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The Coastwise Lights of Britain page 2


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Sailing northward to Orkney, we come to the storm-riven rocks of its more northerly islets. So numerous and disastrous to trade were the wrecks which occurred on the low shores of these tortuous sea lanes among the islands, and especially on those of Sanday and Stronsay, that in 1802 it was resolved to build a lighthouse on Start Point. The work was entrusted to Robert Stevenson, and a quarry was opened on the neighbouring island of Calf Sound, fourteen miles distant, the rapid tides making transportation peculiarly difficult. The beacon was completed within one year, and stands 100 feet above sea level. It was later converted on a more modern plan in 1806, which greatly increased its usefulness.

Shetland has several important lighthouses. The winter of 1818 having proved very unfortunate to shipping off Shetland, where some most distressing wrecks had occurred, it was resolved by the Scottish Commissioners to erect a lighthouse on Sumburgh Head, on the southern promontory of the main island. A new plan was followed at this site by Robert Stevenson, and was indeed necessitated by its very exposed position. The external walls were built double with a space of three inches between them, and lined with brickwork. Although the force of the wind at this point is so tremendous that the lighthouse keepers when out of doors are frequently compelled to crawl on all fours to prevent their being blown into the sea, the buildings so con structed have stood the test of time and weather, nor have they admitted a single drop of water, as ordinarily constructed buildings in that stormy latitude nearly always do.

North Unst lighthouse, off the north coast of Shetland, is perched on an outlying rock of conical torm, known locally as a "stack," which rises to the height of nearly 200 feet above the sea. Toward the north its face is nearly perpendicular and is exposed to the full fury of the ocean. During the Crimean War the British Fleet was compelled to patrol these waters in case of a Russian naval attack, and the Admiralty requested the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners to place a light at this dangerous point without delay. A staircase was cut in the living rock on the southern side, and this could only be scaled with difficulty.

The top of the stack affords little more room than suffices for the site of the tower, which is fifty, feet in height. The materials for the structure, weighing upward of twenty tons, had to be transported from Glasgow, landed on this perilous crag and carried to the summit of a desolate peak on the backs of labourers, all in twenty-six days. In the following year a permanent building was commenced, and a massive tower, sixty-four feet high, was erected, with boundary walls. Landing on this cone is a matter of exceptional difficulty. Heavy seas occasionally break over the tower to the height of 200 feet, its great elevation from the water notwithstanding, and its occupants are not infrequently marooned for weeks at a time.

We now turn the nose of our vessel southward, passing the lights at Duncansby Head, the Noss and Kinnaird Head, and skirting the granite coast of Aberdeenshire, with the Girdleness lighthouse off Aberdeen, until we arrive at one of the most famous of British lighthouses. The celebrated Bell Rock lighthouse on the Inchcape Rock lies eleven miles south-east of the town of Arbroath in Forfarshire, and the beam from its revolving beacon, flashing red and white alternately every two minutes, is among the writer's earliest recollections.

Local tradition speaks of an Abbot of Arbroath who, out of pity for the mariners frequenting the coast, affixed to the rock a great bell suspended from a beam in such a manner that at high tide, when the reef was submerged, the action of the water would cause it to toll a warning. Southey has celebrated this tocsin of the sea in a romantic poem which tells of a corsair who, to plague the abbot, cut the bell from its moorings. Some years later, when returning to Scotland, laden with spoil, the ship of " Sir Ralph the Rover," in making the coast near Arbroath, was dashed on the Inchcape Rock and lost with all hands, thus perishing through the evil action and stupidity of its commander.

In 1800 Robert Stevenson, who was, incidentally, the grandfather of the great novelist, prepared a design for this tower in accordance with instructions from the Northern Lighthouse Board, which regarded the lighting of the Bell Rock as a first charge upon its newly created activities, but work was not com menced upon the undertaking until August 1807. During the first two seasons the engineer and workmen lived in a floating lightship moored about three miles from the rock, a circumstance which nearly brought about their undoing, for the lightship went adrift and left the artificers stranded on the rock, which was completely covered at high tide. They were, however, rescued in the nick of time by the Tay pilot boat. Later a temporary barrack raised above the level of the high tide was erected on the reef, to obviate a daily landing on its treacherous surface. Three years were occupied in raising the structure above water level. By dint of tireless exertions the light shone forth at last on February 1, 1811. That very night a tempest of extraordinary violence blew, spray rose to the height of eighty feet on the walls, and the window plates were shaken loose.

It is amazing to read in these days of mammoth expenditure on public services that the entire cost of this great work was only 61,000. It is also curious to note that when Robert Stevenson made his first landing on the rock he found lodged in almost every crevice sad proofs of the tragedies which had been enacted there. Bayonets, musket balls, and fragments of iron lay scattered over its surface, but a silver shoe buckle was the only vestige of human wear to commemorate the fate of thousands who had drawn last breath among the surges of the Bell Rock.

The Bell Rock lighthouse is 120 feet in height, and in 1902 a new light-room was added to it to bring it into line with modern requirements.

The earliest coastal light in Scotland is supposed to have been the open coal-fire or choffer on the isle of May at the entrance to the Firth of Forth, which was kept burning for the long period of 180 years from 1636 to 1816, a levy being made on shipping for its upkeep. But in 1814 it was purchased by Government from the Duke of Portland for 60,000, and a new lighthouse was erected two years later. The old open flame of the "choffer" had frequently been confounded by master mariners with lime-kiln fires on the Lothian coasts, and many disastrous wrecks occurred in consequence, among them that of the two frigates Nymphen and Pallas, which calamity took place in December 1810.

The striking and picturesque situation of the lighthouse on Inchkeith, standing as it does on an island in the midst of the Firth of Forth, which can easily be seen from the Calton Hill at Edinburgh, and which has been the theatre of many romantic passages in Scottish history, renders it peculiarly interesting. It is elevated 220 feet above sea level, and was erected in 1803 to guide vessels past the dangerous rock of the Ox Scaur, since equipped with a lighthouse of its own, to Leith Roads, and to the anchorage above Queensferry. The Firth of Forth is the veritable home of Boreas, and it was found necessary to roof the exposed buildings on Inchkeith with lead, and even to build a strong parapet around this. It was the first lighthouse to be equipped with copper reflectors plated with silver, and lit with spermaceti.

The construction of the Carr Rock beacon on a reel of sunken rocks at Fifeness, during the years 1813-1817, was attended by peculiar difficulties. During the third year's labour a heavy ground-swell suddenly washed the still soft concrete out of the stones, and although the nine blocks then laid had been dovetailed together, all were carried into the sea and irretrievably lost, the workmen barely escaping with their lives. The frequent occurrence of disastrous gales necessitated a reconsideration of the plan of the upper course, and ultimately six columns of cast iron were erected upon the lower part of the structure. In this manner the Carr Rock light was at length completed after six years of the most strenuous and exacting toil.

Sailing past St. Abb's Head light, we once more enter English waters. The first lights of any importance on the north-eastern coast of England are those of the Fame Islands, one on the mainland and the other on Longstone, very ordinary lighthouses, perhaps, but associated with the immortal exploit of Grace Darling, the light-keeper's daughter, who in 1838 set out in a small boat to the rescue of the survivors of the steamer Forfarshire in the teeth of a terrific hurricane. The vessel in which she did so is still preserved in the marine laboratory at Cullercoats on the Northum brian coast, and it is certainly a point of interest to observe that it was only at the beginning of this century that the last member of the Darling family retired from the supervision of Longstone lighthouse.

The light of Flamborough is conspicuous on its towering cliff, and farther south that of the Spurn Point, with its hyper-radiant flashing apparatus Rounding the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk, and crossing the Thames estuary, we pass the North Foreland, which has the distinction of housing the oldest coastal light in England, for here in 1636 a certain Sir John Meldrum raised a tower of lath and plaster! Forty-seven years later it was burned down, but was promptly reconstructed, later giving way to the present powerful beacon of red and white, with its radius of twenty miles.

The lights which guard the dreaded Goodwin Sands, the scene of so many disasters real and legendary, shine from the masts of a lightship which guards the seas in the vicinity of the submerged sandy plateau. The South Foreland is memorable as the first station where electricity was applied to British coastal lights on the recommendation of Michael Faraday and Holmes.

The crew of the Nore lightship lead an anxious life because of the frequently recurring fogs which beset the mouth of the Thames, and the same may be said of the vessel which patrols the seas at Dover, which more than once has been sunk as the result of collisions. The Romans built a pharos at Dover, the remains of which have been discovered.

The constant coastal erosion at Dungeness, at the southern "hook" of Kent, necessitates peculiar watchfulness on the part of the Trinity Brethren, its lighthouse tower having been moved back from the water's edge on several occasions.

Although Beachy Head lighthouse was built in a ^^ few months, its foundation in the chalk bed at the foot of the white cliffs offering no very great difficulty to engineering science, it marks an era in lighthouse construction, as the light which preceded it was perched on the cliffs above, a situation which rendered it invisible to passing ships when close at hand. The example has since been followed in numerous instances. A coffer-dam had first to be made here, as the site is submerged, to a great depth at high tide, and a further difficulty was encountered in the inability to blast foundations for fear of shattering the mass of the sea-bed. It was found necessary to lower the building materials from the cliffs by a cableway to a large iron staging. The huge blocks which comprise the "solid" or lower courses rise to a height of forty-eight feet, and the lantern is perched twenty-three feet above sea level.

At the entrance to the Solent shines the light of the Needles, a stationary beam, and passing into the Solent and through the Spithead channel, we make Portsmouth, the end of our British Odyssey.

The coastwise lights of Ireland deserve a little voyage of description to themselves. Originally under the Ballast Board, and later under the supervision of the Irish Lighthouse Commissioners, the dangerous coasts of Ireland only began to receive attention after the lights of England and Scotland had been duly laid and erected. Ireland is now well illuminated from the sea,, and her coastal beacons embrace at least two famous towers.

The Fastnet Rock lighthouse, about four and a half miles to westward of Cape Clear, is obviously a light of great importance to sea traffic making toward the south of Ireland, as it is the first British light to be picked up by vessels coming from America. The earliest tower on this site was to some extent unique in structure, being formed of iron plates, weighted with concrete. After its erection in 1854 the action of the sea began to excavate the softer slate of the rock, and the fissure thus formed extended, threateningly enough, to within ten feet of the tower. But the chasm was filled in with brickwork set in cement, and the shaft itself strengthened.

But, later, it was resolved to construct an entirely new lighthouse on this important site. William Douglass, who was entrusted with the work, laid his foundations on the ledge of a chasm on the hardest part of the rock, below high tide and directly exposed to the full force of the sea, judging that a tower at this spot would receive the force of the heaviest seas before they rose to the height.

Arduous and dangerous was the construction of Lough Carlingford lighthouse. The tower is in feet high and forty-eight feet in diameter at the base, and was completed in 1830.

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Pictures for The Coastwise Lights of Britain page 2

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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