For much of the information below I am indebted to the
Northern Lighthouse Board, and their
website should be consulted for a fuller account of the
lightships stationed there since 1887. Also to Paula Martin:
"North Carr Lightship - A Maritime Experience"
A beacon without sound or light, as Stevenson put it,
was considered to be a rather "imperfect landmark"
- although it served its purpose (at least to a degree)
until the first wooden lightvessel was stationed there in
The problems of securing safe passage for shipping in and
around Fife Ness and the North Carr has long been a problem
for the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners. Even as late
as 1979, Munro remarked that "the problem of lighting
the mouth of the Forth to the best advantage was still not
First wooden lightship
at North Carr
The first lightship to be stationed off the North Carr
rock was timber-built with copper fastenings. She came on
loan from Trinity House, and was brought north by tug from
Blackwell, near London. She measured about 100 ft long and
just over 21 feet across the beam, and went on station on
7th June 1887. Her position was given about 1 mile off the
North Carr beacon, and was stationed in 22 fathoms of water.
In consequence there was no longer any need for the Low
Light on the Isle of May 7 miles distant, so that light
was permanently discontinued.
The light, designed by the Stevensons, was 8 feet in diameter
and was made up of 8 independent lamps, mounted on gimbals,
and used the vegetable-based oil, colza, as illuminant.
It was fixed white and visible about 11 miles. Two 6 horse
power beam engines powered the fog horn.
The crew consisted of master, mate and nine seamen, of
whom one officer and six seamen were always on board. It
was a condition of their employment that the officers and
crew resided in Crail, and when ashore to occupy themselves
in a store, which had been built there for coke, provisions
etc (the coke which was delivered to Crail Store at 27s
(£1 35p) per ton was required to drive fog signal
machinery on the Lightvessel). The officer and three crew
members ashore were also required to man the Attending Boat,
which sailed weekly for the Isle of May and fortnightly
to the North Carr.
Mr John Kirkpatrick (boatswain, "Pharos") was
Two years later the Trinity House vessel was replaced by
one purpose built for the Northern Lighthouse Board by Alex
Stephen & Son of Dundee. This firm was chosen because
of their experience in building strong wooden ships for
the whaling industry.
The second vessel
- also wooden
According to the "East of Fife Record"
of 5th April 1889: "The new lightship is 104 feet
in length, 23 feet 8 inches in breadth and 11 1/2 feet depth.
She has been built exceptionally strong much beyond the
highest class of Lloyd's for such a class of ship; and indeed
it may be said that she is fortified equal to any of the
Dundee whaling fleet. Her frames are of oak and her planking
of teak, with the exception of the bottom planks, which
are of English elm, while the fastenings are all of pure
copper." The hull was sheathed in copper for protection
from shipworm. The lantern and its mechanism weighed 4 tons.
There was accommodation in the forecastle for a crew of
6 "and the captain's cabin is fitted up in superior
style. Two extra berths are provided in the cabin, because
it may happen when the eingineers or others are visiting
the vessel that the uprising of a gale might prevent them
being landed for some time." She was launched in
Dundee on 2nd April 1889, and then moved to Hawthorne's
of Leith for fitting out with machinery. She was towed out
to the North Carr rocks on 27th July.
The crew of the
Although the vessel was fitted with lights, David A. Stevenson.
when replying to a complaint in 1895 about the difficulty
of distinguishing the plain white light commented: "The
North Carr vessel is essentially a fog signal ship, not
a light vessel, the light being more for preventing the
vessel itself from being run into."
The wooden vessel (sold subsequently to Mr H Hinks, Appledore,
North Devon for £275) was replaced on 3 April 1933.
The third and final North Carr lightship was built in Glasgow
by A. & J. Inglis at a cost of £15,430. Her vital
statistics: Length 101 ft, beam 25 ft and gross tonnage,
250. She is built of metal and needed overhauling every
This lightvessel had no motive power of her own, so had
to be towed whenever she was required to move. This meant,
of course, more space available for the generators and other
installations necessary to do her job.
Up on the deck, the dominating feature was the lighthouse
tower, surmounted by a lightning conductor 40 feet above
the sea. At one time a fixed white beacon was shown. But
latterly, from sunset to sunrise, the signal was changed
to two flashes in quick succession every half minute - a
beam of half a million candlepower visible for over ten
miles. The source is a 1,000 watt electric bulb, magnified
by the usual prismatic lenses which are rotated around it
by a small electric motor.
The third North Carr lightship on
The lightship crew consisted of eleven men:- 1 senior master,
1 assistant master, 3 senior enginemen, 3 assistant enginemen
and 3 seamen, of whom 1 master, 2 senior enginemen, 2 assistant
enginemen and 2 seamen were on board at the one time. The
two masters spent alternatively two weeks afloat and two
weeks ashore and the other members of the crew spent, in
rotation, a month afloat with two weeks ashore.
During the Second World War (1939-45), when all lights
were extinguished except when needed by the navy, the North
Carr lightship was moved to a station between the Mull of
Kintyre and the Mull of Galloway, helping to mark the entrance
to the Clyde.
In December 1959 the coast of Scotland was battered by
one of the worst gales for years. On the 8th the Lightship
broke adrift from her moorings and the Broughty Ferry Lifeboat,
Mona, which went to her assistance, capsized and was lost
with all hands. The Lightship managed to anchor about 900
yards off the rocky shore at Kingsbarns, near St Andrews
and the crew was taken off by two Bristol Sycamore helicopters
from Leuchars on 9 December, after an attempt to tow the
Lightship had failed.
The rescue was made in extremely adverse conditions. A
full gale was blowing and the Lightship was rolling and
pitching heavily. To assist in the rescue operations the
crew cut away the 40ft aftermast, which allowed the helicopters
to fly as low as 5ft above the lantern and pick up members
of the crew from the chart house roof. The Lightvessel was
eventually taken in tow by the Admiralty tug "Earner"
on 11 December, repaired at Leith and put back on station
on 16 March 1960.
In 1975 the Fife Ness station was built and the lightvessel
was replaced by a lighted buoy. The old beacon of 1821
still continues and can still be seen to mark the highest
part of the North Carr reef.
The lightwessel was eventually acquired by the then North
East Fife District Council and for a time became a floating
museum at Anstruther. It now lies in Dundee Harbour awaiting
© Peter J Clarke (Marine Photography)
The North Carr lightship (1933-75) was the only manned lightvessel
Northern Lighthouse service.
Seen above in Dundee awaiting restoration
For information on Robert Stevenson's efforts
to build a stone beacon on the North Carr rocks in the early
19th century, see "Stevenson
v. North Carr"