Islay Lighthouses History

Mavis Gulliver reflects on their history

Around the coast of Scotland, two hundred lighthouses send out their warning lights. Managed by the Northern Lighthouse Board, they are strategically located to warn of danger and to aid navigation through perilous waters. Once lit by braziers, candles or whale oil lamps, all lighthouses are now fully automated. Keepers no longer have to live in isolation for weeks at a time.

Islay, the most southerly island of the Inner Hebrides, lies to the north-east of the North Channel. Because Loch Gruinart and Loch Indaal cut deep into the island, the coastline is 155 miles long. The surrounding seas have long been hazardous to ships for there are hundreds of hidden rocks and reefs. Consequently, there have been many wrecks over the years.

One of the most tragic concerned the loss of the Exmouth Castle. After leaving Londonderry, the Rhinns of Islay Lighthouse was mistaken for that of Tory Island. When the ship wrecked in April 1847, 241 emigrants, men, women and children lost their lives. A memorial near Sanaigmore Bay is dedicated to their memory. Continue reading...

Challenging Locations

As shipping increased, the provision of lighthouses became more important. Improved methods of building and the skill of builders allowed the erection of them in more challenging locations. Skerryvore, off Tiree, provides a prime example. Islay being far less remote presented fewer problems and seven lighthouses were built between 1825 and 1928.

Relatives of Robert Louis Stevenson were responsible for four of these. Robert (1772-1850) built 18 lighthouses including the Rhinns of Islay. Two of Robert’s sons, David and Thomas, built over 30 including Rural, McArthur’s Head and Lochindaal on Islay.

Rinns Lighthouse on Orsay Island south of Portnahaven

Close to Portnahaven, lies the island or Orsay. From here, Islay’s oldest lighthouse, the 95’ high Rinns of Islay, first sent out its warning light in 1825. Automated on the 31st of March 1998, the light flashes white every five seconds. When the lighthouse was manned, provisions were taken over by boatmen who were also employed as relief keepers.

Northern Tip

Ruvaal, completed in January 1859, stands at Islay’s northern tip at the entrance to the Sound of Islay. It can be seen clearly as the ferry sails between Port Askaig and Colonsay. In order for its light to be visible from the Neva Rocks to the west, it had to be a 100’ high. The buildings within the white walled garden are now a private house and no longer the responsibility of the Northern Lighthouse Board.

To Ruvaal from Port Askaig is roughly six miles. The lighthouse keepers used boats whenever possible, but when weather was too wild to put to sea they had to walk. This happened most often during the winter months when strong winds and driving rain made the going even more hazardous than usual. Having walked, the boat had been left at Port Askaig and so the return journey had to be on foot too.

McArthur’s Head Lighthouse is familiar to those who travel up and down the Sound of Islay. From the ferry to Port Askaig it can be seen high on a cliff at an elevation of 128’. It was established in 1861 and the light from the 43’ high tower flashes every ten seconds.

The Added Bonus

The walk to this lighthouse is not an easy one. Our favoured route is from Ardtalla via the bothy at Proaig (a favourite place for otter watching). But the climb from the shore is steep and can be treacherous after wet weather. The views across to Jura are splendid and if you go early in the year, there is an added bonus of finding daffodils in bloom in what was once the light-keepers’ garden.

Another way of approaching McArthurs’ Head is from Port Askaig. Dougie MacDougall served the Sound of Islay lights for 45 years until he retired in 1977. He told of the six-mile walk, the difficulty of crossing burns in spate on a dark night and of sometimes being up to his waste in icy cold water. The people at home had no telephone and were left in worry about whether or not he had reached the lighthouse safely.

Loch Indaal Lighthouse is also known as Ribh’ an Duin. This 43’ high lighthouse is fairly close to the road between Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich. It was established in 1869 and flashes every seven seconds. The adjoining buildings are now a private house, but it is possible to get close enough for photographs by walking through the fields on either side.

The Most Remote

The two most recent lighthouses, built in the 20th century, are Eileen a Chuirn and Carraig Mhor. Eileen a Chuirn, the earlier of the two, was constructed in 1907. Although it is barely six miles offshore, it is the most remote if Islay’s lighthouses. It stands at an elevation of 85’ on a tiny island at the south east tip of Islay. At 56’ tall it gives three white flashes every 18 seconds.

Carraig Mhor Lighthouse is on the Sound of Islay just south of Port Askaig. Built in 1928, it is the most recent, and the smallest of Islay’s lighthouses. A tiny 7’ tower standing at an elevation of only 23’, its light, which flashes once every six seconds, is an important one.

Port Ellen village was founded in 1821 by Walter Frederick Campbell who inherited Islay when he was 18 years old. Wanting to perpetuate the memory of his wife, Eleanor, who died in 1832, he commissioned the Carraig Fhada lighthouse. The most unusual of Islay’s lighthouses has two connected square towers. Seen by ferry passengers arriving at Port Ellen, it has become an iconic landmark.

Metal Bridge

It is Islay’s second oldest lighthouse and stands opposite the Port Ellen ferry terminal on a headland close to Kilnaughton Bay. Parking spaces at the end of the graveyard make access easy. A narrow concrete path cuts between outcropping rock; and a 20’ metal bridge spans a crevice where the sea flows through. Care needs to be taken, but if you cross over you will see the tribute to Lady Ellenor on a stone plaque above the door:

Ye who mid storms and tempests stray in dangers midnight hour.
Behold where shines this friendly ray and hail its guardian tower.

Tis but faint emblem of her light my fond and faithful guide.
Whose sweet example meekin bright led through this worlds eventful tide my happy course aright.

And still my guiding star she lives in realms of bliss above.
Still to my heart blest influence gives and prompts to deeds of love.

Tis she that bids me on the steep kindle this beacons flame.
To light the wanderer o`er the deep who safe shall bless her name.

So may sweet virtue lead your way that when life`s voyage is o`er.
Secure like her with her you may attain the heavenly shore.

Walter Frederick commissioned the same engineers to build a double sarcophagus for Lady Ellenor and himself. Although her remains lie in Bowmore Church, Walter Frederick’s do not. By the time of his death at the age of 32 he was bankrupt and living abroad. He and his wife may be largely forgotten, but the lighthouse, built in her memory, still gives out its warning flash every three seconds.

Article written by Mavis Gulliver and first published in Scottish Islands Explorer magazine

More lighthouse photos in our Lighthouse Gallery

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