The main source for lighthouse history at National Records of Scotland (NRS) are the records of the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses. The Commissioners are a corporate body, operating as the Northern Lighthouse Board, with responsibility for Scotland and the Isle of Man.
Although the earliest Scottish lighthouse was constructed soon after 1635 the origins of the Northern Lighthouse Board date to 1782, when a number of severe storms highlighted the lack of lighthouses around the Scottish coasts. Following an act of parliament in 1786 the Commissioners were created and given powers to borrow money, purchase land and levy dues from ships to finance their work. They were allowed to build four lighthouses, one of which, Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh, is now part of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. Further acts of parliament in 1788 and 1789 gave the Commissioners the power to construct new lighthouses as they deemed necessary. Jurisdiction was extended to the Isle of Man in 1845.
The earliest lighthouse in Scotland was built on the Isle of May by James Maxwell of Innerwick and John Cunninghame of Barnes, under a patent from Charles I of 1635. In 1814 the Commissioners purchased the lighthouse from its then owners, and the present lighthouse was built and illuminated from 1816.
Local lights (which were much smaller than lighthouses) and seamarks were usually constructed and maintained under local acts of parliament or burgh charters. The earliest recorded Scottish light was at Buddonness on the Tay, constructed by an act of the Privy Council in 1687. An act of 1836 made local lights and seamarks subject to the inspection and supervision of the Commissioners.
Full descriptions of the Northern Lighthouse Board's records can be found on our online catalogue (series reference NLC). The records themselves are not stored at General Register House on-site and they must be ordered in advance of a visit.
The records can be summarised as follows:
Board Records (reference NLC1-NLC2)
Secretary's Department Records (reference NLC3-NLC6)
The Secretary's Department was responsible for finance and general administration. It also maintained the records of the Board's personnel, issued orders and circulars to shore stations and lighthouses, and 'Notices to Mariners' to the seafaring public. There are also shipwreck returns in the papers of the secretary's department.
Includes correspondence and reports 1901-1987 (reference NLC3); registers of lightkeepers 1837-1980 and registers of candidate and expectant lightkeepers 1885-1895 (reference NLC4/1); establishment books 1913-1957 (reference NLC4/2); general orders 1844-1991 (reference NLC5); and shipwreck returns 1927-1983 (reference NLC6). Earlier shipwreck returns can be found amongst records of individual lighthouses (see below).
Engineer's Department Records (reference NLC11)
The Engineer's Department had overall responsibility for the construction, maintenance and inspections of lighthouses, seamarks and buoys, radio and radar installations.
Includes letterbooks 1896-1956 (reference NLC11/1); harbour lights letterbooks 1905-1937 (reference NLC11/2); and files on construction and maintenance of lighthouses and associated machinery 1838-1946 (reference NLC11/3 and reference NLC11/4).
Individual Lighthouse Records (reference NLC 20-NLC111)
The records of individual lighthouses include records originating in, or providing for, the major manned lighthouses. Records for each lighthouse might have some of the following: general orders and correspondence; shipwreck returns; visitors albums; postage books; receipt books; meteorological returns books; stores books; order books; return of observation of neighbouring lights; inventory books. The individual lighthouses represented are listed below:
- Ailsa Craig Lighthouse, 1862-1985 (NLC20)
- Ardnamurchan Lighthouse, 1972-1987 (NLC21)
- Barns Ness Lighthouse, 1982-1986 (NLC23)
- Barra Head Lighhouse, 1953-1980 (NLC24)
- Buchan Ness Lighthouse, 1915-1971 (NLC28)
- Copinsay Lighthouse, 1915-1900 (NLC36)
- Corsewall Lighthouse, 1883-1992 (NLC38)
- Cromarty Lighthouse, 1868-1985 (NLC40)
- Davaar Lighthouse, 1868-1980 (NLC42)
- Dubh Lighthouse, 1929-1971 (NLC44)
- Eilean Glas Lighthouse, 1853-1925 (NLC47)
- Esha Ness Lighthouse, 1955-1966 (NLC48)
- Fidra Lighthouse, 1951-1970 (NLC51)
- Flannan Isles Lighthouse, 1899-1971 (NLC53)
- Holy Island (Inner) Lighthouse, 1900-1978 (NLC57)
- Holy Island (Outer) Lighthouse, 1926-1964 (NLC58)
- Inchkeith Lighthouse, 1845-1869 (NLC62)
- Isle of May Lighthouse, 1836-1989 (NLC63)
- Loch Indaal Lighthouse, 1869-1948 (NLC70)
- Maughold Head Lighthouse (Isle of Man), 1914-1993 (NLC72)
- McArthur's Head Lighthuse, 1861-1969 (NLC73)
- Muckle Flugga Lighthouse, 1936-1995 (NLC75)
- Neist Point Lighthouse, 1898-1988 (NLC78)
- Noss Head Lighthouse, 1892-1967 (NLC80)
- Out Skerries Lighthouse, 1854-1935 (NLC83)
- Pentland Skerries Lighthouse, 1871-1994 (NLC85)
- Pladda Lighthouse, 1970-1990 (NLC86)
- Point of Ayre Lighthouse (Isle of Man), 1957-1993 (NLC87)
- Rona Lighthouse, 1857-1975 (NLC91)
- Rubh' Re Lighhouse, 1944-1985 (NLC92)
- Ruvaal Lighthouse, 1858-1983 (LC94)
- Sanda Lighthouse, 1863-1991 (NLC95)
- Scurdie Ness Lighthouse, 1975-1983 (NLC96)
- Skerryvore Lighthouse, 1968-1991 (NLC97)
- St Abb's Lighthouse, 1844-1993 (NLC99)
- Tarbat Ness Lighthouse, 1868-1976 (NLC107)
- Tiumpan Head Lighthouse, 1920-1984 (NLC108)
- Turnberry Lighthouse, 1873-1985 (NLC110)
- Ushenish Lighthouse, 1857-1971 (NLC111)
Records in NLC1-19 are closed to public inspection for 30 years from the date of the last entry in each file or volume.
Items in NLC20-111 are open to inspection unless otherwise indicated.
Family history in lighthouse records
The main sources for family history are the Registers and Lists of Lightkeepers, 1837-1980 (NLC4/1) and the Establishment Books, 1913-1957 (NLC4/2). The Registers of Lightkeepers give career histories for each keeper, noting full name, date of birth, lighthouses worked at, promotions, demotions and date of retiral. The Registers are kept alphabetically according to surname and by lighthouse, and digital images may be viewed in our search rooms on the ‘Virtual Volumes’ system (microfilms are also available for consultation in the search rooms). Registers NLC4/1/1-4 (1837-1921) can now be searched free of charge via our ScotlandsPeople website and images of the original handwritten registers can be viewed and downloaded for a small fee. The Establishment Books, which are not available online, give details of salaried, mostly headquarters, staff.
In addition, the Board Minutes, 1786-1984 (NLC2/1) often note the employment, dismissal, retirements of, and accidents to, individual employees, especially in the 19th century. The General Orders, 1844-1991 (NLC5/1) detail disciplinary offences of individual keepers, and the Secretary's Correspondence and Reports, 1901-1987 (NLC3/1) also contain material on individual employees.
Local history in lighthouse records
Information partly depends on the type of record that has survived for each individual lighthouse. For some lighthouses, for example, only the visitors' book survives, while for others the records are more detailed. In all cases it is also worth looking in the Board's minutes (NLC2/1), the Secretary's Correspondence (NLC3/1-2) and the Engineering Department's bound files (NLC11/3-NLC11/4), as these often contain material relating to major events at individual lighthouses, such as the Flannan Isles accident.
Plans of lighthouses
The Northern Lighthouse Board's plans are held by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS). There are however a small number of lighthouse drawings in our Register House Plans (RHP) series. These can be identified by searching on our electronic catalogue, and are consulted in our West Search Room. Most plans are out-stored, and must be ordered in advance of a visit.
Other sources at the National Records of Scotland
The following records come from various collections and are stored in different buildings. Consequently we may not be able to make them immediately available in our Search Rooms. Please check in advance of your visit.
- AD56/325 - Lord Advocate's Department (North Unst, status of the Board's Engineer)
- CS96/1788-CS96/1796 - Port Authority at Leith, cash books and register (Isle of May)
- E73/82/8 - Customs Records (Isle of May dues)
- GD1/36/9 - Ivory papers (Northern Lighthouses)
- GD3/1/1/14 - Eglinton muniments (Little Cumbrae)
- GD9/410 - British Fisheries Society (Pulteneytown Harbour light)
- GD18/3760 - Clerk of Penicuik (Parliamentary select committee on lighthouses)
- GD46/1/530, 539; GD46/13/89; GD46/1/17/48, 76 - Seaforth Muniments (Lewis lighthouses and beacons)
- GD45/16/1432 - Dalhousie Muniments (Buddonness)
- GD84/2/78 - Reay Papers (Cape Wrath)
- GD226/1 and GD226/18 - Trinity House of Leith (Isle of May)
- GD271/1 and GD271/16 - Mackenzie of Muirton (Tarbat Ness)
- PA11/10 folio84 - Register of the Committee of Estates (Isle of May)
- PC2/23 - Register of the Privy Council of Scotland (Isle of May)
Records held by other institutions
The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) holds the Northern Lighthouse Board's Drawings Collection, which was deposited in 1986 and 1996.
National Library of Scotland holds records deposited by the Stevenson family (their reference Acc.10706), engineers to the Northern Lighthouse Board from 1808 to 1938.
Glasgow City Archives holds the records of the Clyde Lighthouses Trust (Glasgow City Archives reference T- CN).
The mystery of the Flannan Islands Lighthouse
The Flannan Islands Lighthouse was immortalized in Wilfrid Wilson Gibson's poem 'Flannan Isle', his account of the mysterious disappearance of the three keepers from the lighthouse there in December 1900. The lighthouse appears to have been running normally until the 15th of December, but when members of the crew of the Hesperus, one of the lighthouse service vessels, made a routine visit to the lighthouse 11 days later, none of the staff were to be found. How or why the lightkeepers disappeared remains a mystery.
The records of the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses listed below relate to the Flannan Islands mystery. They are outhoused, so please give advance notice before visiting us to see them. Please remember to quote the reference number when ordering documents.
Please note that we do not hold the log book for the Flannan Islands Lighthouse. It was not amongst the records deposited with National Records of Scotland by the Commissioners.
NLC 2/1/88 and NLC2/1/89
Minute book of the Commissioners and index to the minute book (1901-1903).
The following items are minuted in 1901 meetings:
1. Short account of the report on the disaster by the superintendent, and the distribution of gratuities and pensions to widows, p.2.
2. Fatal accident enquiry: Crown Office Crown Counsel considers inquiry unnecessary but requests report of Commissioner's Official, p.20.
3. Salaries of lightkeepers, gratuities and pensions paid to widows of the Flannan Islands principal and assistant lightkeepers, pp.35, 39.
4. Claim on behalf of Mr John Marshall father of the late Thomas Marshall, occasional staff, pp.48, 62.
Secretary's department correspondence and reports, 1 Jan 1901-31 March 1902
The correspondence includes:
1. Copy telegrams and letter from the master of the Hesperus reporting the disaster and steps taken subsequently. (26-28 December 1900, 19 February 1901)
2. Letter from Henderson and MacIntosh that Captain Holman of SS Archtor passed rock on 15 December and saw no light. (28 December 1900)
3. Letter from the Board of Trade, expressing sympathy and asking for further information on the disaster. (28 December 1900)
4. Signed statement of Captain Holman, SS Archtor. (29 December 1900)
5. Lists of transfers in consequence of disaster. (7 January 1901)
6. Report by Superintendent Muirhead on the disaster. (8 January 1901)
8. Report of accountant on above due to deceased keepers and memo as to disposal of proceeds of Ducat's insurance policy. (February 1901)
9. Information from W. Ross, assistant lightkeeper, as to the widow of the occasional staff member. (14 January 1901)
11. Letter from Crown Office as to inquiry under Fatal Accident Inquiry Act 1895. (18 February 1901)
12. Letter from John Marshall as to his daughter (22 February 1901)
13. Letter from Board of Trade refusing to sanction additional payment. (22 January 1901)
16. Letter from Board of Trade sanctioning pensions and gratuities to Mrs. Ducat and family. (8 March 1901)
17. Letter from Board of Trade sanctioning gratuities to Mrs. McArthur, widow, and family. (18 March 1901)
18. Letter from David Brown regarding the claim by John Marshall on account of loss of his son. (11 May 1901)
19. Reply from the secretary that the Northern Lights Commissioners cannot accede to his claim. (14 June 1901)
29. Copy letter from Solicitor General regarding Marshall's claim. (26 March 1902)
Flannan Islands' visitors album, 1899-1971
Allardyce, K and Hood, E, ‘At Scotland's Edge’ (London, 1986)
Allardyce, K, ‘Scotland's Edge Revisited’ (London, 1998)
Bathurst, B, ‘The Lighthouse Stevensons’ (London, 1999)
Hume, J, ‘Harbour Lights’ (1997)
Leslie J and Paxton, R, ‘Bright Lights: The Stevenson Engineers 1752-1971’ (1999)
Mair, C, ‘A Star for Seamen: The Stevenson Family of Engineers’ (London, 1978)
Munro, R W, ‘Scottish Lighthouses’ (Stornoway, 1979)
Stevenson, Robert Louis, ‘Records of a Family of Engineers’ (1896 and later editions)