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Girdle Ness Lighthouse
Greyhope Road, Aberdeen, Scotland, UK
Girdle Ness Lighthouse
associated engineer
Robert Stevenson
date  1831 - 1833, opened 15th October 1833
era  Georgian  |  category  Lighthouse  |  reference  NJ970053
ICE reference number  HEW 1376
photo  © Mary and Angus Hogg and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Girdle Ness Lighthouse is the only one in Scotland to have shown two fixed lights on a single structure. Hailed as one of Robert Stevenson’s finest works, the tower has a distinctive mid-height lantern and decorative cast iron detailing. It remains in use as a single light, though now operated automatically.
The lighthouse is situated on Girdle Ness, a headland on the Dee Estuary protecting the south side of the entrance to Aberdeen Harbour. Calls for a lighthouse here were intensified after the whaling ship Oscar foundered at the mouth of the harbour in April 1813, though work did not start until 1831. It was designed by Robert Stevenson (1772-1850), with his son Alan Stevenson (1807-65) as resident engineer. From 1830, Alan was clerk of works to the Northern Lighthouse Board where his father was engineer (1808-43).
Constructed originally to show two lights, and the only lighthouse in Scotland to do so, the conical tower had two lanterns, spaced vertically 21.3m apart. The lower light, at 35m above sea level, was enclosed in the encircling galleried lantern that gives the lighthouse its particular silhouette.
The lower lantern gallery is 14.2m above the base plinth of the tower, cantilevered from a step in the tower’s wall thickness and supported on masonry corbels. The wall thickness below the gallery is 1.93m and above it 1m, resulting in a platform 1.65m wide. The lower lantern, a 28-sided iron frame structure, was glazed towards the sea but infilled with cast iron plates on the landward side.
The upper light is housed in a glazed cupola lantern (now replaced) at the top of the tower, about 36.3m above ground level. The upper lantern is fixed to the top of a parapet wall 1.7m above the level of the upper gallery, where again the tower wall reduces in thickness. Corbelling, like that used lower down, supports a 910mm wide platform around the parapet.
Inside the tower, a winding staircase with landings provides access to the lanterns and galleries. Its 182 steps are 910mm wide with 178mm rises, and supported by concentric brick walls 152mm thick. The external stair wall is separated from the tower wall by a 76mm gap. A hollow brick column some 910mm in diameter rises through the centre of the tower and acts as a ‘drop’ for the weight attached to the lamp mechanism.
The tower’s unattributed cast iron work is notable for its unusual detailing — some of the external ladders feature processions of crocodiles, balustrades are fashioned as bamboo lattices, dolphin-shaped handholds surround the lanterns, and panels on the landward side of the lanterns are decorated with classical, religious and nautical motifs.
The lighthouse’s illuminations consisted of Argand oil burners placed at the focus of 533mm diameter silvered-copper parabolic reflectors. The upper light had 18 reflector lamps and the lower light 13. The basement below the semicircular room around the base of the east side of the tower was used as an oil store.
The station was completed in 1833, and cost £11,358 to construct. It included the tower, the two adjacent flat roofed lighthouse keepers’ dwellings to the west, an enclosed courtyard and the boundary walls. All are painted white. A rectangular flat roofed workshop building inside the south boundary wall was added later, possibly in the 1880s.
In 1847, a dioptric top light was installed. The original lantern, too small for the new light, was transferred to Inchkeith Lighthouse in the Firth of Forth, where it remains. The new lantern at Girdle Ness is a 3m tall structure topped by an iron dome and glazed in triangulated astragals (mouldings that seal the gap between panes) decorated with cast iron lion masks at the intersections.
The Astronomer Royal, George Biddell Airy (1801-92, knighted 1872), described it as "the best lighthouse that I have seen". Its top "lamp is framed by two large concave reflectors" and "fronted to seaward with weather-resisting glass a quarter of an inch thick and gun metal astragals".
In the 1880s, a fog signal house (NJ972053) was constructed to the south east of the tower. The building, semicircular in plan, has twin vertical cast iron oil tanks at the rear, which fuelled a generator to power the siren with compressed air. The sound was emitted from a cast iron trumpet that rotated in a semicircle on top of the flat roof. It was operated when visibility fell below 9.3km (5 nautical miles).
In 1890, the lower fixed light was removed, though lantern and gallery were retained. The upper light was replaced by a single revolving light of 196,200 candela, 56.39m above sea level, which flashes twice every 20 seconds and has a nominal range of 40.7km (22 nautical miles). It was lit by pressure-vaporised paraffin and burned 1.35 litres of paraffin per hour. A clockwork motor, set into a mercury bath to keep it level, moved the light and its reflectors in an arc facing the seafront.
On 18th November 1944, a wartime mine drifted ashore near the lighthouse and exploded. Most of the damage consisted of broken windows and doors in the tower and keepers’ houses. In January 1967, the lighthouse was Category A listed. In 1987, its fog signal was discontinued.
In 1991, the lighthouse was automated and the outbuildings passed into private ownership. The operation of the light — now electrified (date unknown) — is controlled from the Northern Lighthouse Board’s headquarters in Edinburgh. It operates on a gearless pedestal drive system powered by mains electricity, which rotates the lamp array only during darkness. In case of mains failure, the light has a direct current back-up, a 250mm emergency lantern with a range of 18.5km (10 nautical miles).
Since 1998, Girdle Ness Lighthouse has been a transmitting station for the Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) for satellite marine navigation. It is one of Scotland’s three reference stations. The other two are Butt of Lewis Lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides and Sumburgh Head Lighthouse on Shetland. It also carries a radar beacon (RACON), installed sometime after 1968. The RACON and DGPS receivers are mounted on the dome of the upper lantern.
Resident engineer: Alan Stevenson
Resident inspector: Alexander Slight
Contractor: John Gibb, Aberdeen
Research: ECPK
bibliography
"Dynasty of Engineers: The Stevensons and the Bell Rock" by Roland Paxton, Northern Lighthouse Heritage Trust, Edinburgh, 2011
"Bright Lights: The Stevenson Engineers 1752-1971" by Jean Leslie and Roland Paxton, published by the authors, Edinburgh, 1999
http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk
http://portal.historicenvironment.scot
www.aberdeen-harbour.co.uk
www.ice.org
www.nlb.org.uk
www.scotlandsplaces.gov.uk
reference sources   CEH SHI
Location

Girdle Ness Lighthouse