Digest>Archives> April 2002

Skerryvore Lighthouse Refurbishing, 1954

By Stanley Tott


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Scotland’s Skerryvore Lighthouse is the tallest in Britain. Alan Stevenson, uncle of author Robert Louis Stevenson, designed it. It took 150 men seven years to build the tower. A fire gutted the lighthouse in 1954, and Stanley Tott was on the repair crew.

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I was an electrician with Thomas Justice of Dundee when they got the contract to do a complete re-wiring of Skerryvore, top to bottom literally! I was chosen as part of the crew.

There had been a fire in the lighthouse. It started in the kitchen and got out of hand. Due to the natural “chimney effect” of the tower, the fire spread quickly up through the other floors. When it reached the floor where all the detonators and charges for the fog alarms were kept, they exploded, adding to the devastation. Because of the strength of the granite blocks and the perfect construction, it was contained. The two keepers who were on duty were all right, but I was told they spent a very uncomfortable time until they were rescued. This was before helicopters were used.

Back to the story. On the lighthouse supply ship, stationed in Oban, our crew met up with two cabinet-makers from Glasgow. None of us had a clue what to expect as we set sail, until on the horizon appeared a tall gray needle. It stood on what could only be called a lump of rock, barely enough to accommodate the tower. It was approximately 60 miles west of the Scottish coast and 12 miles southwest of Tiree. As we sailed closer, we saw a larger area of rock, about the size of a football field!

As we prepared to disembark by means of a small boat, a crewmember said, “You lads are lucky. We’ll be able to take the boat into the Gully, otherwise you would have to ride the button.”

“Riding the button” consisted of sitting on a round wooden disk, the boat crew feeding the rope at one end and the derrick on shore cranking us in. The person on the button crossed his legs tight, hung on, and prayed, as he was cranked over the water to the landing. I’m sure in this day and age that it would be frowned upon as a safety violation.

We landed along with our equipment, tools, materials and supplies. The ship departed, leaving us in the care of the lighthouse keeper. He had to be on hand at all times while the trades were there. He tended the radio, maintained the light (changed mantles, cleaned lenses) started the generators, and gave us assistance if needed. But best of all, he cooked our meals. Meals were simple but wholesome and filling.

I should mention here that the bread was “double baked” which thickened the crust, to prevent it from going moldy too quickly. This meant a lot of chewing for us, painful for me because I had just had all my top teeth removed three days before this trip.

The chisels that we used to cut the granite blunted very quickly, and they had to be continually sharpened. I spoke to the keeper about this, wondering how the masons of the 1800’s had managed to work the stone. He said that he was told that when granite is first quarried, it is not as hard. It gets harder after being exposed to the air. There was an occasion when a hole had to be drilled through the wall to the outside, a thickness of about six feet long and 1-1/2 inches in diameter. A machine similar to a road-drill and powered by a petrol engine was used. The funny part about the cutting tip was that it was as sharp as the end of my thumb, but it went through that granite “lickety split” in about an hour. It was either carbide or diamond tipped.

While the refitting was in progress, the beacon-light operated automatically. It was driven (rotated) by acetylene gas, and then the gas traveled up to the mantles and was burned. The whole unit was controlled by a sun-valve. As soon as the sun either disappeared behind clouds or set in the evening, it started up. You could hear it away up at the top, going “click-click, click-click, just like a ratchet.

The tower was beautiful—it was very smooth and the taper was almost perfect. A sculptor would have been proud of it. Each layer was quarried and rafted over from Tiree, one course at a time.

The first 20-30 feet were solid layers. The walls of the entrance-room started at floor level being10-12 feet thick, then tapered all the way to the top floor to about four feet thick, widening out again for the balcony. The thickness of each floor between each room was about one foot. The blocks that made the floor were all dovetailed together and the center block or keystone locked them all together, like the keystone of an arch or bridge.

By the wall on each floor there was a hatch, with a ladder going through it for access. Each hatch was directly above or below the one on the next floor.

The exterior of the tower was so smooth it would have been almost possible to slide down it on your backside, but it was too steep.

Because the granite was so hard, before we got there a crew had sprayed the inside walls with “Gunnite,” a cement coating mixture, to a thickness of about two inches. We used an impact tool, which literally “shot” nails, making it simple to fix fittings to walls.

The electrical installation was split into two parts: 1. Roughing in — Installing wiring and fixing all the boxes (switch, plug and main trunking for all the cables, running from top to bottom of the tower). 2. Finishing — Connecting all switches, plugs, fixtures and the main panel in the generator room. Each stage took approximately three weeks.

Most rooms or floors were approximately 12 feet in diameter, gradually reducing in size toward the top. This meant that each cabinet the carpenters built had to be hand fitted to the circular walls.

We spent three weeks on site and five or six weeks off. In between the two visits another crew sprayed on insulation, about 2-1/2 inches thick, on the inside walls. I believe this was a mixture of asbestos fibers and gypsum. By today’s standards this would be a “no-no.” The insulation covered the cables and flushed off the boxes, trunking and wooden fixing straps. When we returned it was easy to mount all the fixtures.

After work, our leisure activities were reading, playing cards or board games. No alcohol was consumed. It was not allowed. We had enough trouble with arguments and some touches of moodiness. One bit of advice if anyone ever gets in a similar isolated scenario, never bring up the riddle: “Brothers and sisters have I none, but that man’s father is my father’s son.” That riddle was very volatile. We had some tense moments over it but that was the only time.

While I was on my first visit, my second son was born. I was informed by radio, but alas, no “drinks all round,” no cigars either. I had to wait until later to see him and celebrate.

We enjoyed watching seals play in one of the tidal pools on the rock, or going up into the light room or onto the balcony. On a clear sunny evening, you could watch the sun slowly sink below the horizon while it illuminated “Dhu-Heartach,” the lighthouse approximately 12 miles south. The peace and serenity felt was priceless.

Before I end this story, I would like to add my feelings about one stormy night when we were reminded about the Power of the Elements. When the waves pounded against the outside of the tower, we felt the vibrations quite strongly. The designers can feel proud of their creation. It has withstood the sea since 1844 (158 years ago), and I am sure it will withstand it for another 158 years. I have been told that the power of waves hitting the Skerryvore tower was six tons per square foot.

Three weeks on that rock seemed like an eternity, but the keepers spent two months on and one month ashore. I wasn’t long ashore before I began to feel the urge to go back again. People talk about the lure of the sea, and I am inclined to agree with them.

It is 44 years ago now, but I feel I was privileged to have had this experience. It would be nice to know what it is like now, unmanned!

This story appeared in the April 2002 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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