Digest>Archives> March 2008

Wee Cumbrae Memories

By Peter McLean


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A recent view of the lighthouse at Little Cumbrae.
Photo by: John Hill

Little Cumbrae (also known as Lesser Cumbrae or Wee Cumbrae) is a small island at the east side of the entrance to the Firth of Clyde, on the west coast of Scotland. The island’s 1793 stone lighthouse still stands. A modern automated light went into service in 1997, and the old buildings have deteriorated. The September 2005 issue of Lighthouse Digest included an article by Robina McLaren, whose father was one of the keepers at the station in the early 1960s. After finding the page for Scotland’s Little Cumbrae Lighthouse on the Lighthouse Explorer Database www.lhdepot.com/database/searchdatabase.cfm), Peter McLean wrote us the letter below.

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According to Peter McLean: “Mr. McQueen, on the ...

The photograph displayed on your website is, indeed, a sad one. I spent many happy holidays on the Wee Cumbrae and knew all the lighthouse keepers well.

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Peter McLean explains: “This is the Keep, which ...

By tradition, the New Year was welcomed in at the Principal Keeper’s house. As midnight was striking, all the youngsters at the party would race along the corridor connecting the house to the light tower, to see who would be first to sign the visitors’ book for the New Year. I well remember having that honour at the start of either 1950 or 1951. I often wonder if the visitors’ book is still in existence.

The light and its attendant mechanism were a joy to behold. Illumination was provided by a single gas mantle, the light being magnified by a series of beautifully polished prisms. The whole prism arrangement weighed about two tons and floated on a circular bath of mercury, all so well balanced that it could be moved by one finger. When in operation, the prisms rotated by means of a clockwork mechanism, whose weights had to be wound up at regular intervals.

Each light on the Clyde was identifiable by its flashing sequence. The light did not flash as such; the mainland-facing portion of the tower had its windows blanked, the light being shown toward the Firth of Clyde.

Outside, again facing towards the main shipping channel, was an enormous foghorn (probably operated by compressed air), whose note was of such a low frequency that it could not be heard by the local seabirds, which could be seen perching contentedly on the horn as it blared its warning to passing vessels. Inside the light tower building was a small seismograph whose pen recorded date and time of each blast of the horn.

Regarding the circular construction at the summit of the island, some say it’s an old lighthouse but I was always led to believe that this was part of a chain of “warning towers,” on top of which a fire would be lit to indicate the approach of invading hordes from the south! Who knows.

The keep on the little island (accesible at low tide) in front of the “Big House” was in an excellent state of repair in my day. I think the name of this little island is Whale Island, probably due to its hump-backed appearance at high tide.

I have enjoyed writing these few notes and trust that they

may be of interest to someone somewhere. I have visited Millport many times in the years between “then”and now but have never managed at trip back over to the Wee Cumbrae. I now live in Venezuela.

This story appeared in the March 2008 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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