A lighthouse is painted white – fact! Well, not always it seems. The lighthouse standing at the tip of the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides is definitely not white, in-fact it is hardly painted at all. When viewed from a distance the 37m tall tower built with red bricks resembles a tall industrial chimney. The designers, David and Thomas Stevenson, specified that the bricks should be “similar to those used in the Edinburgh Gas Works chimney instead of common brick”. Exposure to the salt air would have damaged normal bricks reducing the life span of the lighthouse.
The need for a lighthouse to protect shipping was recognised and discussed initially in 1853, but construction didn’t begin until 1859, and was finally finished in 1862. The remote and inaccessible places where lighthouses are built always create a challenge to their construction. The position at the most northerly tip of the Isle of Lewis may not be the most inaccessible when compared with other lighthouses, but construction was delayed when the supply vessel landing building materials was wrecked at the nearby Port Stoth. Knowing that the lighthouses claim to fame, according to the Guinness Book of Records, is that it is the windiest spot in the UK, and this maybe puts these challenges into context. It was certainly breezy the day that Aunty and I visited.
The lighthouses in Scotland were administered by the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) which is responsible for the waters surrounding Scotland and the Isle of Man. When first designed the Stevensons and the NLB intended to install a flashing light to help distinguish the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse from the lights at Cape Wrath and Stoer Head. However, they were overruled by the Board of Trade and Trinity House (who at that time had a say in the discussions) who insisted on a fixed, first-order light. This was lit in 1862, and could be seen from 19 miles away. The first light was fuelled. by vegetable or fish oil, and in 1869 this was replaced by paraffin. It wasn’t until 1976 that the paraffin was finally replaced by electricity. The equipment used to run the light (excluding the fuel) was installed in 1905 and the light was changed to give one flash every 20 seconds. Today it has visible range of 21 miles.
At the base of the lighthouse is the accommodation built for the 3 keepers and their families. The remote situation meant that water was not readily available. In 1863 the landowner was petitioned to allow the sinking a well, however it was a mile away and when finally dug the water was found to be undrinkable. After further delays it was decided that an existing well would be used, but this was 2 miles from the lighthouse, and the keepers were given a donkey and cart to transport the water between the well and the lighthouse.
Close inspection of the lighthouse shows a number of aerials. As early as the 1930’s the station acted as the radio link for the Keepers on the isolated Flannan Islands, and continued to do so until 1971, when the Flannans was demanned, and the lighthouse was automated. Later in the mid-1990s up to March 2022, the Butt of Lewis was one of the General Lighthouse Authorities transmitting stations for Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS). Today, the site is the radio control station for the North Minch area.
The lighthouse was maned up until 1995, and was one of the last to be automated in the UK. Today the light is remotely monitored from the NBL headquarters in Edinburgh.
Butt of Lewis Lighthouse. Noerthern Lighthouse Board. https://www.nlb.org.uk/lighthouses/butt-of-lewis/ Accessed: 18 Sept 2022.
Butt of Lewis Lighthouse. British Listed Buildings. https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/200337255-butt-of-lewis-lighthouse-lewis-barvas Accessed: 18 Sept 2022.
Butt of Lewis Lighthouse. https://lighthouseaccommodation.co.uk/directory/butt-of-lewis-lighthouse/ Accessed: 18 Sept 2022.