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Pharology - History of Lighthouses in the British Isles - Commissioners of Northern Lights

BR14: Commissioners of Northern Lights

In Scotland, there seemed to be little demand for lighthouses, supposedly based on the small amount of shipping. This situation remained unaltered right up to the eighteenth century. The following extract is typical of contemporary writings:

'To understand the need for lighthouses along the Scottish coastline, not only must the terrain be considered, but sea trade and commerce. If the existing trade of goods can be transported overland or be self supporting within its own borders economically, the need for shipping does not exist. Obviously without shipping the need for a light does not arise.'

As late as the mid 1600s, Scotland had only one lighthouse worthy of the name, built on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth by the partnership of John Cunningham of Barnes and James Maxwell of Innerwick following a Letter-Patent issued by Charles I in 1635. The lease was for nineteen years at a rental of one thousand pounds 'in coin of this realm' - actually £84 sterling. This Patent was the only royal authorization given to private individuals in Scotland. Consisting of a crude pile of rocks with a coal burning brazier on top, it was frequently criticised as being very poorly visible, a common complaint with coal fires throughout the history of lighthouses.

In 1656, Oliver Cromwell commissioned Thomas Tucker to carry out a survey for the purpose of recording the extent of sea trade in Scotland. His report focused on the small port of Glasgow, a small market town, 22 miles from the sea, with a medieval university and a Cathedral. In the report his comments on Glasgow stated:

'it is chequered and kept under (low trading levels) by the shallowness of her river, soe that noe vessels of any burden can come nearer up than fourteen miles, where they must unlade and send up theyr timber and Norway trade in rafts or floaties; and all other comodityes by three or four tons of goods at a time.'

From these early beginnings, no-one would have thought that dredging and widening the River Clyde could transform this market town into the crowded smoky industrial city it became in the early 20th century, nor that the river would be capable of carrying some of the world's largest vessels. Although some work was done during the following four years, the same system of trading continued for nearly 100 years when, in 1750, the dredging work was officially put into operation. By 1755, navigational lights did appear along the river banks, but only in the form of small lanterns that guided ships through the Clyde and into the rapidly expanding Port of Glasgow. By 1700, there were still only two lighthouses, the second site being for two oil-fired lights at Buddonness built by the Corporation of Trinity House of Dundee.

In Ireland, overseas trading during the 17th century was relatively small and mostly localised between Dublin and Liverpool. As a consequence, there were very few Irish lighthouses until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
In 1704 Queen Anne transferred management of all Irish lighthouses to a group of men classed in name only as 'Commissioners'. It is believed this referred to senior officials in the Customs and Harbour Board of Dublin. From this time onward, there were no privately owned lighthouses in Ireland.
As the sea trade increased in Dublin Bay, so did the population. Soon Dublin was regarded as the second largest port in the British Isles. As more overseas trading came to the port the need for suitable navigational lights became a priority. A form of Irish rutter - a book of sailing directions - dated 1749 and called the 'COMPLEAT IRISH COASTER', included a surveyors' report that went into detail about the quality of Ireland's major lighthouses. It stated that there were only three lighthouses: Hook, Howth Bailey and Old Kinsale, with only one lightvessel in Dublin Bay, that was established in 1739.

Up to 1755 there was no recognised Lighthouse Authority in Scotland. Then, In January 1755, the Glasgow Town Council instigated a Bill for presentation to the Unionist Parliament in England which aimed to establish a lighthouse on Little Cumbrae island and to remove various obstacles and shoals from the lower reaches of the River Clyde. The original application stated that the Council's intention was to set up 'beacons and marks for eviteing such dangers, by makeing other necessary works...the Navigation in the said Firth and River Clyde will be rendered more safe and commodious.'

The Bill was presented to Parliament at the beginning of 1756, in March the matter had been debated and, by April, the Act had been given Royal Assent. In 1959, Stevenson [Stevenson, 1959] said 'This measure, obtained so speedily at a cost of some £200, was one of the chief practical steps taken to develope Glasgow.' Included in the Act was Crown Authority to collect 'one penny sterling per ton' from every British ship (excluding His Majesty's warships) and 'two pence sterling per ton' from foreign vessels which passed the lights. A charge could also be levied from any outward bound British ships or homeward destined foreign vessels. This was rated at 'a sum not exceeding one penny and a half sterling per ton' for British ships and 'three pence sterling per ton' from foreign vessels. There is no mention in the papers which state whether these rates were based upon the laden value of the ships or not, but it was the normal procedure to classify a vessel by the number of 'tuns' (barrels of wine) that the cargo hold could contain.

A Board of Trustees mainly consisting of nominees of the Glasgow Town Council was set up to implement this new Act of Parliament. When the Little Cumbrae light dues started to accumulate, much of the money was used to dredge and widen the upper reaches of the River Clyde. Strong objections were voiced by Glasgow shipowners and merchants who argued that the money was supposed to be used for the lower reaches of the Clyde and for further navigational lights entering the Port of Glasgow.
The formation of the Commissioners of the Northern Lights in 1786 by a George III Act addressed many of these complaints, but it would be nearly 100 years before an Act of Parliament resolved the matter. In 1880, a new Act of Parliament placed the lighthouses along the Clyde and four miles of the lower dredged river above Gourock under the jurisdiction of the Clyde Lighthouse Trustees, an independent body formed to manage this section of the waterway.

With its new authority, the Board of Commissioners was permitted to built four lighthouses 'for the security of navigation and the fishermen in the Northern Parts of Great Britain'. Dated 25th November 1787, the Commissioners were empowered to erect lighthouses at Kinnaird's Head (Aberdeen), at the Point of Scalpa (Herries), on the Island of North Ranilsha (Orkneys) and on the Mull of Kintyre.

By 1819, the Scottish Commissioners were responsible for 16 major lighthouses. Considering the atrocious weather conditions, the terrain on which they were built and the difficulties of getting men and materials to site, this was a remarkable achievement. The programme of lighthouse construction now continued at a rapid pace and there were 66 lights in operation by the time the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 came into force, an Act which established the Commissioners of the Northern Lights as a corporate body. Their new authority designation was for the 'superintendence and Management of all buoys, beacons and lighthouses, throughout Scotland, its adjacent islands and seas, including the Isle of Man.' This Act also defined the responsibilities of the Commissioners of Irish Lights and the Corporation of Trinity House, and removed many of the constraints on their actions caused by the Board of Trade.

Those holding office in the Northern Lighthouse Board, comprise of the following: The Lord Advocate and Solicitor General for Scotland, The Lords Provost of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness; The Sheriff Principals of Glasgow and Srathkelvin,North Strathclyde, South Strathclyde, Tayside, Central and Fife, Grampian, Highlands and Islands, Dumfries and Galloway and Lothians and Borders. There are also various nominees from the Isle of Man.

The lighthouse at Isle of May was reported in 1799 to burn as much as 400 tons of coal each year, by far the highest of any light; on one stormy night alone it used 3 tons of coal. During windy conditions the light frequently lit up the land instead of the sea. In 1810, believing a nearby lime kiln fire to be the Isle of May light, HMS NYMPHEN and HMS PALLAS steered incorrect courses and were both wrecked with the loss of nearly all their crews.

In 1799, sea trade had expanded at such a great rate that there was an acute shortage of ships. Thomas Smith, Chief Engineer for the Commissioners of the Northern Lights, was authorised to purchase the Board's first Tender. Smith bought a sloop nearing completion at the Elie shipyard in Fife and, after fitting her out, named her the PHAROS of Leith.