Cape Wrath Lighthouse
Cape Wrath, near Durness, Highland, Scotland, UK
1827 - 25th December 1828
ICE reference number
Cape Wrath Lighthouse clings to the north west tip of the British mainland, on a headland whose name is derived from the Norse for 'turning point'. It was built by Robert Stevenson, founder of the Stevenson dynasty of lighthouse engineers. It remains operational, though is now automated.
The lighthouse is one of 18 Scottish lights constructed by Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) between 1812 and 1833. Its conical tower is 20.1m high, of dressed granite with a corbelled parapet. There are 81 steps to the lantern, which is 122m above sea level.
Other parts of the station are constructed in large blocks of granite. The stone was quarried from the rocky bay of Clais Charnach (NC271735). A small quay and store is located at a tidal inlet 1.5km east of the lighthouse, connected to it by road. It was here that the building materials for the lighthouse were shipped in, and it was used afterwards for landing the equipment for servicing the station.
Cape Wrath lighthouse cost £14,000 to construct and its beam shone for the first time on Christmas Day 1828. The paraffin lamp was fitted with revolving reflectors, alternating white and red lights. The station also has a thermometer screen by Thomas Stevenson (1818-87), Robert's son. A compressed air foghorn, discontinued in 2001, gave six blasts every 90 seconds.
Being so high, the light was often obscured by fog or low cloud and construction of an additional lower light began in 1913. It was designed by Robertís grandson, David Alan Stevenson (1854-1938). His diary notes that the work "involved some new features in lighthouse construction, the sinking of a vertical shaft down to the level of the reef, the construction of 2 bridges, and the erection of a tower and fog horn house on the extreme end of the reef. The work was begun, but the contractor deserted the work, and on account of the Great War [1914-18] coming on it was found impossible to get a contractor to finish the work nor to carry it on ... ". By June 1914, the shaft for a lift was sunk 15.2m deep by blasting and quarrying. Work then stopped and never resumed.
Access to the lighthouse has always been difficult, particularly in winter. In the early days, relief keepers and visitors had to cross the Kyle of Durness by ferry and then travel 19km along a 2.74m wide access road, also built in 1828. The road has numerous stone bridges, constructed under Stevensonís direction. The largest is the 9.75m span Kearvaig Bridge (NC288717) south east of the lighthouse.
In more recent times, the keepers and all supplies for maintaining the lighthouse were landed once a year by the 1,712 tonne lighthouse tender MV Pharos. On 17th January 1977 that changed, when keepers and supplies were brought in by helicopter. This was the first helicopter relief of a shore-based Scottish lighthouse, which is now standard practice.
In 1978, mercury vapour lamps replaced the paraffin-vapour burner in the light. In January 1980, an electrical temporary power beam was installed, followed by a new gearless pedestal and lamp array system in December 1980. The light has a first order Fresnel lens, giving four white flashes every 30 seconds. It has the power of 200,000 candela and a range of 40.7km. The lighthouse was automated on 31st March 1998 and is now monitored remotely from Edinburgh.
Cape Wrath Lighthouse is owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board (established 1786), which is responsible for lighting the coast of Scotland and the Isle of Man. It has been Category A listed since March 1971.
Contractor (lighthouse station and access road): John & Alexander Gibb, Aberdeen
"Bright Lights: The Stevenson Engineers 1752-1971" by Jean Leslie and Roland Paxton, published by the authors, Edinburgh, 1999