The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

History of lighthouses in Scapa Flow area

Since the late 18th century the approaches and entrances to Scapa Flow have been lit by the Northern Lighthouse Board.

The first, the twin towers of Pentland Skerries at the eastern entry of the Pentland Firth, were lit on 1 October 1794. They were rebuilt with higher towers in 1833 with the lower tower converted to a fog horn in 1909.

To light the western approach two towers were built at either end of the island of Graemsay in the mid-19th century. By aligning these towers, known as Hoy Sound High and Hoy Sound Low, ships could follow a safe channel to Stromness and Scapa Flow.

In August 1850 building of the Graemsay towers was sufficiently advanced for the master of NLS Pharos to report: "Called at Kinnairdhead, thence to Graemsay, landed the lanterns and domes of the new lighthouse, 25 tons."

By 1851 all was ready and the lights were tested on 5 April. Later in the month the towers were lit officially for the first time, NLS Pharos celebrating the event with a ten-gun salute.

An early visitor to the Graemsay lights was Jane, Lady Franklin, in Orkney seeking news of her husband Sir John Franklin and his vanished Northwest Passage expedition. In 1868 Robert Louis Stevenson visited with his father Thomas, engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board.

The last major lighthouse, indicating the safe passage to Scapa Flow from the east, was completed in 1858 with the building of Cantick Head lighthouse in South Walls, where a fog horn was later established.

A succession of lightkeepers and their families made a significant contribution to island community life until the mid-20th century, after which the lights were automated. Minor lights and beacons were established in and around Scapa Flow on Cava, Hoxa Head, Swona, Barrel of Butter, Torness, Roseness, Skerry of Ness and Lother Skerry.

 © Bryce Wilson