Noss Head Lighthouse
The Lighthouse and Alan Stevenson
The light was lit at Noss Head in 1849. Mr Arnott of Inverness built the tower under the supervision of Alan Stevenson. The Stevensons innovated with every light, and Noss Head was the first with the now classic structure of diagonal glass panes in the lantern room. The original courtyard walls were the same height as the buildings, but they created whirlwinds on stormy days.
Stevenson was one of the Lighthouse Stevensons (there’s a book about the family in the Cottage) and between them they designed almost all of Scotland’s lighthouses between 1797 and 1938. Over the generations they prospered, and Alan’s nephew Robert Louis Stevenson became a writer not an engineer.
Alan Stevenson is credited with 13 lighthouses built between 1843 and 1853; there were three in 1846 alone. He longed to be a classicist not an engineer, so he included classical elements in his lighthouses at Covesea, Ardnamurchan and here at Noss Head where he put a Greek pediment above the door of the lighthouse and built the main cottages in the “Egyptian style”. As a result, the 19thC cottages and the Tower itself are Grade A listed.
By the end of WW2, the lightkeepers and their families still used oil lamps for light and coal for heat, and their water was collected from the rooftops and stored in cisterns in the lighthouse courtyard. In the late 1940s, Lightkeeper Dishon bought a generator and windmill and the power was stored in batteries and used for lighting. You can see Dishon and his windmill in the photos in the hall.
In the early 1960s, the keeper’s cottage nearest the walled garden was demolished and a new cottage (the one you are staying in) was built for the Principal Lightkeeper and his family.
After the light was automated
In the late 1980s, the Northern Lighthouse Board converted their lights to automatic operation and they sold the buildings at Noss Head except the tower. The first owner rarely visited and over the next 10 years the building were vandalised and stripped, with all the fireplaces, copper and lead being stolen. Sharma Krauskopf describes this disrepair in The Last Lighthouse.
In 1997 the estate was bought by Ian Sinclair who transformed the two 19th Century Keepers’ cottages into the Clan Sinclair Trust and Library. The estate prospered, and the statue outside the lighthouse Henry Sinclair, first Early of Orkney was commissioned in 2002 by Ian Sinclair and the Clan Sinclair Trust and was carved by Shawn Williamson.
Ian Sinclair passed away in 2014 and the buildings were again until the estate was bought in May 2017. After more than a year of repairs and refurbishment the buildings have been taken on by different owners; this cottage is a holiday let and the other cottage being a private home. The contents of the Clan Sinclair Library are now housed in the Dunbeath Heritage Centre.
Work by the Northern Lighthouse Board
In 2018 the NLB upgraded the light from a rotational electric light to modern LEDs. This means the iconic beam of light does not sweep around any more because the lamp simply turns on and off. We are sad about it, but the original engineers were passionate about efficiency, so we think they may have approved.
Finding out more
We have copies of Brian Dishon’s memoir of living here as a child and other books about lighthouses here in the Cottage. These include technical books, social history and fiction. Please leave them here for others to enjoy too.
In 2017, former Lightkeeper David Fraser recalled life here at Noss Head as in the 1970s. You can listen to it here.
Wick Heritage Centre is home to Noss Head’s original Fresnel Lens and much of the other equipment de-commissioned from the Tower. The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is at Fraserburgh north of Aberdeen.
The road up to Noss Head
The road across Noss to the lighthouse was built as “workfare” scheme by people affected by the Highland famine. Even so, supplies were landed at Sandigoe Beach and winched up the cliffs to the lighthouse. You can still see some of the metalwork in the rocks on the beach. 19th Century Lightkeepers were given a copy of Cookery for the Working Classes to help them make the most of their supplies. There’s a copy to read in the kitchen.
The Staxigoe War Memorial
It’s easy to think that Papigoe and Staxigoe must be modern suburbs of Wick, but in fact they are old fishing villages and tiny little Staxigoe Harbour was once home to the biggest herring processing plant in Europe. The modern houses were built in the 20th century to replace the older houses and rehome the villagers. The War Memorial is testimony to the young men who went from the headland to die thousands of miles away in WW1 and WW2.
You’ll drive past the back of Wick Airport. The aerodrome operated as a grass strip between 1933 and 1939 when it was taken over by the MoD. It became one of Scotland’s most bombed airfields and returned to civilian life after the War. It’s now a commercial airfield, and until the Covid lockdowns it operated with commercial flights to Aberdeen and Edinburgh. It continues to serve offshore support operations, the Scottish Air Ambulance, the Coastguard and light aviation.
The Switching Station
As you drive up towards the lighthouse, you’ll go past the works for the new switching station on your left.
The switching station brings renewable energy from Shetland to us on the mainland via a 250km subsea cable. The mounds of earth you can see at the moment will form part of the landscaping around the new building. In the meantime, it’s no denying that the building works are an eyesore, but this has always been a working landscape. Farming and herring fishing has changed the land and the coastline over the centuries, and its good to be part of a greener energy supply chain.
The WW2 Buildings
It’s easy to miss the significance of the tumble-down concrete buildings on your right as you drive up to the lighthouse. They housed some very cold lads during WW2 whose job it was to note down the Enigma signals from German shipping in the North Sea and pass them on to Bletchley for decoding. Some of the best aerial shots of the headland were taken by the Luftwaffe flying over and keeping an eye on what was going on here. There are more WW2 buildings near the lighthouse at Dunnet Head.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
The older a place gets the more romantic we think it is, and Castle Sinclair Girnigoe really is rather special. Built on a sea stack overlooking the bay, it’s seen fighting and family fueds as violent as anything in Game of Thrones.