With a dominant maritime culture and a treacherous, frigid coastline, lighthouses were crucial to the economy of modern Scotland. With the advent of computers that could tend these guiding lights, however, lighthouses have gone from being lonely, romantic outposts to automated bits of infrastructure.
Now, the cultural import of these structures lives on at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. The location of the museum itself is a neat encapsulation of the history of lighthouses in Scotland. While elevated coastal beacons had existed in the country since at least the 17th century, the matter drew the attention of Parliament after violent storms wrought destruction on shipping routes in 1782. An Act of Parliament established the Northern Lighthouse Trust, which was charged with establishing a chain of lighthouses in Scotland. The first of these “official” lighthouses was built in 1787, in Fraserburgh.
The location was chosen not only for its advantageous location on an elevated peninsula but also because it was already the site of a castle (built in 1572) that helped speed construction since the lighthouse could simply be built on top of it. The resulting Kinnaird Head Lighthouse was designed by one Thomas Smith—the godfather of Scottish lighthouse lamp technology—and updated in the 1820s by Robert Stevenson, of Scotland’s “Lighthouse Stevensons”. The Stevenson family (with the exception of black sheep Robert Louis Stevenson) constructed 93 lighthouses in 150 years, and have been called “the lighthouse engineers to the world.”
Kinnaird Head Lighthouse operated until 1991 when it was decommissioned and replaced by an automated beacon built off shore. It has since been transformed into a museum that showcases the remarkable history of lighthouses in Scotland, including not only a tour of the original lighthouse but also an impressive collection of lenses and other equipment, as well as a period-furnished keepers cottage that captures the human experience of maintaining these brilliant markers that led sailors safely home.