Guiding sailors to safety for over 150 years – The history of Arnish Lighthouse

According to the records, Arnish Light came into being in 1852, earning its place in the Northern Lighthouse Board’s history as their first ever prefabricated tower.

Arnish Lighthouse

Arnish Lighthouse

The site at Arnish presented the board with some difficulty, for, positioned a fair distance from Stornoway over rough moorland and many miles from the Scottish mainland, it was difficult to find a contractor willing to take on the task of its construction. Four tenders were eventually submitted for an iron tower, ranging from £235 to £420 and only one tender could be found for a masonry tower at a cost of £513.

The design and construction was put in the capable hands of Alan Stevenson, a member of the extraordinary Stevenson engineering dynasty which also produced the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. An iron tower was favoured and the result was a pillar of iron plates fixed together and lined with wood. The lantern, however, was not lined and it was reported to be very cold in winter.

The facility at Arnish was also unique in another way. For some time, the Stevensons had been working on an ‘apparent light’, a new method of lighting pierheads and sunken rocks. At that time, many hazards were marked by beacons which were, in effect, seamarks with neither warning light nor sound. The Stevensons had discovered that glass prisms placed in the beacon and lit by a beam projected from a neighbouring shore, would produce a light that appeared to emit from the beacon itself.

This new idea was tried out on the rock shelf off Arnish Point and was thus described by the Stornoway fishermen: ‘… The deception is so perfect that we cannot believe a light is not there’. The beacon was first ‘lit’ when the main Arnish light was shown in 1852 and remained in use for fifty years.

Arnish soon became an important focal point for maritime travellers. The ‘Sailing Directions’ for the east coast of Lewis, dated 1867 describe a ‘ lighthouse, painted white, stands on the eastern horn of Arnish Point, on the western side of the entrance to the harbour; and from an elevation of 56 feet above high water is exhibited a revolving white light, which attains its greatest brilliancy every half minute. The light should be seen in clear weather from a distance of 12 miles’. The document goes on to note, ‘From the Lighthouse a lodge or rock dries out at low water N.E. nearly a cable, on the south-east point of which is a black conical beacon 32 feet high, surmounted by a prism, which reflects a light from a window in the lower part of the tower. This reflected light, in appearance, resembles a star of the first magnitude, and shows from seaward between bearings N. by W. and W. by N.’

There is some confusion regarding the dates relating to Arnish. The year 1852 is given for the first appearance of Arnish light. However, on an Admiralty chart of Stornoway Harbour dated 1846, a small sketch of the ‘Light on Arnish Point’ shows the iron-framed tower. The discrepancy might well have arisen as a result of several years of trials and experimentation before Arnish Point was registered as an official light with the Northern Lighthouse Board.

The building was manned until 1963 when the keeper was replaced by an automatic light, but the beacon continued until 1971 when it was destroyed by a gale and replaced by a buoy.

Frank G Thompson