Noup Head lighthouse is a major feature of the coast of Westray. Planned in 1895, it was announced in Parliament because, “Her Majesty’s bi-weekly mails and passengers, besides many other vessels, have to navigate the dangerous western coasts of the Orkney and Shetland Islands without a single light to guide them in latitudes where frequent storms occurred and where during a great part of the year there were only about seven hours of daylight.”
Without a single light to guide them? This seems to have ignored the lighthouses already built at Dunnet Head, Hoy Sound and Sule Skerry, but then that was neither the first nor the last partial truth to be told in Parliament.
It’s a distinctive profile viewed from the beach at Rack Wick Bay.
I’ve driven up the two mile rutted track to the lighthouse. It’s going dark and the light has just become too faint for bird photography. I’m surrounded by Gannets, Great Skuas and Fulmars.
It is a classic Stevenson’s lighthouse. When the contract was awarded the estimated cost was £8,515. By the next year, the cost for the lighthouse, two keepers’ houses, oil stores and a two-mile long road was between £9,000 and £10,000. I’m sure that sounds familiar to project managers of significant construction projects.
However, two years later, it was finished at a total cost of £7,550 9 shillings and 3 pence. If only projects like HS2 could come in under budget. Having said that, if only projects like HS2 could not be built at all, given the destruction of precious woodlands. How we need engineers like the Stevensons and builders like JM Aitken of Lerwick now.
When the Northern Lighthouse Board first built lighthouses they were lit by burning whale oil. It seems amazing now that people thought it reasonable to kill whales for profit and to use them for soap, burn them in lamps and eat the meat. Except we’re still doing it: Japan, Norway and Iceland kill around 1,500 whales every year. Many thousands of dolphins are also killed. Because it’s traditional.
I look out across the Atlantic in the hope of seeing a whale or dolphin passing by but the seas are empty tonight.
In 1971 the Northern Lighthouse Board decided that it would be cheaper to demolish the two lighthouse-keepers’ cottages here than maintain them and so spent six weeks removing them. Imagine how wonderful it would have been if they had left them. Especially if they had left a toilet here.
There was no fresh water at the lighthouse, so a horse and cart brought water from the well at Noup in barrels. It was a very different life.
As the last light fades I wait for the first light to shine. And there it is.
In salutem omnium – for the safety of all. Apart from whales, obviously.