David and Thomas Stevenson, 1858, with late 19th century additions. Rock lighthouse complex of harled brick comprising short battered circular tower corbelled out to balcony with cast-iron handrail circumventing domed metal lantern; single storey flat-roofed square accommodation building adjoining to E, fog horn house adjacent to S enclosed by boundary wall with entrance gate to E accessed from sea by straight flight of steps incised into rock; W boundary wall extends S terminated adjacent to single storey rectangular outbuilding with flat roof and chimney.
Statement of Special Interest
Built of brick for ease of transport, the light was constructed after bitter argument between the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses and the Board of Trade (Trinity House). On David Stevenson's advice, the Commissioners had advised against such a wild site, but worried that war in the Crimea might spread to northern seas, Trinity House insisted that the Commissioners' "eminent engineer" would overcome any difficulties.
date 1854, 1855 - 1857
era Victorian | category Lighthouse | reference HP605196
ICE reference number HEW 2576
This is Britain’s most northerly lighthouse. It was known originally as North Unst Lighthouse but its name was changed in 1964 to Muckle Flugga, the name of the tiny island on which it stands — derived from the Old Norse for ‘large steep-sided island’. The present lighthouse replaced a temporary light, which had been built to aid those sailing to the Crimean War.
The Shetland Islands lie between the Faroe Islands to the west and Norway to the east, and have only open sea to the north as far as the Arctic Circle. The Faroes are nearer to Unst than Edinburgh. The site for the lighthouse, on a precipitous pyramid of rocks rising 61m above the sea, is frequently overtopped by unbroken waves.
However, by 1851 it was clear that a lighthouse was needed in the northernmost reaches of Scotland and by 1853 war with Russia was imminent — the Crimean War broke out in October that year and continued until February 1856. To safeguard the much increased naval presence near this unlit coast, the Admiralty commissioned the Northern Lighthouse Board to erect two lighthouses in the Shetlands as a matter of urgency. Work had already begun at the other site, Out Skerries (HU701718), and was completed in 1854.
David Stevenson (1815-86) became Engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1853, succeeding his elder brother Alan Stevenson (1807-65) who was in poor health. One of his first tasks was to build a temporary lighthouse on the Muckle Flugga Rocks north of Unst. Stone for the project was quarried from the rocks themselves but everything else had to be brought in by boat.
In August 1854, a level platform was cut into the top of the rocks and a flight of rough access steps was hewn down to sea level, all by men dangling from lifelines. The 122 tonnes of materials and supplies were carried up the steps on the men’s backs, including the iron lighthouse keepers’ huts. Cement mortar was used for the first time at a rock station. Amazingly, the construction was completed in just 26 days and the 15.2m high temporary light was lit on 11th October 1854.
Following severe storms during the first winter, when the lighthouse was damaged and the protective wall round the station torn down, the keepers feared for their lives. It was decided to make the light permanent. Initially, the interested parties disagreed over whether to continue with a light at Muckle Flugga or to re-site it further south at Lamba Ness (HP674156) in the Orkney Islands.
However, the order for work to resume at Muckle Flugga was given in June of 1855, the year that Thomas Stevenson (1818-87) joined his brother as a joint Engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board. Work began at once.
As the rock at Muckle Flugga shattered easily and importing alternative stone would have been difficult, the Stevensons chose to build the new lighthouse from brick. It was an untried experiment in such an exposed location but bricks were easier to manhandle than stone blocks.
The workmen were housed in an iron hut and the materials needed were raised from sea level on a steep railway powered by a 7.5kW steam engine. To shelter the station from further storm damage, a masonry wall 1.5m high and 600mm thick was built round its west and north sides. The 19.5m high conical lighthouse tower has walls 1.1m thick, and its foundations are built 3m into the bedrock.
The lighthouse and its ancillary buildings were constructed by direct labour and were completed in 1857 at a cost of £36,000. The fixed light was exhibited for the first time on 1st January 1858. It was manned by a team of six keepers, with three on duty at any one time for a month term.
Muckle Flugga also had a separate shore station, built in 1856, at Burrafirth (HP616136) on Unst. It comprised a two storey accommodation block and two single storey cottages for off-duty keepers and their families, a storage shed, a stone slipway with a cast iron derrick and a water cistern.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) sketched Muckle Flugga in June 1869 while on a visit there with his father, Thomas Stevenson, and may have used the island of Unst as the inspiration for Treasure Island.
In 1927-28 the fixed light was changed to a flashing one, with a nominal range of 40.7km.
New keepers’ dwellings were built in 1968-69 to replace the cramped quarters in the lighthouse itself. The light was converted to electricity at about this time and a helipad added later. The tower is still as robust as when it was constructed, though rock stabilisation has been carried out to secure the access track.
The lighthouse was automated in March 1995. Following automation, the shore station was sold and now houses the visitor centre for the Hermaness Nature Reserve. This covers 965ha of north Unst and was designated a National Nature Reserve in 1955 — it is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area. It is managed by Scottish Natural Heritage and is noted for its variety of seabirds.
The Muckle Flugga complex, including the fog horn house, has been Category A listed since August 1971. The Burrafirth shore station was Category C(S) listed in March 1998.
Muckle Flugga lighthouse punctuates the rocky stack of Muckle Flugga, in Shetland, Scotland. Originally called North Unst Lighthouse, it was renamed in 1964.
The brothers Thomas and David Stevenson designed and built the lighthouse in 1854, originally to protect vessels during the Crimean War. First lit on 1 January 1858, it stands 64 feet (20 m) high, has 103 steps to the top, and is Britain's most northerly lighthouse. The light beam flashes white every 20 seconds, with a nominal range of 22 miles (35 km). In March 1995 it was fully automated. Thomas's son Robert Louis Stevenson, the writer, visited it as a young man. As a result, Unst became his inspiration for the map of 'Treasure Island'. The lighthouse was served by the Grace Darling which was launched from the boat house below the lighthouse shore station in Burrafirth. Supplies were winched up by the blondin cable hoist to the courtyard, from the boat in a natural cleft of the rocks that provides a degree of harbourage.
This lighthouse was also used as a setting for the wartime comedy, now in Public Domain, "Back-Room Boy".
In 1851 it was decided to build a lighthouse on north Unst but, because of difficulties in determining the exact location, nothing had been done by the start of 1854. During the Crimean War, the government urged the commissioners to set up a light on Muckle Flugga to protect Her Majesty's vessels. A temporary lighthouse 50 feet (15 m) high was built 200 feet (61 m) above sea level and lit on 11 October 1854. It was thought to be high and safe enough to withstand the elements, but when winter storms began waves broke heavily on the tower and burst open the door to the living quarters. The principal keeper reported that 40 feet (12 m) of stone dyke had been broken down, and the keepers had no dry place to sit or sleep. Plans were made for a higher and more permanent lighthouse, but there were still disagreements about where to locate it, Muckle Flugga or Lamba Ness. The orders to start the work on the new Muckle Flugga tower were finally given in June 1855. The lighthouse's original name was "North Unst", but in 1964 that was changed to "Muckle Flugga".
Muckle Flugga Shore Station
Muckle Flugga was one of the few lighthouses in Scotland which had a separate shore station that served as accommodation for the lighthouse keepers when they were off duty (similar to Sule Skerry and its shore station in Stromness, Orkney). The shore station was sold off when the lighthouse was automated. Part of the building now hosts the Hermaness Visitor Centre at the entrance to the neighbouring Hermaness Nature Reserve, which is managed by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).
Muckle Flugga Lighthouse
The establishment of a lighthouse at Muckle Flugga, which is the most northerly rock in the British Isles, was considered by the Commissioners as far back as 1851, but due to difficulties in determining the exact site for the Lighthouse, no work had been undertaken by 1854. During the Crimean War the Commissioners were urged by the Government to erect a light at Muckle Flugga with a view to the protection of Her Majesty's vessels. A temporary light was therefore established and first lighted on 11 October 1854. The light sits on a jagged outcrop of Skerries a mile north of Unst and right in the path of the Atlantic storms. It was first named "North Unst" but changed in 1964 to Muckle Flugga.
The temporary lighthouse building is said to have been completed in 26 days. As the structure
itself (50ft in height) was on rock 200ft above sea level it was thought that it would have to withstand only the wind and the rain. However, when the winter gales began to break over the rock it was found that the sea not only broke heavily on the tower, but ran up the sides and burst open the door of the dwelling room. The Principal Keeper reported that 40ft of stone dyke had been knocked down, six water casks carried away, and that "we had not a dry part of sit down in or even a dry bed to rest upon at night". This experience proved the necessity of raising the lightroom of the permanent tower so that the possibility of the seas endangering the light would be prevented.
When the Board of Trade finally asked the Commissioners to prepare plans for a permanent lighthouse on Muckle Flugga, they unanimously reverted to their original preference for Lamba Ness. It was only after several discussions that they agreed finally on Muckle Flugga. Orders to proceed with the work were given in June 1855. A 64 foot high brick tower was built, with foundations sunk ten feet into the rock, and a permanent light appeared on 1 January 1858.
The Commissioners declined to reduce the thickness of the tower walls below 3½ft, or risk weakening the foundations by using local stone for rubble or reducing the depth of the foundations; but they agreed to have an iron pedestal in place of stone, and to reduce the size of the cornice. In spite of all possible economies, Muckle Flugga cost £32,000.
That they built well, was proved over the succeeding years, when the seas broke over the rocks for 21 hours continuously, sweeping away one gate pillar and dislodging another, and blocks of stone 2ft square were rushed over the court as if they had been wood.
Minor alterations were made mainly for the convenience of the lightkeepers. Experience had shown that the high walls built for shelter caused strong whirls of wind in the courtyard and interfered with the lightkeepers look out.
Fixed lights were no longer regarded as suitable and in 1927/28 the character of the light was changed to group flashing.
At some of the more isolated stations the Second World War added immensely to the lightkeepers work. As naval operations moved north the old radio beacon at Muckle Flugga was re-opened and the lightkeeper ashore was constantly employed passing service messages between headquarters and the rock.
In 1968/69 a new dwelling block was built within the retaining wall in space saved by electrification, replacing the primitive conditions where lightkeepers slept in a crows nest and ate in a cell, as the Principal put it. The original tower still stands firm, with four glass-fibre sectional water tanks installed in it; but serious rock erosion threatened the security of the access path, and weaker sections had to be bolted to the more solid parts in order to stabilise the rock.
There were three Lightkeepers on the rock at any one time; each of the six Lightkeepers manning the station spending one month on and one month ashore. The Lightkeepers were relieved by helicopter which made trips to the lighthouse once every 2 weeks. Fresh water and any heavy stores are landed at the rock by the introduction of the service of the helicopter, reliefs were sometimes long overdue because of heavy seas which made a landing from the Attending Boat impossible. It could be said that the advent of the helicopter was the lightkeepers' dream.
It may be interesting to note that Robert Louis Stevenson, who was born in 1850, visited Muckle Flugga on 18 June 1869 with his father, Thomas Stevenson, Engineer to the Board and there is a school of thought that the Island of Unst influenced him in his writing of "Treasure Island".
Muckle Flugga Lighthouse was automated in March 1995.