The Beacon

Tuesday 25th January comments: The Beacon stands proudly on the highest point of the Isle of May and was constructed in 1636 making it Scotland’s first and oldest lighthouse. The building was three floored (about 12 metres in height) with keepers living in the centre floor and a coal burning basket on the top lit nightly to warn passing ships of the presence of the dangerous island.

The coal burning basket on the top used approximately 400 tonnes of coal per year (that is a lot of lifting by hand from the jetty to the top of the island) and the coal was originally paid for by passing ships with levy’s. Each ship was charged on the amount of tons it carried although interestingly English boats were charged twice the amount as Scottish boats but eventually this charge was dropped.

However there was tragedy linked to the building as in January 1791 the lighthouse keeper family (George Anderson, his wife and five of his children) were found dead having suffocated from carbon monoxide poisoning from fumes from the ash heaps surrounding the Beacon. The baby girl which survived called Lucy was brought up in Anstruther before emigrating to the United States with her husband.

Gradually the Beacon started to show its limitations as although it was good in principal, burning coal in strong gales would limit its visibility and use. Locally the issues were known but it was soon noted nationally as in 1810, two Royal Navy boats were wrecked off Dunbar as they had mistaken a lime kiln on the mainland coast for the Beacon. After 179 years it was time for a rethink and in 1815 the Isle of May welcomed the construction of a new addition…

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