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Sumburgh Head Lighthouse
Sumburgh, Mainland, Shetland Isles, UK
Sumburgh Head Lighthouse
associated engineer
Robert Stevenson
date  January 1819 - 1821
era  Georgian  |  category  Lighthouse  |  reference  HU406078
photo  © Nicholas Mutton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
The remote Sumburgh Head Lighthouse at the southern tip of Mainland Shetland was the first constructed in the islands. It was the work of Scottish engineer Robert Stevenson (1772-1850), who headed a family of famous lighthouse builders. Now automated, it remains operational and its keepers' cottages provide visitor accommodation.
Sumburgh Head Lighthouse occupies a high rocky headland exposed to harsh weather and turbulent seas. It was the seventh lighthouse designed by Stevenson in his capacity as engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board (appointed 12th July 1808). Constructed in 1819-21, the three storey tower is flanked symmetrically by flat-roofed two storey pavilions — dwellings for two lighthouse keepers and their families. A walled courtyard lies between the pavilions, with the tower on a podium midway along the its seaward side.
The tapering circular masonry tower is 17.1m high, with an internal staircase of 52 steps leading from ground level to the light. The walls are double thickness to protect against the weather. For the same reason, all the masonry buildings on site have harled walls — the stone is covered with lime render embedded with small stones. They are also painted white.
The original lantern (now replaced) was in the form of a cupola,and was probably lit by a mineral oil lamp. A cantelvered balcony with cast iron railings runs around the lantern, supported by continuous corbelling. In 1822, the annual cost of maintaining the station was £650.
In about 1864, after a shipwreck off the headland, a fog bell was presented to the lighthouse. The bell was used up until 1906, when it was moved to the parish church at Dunrossness, to the north, where it remains.
In the late 19th or early 20th century, the lantern was replaced with the present metal-framed one. A revolving lamp was fitted, along with Stevenson’s equiangular refractor, which has 26 reflectors instead of the more usual 21. The lamp is 91m above sea level, shows three flashes every 30 seconds and is visible for up to 42.6km (23 nautical miles).
A semicircular fog signal house was constructed to the north east in 1905-6. Its vertical cast iron oil tanks sit on a concrete platform to the rear, where a cast iron ladder leads to the flat roof. The signal is powered by low pressure compressed air, and the seven second blast controlled by an air-driven clockwork mechanism. A siren, inside the building, spins at 1200rpm and the sound is amplified by a cast iron trumpet on top of the building. The horn can be made to face the appropriate direction by moving it along a cogged track around perimeter of the roof.
To the north of the lighthouse is a single storey eight-bay engine house with a flat roof. It accommodates equipment for the operation of the revolving light and for the fog signal. Surviving machinery and tanks for the latter date from 1906. Next to the engine house is second similar building.
The station site is enclosed by boundary walls of flagstone rubble, partly harled, with wrought iron gates hung from square stone piers. A radar hut was erected on site during World War II (1939-45). In October 1977, the lighthouse and its buildings were Category A listed. In 1987, the fog signal was discontinued.
In 1991, the light was automated by the Northern Lighthouse Board and is now operated remotely from their Edinburgh offices. The buildings around the tower passed into private ownership at the same time. In 1994, the area was designated an RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) nature reserve and the organisation’s local office relocated here in 1996. Sumburgh Head is home to many colonies of seabirds including large numbers of puffins.
In 2002-3, the Shetland Amenity Trust acquired the buildings for use as visitor accommodation. Proposals for conservation and development of the site were published in November 2004. Restoration works and construction of an educational visitor facility, the Stevenson Centre, was carried out May 2012 to April 2014. On 3rd June 2014, HRH Princess Royal (patron of the Northern Lighthouse Board) officially re-opened the complex.
The project was jointly undertaken by Shetland Amenity Trust, RSPB Scotland and the Northern Lighthouse Board. It cost £5.4m, with funding from the Scottish Rural Development Programme, European Regional Development Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, Scottish Natural Foundation, Shetland Islands Council, Shetland Amenity Trust and RSBP Scotland. The area remains an RSPB reserve.
Sumburgh Head is the most northerly transmitting station for the General Lighthouse Authorities' satellite-based marine navigation service known as the Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS). It is one of the service’s three reference stations in Scotland. The other two are Girdle Ness Lighthouse near Aberdeen and Butt of Lewis Lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides. This system has rendered traditional fog signals obsolete.
In about 2016, the fog signal building was refurbished and its siren, much loved by local people, returned to working order. Driven by a diesel engine, it is the only operational foghorn of its type in the UK.
Contractor: John Reid, Peterhead
Optical aparatus: Chance Brothers & Co. Ltd, Birmingham
Fog signal compressors: Alley & MacLellan
Engine house equipment (c1906): James Dove & Co, Edinburgh
Architect (2012-14): Groves-Raines Architects
Contractor (2012-14): Corramore Construction Ltd
Research: ECPK
"Dynasty of Engineers: The Stevensons and the Bell Rock" by Roland Paxton, Northern Lighthouse Heritage Trust, Edinburgh, 2011

Sumburgh Head Lighthouse