The first modern lighthouse in Scotland was lit on the 1st of December, 1787.
The first modern lighthouse in Scotland is now Scotland’s Lighthouse Museum and it has as its slogan the apt phrase, ‘Battered by storms, ravaged by waves, built by Stevenson’. That refers, of course, to Robert Stevenson, the first of the famous ‘Lighthouse Stevensons’ amongst whose descendents was the novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson.
The earliest known mention of a lighthouse in Scotland is from 1635, when Charles I granted a patent to James Maxwell of Innerwick and John Cunninghame of Barnes to erect a lighthouse on the Isle of May, which lies at the mouth of the Firth of Forth. Maxwell and Cunninghame were authorised to collect toll duties of 1½d. per ton for Scotch vessels and double that rate for foreign ships. That patent was ratified by the Scots Parliament in 1641. The method of lighting such older lighthouses was by means of a coal fire. Later, in 1814, the ‘Commissioners’ purchased the Isle of May, together with the lighthouse and all interests in light dues, for the sum of £60,000. A new lighthouse was established on the Isle by the ‘Lighthouse Board’, in 1816, and that was engineered by Robert Stevenson, who by that time had established himself as ‘Mr. Lighthouse’.
Thirty years earlier, the lighthouse at Kinnaird Head, near Fraserburgh, was commissioned by the ‘Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses’ following an Act of the 27th of June, 1786, “for erecting lighthouses in the northern parts of Great Britain”. That Act came in response to a series of hugely destructive storms around Britain’s, and particularly Scotland’s, coasts, in 1782. It was then on the 1st of December, 1787, that the light from Kinnaird was first exhibited. The ‘Keeper of the Light’ was a former shipmaster called James Park. That man was paid 1s. per night, with the benefit of some ground, on condition the he had another person with him, who he was to instruct in the cleaning of the lantern and lighting the lamps.
The lighthouse tower at Kinnaird Head was built by Thomas Smith and then rebuilt in 1824, by his stepson, Robert Stevenson. Smith was the man who designed the whale oil lamps and invented a type of parabolic reflector; Stevenson ‘simply’ built the edifices that housed those essential beams. Thomas Smith designed Kinnaird’s light and it was the most powerful light of its day. It had seventeen reflectors in the lantern chamber, located at the top of the four storey structure, which were arranged in three horizontal tiers, giving its illumination a range of over twelve miles. Smith was appointed ‘Engineer to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses’ on the 22nd of January, 1787, and prior to that appointment, he had been a ‘whiteironsmith’ and manufacturer of lamps in Edinburgh. He held the position of ‘Engineer’ until 1804, when he was succeeded by Robert Stevenson.
Kinnaird Head Lighthouse was built on top of a 16th Century castle, which was built for the Fraser family in 1572. Kinnaird Head, which is ‘cinn na h’airde’ in Gaelic, means ‘at the head of the point of land’ and fittingly describes this extraordinary promontory, which lies on the north east, where Scotland’s coastline turn through 90 degrees. Who knows why the Frasers of Philorth built the castle on such an exposed headland, but such locations were not uncommon. Take a look at Dunnottar or Tantallon; and there are plenty more examples. Kinnaird Castle certainly became a focal point for the village of Faithlie, which long since became the once bustling fishing port of Fraserburgh.
There are several stories concerning the castle or the lighthouse. One is that the castle tower seems to have been lucky to have survived as, in 1824, Robert Stevenson had called for it to be demolished and replaced by a purpose built structure. Its survival is seemingly down to Sir Walter Scott, who once accompanied Stevenson on an expedition around Scotland on the ‘Pharos’, a ship belonging to the Lighthouse Board. Scott, who was known for his antiquarian sentiments, appears to have convinced Stevenson to demolish only the structures around the tower, albeit that the interior was gutted. Other than the stone vaulted ground storey, which was retained, its floors were ripped out, new doors and windows were added, and the entire top storey was removed and replaced by a new lantern. The old stairs were replaced by a fine new spiral stair, which is a feature that can be appreciated today, designed by Stevenson.
Another story, concerning the Castle’s Wine Tower, not the lighthouse tower, is a kind of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ fairy tale. The legend goes that Lord Fraser’s daughter was young and beautiful, but instead of meekly succumbing to her father’s plans for her marriage, she had fallen hopelessly in love with a piper. Her affections were returned, but when her father found out, he reacted in true 16th Century fashion. She was told to give up her love for the piper, who was cast into a cell at the foot of the Wine Tower with just his bagpipes for company. The daughter refused to comply and so she was shut into the top of the Tower as a punishment. As the piper slowly starved to death, he composed a plaintive pibroch to his lost love, which she was able to hear from her window. Distraught and unable to bear life without her lover, she climbed out of the window and jumped to her death. These days, you can identify the spot where she fell onto the rocks below the Tower as it is marked in red to signify her blood, spilled for love.
Today, the lighthouse is still in working order, but it has been replaced by a small, unmanned light, which operates beside the original structure. However, the 1787 lighthouse remains much as it was left by its last crew and is managed as part of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses museum by the Kinnaird Head Trust.