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Isle of May Lighthouse
Isle of May, Fife, Scotland, UK
associated engineer
Robert Stevenson
date  1815 - ist September 1816, 1843 - 1844
era  Georgian  |  category  Lighthouse  |  reference  NT654993
ICE reference number  HEW 809/01 +02
The first lighthouse in Scotland was established on the Isle of May in 1636, and the present lighthouse was built almost two centuries later by Robert Stevenson, founder of the celebrated dynasty of lighthouse engineers. Later modifications Stevenson's lighthouse were undertaken by his sons and grandsons. It is now operated automatically.
The Isle of May is located at the entrance to the Firth of Forth, and is 1.6km long and about 500m wide, covering 57ha. Historically, many ships sailing to and from the Forth ports were shipwrecked on its shores. In 1635, King Charles I granted a patent for constructing a beacon here to East Lothian citizens James Maxwell of Innerwick and John and Alexander Cunningham of Barns.
They erected a masonry building 7.3m square and 12m high. The top of the building was vaulted to support a flat flagstone roof, upon which was set a stone platform topped by a tapering circular iron fire box, 530mm deep and up to 850mm wide. Coal for the fire was hoisted from the ground to the roof using a box and pulley. The grate burned up to 406 tonnes of coal a year, tended by three keepers, but its light was "never well seen when most required".
This beacon was the first permanent light station in Scotland and the last one to be in private ownership. In 1814, the Northern Lighthouse Board bought the island from the Duke and Duchess of Portland for £60,000. Construction of the new lighthouse, designed by Robert Stevenson (1772-1850), began the following year.
The lighthouse’s square unpainted masonry tower is 24.1m high, and with its adjoining keepers' accommodation, resembles a Gothic castle. It was completed in February 1816 and the light — an Argand oil lamp with parabolic silvered reflectors — was first exhibited on 1st September 1816.
Once the Stevenson lighthouse was operational, the beacon was decommissioned. Planned demolition had been cancelled following the intervention of writer Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). The 1636 building was "ruined ´ la picturesque" by reducing its height to about 6m and constructing a castellated parapet around the top to match the style of the new station. Fishermen and ships’ pilots used it as a refuge.
In September 1836, Alan Stevenson (1807-65), Robert's eldest son, directed the fitting of a new light. The original catoptric (reflected light using mirrors) apparatus was replaced by dioptric (refracted light using lenses) apparatus, resulting in a three-fold increase in brightness. It was the first British dioptric fixed light, and led to adoption of the dioptric system in UK lighthouses.
During 1843-4, a small low-level lighthouse (NT661988) was built to the south east of the 1816 lighthouse. Visually ligning the two lights enabled mariners to avoid the treacherous North Carr Rocks 12km north of the Isle of May. The low light first shone in April 1844, but was discontinued in 1887 after the North Carr Lightship was stationed near the rocks.
The 1816 lighthouse had accommodation for three keepers and their families — not enough manpower to maintain the electric arc lamp that was to be installed 70 years later. In June 1885, work began on accommodation for three more keepers and on the infrastructure for generating electricity. New buildings (NT657991) were constructed 247m south east of the lighthouse, in the valley of a freshwater loch.
Electricity for the arc lamp came from two steam-powered generators fuelled by coal. They were the largest then made, weighing about 4.5 tonnes each and having a combined output of 8.8kW. Electric current arced between carbon rod electrodes, which glowed white hot. Some 135m of 38mm diameter carbon rods and 160 tonnes of coal were burned per year. If the electric current failed, a three-wick paraffin lamp was used and could be operational in about three minutes.
The light had dioptric apparatus fitted with a dipping plane designed by Thomas Stevenson (1818-87), Robert’s youngest son, and emitted four flashes in quick succession every 30 seconds. It was first shown on 1st December 1886.
The light had been improved to 2.9 million candela by 1901, achieved by using long focal distance apparatus and equiangular prisms to condense the light into a more powerful beam. The new equipment was designed by David Alan Stevenson (1854-1938) and Charles Alexander Stevenson (1855-1950), Robert's grandsons.
Though the electric light was far brighter than the original oil lamp, it could not penetrate dense fog. New oil lamps with incandescent mantles had been developed and proved to have greater power. David Alan Stevenson installed one of them in May 1924, and the lighthouse's electric light was discontinued.
The Isle of May was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1956. On 9th August 1972, it became a rock station — the keepers and their families lived on the mainland not at the lighthouse. The remnant of the 1636 lighthouse is a Scheduled Ancient Monument (No.887). Both the 1636 and the 1816 lighthouses became Category B listed buildings in March 1984.
The station was automated on 31st March 1989 and the lighthouse is operated by radio link to Fife Ness Lighthouse and by telephone link to the Northern Lighthouse Board's headquarters in Edinburgh. The light emits two white flashes every 15 seconds and has a range of 40.7km.
The Isle of May is now owned and managed by Scottish National Heritage, and the keepers' cottages are privately owned.
Contractor: James Maxwell of Innerwick
Contractor: John & Alexander Cunningham of Barns
Lamp refractors (1836): Cookson of Newcastle
Research: ECPK
"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
reference sources   CEH SLB

Isle of May Lighthouse