St. Abbs Head Lighthouse and Foghorn

St. Abbs Head lighthouse.

Lighthouse and foghorn

St. Abb’s Head Lighthouse is one of the principal lights in Scotland and marks the southern entrance to the Firth of Forth. The lighthouse is now fully automated, with the status of the light being remotely monitored from the head quarters of the Northern Lighthouse Board, in Edinburgh.

The decision to build a lighthouse on St. Abb’s Head was taken in the aftermath of the sinking of the ship, "Martello" in 1857. It was felt, by the Board, that the construction of a lighthouse would greatly help navigation within the entrance to and approaches of the Firth of Forth. A lighthouse sighted on St. Abb’s Head would be visible before and after sight of the Bell Rock and Isle of May lights was lost.

Plans were prepared by the Engineers to the Board, Messrs David and Thomas Stevenson, and construction was commenced. Thus at dusk on Monday the 24th of February 1862, the oil-burning lamp was lit and for the first time the rays of the beacon shone out over the cold darkness of the North Sea.

"Below on the cliff is the lantern, a great lone beautiful star,
Flashing its wide beam seaward with every turn of the wheel,
The smile of the Princess Ebba from out of the ages afar,
Warning the ships of a danger that no one but she can reveal."
Wil Wilson, 1980.

Before the road was built between the farm at Northfield and the lighthouse, stores were brought to the lighthouse by supply ships. The ships would moor off the headland and the stores would be brought ashore by tender, landing at the stone pier that had been built at Petticowick. The keepers would then transport the stores to the lighthouse.

Since that first night in 1862 the lighthouse has rarely been in darkness. Only in the defence of the realm, during the first and second world wars, has the beacon suffered a major outage. This was to prevent the light being used as a navigational aid by the enemy, both at sea and in the air. Even through those bleak years of war the lighthouse was always poised ready to blaze into life, whenever a convoy was scheduled to pass.

In 1876 St. Abb’s Head lighthouse was chosen to pioneer the first fog signal to be install at a Scottish lighthouse. An engine house was built at the top of the cliff alongside the keeper’s cottages to house the engines used to produce the compressed air need to run the siren. The horn, siren and equipment used to regulate the timing of the signal was place in a second smaller building locate below the lighthouse. The fog signal was originally powered by hot air engine these were replaced by oil driven ones in 1911 and by diesel engines in December 1955. Finally in 1987, due to the cost and fact that most craft were now fitted with radar, the fog signal sounded for the last time.

RMS Mauretania.

RMS Mauretania passing the lighthouse after completing a speed trial over the measured mile, 1907.

Originally the lamp was oil burning but in 1906 it was converted to incandescent and then in 1966 to electrical operation. With the introduction of electricity the keepers no longer had to endure the tedious job known as the "Wind".

While everyone is aware that lighthouses flash, this character is not caused by the lamp, which burns continuously, but by the rotation of a set of lenses that surround the lamp. These lenses concentrate the lamp’s light into several narrow and powerful beams. The mechanism to power the rotation of the lenses was originally clockwork, thus every few hours a keeper would have to wind up the mechanism, a job which could take over 30 minutes. Any keeper who forgot to rewind the mechanism could face instant dismissal; for if the lenses stopped turning the lighthouse would display an incorrect pattern of flashes, and become nearly useless as a navigational aid.

The end of the wind wasn’t the end of the work. St Abb's Head became the control station for the Bell Rock, Bass Rock, May Island and Fidra lighthouses. This meant that each of those lighthouses have to be contacted by radio several times per day. The lighthouse was also an auxiliary reporting station for weather observations. Every three hours the keeper on duty would have to collect details of the current weather conditions. They would then transmit the details to the Met Office, which would use the information to help produce their weather forecast.

From the 1960’s onwards the Northern Lighthouse Board began to pursue a programme, which would result in the automation of all their lighthouses. In 1993, it became the turn of the St. Abb’s Head lighthouse to undergo the transformation.

Banks of batteries, halon fire extinguishers and racks of electrical control and communications equipment were installed in the old engine house. In the lantern room arrays of sensors were fitted around the large electrical light bulb to constantly measure its brightness, so that if or when it blows, a second bulb can swing in immediately to replace it. The status of all this equipment is constantly transmitted the 40 miles to the Head Quarters of the Northern Lighthouse Board in Edinburgh. Behind the Georgian facade of that building in a control room manned 24 hours a day, the status of every lighthouse in Scotland, including St. Abb’s Head is closely monitored.

All the equipment guarantees the constancy of the light. But apart from the occasional visit by a service engineer, to check and maintain the equipment, the lighthouse is now is sadly deserted. The keeper’s cottages have become holiday homes and the weather station was dismantled. We can now only reminisce about the lost lifestyle of the lighthouse keeper.


1862: The light was first exhibited.
1876: The first fog signal to be establishd at a Scottish lighthouse was installed.
1961: An experimental Racon (Radio Beacon) was installed.
1966: The light was converted to electrical power.
1968: The Racon beacon become operational permanently.
1987: The fog signal was discontinued.
1993: The lighouse was automated.


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Old Photographs

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