Lighthouse Beacons from Scotland

Dubh Artach Lighthouse

Painting of Dubh Artach Lighthouse under construction via Wikimedia

Dubh Artach is a remote skerry of basalt rock off the west coast of Scotland lying 18 miles (29 km) west of Colonsay and 15 miles (24 km) south-west of the Ross of Mull.

A lighthouse designed by Thomas Stevenson with a tower height of 145 feet (44 m) was erected between 1867 and 1872 with a shore station constructed on the isle of Erraid (which is west of Mull, to which it is linked by a beach at low tide, and southeast of Iona). The rock is subject to extraordinary sea conditions with waves of 92 feet (28 m) or more being encountered by the keepers. Despite these adverse conditions several men served the light for lengthy periods until it was automated in 1971.

Dubh Artach is the official name of the lighthouse, although the skerry itself is also known as Dhu Heartach. Various interpretations have been provided for the original meaning of the Gaelic name, of which "The Black Rock" is the most likely. The skerry was also known as St. John's Rock, prior to the construction of the lighthouse.

Between 1800 and 1854 thirty ships were wrecked on the reef; however, the requirement for a lighthouse was not only to warn seafarers away from the island itself, but also to guide ships bound for America and the Baltic ports past the fearsome Torran Rocks between the Ross of Mull and Colonsay. A light on the skerry also enabled vessels to find shelter in one of the many safe anchorages among the islands from Colonsay to Oban. Originally it was considered to be an impossible site for a light, but the loss of the steamer Bussorah, with all thirty-three hands, on her maiden voyage in 1863 and of an astonishing 24 vessels lost in the area in a storm on 30-31 December 1865 encouraged positive action under pressure from insurers Lloyds of London The engineering work was supervised by the famous Stevenson family of engineers, the brothers Thomas (pictured here) who was the father of Robert Louis, and David, commencing work in 1866. Thomas noted that "it would be a work of no ordinary magnitude".

In these days of electronic funds transfer, it is worth noting that at the beginning of operations to construct the lighthouse one of the workmen had to make the return journey of 40 miles across Mull and by open boat to Oban to collect the pay, hiring a conveyance on the return because of the weight of silver carried, which took one week in each month. So an arrangement, which for the sake of secrecy was referred to as THE BOX, was made with the Royal Bank of Scotland, Glasgow, whereby the £600 to £1,000 required each month was put in a box and taken to the clerk on the "Dunvegan Castle" who fastened it to part of the ship by a chain and padlock. The cashier at Erraid and the bank held the two keys. This arrangement continued until November 1871 and £26,500:5:9d was conveyed without loss of a single penny.

In 1870 there was 62 landings by workers between April and October, but bad weather restricted the real working season to June, July and August. On 29 November 1871 the masonry had been completed. The upper course was 101 feet above the foundation. The tower originally designed to be solid to the 13th course, had been built solid to the 21st course, and the door of the tower had been raised to 31 feet above the surface of the rock instead of 20 feet as originally planned. The whole of the outer or face course of the tower and parapet was of granite. On one occasion, during construction, eleven two-ton stones were dislodged from the third course of stonework and carried off the rock, never to be seen again. The solid base weighing 1,840 tons rises more than 64 feet (20 m) above the pounding seas, more than twice as high as its nearest British rival of Skerryvore. The blocks, having been shaped and fitted on Erraid, were towed out to the rock in barges by the steamer ‘Dhuheartach’ with each barge carrying 16 tons. Erraid was the land base for the construction of the light. Fourteen miles distant from Dhu Heartach across open sea, the little island provided a granite quarry and a shore station once the work on the lighthouse was completed. The picture here of Dubh Artach Lighthouse is from the Northern Lighthouse Board.

The light was exhibited for the first time on the evening of 1 November 1872 and on the following day the Principal Lightkeeper, James Ewing, wrote to the secretary "I beg leave to inform you that the light exhibited on the 1st conforms to your orders. I am also glad to state that we can carry a magnificent flame, which eventually must eclipse all the lights on the west coast." The light in fact was so bright that one month later the Principal Lightkeeper reported that the lightkeepers' eyes were being adversely affected and requested "preserves".

The total cost of the Lighthouse was £83,710:2:10d. In 1890 a distinctive red band was painted round the middle section of the tower to distinguish it from Skerryvore, 20 miles (32 km) to the northwest, which was served from the same shore station

Robert Louis Stevenson's connection with the construction of Dubh Artach and its shore station played a significant part in his 1886 novel Kidnapped during which the main character, David Balfour, experiences the dangers of the Torran Rocks and is marooned on Erraid. The graphic on the right is of a statue of David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart in Edinburgh.

The spelling of the lighthouse was changed in 1964 from Dhuheartach to the present form Dubh Artach. There is however, a certain amount of controversy about the derivation of the name: Adamnan in his "Life of St Columba" calls it "A'Dubh-Iar-stac", the black stack of the west. Modern etymologists maintain the word is "an uibh-hirteach", the black one of death. "Irt" as in Hirta (St Kilda) is identical with old Irish gaelic for "death".

Dubh Artach was automated in 1971 and is now remotely monitored from the Board’s Headquarters in George Street, Edinburgh.

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