On the Isle of May, an island about five miles from the north shore of the Firth of Forth, is all that’s left of the first permanently manned lighthouse in Scotland. Looking at it now, it’s hard to believe the squat white structure was important enough to require three keepers at all times.
The lighthouse was built in 1635 and was three floors high and burned 400 tons of coal each year. 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 the light.
The small stretch of sea was notorious for shipwrecks. Though 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.
The community’s original ill-will wasn’t the only trouble associated with the beacon. In 1791, the lighthouse was 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. (It’s more likely it was carbon monoxide poisoning.) The keeper, his wife, and four of their five children died. Only the three-year-old daughter was found alive, three days later.
In 1816, the lighthouse was replaced by a newer one built by famous engineer Robert Stephenson. This 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.
Know Before You Go
The whole of the island is now a national nature reserve and is famous for its abundant bird life. The only way for members of the public to get to the island is on a ferry. One runs from the harbor at Anstruther. It operates from April 1 to September 30. Others are available from nearby Crail and also from North Berwick on the South bank of the Firth of Forth.