Section Index
Bicentennial - 2011
Visiting the Rock
Underwater Life
at the Bell Rock

"Inchcape Rock" by Robert Southey
Light-keeper's Duties "1823"
The Bell Rock Prayer
Sir Joseph Banks and Mutiny on the Bounty
Sir Walter Scott's visit, the "Pharos Loquitur"
"The Year without a Summer"
"Death of HMS Argyll"
Pharos Experience
Preparing for Automation
Life in the Bell Rock
Lighthouse (1865)

A Keeper's Account
'"A Quiet Night In"

A Keeper's Account
"Outdoor 'Excursions'"

North Carr Lightships
Lighthouses of the Forth
The Bell Rock Tartan

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"

North Carr Lightships

The old beacon of 1821 - "an imperfect landmark"

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 1887.

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 finally resolved."

The first North Carr lightship

The first North Carr lightship
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 appointed Master.

The second North Carr lightship

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 North Carr lightship
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 second lightship

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 North Carr lightship

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 three years.

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 last North Carr lightship
The third North Carr lightship on station

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 long-overdue restoration.

© Peter J Clarke (Marine Photography)
The North Carr lightship (1933-75) was the only manned lightvessel in the
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"


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