A lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides, facing inwards across the Minch and the Little Minch, is planted on the southern tip of Lewis and Harris on a peninsula on the east coast of Scalpay island - itself barely two and a half square miles of Lewisian gneiss - like an outpost on an outpost on an outpost. The road that connects it to the rest of the world peters out 1,200 metres from the light, and the path that bridges the gap across the bog resembles an argument that needs to be constantly re-fought - even with today’s technology. The place itself also seems to have been making a stand for altruism in the face of hardship.
Following a 1786 Act of Parliament, four lights were identified to aid safe passage of shipping from Liverpool to the North Sea, the Baltic or the Netherlands. Scalpay’s light was to be one of them. Earlier coal fires on tall towers were often impossible to keep alight in adverse conditions. These fickle and unforgiving waters are bad enough. Ringed as they are with jagged, unlit headlands added notoriety and danger.
The place is atmospheric, as you’ll see in the photographs below. But first, here’s an outline of the progress to modernity made in this remote outpost:
Act of Parliament passed to erect lighthouses in the northern parts of Great Britain.
The original 25-feet stone tower was constructed by Thomas Smith, first Engineer to be appointed to the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) (after a start by local masons).
16th October 1789
The light was first lit.
1789 - 1823
The first light was manned by keeper Alexander Reid, who lived there with his family, a 35 year tenure.
Robert Stevenson (stepson of Thomas Smith) was appointed Engineer to the NLB.
Stevenson introduced the two-keeper system for all NLB lights.
Stevenson designed and had built the new, 30 metre lighthouse tower.
Stevenson’s eldest son, Alan, was appointed as Engineer to the NLB after the retirement of his father. (Alan was the uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson, the writer, author of Treasure Island among other works.)
1830 - 1840
The Clearances in crofting areas in the highlands and islands resulted in extreme hardship, the Isle of Scalpay being no exception.
Alan Stevenson’s new keepers’ cottages were completed, built with Egyptian influences.
Local men built a second stone building that incorporated a principal keeper’s house, an engine room, a radio room and a workshop.
A fog signal, powered by four diesel engines which produced compressed air, was installed.
1915 - 1916
Two distinctive red bands were painted on the tower to function as a daytime identification marker.
The last keeper of the lighthouse left when the light and fog signal were both fully automated.
After persistent problems, the automated fog signal was discontinued.
The syphon that had taken water for the keepers from the nearest loch finally failed. (Prior to the syphon, rainwater had been taken from underground tanks.)
The catoptric sealed beam lamps were replaced with an array of LED lamps that have a range of 18 nautical miles, making the light visible across the Minch on the northern tip of the Isle of Skye.
Eilean Glass was connected to a mains water supply for the first time in 233 years.
The plaque denoting the residence of the first keeper at Eilean Glas, Alexander Reid, who arrived in 1789 and stayed for 35 years.
The dry-stone wall enclosure that kept the keepers’ livestock from wandering, here petering out on the cliff edge.
A stretch of imagination is needed to visualise the 35 year tenure of the first keeper, Alexander Reid, and his family. The first lamps were lit each dusk with whale oil, requiring constant provisioning. A nocturnal vigil would have been required to ensure proper functioning. Servicing the wick, glass panes and reflector would have been required. Gales, hurricanes and deluges would have punctuated the work but never prevented it. This may have been paid work with a pension but, even so, lives depended upon it. The keepers’ accommodation was heated by coal delivered by boat to the nearby jetty but unloaded and then hauled uphill in horse-drawn wagons.
Fresh food was grown by the keepers themselves and today one of the marvels of the place is the dry-stone wall that strides across the nearby headland, enclosing 40 acres of moorland. It’s visible from space, showing up clearly on Google Maps in satellite view, one limb of it running west from the tiny beach up across the hillside to the nearest loch, the other showing as a dramatically straight pencil line heading south to the cliff-edge. This colossal endeavour, possibly built by Irish labourers paid by the NLB, stopped the keepers’ livestock from wandering across the barren moorland. Inside this tiny domain one can see the vestiges of lazy beds, the system of parallel trenches and banks used across the Western Isles to help cereals and potatoes grow in the teeth of near-constant wind. Dug by hand, these scars on the land would have bestowed limited advantage to cultivation at the cost of Herculean labour.
This precarity was at its worst when potato blight struck in 1846 and 1847, resulting in the keepers themselves sharing some of their own supplies with the local islanders. It was even recorded that in 1847 the only meal in Harris was at the lighthouse, labourers often being part-paid with meals.
Alan Stevenson’s 1847 keepers’ cottages deserve more than passing attention, their squat and distinctive design seemingly out of place in this remote spot. Yet they convey a robustness appropriate to the wild location. The squat outline of this single storey pair of residences is predominantly of dark basalt endowed with four tapered and protruding pylon doorways and windows of the lighter granite, the whole being typical of the Egyptian Revival style of architecture that emerged in 18th century Britain. Even the tall chimneys participate in this endeavour, no doubt providing a better draft for the coal fires within. Stevenson’s insistence on providing the Board’s keepers with this grade of residence drew criticism (because of the expense), and was resolutely defended. These were no barracks. They befitted a keeper’s status as relatively well-educated and literate members of remote communities, men who were often asked by their neighbours to help them read and explain occasional letters and documents.
Britain’s coastline is dotted with remote outposts that share some of the features that one finds at Eilean Glas, but the remoteness of this place and its history of hardship and generosity singles it out as beacon literal and metaphorical.