Bright light in history

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Scotland's oldest lighthouse continues to be a fascinating beacon, reports Judy Mackie

Ask any school pupils around the north-east coast of Scotland where they would like to go for activities week and the answer is very likely to be: "To the lighthouse!" The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses at Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh, is one of the area's most popular venues.

As a showcase for the history and science of the Northern Lighthouse Board's activities in Scotland, it features a purpose-built photographic gallery and atmospheric exhibition areas. It puts lighthouse-keeping in context as part of a vital national network dedicated to maritime safety.

Its accessibility and unique position as part of a 16th-century castle adds to its glamour, presenting a wealth of learning opportunities. These are delivered well by the guides.

Fordyce Primary in Portsoy has returned to the Lighthouse en masse with great anticipation. Some of the older boys and girls among its 31 pupils are visiting for the second time and regale the younger ones with tales of climbing right to the top.

They are met in the windswept courtyard by uniformed guides, Lawrence and Chris, who lead them across to the Lighthouse Keeper's House.

"This is a peachy lighthouse, compared to all the others," he says. "It's right in the middle of the town, so the keepers were very much part of the community."

Outside, a scene-setter informs everyone the original Kinnaird Head light, 17 oil lamps backed by reflectors, which could be seen 24 miles out to sea, was built in 1787 on top of the former castle residence of an influential local businessman by the name of Fraser.

After 50 years, the threat of collapse led to the present 120-foot lighthouse being cleverly constructed within the castle walls, thanks to the timely intervention of Sir Walter Scott and the architect Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Next comes the much-anticipated 85-step climb up the spiral stone staircase to the light. This takes place in stages, with visits o the lighthouse's two main rooms. The first, the former castle hall, is filled with nautical and domestic artefacts. The walls are festooned with old charts, certificates and black-and-white photographs of lighthouses around Scotland; an array of keepers' tools and evidence of their hobbies of carving and knitting. Lawrence is bombarded by questions about the tallest lighthouse in Scotland (Skerryvore, at 144 feet), the oldest lighthouse (Kinnaird Head) and how high the waves rise (they have been known to come right over the top).

Another flight up, the occasional keeper's room is decorated with Fifties-style furnishings.

Still higher, everyone ventures out on to the viewing platform, braving the wind and occasional spray from the North Sea. The top is accessed via a ladder and a hand-up from above and below.

The light room is a dazzling space of polished reflectors and gleaming brass. The bulb itself is quite small but casts a beam reaching 10 miles.

Lawrence opens a hatch and everyone files out on to the narrow walkway. Most of the children circle around several times.

Back on the ground, there is time to visit the imaginatively-lit exhibition of rainbow-reflecting optics preserved from lighthouses throughout Scotland and lively audio-visual displays of local and national lighthouse history.

"The museum is always an interesting experience. You'd really need to spend the day here if you wanted to cover everything," advises Fordyce headteacher Sheila Smith.

The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh AB43 9DU.

Tel:01346 511022, fax: 01346 511033, e-mail:

Open 10am-6pm Mondays-Saturdays and 12-6pm Sundays April 1-October 31; 10am-4pm Mondays-Saturdays, 12-4pm Sundays November-March.

School parties 50p a child, accompanying adults free.

A schools' activity box, available on free loan, includes an authentic keeper's uniform, flag, video, minor light lens, pictures, fact files and books.

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