We are in the island of Barra Head, the southernmost in the Outer Hebrides, an island unprotected from the ravages of ocean storms. In the fall of 1833, on October 15, the Barra Head Lighthouse lighted on for the first time, meant to help sailors near the island’s cliffs deal with the incredible waves. The lighthouse identifies the southern entrance to The Minch, a strait in north-west Scotland, separating the north-west Highlands and the northern Inner Hebrides from Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. The 18-metre stone tower stands on the west side of the island, at the top of a very steep cliff, making the light the highest in the UK with a focal plane of 208 m above sea level.
There is no shallow or quiet water there to break the blow of the Atlantic storms, and small fish are sometimes thrown onto the grass on the cliff top. In 1836 Scottish geologist Sir Archibald Geikie recorded the movement of a 42-long-ton block of gneiss across 1.5 m of ground during a violent storm.
As settlements rose and fell around it, the beacon housed keepers steadily for over a century, and many hosted also guests who had come to study the island’s flora and fauna, or just to see what life was like. At least one keeper buried family members there, in a small stone-walled cemetery near the tower. It contain the grave of a visiting inspector and those of a number of the keepers’ children.
A Blenheim bomber crashed into the cliffs nearby during World War II, but the wreck was not discovered until many years later by a rock climber.
In October of 1980, a crew came out to the lighthouse, converted it to automatic operation, and brought the last keeper back with them. Today no one lives at Barra Head anymore, although people still brave its waters to visit the island and its lighthouse.
Though long-empty, the highest light in all of UK, still spins once every 30 seconds, sweeping over the quiet island, with a range of 18 nautical miles (about 33 km).
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