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Volume 41, Number 5September/October 1990

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Scotland's Egyptian Lights

Written by John Lawton
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale
Additional photographs by Keith Hobbs

"For sale," said the real-estate agent's notice, "two handsome Egyptian-style lighthouse-keepers' cottages" at Noss Head.

Agent's exaggeration or designer's folly? It must be one or the other, I thought as I set off for Scotland to investigate. But I had reckoned without the seventh wonder of the ancient world.

Noss Head is just south of John o'Groat's, the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland. This was the region early geographers called Ultima Thule -the northernmost place in the inhabited world. Even today it has that hollow, "world's-end" feeling.

It was six o'clock on a Saturday night, but hardly a soul stirred as I drove through the grey-granite town of Wick, across its deserted, one-plane-a-day airport runway, and on to a featureless, heather-covered headland at the southern end of Sinclair's Bay.

Dusk was gathering and a cold wind whistled eerily through the ghostly ruins of Castle Sinclair. But for once a real estate agent had not exaggerated. There, beside the lighthouse on the very edge of the cliff, stood a low, oblong building that did indeed look as if it had been transplanted from the banks of the Nile: Its facade was the series of four pylon-shaped structures typical of ancient Egyptian architecture.

And, incongruous as it looked on this wild Scottish headland, it was no mere designer's folly, but, as I learned later, a direct result of the broad influence of the Lighthouse of Alexandria on the men who have built and kept lighthouses throughout the ages.

Furthermore, besides Noss Head, three other 19th-century Scottish lighthouses have classical Egyptian features: the beacon at Cromarty, on the Black Isle; and the keepers' cottages at Eilean Glas, on the island of Scalpay in the Outer Hebrides, and at Ardnamuchan, the most westerly point on the Scottish mainland.

Not only lighthouse architecture was influenced by the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the last of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The study of lighthouses, for example, is called "pharology" in English, after the small island of Pharos, off Alexandria, on which the ancient lighthouse was built and from which it took its name.

Similarly, the word for lighthouse in French is phare and in Italian faro, while six ships called Pharos have served as lightships, tenders and, now, as flagship in the gallant little fleet which has supplied Scotland's island lighthouses for the past 200 years.

The first Pharos was a captured Prussian fishing vessel adapted as a floating lightship off notorious Bell Rock, after 70 ships were lost in a storm which lashed Scotland's east coast in 1799.

The lightship was replaced at the beginning of the 19th century by a lighthouse built by workmen who scrambled onto Bell Rock each time it appeared at low tide. And it was during a visit to the lighthouse in 1812 that the novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott wrote in the visitors' book his 'Pharos' Loquitur:

Far in the bosom of the deep

O'er these wild shelves my watch I keep;

A ruddy gem of changeful light,

Bound on the dusky brow of Night,

The seaman bids my lustre hail,

And scorns to strike his timorous sail.

A monument to the ingenuity and perseverance of the men who built it, Bell Rock lighthouse was a milestone in the history of lighthouse construction, just as was its predecessor of 2200 years on Egypt's Pharos Island.

Built in 279 BC by Sostratus of Chidus for Ptolemy II, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the greatest esthetic and technical achievements of the ancient world.

It was over 120 meters (400 feet) high and built in three stories, each of a different geometrical form. The bottom story, which stood in a courtyard surrounded by colonnades, was square in plan, the second story octagonal, with a spiral ramp to the third story, which was cylindrical.

The Pharos was surmounted by a huge lantern - although no one knows exactly what the technology of the lighting arrangements was - and atop the lantern stood a statue of Poseidon, god of the sea. The bottom story contained 300 rooms, which housed the workmen and technicians who attended and maintained the light.

The great lighthouse was also said to contain a mirror that reflected ships at sea that were still invisible to the naked eye.

Legend went much further. In The Romance of Alexander the Great, probably written in the second century, the last pharaoh, Nectanabos, uses the mirror both to see the arrival of an enemy fleet and, by focusing the sun's rays, to destroy it.

Unlike some of the ancient wonders, parts of the Lighthouse of Alexandria survived into modern times. It disappeared in stages. Muslim historians say the mirror and third story were destroyed by the Umayyad caliph al-Walid - who was tricked into doing so by a Byzantine spy, so that the Pharos could not be used against the Byzantine fleet - but the rest survived much longer.

The Muslim rulers of Egypt attempted on several occasions to restore the'Pharos, but about the year 1100 the second story fell to the ground. It was, nevertheless, still an imposing structure. Some 90 years later, for example, the Andalusian traveler Ibn Jubair saw it and wrote:

It can be seen for [110 kilometers, or 70 miles]

around and is most strongly built in all

directions. We measured one of the four sides

and found it more than 50 arm's lengths. It is

said that in height it is more than 150 heights of

a man. Its interior is awe-inspiring.

In the next century and a half, however, it began to crumble. The Arab traveler Ibn Battuta visited the Pharos in 1349 and found it so ruinous he was unable to enter.

Finally, in 1480, the Mamluk ruler Qa'it Bay constructed a fort on the site of the Pharos, and used bits of it in the walls. The seventh wonder of the world was no more.

The first Scottish lighthouse was not built until the late 18th century - despite the dangers to seafarers of the North Sea. Scotland's coast is mostly abrupt cliffs buffeted by fierce ocean storms, with the shore a jumble of rocks often hidden at high tide. Scattered in the sea around are almost 800 islands, many merely vicious little points marking the summits of submerged reefs.

The Scots - a hardy mix of Celt and Viking - had a special relationship with the sea; it was their only route to the world beyond. As early as the 13th century, Scottish merchants were trading wool and hides with the Channel ports of the Netherlands, Belgium and France, and by the 15th century had a lively commerce with Liibeck and Danzig on the Baltic, mainly in salted fish.

But to guide them home, the only help these early mariners could hope for was the flickering light of an occasional beacon. Tenth-century monks, for example, are said to have kept one burning on the Isle of May to guide sea pilgrims to the shrines of St. Andrew. Starting in the 12th century the processing of coastal salt in great iron pans over coal fires, which burned day and night along the Forth estuary and the Angus coast, provided some guidance.

There were, however, few purpose-built aids to navigation: Even by the late 18th century there were only three primitive coal-fired shipping beacons on the entire Scottish coast.

But suddenly things changed. By the 1830's there were as many as 90 lighthouses, all built by one remarkable family of engineers: the Stevensons of Edinburgh. Over five generations, these men at last made Scotland's waters safe.

Almost all Stevensons - even Robert Louis Stevenson, the writer - trained for civil engineering from boyhood, and eight Stevensons became designers, engineers and supervisors for the Northern Lighthouse Board.

Sometimes their work took them further afield. At various times they were also employed by the lighthouse services of New Zealand, Newfoundland, India and Australia. They also designed the first lighthouses and keepers' dwellings for Japan, and the first fog signals in China.

In fact, so many inventions in the advancement of lighthouses were produced by the Stevensons, says the family biographer, Craig Mair, that "there is hardly a light anywhere in the world which does not incorporate some aspect of their work, and there cannot be a sailor anywhere who does not owe a debt of gratitude to these eight indomitable men."

Of all the Stevensons, says Mair, it was Alan, Robert Louis Stevenson's uncle, who was the most unusual engineer. His lighthouse work, most of it completed during the 1830's and 1840's, won him medals from the kings of Holland and Prussia and a splendid diamond ring from Czar Nicholas of Russia. He also had an extraordinary interest in literature - he knew Homer by heart and read Aristophanes in Greek - and for a scientific man had an unusual regard for esthetics too. Of his clan, says Mair, Alan had by far the most sensitive approach to architecture, and traces of his literary and classical tastes can be seen in the shapes of his lighthouses.

It was Alan Stevenson who designed the Egyptian-style lighthouse-keepers' dwellings that now dot Scotland's edge, and which, with the automation of the beacons themselves, are being sold as what the advertisements call "des. res." - desirable residences. "It's like selling off the family silver," laments Alan Perkins, administrative officer of the Northern Lighthouse Board.

Certainly Robert Stevenson, the first of the lighthouse builders, would not have approved. In his diaries, he made frequent references to the undesirability of private ownership and management of lighthouse properties.

And he may yet have the last word. Since they were sold by secret tender to the highest bidder, the Egyptian-style keepers' cottages at Noss Head have remained empty and are becoming dilapidated - just as did the seventh wonder of the ancient world which inspired their design.

Aramco World contributing editor John Lawton considered buying one of the Scottish-Egyptian des. res., but decided instead on a cottage home in Devon.

This article appeared on pages 12-23 of the September/October 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1990 images.