access track.
The lighthouse was automated in March 1995. Following automation, the shore station was sold and now houses the visitor centre for the Hermaness Nature Reserve. This covers 965ha of north Unst and was designated a National Nature Reserve in 1955 — it is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area. It is managed by Scottish Natural Heritage and is noted for its variety of seabirds.
The Muckle Flugga complex, including the fog horn house, has been Category A listed since August 1971. The Burrafirth shore station was Category C(S) listed in March 1998.
Resident engineer: Alan Brebner
Research: ECPK
bibliography
"Bright Lights: The Stevenson Engineers 1752-1971" by Jean Leslie and Roland Paxton, published by the authors, Edinburgh, 1999
"Dynasty of Engineers: The Stevensons and the Bell Rock” by Roland Paxton, The Northern Lighthouse Heritage Trust, Edinburgh, 2011
www.nlb.org.uk
www.nnr-scotland.org.uk
www.scottish-places.info
www.transportheritage.com
reference sources   CEH SHILightStev
Location

Muckle Flugga Lighthouse