We are on the Isle of May, an island about five miles from the north shore of the Firth of Forth, now a national nature reserve famous for its abundant bird life.
Looking at all that’s left of the first permanently manned lighthouse in Scotland, now it’s hard to believe the squat white structure was important enough to require three keepers at all times!
The Beacon is Scotland first (and oldest) lighthouse and was considered at the time to be one of the best in existence. It was built in 1635, was three floors high and burned 400 tons of coal each year (and one ton of coal per night). A coal brazier on its roof provided the light that illuminated the water.
The beacon was privately owned and its owners charged a fee to the ships who made use of its light.
The small stretch of sea was notorious for shipwrecks and, although a bright, shiny new lighthouse was built to prevent further maritime catastrophes, the locals weren’t in favor of the beacon, as many supplemented their incomes by scavenging for shipwrecked material washed ashore.
However, the community’s original ill-will wasn’t the only trouble associated with the lighthouse.
In 1791, it was in fact the site of a tragic accident.
One of the lighthouse keepers and his family were said to have suffocated from fumes emitted by the cinders which had built up from the coal-fired brazier, even if It’s more likely it was carbon monoxide poisoning. The keeper George Anderson, his wife Elisabeth and four of their five children died, and only the eleven-month-old daughter Lucy was found alive, three days later.
In 1816, the lighthouse was replaced by a newer one built by famous engineer Robert Stephenson, and it was supplemented by another one, at a lower level, in 1844. At some time after the original lighthouse went out of use, the top two floors were removed and a new roof was tacked on top of the remaining level. A major restoration project was completed in 2017 to conserve what is left of this historic building.
The modern light produces two white flashes every 15 seconds, and has a range of 41 kilometres (22 nmi) in good visibility.
Author’s notes: The lower half still stands on the summit of a rocky hillock immediately close to the modern lighthouse. The only way to get to the island is on a ferry, like the one from the harbor at Anstruther, operates from April 1 to September 30. Others are available from nearby Crail or from North Berwick.