Life of the Light

Wednesday 23rd January comments: The main Stevenson lighthouse was constructed in 1816 and powered by electricity from 1886 (the first Scottish lighthouse to be powered by electricity) and the Beacon fell into disrepair. However a third smaller lighthouse was constructed in 1843, called the Low Light which was built to provide (with the main lighthouse) a pair of lights which would become aligned to help ships avoid the North Carr rocks as ships sailed from Dundee. However this smaller lighthouse was only functional until 1887 as a Light Ship was placed over the Carr rocks and the islands smaller lighthouse became redundant.

There was also changed in the main lighthouse as the high cost of coal along with improvements in oil lights led to the decision to change the main lighthouse back from electricity to oil. In 1924 the lighthouse was converted back to oil and as a result only four men were needed to look after the light so the number of families living on the Isle dropped.

During this period, despite the presence of the light, accidents still occurred with some interesting stories amongst them. During the 19th century a total of thirty-nine ships were documented as having come to grief on the island. Over half of these ships were total wrecks whilst the rest were either salvaged or saved. In only two cases there was loss of life; two people drowned when the steamer Newcastle Packet ran aground near Kirkhaven (near the jetties) in heavy seas on 5th April 1889 and two were drowned when the steamliner George Aunger struck the North Ness in fog on 25th Aoril 1930.

Interestingly it was during the wrecking of the Newcastle Packet that assistant lighthouse keeper Burnett overshot the corner of the road on the north end of the island and fell on rocks below, injuring himself in the process. As a result, the corner section of the road is still affectionately known as Burnetts leap.

These were interesting times for the main lighthouse on the May but slowly and surely technology was advancing and the ways of the lighthouse keepers was about to change for ever…

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First Electric Lighthouse

Tuesday 15th January comments: The year 1816 was a significant year for the Isle of May as the new lighthouse designed and constructed by Robert Stevenson became fully operational. As with all lighthouses, many stories followed and the isle of May Stevenson lighthouse was no different…

Looking through the history certain dates stick out and in 1843 the original fixed beam light was replaced by a revolving flash operated from oil but in 1885 that all changed. Work began to alter the light to operate on electricity and on the 1st December 1886, the Isle of May lighthouse became the first lighthouse in Scotland to be powered by this form of energy.

Converting to electricity was not cheap, to a fine tune of £16,000 but the new light had some impressive power as it beamed at 25,000 candle-power and gave four quick flashes in quick succession followed by an interval of 30 seconds. The highest recorded distance at which the light was visible was an impressive 61 nautical miles.

As a result of this change, more staff were needed and additional accommodation complete with boiler house, engine rooms and workshop were constructed in a small valley nearby. This also included a small dam to produce a fresh-water loch for cooling of engines. The engine room was then fitted with two 4.5 ton steam-powered engines which powered the light. These buildings later became known as Fluke Street and still stand today as they are home to the reserve staff who live on the island.

A total of seven families were required to live on the May as a result of these extra engines and during this time two fog horns were constructed at the north and south end of the island. These fog stations were powered by compressed air, generated from the island’s power plant in the centre of the island, and delivered by cast-iron pipes laid on the ground. The North horn provided a single blast of 7 seconds duration every 2¼ minutes and the South horn provided four 2½ second blasts of the same pitch every 2¼ minutes. The North and South horns did not blast together, being approximately one minute apart.

Despite all of this technology, not everything went according to plan as ships still ran into difficulty but more on that soon….

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Stevenson Lighthouse

Sunday 13th January comments: The Beacon light had served the Isle of May well for 179 years but gradually it limitations were proving decisive. Following the tragedy of two Royal Navy boats which had wrecked in 1810, the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) finally took note and took action.

In 1814 the Board purchased the Isle of May from the Duke and Duchess of Partland and called on their engineer Robert Stevenson to design and build a new lighthouse on the island. Construction work commenced soon after and by early 1816, the main lighthouse was fully complete and operational. During this time, the old Beacon was decommissioned and reduced to the ground floor but remained for historical context.

The main lighthouse was an impressive building, standing 78ft (24 metres) in height and was a showpiece for the Northern Lighthouse Board with its castellated tower reflecting influences of Sir Walter Scott. Unlike many other lighthouses built on wave swept rocks, Robert Stevenson was allowed to build the lighthouse to a grand design with a fine open-well newel stairway complete with mahogany handrail and carpet; the only carpeted lighthouse in Scotland.

From its roots in 1816, the lighthouse still stands and is still fully operational to this day beaming across the Firth of Forth. We’ll continue to bring the story of the lighthouses of the island as over the following 202 years the lighthouse saw some action…

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Scotland Oldest Lighthouse: the Beacon

Photos Above show the Beacon at present day, reduced to one floor but still sitting proud

Friday 11th 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 survive; Lucy was saved and 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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The Guardians of the Forth

Thursday 10th January comments: The Isle of May has a deep and rich history dating back to the seventh century with even a hint of Bronze Age settlements. However of all the human history on the island, the most noticeable this present day is the lighthouses of the island.

Lighthouses were designed to emit light from a system of lamps and lenses to serve as navigational aids to sailors. They generally mark the most dangerous and hazardous coastline around the UK and the Isle of May falls very much into that bracket. The island stands at the mouth of the Firth of Forth and has three lighthouses; the Beacon, Scotland’s first ever lighthouse built in 1636, whilst the impressive Stevenson lighthouse was constructed in 1816. A third lighthouse, known as the low light was constructed in 1844.

Each lighthouse has its own story and history to tell as they shaped the Isle of May. Starting with tomorrow’s blog, we’ll bring you the story of each lighthouse starting with the Beacon. It’ll make fascinating reading…

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The end?

Tuesday 8th January comments: The Isle of May; has it just lost a dear friend? Yesterday on social media Matt Brook and Mark Eaton reported the discovery of the above Guillemot (right photo) found dead on the tideline of Aberlady bay in Lothian.

Looking at the sad image it has a very close similarity to the individual which breeds on the Isle of May (left photo taken by Mark Newell) and has done for the last nine years. The bird is unique as it has a very unique yellow bill making it distinguishable amongst all the other Guillemots.

However it may not be as simple as that. Reports from other seabird colonies suggest that other yellow-billed Guillemots exist with reports from the Bass Rock and Farne Islands. So its certainly a sad loss regardless but is it the Isle of May individual? Only time will tell…

Thanks to Matt Brook, Mark Eaton and Mark Newell

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Visiting in April?

Monday 7th January Comments: Visitors to the Isle of May can have an amazing experience at any time of the year as every day is different from the minute we open on 1st April to the day we close at the end of September. Over the next week we’ll bring you the highlights and what to expect month-by-month so you can get planning…


In late March the staff return to the island and on 1st April we open our doors to the visiting public. The first week of the month can be very exciting as our huge population of Puffins will be touching land for the first time since last August. Over the following fortnight birds will be settling and spring cleaning burrows ready for the new breeding season (Puffins will be on eggs by mid-April). Elsewhere on the cliffs Shags will have well-constructed nests (and potentially eggs by early April) whilst the Auks (Guillemot and Razorbills) will be settling and on eggs by late April. The terns have yet to return but Eider ducks will be displaying on the main island Loch and the first birds on eggs by mid-month.

The month of April is certainly a great time to explore the Isle of May as the boats are less busy, and with the added extra of the Stevenson lighthouse opening at weekends, there is plenty to see. Even if you are not into nature, the island is just a great place to visit to enjoy the rugged landscape, admire the fabulous views and take in the excitement of a boat journey across the North Sea. To book a place on the boats, check out the links below:

May Princess (sails from Anstruther):

Osprey (sails from Anstruther):

Seabird Rib (sails from North Berwick):

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