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Isle Of May, The Beacon

Lighthouse (17th Century)

Site Name Isle Of May, The Beacon

Classification Lighthouse (17th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Isle Of May, Old Lighthouse; Isle Of May I; May Island

Canmore ID 57875

Site Number NT69NE 3

NGR NT 65554 99386

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Fife
  • Parish Anstruther Wester
  • Former Region Fife
  • Former District North East Fife
  • Former County Fife

Archaeology Notes

NT69NE 3 65554 99386

Lighthouse [NR]

OS 1:10,000 map, 1976.

For successor and present lighthouse (NT 65500 99364), see NT69NE 8.

In 1636, the building of a lighthouse on the Isle of May was entrusted to James Maxwell of Innerwick, Alexander Cunningham of Barns and John Cunningham his son, who was feuar of the island (Reg Magni Sig Reg Scot 1634-51).

The lower half still stands on the summit of a rocky hillock immediately E of the modern lighthouse. It is a tower, 24' 5" square and 20' high. Originally it was 40' high with provision on the top for a fire of coals (R Sibbald 1803). The present roof and battlement date from 1886.

The entrance and only window face S. Above the entrance is part of a pediment with the date 1636. In a frieze on the fireplace in the N wall are the initials AC.


The first plans were made to erect a lighthouse on the May in 1630, being much discussed before a Patent was granted to John Cunningham of Barnes and Charles Geddes to erect and keep a light, and to collect tolls from passing ships. A manuscript held in the National Library of Scotland details some of the May dues from 1640 to 1642, and is an unusual surviving record.

The structure that Cunningham and Geddes built still survives, although much reduced in height, and is the oldest lighthouse in Britain, with the exceptions of the mid 18th century beacon on Copeland Island (near Belfast), one or two late 17th century towers, notably on North Foreland, Kent, and one or two doubtful Medieval structures. The May tower is 24ft [7.3m] square on plan, and has stone walls 4ft [1.2m] thick. When built, it measured about 40ft [12.2m] in height, and must have resembled a Border pele tower. It then had three floors, the middle one being of wood and set between the stone-vaulted roof and the vaulted ceiling of the ground-floor room. After the truncation, the interior was battened and plastered, in places as much as 8ins [203mm] from the inner face of the wall; this finish was continued up into a vault. The space above is now inaccessible, and it is not known whether the stone vault survives. The stone newel stair opposite the entrance formerly gave access to the upper floors and roof, but has been blocked.

The old studded oak door has been rehung, but all the other woodwork, including the window dates from the 19th century. Above the door, there is a richly-carved stone panel (now much eroded), and above this there is a corniche. The panel contains a crest so weathered as to defy identification, but which appears to resemble an escutcheon supported by hands with a sun or glory underneath, and the date 1636. This appears unconnected with the builders. By contrast, the fireplace set opposite the entrance is typical of the early 17th century, being decorated with conventional scroll- and strap-work. In the middle is a shake-fork, the emblem of the Cunninghams, and flanking this are the initials AC, presumably for Alexander, John's father.

The original stone roof was protected by a parapet, and would have provided ample room for the fire-grate, which was set on a low stone platform. It would be necessary to tend and rake the fire from any quarter, and a small stock of coals would have to be kept to hand. At first, fuel was carried up the newel stair, but in the 18th century a davit or hoist (powered by a horse on the ground) was installed. The efficiency of the light inevitably varied with the weather, and an enormous quantity of fuel was used. Up to 400 tons were consumed in a year, and up to 3 tons are said to have been burnt in a single night. Living condition for the keeper and his family were hard, and in 1791 the keeper, his wife and five of his six children were found suffocated.

Following this, efforts were made to improve the light, but enclosing the coal fire in a glass lantern proved ineffective. The wrecks of the frigates Nymphen [Nymphe: NT77NW 8006 and NT77NE 8008] and Pallas [NT77NW 8007] in 1810, apparently in consequence of the island light being confused with limekilns on shore caused the Admiralty to bring pressure to bear on the Duke of Portland (then the owner). In 1814, he was required by Act of Parliament to sell the island to the Northern Lighthouse Board for the not-inconsiderable sum of £60,000. Robert Stevenson replaced it by a new lighthouse (NT69NE 8), adjacent to the W; this was completed in 1816. At the instigation of Sir Walter Scott, it was decided to preserve the lowest floor of the old light, and 'to ruin it a la pittoresque'.

D [B] Hague 1965.

A 17th century lighthouse as described above.

Surveyed at 1/10 560.

Visited by OS (JM) 1 October 1975.

Name: Isle of May I (1636)

Location: N56 11 W2 33 Firth of Forth, 12 miles N of Dunbar

Designed and built: Alexander Cunningham

Description: square parapetted stone tower, with coal grate on roof

Height of tower: 40ft (12m)

Manning: watched, keepers in permanent residence

Scotland's first lighthouse. Poor efficiency of the coal grate led to lighthouse and island being purchased by Northern Lighthouse Board, and replaced by present tower (NT69NE 8)

C Nicholson 1995.


Construction (1636)

One of oldest lighthouses in Britain, replaced in 1816 by a new lighthouse built by Robert Stevenson.

D [B] Hague 1965

Field Visit (15 July 1931)

O1d Lighthouse, Isle of May.

In 1636 the building of a lighthouse on the island was entrusted to James Maxwell of Innerwick, Alexander Cunningham of Barnes, and John Cunningham his son, who was feuar of the island (1). From the initials given below it may be inferred that it was erected by Alexander Cunningham. The lower half of the structure still stands on the summit of the rocky hillock immediately east of the modern lighthouse. It is a tower, 24 feet 5 inches square, built of local rubble with freestone quoins and rising to a height of 20 feet. Originally it rose to 40 feet and provision was made on the top for a fire of coals (2), but the present roof and battlement date from 1886. The entrance and the only window face south, the former showing traces of a lugged and moulded architrave, the latter of margins with chamfered arrises. Above the entrance is a large moulded panel-space surmounted by a cornice, but the panel itself is missing and has been replaced by part of a pediment bearing a sun in glory and the date 1636, with which are also the two portions of an angle water-spout in the form of a lion supporting a shield. Internally, the tower contains a single barrel vaulted chamber, which is L-shaped on plan on account of a projection within the south-west corner forming a little lobby, into which the entrance opens, and from which a newel-stair rises to the upper part. The north wall of the chamber has a fireplace with plane jambs, a scrolled frieze, and a moulded cornice. In the middle of the frieze is a cartouche flanked by the initials A.C., and bearing: A shake-fork with a mullet between the prongs, for Cunningham.

RCAHMS 1933, visited 15 July 1931.

(1) Reg. Mag. Sig., s.a., No. 500, and 1644, No. 1575. (2) Sibbald's History of Fife, etc. (ed.1803), p.100

Field Visit (1 October 1975)

A 17th century lighthouse.

Surveyed at 1/10 560.

Visited by OS (JM) 1 October 1975.

Publication Account (1987)

The old lighthouse on the Isle of May was erected in 1636 as a direct response to a request by mariners on the understanding that they would have to pay a toll according to their tonnage. A Thomas Bikkertoun instigated the development in 1635, asking that the dues be similar to those charged by the English lights. The patent was granted to John Cunningham and Charles Geddes on the understanding that they would be allowed a reasonable and constant duty. This was set at four shillings Scots per ton for foreign vessels, including English, and two shillings per ton for Scottish ships. All ships entering Scottish waters between Dunnottar and St Abb's Head were subject to this tax.

This provided a substantial income in the 1630s. In 1790 the collections rose from £280 to £980. The fire was then burning 400 tons of coal per year and on a long windy night could use up to three tons. Mariners were no longer satisfied with the brightness of the light and discussions began as to its possible replacement.

This was the principal Scottish lighthouse in the 17th century and is today the most notable survival of this class of building anywhere in Britain. The original building took the form of a three-storey tower with a square plan. The ground floor and second floor were vaulted, the upper vault carrying a plinth on which the brazier stood. Coal was hoisted up the face of the building using a simple derrick.

Robert Stevenson built the replacement light in 1816 using the Bell Rock Yard at Arbroath as a base for his masons. The old lighthouse obscured the new light and Stevenson truncated the building, adding a pitched roof over the ground-floor vault. This was done on the intervention of Sir Walter Scott who persuaded Stevenson to 'ruin it a la picturesque' rather than demolish it completely.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Fife and Tayside’, (1987).

Project (2007)

This project was undertaken to input site information listed in 'Civil engineering heritage: Scotland - Lowlands and Borders' by R Paxton and J Shipway, 2007.

Publication Account (2007)

The Isle of May at the entrance to the Firth of Forth, about one mile long and one-third of a mile wide, for centuries resulted in the shipwrecks of many vessels plying to and from the Forth ports, a situation which led to the erection there of the first lighthouse in Scotland. It was privately financed and owned in the first instance by the Cunningham family of Barns in East Lothian, and later, by the Scotstarvit family.

Following the granting of a patent by Charles I, a masonry tower 40 ft high and about 25 ft square was erected in 1635. It was vaulted at the top to support a flat flagstone roof on which an iron chauffer was placed

containing a coal fire. ‘But its appearance was ever varying, now shooting up in high flames, again enveloped

in dense smoke, and never well seen when most required.’ The fire consumed up to 400 tons of coal per annum all of which had to be carried up 160 ft from the shore and then hoisted to the top of the tower...

This system operated until the erection of the present lighthouse in 1816, when it was intended to be demolished. But, following a plea by Sir Walter Scott to Robert Stevenson, when visiting the Isle in 1815, it was reprieved and ‘ruined a la picturesque’ to half its original height and castellated to serve as a refuge for fishermen and pilots of the Forth.

The original coal-fired light was replaced in 1816 by the present architecturally imposing lighthouse (NT69NE 8.00 ) reminiscent of a small castle.

R Paxton and J Shipway 2007

Reproduced from 'Civil Engineering heritage: Scotland - Lowlands and Borders' with kind permission from Thomas Telford Publishers.


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