Light Tower History

Lighthouse Tower c. 1870's showing the original buildings before the addition of the Engine Room and Forhorn in 1905 (image from Sumburgh Head Lighthouse was the first Stevenson light to be built in Shetland.  It was constructed by John Reid, of Peterhead and the construction was not without incident. 

Building began in winter 1819, with Stevenson instructing that it should be completed by the autumn of 1820.  A mile and a half of access road had to be built from the shore to the site to allow supplies to be transported up. 

The high specification for the building of the tower also added delays.  Stevenson had designed the tower so that the walls were built to a double thickness to keep damp out, given the exposed location.  The walls are built with a gap in the middle, resulting in an outer shell which is four foot thick.  It certainly did the job as the inside of the tower is perfectly dry to this day.

By June 1820 when Stevenson visited the site, the walls of the tower had only reached six feet above the ground.  This was not an acceptable situation, and he instructed the contractor to focus their efforts on this element of the build. Reid's men did as instructed and by August of that year, the Lighthouse Tower reached the full height of 56 feet.

Unfortunately, the next month saw tragedy strike the construction, when the supply vessel Freemason was lost on the rocks at Grutness along with the crew and all glass and building materials on board.  Stevenson wrote to the Clerk of Works declaring he "much regretted that the untoward situation at Sumburgh Head has delayed the completion of these works."

Work did continue however, and the reflecting aparatus for this new addition to the network of lights, was delivered to Sumburgh by the Northern Lighthouse Board yacht in November.  It was installed and the light was operational for the fist time on 15th January 1821.  At this time, the light was a stationary single white light, fuelled by oil.  In 1868, paraffin replaced oil as the fuel for powering the light, although the light remained a stationary beam.

In 1914 the light mechanism was replaced with the revolving mechanism which is still in place today.  At this point, Sumburgh Head established it's own 'character' of three white flashes every 30 seconds.  This continued unchanged until the introduction of the electric light as late as 1976.  Lightkeepers continued to maintain this operation until 1991 when the last Keeper left Sumburgh Head in the care of Lighthouse Board engineers as the light became automated.