Little Cumbrea lighthouse
In stark contrast to its neighbour, green and fertile Great Cumbrae, Little Cumbrae is a rough and rocky island. With its many cliffs and rocky outcrops, Little Cumbrae bears more of a resemblance to a Hebridean island than to some of its neighbours in the Clyde.
James Ewing built the first lighthouse on Little Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde in 1757. It is sited some way from the coast, on top of what is now known as Lighthouse Hill, the highest point of the island. This was the second lighthouse in Scotland.Remains of this old structure can still be seen.
The lighthouse was designed to ease the passage of vesselping into the Firth and the port of Glasgow. Its tower is a circular stone structure standing 8 meters high. The lighthouse keepers were accommodated in a cottage about 9 meters north of the tower. For the light, a coal fire was used, which burnt so fiercely that the grate on which it stood had to be replaced after only one year, and then regularly thereafter.
Ewing built the tower for £140.5.8d — considered a low amount. The light was to prove very profitable, and in March 1773 the dues from it were used to pay for the quelling of a mob of sailors who had brought business to a halt in Greenock and Port Glasgow for ten days. The inherent limits of coal-fire lights, combined with the tower's position on top of a hill, meant that the Little Cumbrae light was often obscured by cloud or fog.
Complaints from seamen led to a plan in 1790 to replace the light in the tower. This eventually led in 1793 to the Little Cumbrae Lighthouse Trust commissioning another tower nearer the coast, the New Tower. The original tower still stands. The Clyde Port Authority carried out restoration work on it in 1956.
A number of uninhabited islets skirt the island's east coast, Castle Isle, the Broad Islands and Trail Isle. Today the island's main settlement is at Little Cumbrae House on the eastern shore, facing the Scottish mainland.
The traditional Cumbrae Lighthouse was built in 1793 by Thomas Smith under commission from the Commissioners of the Northern Lights. The lighthouse lies on a broad raised beach on the western shore of the island looking out into the Firth. It had a foghorn, slipway, jetty, and boathouse. The original oil lamps were replaced by Argand lamps in 1826 and in 1974, the lighting was modernised when a 107 watt solar powered light was fitted.
The 1793 tower has been unused since 1997, with the light on 36-foot hexagonal/cylindrical tower adjacent to the old generator house. In common with all Britain's lighthouses, the light was automated in 1977, at which point the keepers returned to their homes in Millport, on Great Cumbrae. This remained active until 1997, when it was replaced by a 36 foot hexagonal/cylindrical tower equipped with a light giving one white flash every 6 seconds, and a focal plane of 92 feet.
Little Cumbrae (also known as Lesser Cumbrae or Wee Cumbrae) is a small island at the east side of the entrance to the Firth of Clyde, on the west coast of Scotland. The island’s 1793 stone lighthouse still stands. A modern automated light went into service in 1997, and the old buildings have deteriorated. The September 2005 issue of Lighthouse Digest included an article by Robina McLaren, whose father was one of the keepers at the station in the early 1960s.
According to Peter McLean: “Mr. McQueen, on the left, was one of the keepers and was noted for his ability to sail a motorboat under any weather or inebriate condition. I speak from experience. Various times he had to abandon “vessel” and swim for the shore after a wee visit to Millport, when the weather was a bit rough. However, it was also noted that he always found time (and presence of mind) to wrap his wallet etc. in oilskin before striking out for the shore. Donald, in the center, was a crewmember of the supply vessel that did the rounds of all the Clyde Trust lighthouses. Stan, on the right, was a pal of mine, over on holiday. We were both keen, young athletes then and would run from one side of the island to the other.”
By tradition, the New Year was welcomed in at the Principal Keeper’s house. As midnight was striking, all the youngsters at the party would race along the corridor connecting the house to the light tower, to see who would be first to sign the visitors’ book for the New Year. I well remember having that honour at the start of either 1950 or 1951. I often wonder if the visitors’ book is still in existence.
The light and its attendant mechanism were a joy to behold. Illumination was provided by a single gas mantle, the light being magnified by a series of beautifully polished prisms. The whole prism arrangement weighed about two tons and floated on a circular bath of mercury, all so well balanced that it could be moved by one finger. When in operation, the prisms rotated by means of a clockwork mechanism, whose weights had to be wound up at regular intervals.
Each light on the Clyde was identifiable by its flashing sequence. The light did not flash as such; the mainland-facing portion of the tower had its windows blanked, the light being shown toward the Firth of Clyde.
Outside, again facing towards the main vesselping channel, was an enormous foghorn (probably operated by compressed air), whose note was of such a low frequency that it could not be heard by the local seabirds, which could be seen perching contentedly on the horn as it blared its warning to passing vessels. Inside the light tower building was a small seismograph whose pen recorded date and time of each blast of the horn.
Regarding the circular construction at the summit of the island, some say it’s an old lighthouse but I was always led to believe that this was part of a chain of “warning towers,” on top of which a fire would be lit to indicate the approach of invading hordes from the south! Who knows.
In the book A short history of the Clyde Lighthouses Trust, the 1956 Cumbrae foghorn was described as, "Diaphone foghorn operated by compressed air, furnished by engines of 60HP, giving a signal of three 1½ second blasts and two 1½ second blasts alternately every 35 secs". The history relates the story of the Trust's decision to use a system invented by an American, the Daboll trumpet. Having been paid £600 he came over from New York and installed his equipment at Cumbrae, where it was said to have worked very well.
The following quotation describes the Daboll trumpet:
The Daboll trumpet was invented by Mr. C.L. Daboll, of Connecticut, who was experimenting to meet the announced wants of the United States Lighthouse Board. The largest consists of a huge trumpet seventeen feet long, with a throat three and one-half inches in diameter, and a flaring mouth thirty-eight inches across. In the trumpet is a resounding cavity, and a tongue-like steel reed ten inches long, two and three-quarter inches wide, one inch thick at its fixed end, and half that at its free end.
Air is condensed in a reservoir and driven through the trumpet by hot air or steam machinery at a pressure of from fifteen to twenty pounds, and is capable of making a shriek which can be heard at a great distance for a certain number of seconds each minute, by about one-quarter of the power expended in the case of the whistle. In all his experiments against and at right angles and at other angles to the wind, the trumpet stood first and the whistle came next in power.
In the trial of the relative power of various instruments made by Gen. Duane in 1874, the twelve-inch whistle was reported as exceeding the first-class Daboll trumpet. Beaseley reports that the trumpet has done good work at various British stations, making itself heard from five to ten miles. The engineer in charge of the lighthouses of Canada says: "The expense for repairs, and the frequent stoppages to make these repairs during the four years they continued in use, made them [the trumpets] expensive and unreliable. The frequent stoppages during foggy weather made them sources of danger instead of aids to navigation.
The sound of these trumpets has deteriorated during the last year or so." Gen. Duane, reporting as to his experiments in 1881, says: "The Daboll trumpet, operated by a caloric engine, should only be employed in exceptional cases, such as at stations where no water can be procured, and where from the proximity of other signals it may be necessary to vary the nature of the sound." Thus it would seem that the Daboll trumpet is an exceptionally fine instrument, producing a sound of great penetration and of sufficient power for ordinary practical use, but that to be kept going it requires skillful management and constant care.
Character: Fl W 6s 28m 14M
(fl. 0.5s - ec. 5.5s)
|Lat, Lon||55°43.214' N, 04°58.030' W|
|Character||Flashing White every 6 secs.|
|Range||25.9 km / 14 nM|
|Elevation||18 meters above sealevel|
|Authority||Northern Lighthouse Board|
|Remarks||Hexagonal cilindrical tower|
AXXXX (Old - Tower)
|Lat, Lon||55°43.265' N, 04°58.013' W|
|Range||?? km / ?? nM|
|Elevation||18 meters above sealevel|
|Status||Discontinued in 1997|
|Remarks||Traditional white round|
|Cat.B listed - nr: 852 - 14/04/1971|