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The Coastwise Lights of Britain


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Next to the saga of the sea, the chronicles of British courage have perhaps no more illustrious chapter than that which recounts the titanic struggle with the elements in the throes of which our lighthouses were founded. The torches at the gates of storm appeal to the sense of the picturesque, but too often the extraordinary hardships which went to the making of them are forgotten, and the herculean toil and wonderful ingenuity associated with the building of these pillars of the sea are only dimly realized by the landsman.

The coastal reefs of Great Britain and Ireland are among the most dangerous in the world, but it is little more than a century ago that any definite plan was prepared to lessen the risk to vessels approaching our shores. Before that time the toll of life paid to sunken reef and quicksand was so high that it now seems wonderful that merchant seamen dared to venture near our coasts. It is from the marine aspect only that we can adequately comprehend the value and importance of our British coastwise lights. Let us, then, take passage upon one of those barques of the imagination which stand ever ready in the harbour of fancy. We shall sail from Plymouth Hoe westward, pass Land's End, and by way of the Irish Sea into Scottish waters, rounding the northern Caledonian headlands with their teeming lights, returning southward by way of the East Coast of England, until we disembark at Portsmouth.

As we sail out of Plymouth Hoe we soon descry the Eddy-stone, that most famous among the beacons of the British coastline. Rising from a perilous reef about nine miles south-west of Rame Head in Cornwall, it is the fourth lighthouse to occupy the site. The first, built from timber by Henry Winstanley in 1696, and enlarged and completed in 1699, seems, from the contemporary print of it, more like a huge newspaper kiosk or the turret of a seaside villa than a pharos proper, and one is not surprised to learn that in the great tempest of 1703 this carved and gilded pagoda was swept away like a reed, carrying with it its hapless architect, who had boasted of its staunchness, and five keepers. But the damage was quickly repaired. In 1708 John Rudyerd, a silk merchant of London, erected a substantial and well-designed lighthouse of stone and wood, which weathered the storms of nearly half a century. It was, indeed, the prototype of all modern lighthouses so far as its tapering design was concerned. Fire from its lantern at last consumed it, and on its site John Smeaton, the Leeds instrument maker, built the famous beacon of stone, the first of its kind in Britain, the stump of which remains on the original foundation, a nest for sea-fowl. The upper part is still an object of sentimental interest to the wayfarer at Plymouth Hoe.

Smeaton's tower was only seventy feet high, but his account remains as a monument of the tremendous effort involved in its erection. It occupied three years in construction (1757-1759) and was planned on the model of an oak tree, its inventor rightly judging that a structure planned according to the design of nature would have the greatest chance of survival, and that if the stones were dovetailed into one another the locking process would ensure stability. For a year before the first stone was laid Smeaton was engaged in levelling and preparing the rock for the foundations, and when at last he was in a position to commence the work of construction, he experienced great difficulty in finding a vessel ol sufficient tonnage to carry the enormous blocks of stone from which his lighthouse was to be built. He was unable at first, too, through local impatience with his scheme, to obtain a suitable place in Plymouth in which to lay out his plans, and one of his vessels laden with stone blocks ready-shaped was actually scuttled in the harbour in a spirit of jealousy. To crown all, the press-gang seized his men. Despite these drawbacks the courageous engineer persevered with true British phlegm, and at last the beams from his tower shone out triumphantly in October 1759 from twenty-four candles, the keepers being kept busy in snuffing the wicks.

But that part of the rock on which Smeaton's tower was built was found, more than a century later, to be badly undermined, the cement between the stones had decayed, and in 1878 Sir James Douglass was commissioned to erect the present lighthouse. This tower, which follows the lines of Smeaton's, is 130 feet high and is built of solid masonry, dovetailed in such a manner that every stone interlocks with its neighbour, not only laterally, but above and below as well. It consists of ten stories, including the lantern, the outer doors and fittings are of gun-metal, a substance impervious to rust, and the ten large oil lamps are fed from great cisterns, the oil being vaporised before it reaches the incandescent burner. The work was completed in May 1882 at an outlay of 59,255.

From the Eddystone we sail south-westward toward the Scillys, and as we approach that group the twin lights of the Lizard flash out from their elevated position on the cliff. The dangerous cluster of rocks at Land's End is served by a lightship, which patrols the sea in front of the seven jagged pinnacles which here display themselves at low tide, and which are known as "The Seven Stones," at one time a veritable graveyard of merchant vessels.

Midway between the Lizard Point and Scilly lies a rock of hard porphyry, about 170 feet long by 114 broad, which at high water is submerged for a couple of feet. It received its name of "The Wolf Rock" from the existence of a hollow ridge into which the waves were driven, the noise produced resembling the howl of a wolf. It was a favourite haunt of the Cornish wreckers, who discovered that skippers in a fog heard the wail from the reef, which acted as a warning siren. They promptly filled up the fissure, but some charitably disposed person actually had a copper wolf with distended jaws made to take its place. The image never reached the rock, where, in any case, it would have been useless. This reef was recognized as exceedingly dangerous by Robert Stevenson as early as 1828, but it was only in 1862 that a lighthouse was commenced on its perilous site by Sir James Douglass to the designs of James Walker. Building at this site was exceptionally dangerous and difficult. The sea was hardly ever calm, so working spells were brief, and in the first year only eighty hours of labour were possible. At last a firm foundation was secured on the obstinate gneiss bed, but the slippery nature of the rock was so dangerous and the seas which washed it so heavy that the workmen were not permitted to keep more than a few feet away from life-lines secured to iron dogs, and had to labour with life-belts round their waists. The stones in the Wolf Lighthouse overlap at the edges so that the water cannot penetrate to the cement. The tower was completed in July 1869 after nearly eight years' strenuous toil.

The Isles of Scilly, from their situation on the track of vessels approaching Great Britain from the west or south-west, threaten considerable danger to our sea-borne commerce, but it was not until 1852 that a lighthouse was erected on the Bishop Rock, which lies off the south-west corner of the group. Before that time an iron pillar structure was erected, but it was, unfortunately, destroyed before its completion. The present stone tower was built after six years' arduous labour by Sir James Douglass to the plans of James Walker, and rises to the height of 100 feet above water, although at high tide some nineteen feet of the base is totally submerged.

Northward of the Wolf shines the light of Lundy Island, rising out of the Bristol Channel, and on the northern shore of this estuary twinkles the bright gleam of St. David's Head, where a beacon has shone since 1773. It was placed there at that comparatively early period owing to the extraordinary number of serious wrecks that took place on the island reefs known as "the Smalls."

We now approach the Isle of Man, which was long a terror to the mariner. The merchants of Liverpool having voiced their strong opinion that lighthouses should be erected upon the Isle of Man, and Trinity House suggesting duties for the same which appeared to them too high, the Scottish Lighthouse Commissioners took the matter up.

Robert Stevenson was asked to report as to suitable sites in 1815. John Gladstone, of Liverpool, father of the great politician, struck by the comparative cheapness of the Scottish rate, suggested that the Scottish Commissioners should apply for Parliamentary sanction, as neither Scotland nor England had powers to erect lights on the Isle of Man. These were secured for the Scottish Board, and the construction of lighthouses was proceeded with at Point of Ayre on the main island, where a light was established 650 feet above the level of the sea, and two at Calf of Man, on its western side, 680 feet distant from the other, in 1818. The lower light is elevated 308 feet above sea-level, and the higher light is elevated 396 feet.

Coastal lights in Scotland are under the supervision of a board known as "the Commissioners of Northern Lights," first created in 1786. A committee was appointed in connexion with the building of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, and has functioned ever since. The undertakings of the Commissioners, as described in the several works of the Stevenson family, are among the romances of Scottish courage and steadfastness in face of formidable difficulty.

So early as 1789 the consent of Parliament was given for the construction of a lighthouse on the small island of Pladda, situated at the southern extremity of the island of Arran at the entrance to the Firth of Clyde. It began to function in 1791, but has been considerably altered from time to time since that date. For 138 years its beams have shone over the gateways of the broad Clyde estuary, guiding the mariner.

The lighthouse at Mull of Kintyre, one of the most inaccessible of Scottish promontories, round which we now sail, stands 240 feet above sea-level, the materials of which it was made having to be transported over the mountainous districts of the island of Kintyre. It was built as early as 1788. We now skirt the coast of Islay and, passing Colonsay island encounter a notable lamp-post of the sea.

Fourteen sea miles from the island of Mull in the trough of the wild Atlantic stands a rock known as Dhu Heartach, about 240 feet long and perhaps a hundred feet less in breadth, with a rounded summit rising about thirty-five feet out of the water, which for generations presented a constant peril to sea traffic bound for the Irish Channel, the Firth of Clyde, or the Minches. During the 'sixties the public called loudly for lights on this treacherous hummock. The lighthouse had to be built on a broad base, thirty-six feet of diameter being allowed for this with an equal height of solid masonry above it, before the erection of the several storeys could be commenced. So intense was the force of the wind and sea that it was actually found necessary to build the barrack of the workmen employed of malleable iron bars, with a drum of similar material secured to the top of them in which the men lived and slept. The height of the lower floor of this barrack was thirty-five feet above the level of the rock. Dhu Heartach occupied six years in erection by David and Thomas Stevenson (1867-72), and owing to the great difficulty in landing, the working seasons were limited to about two and a half months in the year.

The rock can seldom be approached even in a small boat and in a calm sea, and its distance from the mainland sadly complicated matters. At one time the workmen were imprisoned by storm on the rock for five days, the news of this occasioning great distress to David Stevenson, the engineer, who paced his office and house in Edinburgh day and night until he learned of their safety. More than once the stones mortised into the rock were uprooted by the frenzy of the Atlantic "fetch," and even to-day, when the lighthouse has stood for more than half a century, the wild waves of the western sea occasionally leap to the very pinnacle of its 107-feet tower.

Leaving lonely Dhu Heartach, we continue north-ward, and after a sail of about twenty miles behold rising from the sea the beams of a pharos no less remote from the landsman's ken. Skerryvore Lighthouse, about twenty-eight miles due west of Mull, is exposed to the full sweep and force of the Atlantic Ocean. Skerryvore is environed by an almost countless number of reefs, extending over an area of about seven miles, and during a storm most of these are submerged. A very lofty tower was therefore rendered necessary in order that the light should shine beyond the area of danger, and so the pharos of Skerryvore rises 138 feet above the level of its foundations. The materials for its construction had to be transported in their entirety from the mainland and housed at a base on Tyree.

Operations were commenced in 1838 by Alan Stevenson, although the foundation stone was not laid until July 1840. The first year's labour was wholly destroyed by a storm of almost unexampled violence, and the attendant steam vessels were hardly ever out of danger during the six years occupied by the work of construction. To these difficulties were added the daily risk of landing on the treacherous and wave-washed reef, and of blasting the splintering gneiss of which it was composed, a stone many times harder than Aberdeen granite. Still, after six years, this greatest of British lighthouses, built throughout of granite, was at length completed in 1844. It has eleven storeys, counting the lantern, and throws a beam visible at eighteen miles distance. Skerryvore is a witness to the most daring feat of lighthouse construction ever undertaken in these islands.

At Barra Head, the most southerly part of Barra Island, stands a light perched on a cliff rising some 580 feet above the sea.

We must now deviate for some twenty-two miles from our northward course to the west, for standing at this distance out to sea off the isle of Lewis shines the light of "the Seven Hunters," or the Flannen islands, one of the most lonely of Scottish stations. The tower is perched on the summit of one of the loftiest points in the little archipelago, and the light, a group-flashing one, can be discerned at a distance of twenty-four miles.

Cape Wrath now glimmers from a height of 370 feet at the western corner of the mainland, and we must pass many minor lights on the rugged and indented northern coast ere we arrive at the famous Pentland Skerries. The lights on these, a fatal group of rocks right in the fairway of the Pentland Channel, were erected by Robert Stevenson in 1794, from materials prepared in Orkney, the more northerly and higher being elevated 100 feet and the lower eighty feet above the level of the sea. They are only sixty feet distant from each other, the need for a pair of lights at this point being dictated by the peculiarly treacherous character of the reefs surrounding the uninhabited isles of the Skerries.

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Pictures for The Coastwise Lights of Britain

Bishop Rock, Scilly Isles
Bishop Rock, Scilly Isles >>>>
A Lightships Lantern
A Lightships Lantern >>>>
Lantern and Day Marks
Lantern and Day Marks >>>>
The Needles, Alum Bay, Isle of Wight
The Needles, Alum Bay, Isle of Wight >>>>
The Eddystone, most famous of British lighthouses
The Eddystone, most famous of British lighthouses >>>>
The Eddystone, most famous of British lighthouses
The Eddystone, most famous of British lighthouses >>>>
Wolf Rock lighthouse, and St. Anthonys Head, Falmouth
Wolf Rock lighthouse, and St. Anthonys Head, Falmouth >>>>
Lighthouse at the Lizard Point, Cornwall
Lighthouse at the Lizard Point, Cornwall >>>>
Chickens Rock and Calf Sound, Isle of Man
Chickens Rock and Calf Sound, Isle of Man >>>>
Lights of the Mull of Kintyre and Mull of Galloway
Lights of the Mull of Kintyre and Mull of Galloway >>>>
Lights of the Mull of Kintyre and Mull of Galloway
Lights of the Mull of Kintyre and Mull of Galloway >>>>
Kinnaird Head, Aberdeenshire, and Cape Wrath
Kinnaird Head, Aberdeenshire, and Cape Wrath >>>>
Girdleness, a beacon for Abeerdeen on the Soil of Kincardineshire
Girdleness, a beacon for Abeerdeen on the Soil of Kincardineshire >>>>
Beacons of the Bass Rock and the Isle of May
Beacons of the Bass Rock and the Isle of May >>>>
Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth, and the Bell Rock
Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth, and the Bell Rock >>>>
Grace Darling's boat: Longstone and Flamborough Lights
Grace Darling's boat: Longstone and Flamborough Lights >>>>
Hunstanton and North Foreland lighthouses
Hunstanton and North Foreland lighthouses >>>>
The Cliff-Base Light at Beachy Head
The Cliff-Base Light at Beachy Head >>>>
South Foreland lighthouse, St. Margarets bay
South Foreland lighthouse, St. Margarets bay >>>>
Fastnet Rock, off Cape Clear, Ireland
Fastnet Rock, off Cape Clear, Ireland >>>>

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