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29 July 2021

New book shines a spotlight on Scotland’s iconic lighthouses

The fascinating history of Scotland’s lighthouses is revealed through the stories and voices of their keepers in a new book published today (Thursday 29 July).

A person standing in front of a historic lighthouse

For the Safety of All by Donald S Murray is available online and in bookstores today (Thursday 29 July).

For the Safety of All, written by award-winning Scottish author Donald S Murray and published in partnership by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) and the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB), brings to life previously untold stories of former keepers and historic plans and drawings from NLB which have been published for the first time.

Amongst the untold stories and first-hand accounts by former keepers and their family members is one tale told by a retired fisherman from Shetland who recounted the story of when his aunt, Mary Anderson, became a local casualty of the Second World War after a German bomb was dropped in the vicinity of the Out Skerries Lighthouse on Shetland.

Another first-hand account came from a former keeper of the Pentland Skerries Lighthouse who, for the first time, recalled rescuing survivors from an East German cargo ship carrying sugar from Cuba in 1965. Later reports from a local fisherman suggested that the cargo was in fact hiding nuclear weapons amongst the sugar.

Readers can also discover how nearly £300,000 worth of goods washed ashore on the west coast of Scotland in 1866, as well as the dramatic rescue efforts of keepers including an incident during a storm at Skerryvore Lighthouse in Shetland in 1978. In order to facilitate the rescue of a helicopter pilot and injured keeper, a former keeper who was on site tells the story of his colleague creating a makeshift cradle out of rope so that the damaged helicopter could be airlifted to safety.

Delving into the history of the beacons that mark Scotland’s dramatic coastlines, the book touches on the construction of Scotland’s first lighthouse which was built on the Isle of May in 1636, as well as the important role played by those stationed at Scotland’s lighthouses during the Second World War.

This includes the radar team at Sumburgh Head Lighthouse helping to prevent the destruction of the British Home Fleet in Scapa Flow, as well as a keeper rescuing a survivor from a German U-boat which had been blown up by hauling them by rope from the foot of a cliff.

Readers can also find out about some of the country’s most renowned lighthouses and the contribution made by the Stevenson family. This includes Bell Rock Lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson between 1807 and 1810, which is the world’s oldest working sea-washed lighthouse, as well as Kinnaird Head Lighthouse and Museum of Scottish Lighthouses where generations of Stevenson family members made alterations and improvements to the lighthouse between 1824 and 1902.

Growing up under the gleam of the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse, and now living in Shetland, author Donald S Murray describes lighthouses as being a ‘sacred place’ for him. Reflecting in the book, Donald says: “This book is a reminder of those members of the Stevenson family who did so much to ensure the construction of these towers on islands, peninsulas and the coastline’s edge in both Scotland and the Isle of Man – many of which still stand today… but mainly, this book is a love-letter to lighthouses, a paean of praise to their fidelity and continual presence in my life.”

Published as part of the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020-21, For the Safety of All beautifully showcases original drawings and descriptions of daring construction methods and the frequent and dramatic setbacks. Many images featured in the book were discovered in the HES archives, having never been published before. Around 150 lighthouses in Scotland are designated as listed buildings, with many listed at category A for their special architectural or historic interest.

For the Safety of All is now available to buy online and in all good bookstores. RRP £25. 

About Donald S Murray:

Donald S Murray is the author of non-fiction, fiction and poetry, with a particular focus on Scotland’s islands. His books include the acclaimed As the Women Lay Dreaming, The Dark Stuff: Stories from the Peatlands and The Guga Hunters. His work has received widespread critical acclaim and has been shortlisted for both a Saltire Society First Book Award and the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award. Donald was awarded the Jessie Kesson Fellowship in 2013, and received the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, an annual award which allows Scottish writers to enjoy a month-long residency in France, in 2012. In 2020, Donald was awarded the Paul Torday Memorial Prize for As the Women Lay Dreaming.

About the previously unpublished NLB plans and drawings:

The NLB collection comprises over two thousand drawings of lighthouses, fog signals and keepers’ accommodation administered by the Board range in date from c.1800 to the early 20th century. The collection, which includes drawings of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, has been deposited into the HES Archives and will soon be available to view online via Canmore.

About the Northern Lighthouse Board:

  • The Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) is the General Lighthouse Authority (GLA) for the waters surrounding Scotland and the Isle of Man and is responsible for the superintendence and management of all lights, buoys and beacons within this area. NLB has provided this essential safety service to mariners for over 200 years.
  • Their service makes a significant contribution to the prevention of accidents and incidents around the coastline, safeguarding not only lives and property, but also protecting the marine environment which is crucial to the economy of Scotland and the Isle of Man.
  • NLB currently operates: 207 lighthouses, 167 Buoys, 23 Beacons, 47 AIS (Automatic Identification System) Stations, 4 DGPS Stations and 29 Racons.
  • As well as their Edinburgh headquarters, NLB also has a base in Oban, technicians based in Inverness, Shetland and Orkney and two ships. The ships, NLV PHAROS and NLV POLE STAR carry out buoy work, deliver stores and supplies to lighthouses and inspect navigation aids on oil and gas rigs in the Scottish sector. PHAROS also carries out helicopter operations, hydrographic surveying and wreck finding.
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About Historic Environment Scotland (HES) 

  • We are the lead public body charged with caring for, protecting and promoting the historic environment. We will lead on delivering Scotland’s first strategy for the historic environment, Our Place in Time.
  • Historic Scotland, Scran, Canmore, The National Collection of Aerial Photography (NCAP), The Engine Shed, Stirling Castle and Edinburgh Castle are sub-brands of HES.
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Twitter: @HistEnvScot | @welovehistory

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For further information, please contact:

Stacey Dent
Historic Environment Scotland Media Office
Mobile: 07221 959 962