Drive to the Northeast Corner of Aberdeenshire in the bustling fishing port of Fraserburgh and you’ll find Kinnaird Head Lighthouse – the very first lighthouse on mainland Scotland and built in 1787. It’s quite unique because it is built inside Kinnaird head Castle!
Next door the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is conveniently located as well!
The museum tells the very interesting story about the Northern Lighthouse Board, the engineers who built the lights and the brave keepers who tended them.
It is a story of skill, courage, technical genius and brilliant organization.
After paying our nominal entrance fee, we toured the fascinating museum while we waited for the next guided tour in the Kinnaird Lighthouse outside behind the museum. It was quite fascinating and very well laid out with excellent signage and a vast array of lens, equipment, history and stories; everything you ever wanted to know about lighthouses and then some.
After walking through the doors, a huge display of beautiful and intriguing lighthouse lenses from historic lighthouses grabbed our attention on the first floor.
The map of Scotland (above left) shows the locations of all of the lighthouses around the country. (And…the map also looks like another great road trip in Scotland to see how many of them I can find! Yet another reason to return! Like I really need one!) Above right shows how each of the lenses sat on top of a clock mechanism which kept them rotating.
Some of the lenses on display were absolutely enormous and quite beautiful in their own right. I enjoyed looking through their prism glass faces.
After that mesmerizing display, we walked up the ramp to the next level passing many pictures along the wall on either side of the ramp beginning to tell the story of the brave Lighthouse Keepers and their families as we progressed.
The second level was all about the engineers from the Stevenson family who designed and built the lighthouses. Quite incredible and a very dedicated bunch of clever men in that family I must say.
Lindsay and I had a bit of fun with the parabolic mirrors on display.
There were many items on display to look at; models of actual lighthouses, lamps, and a great bird’s eye view of the lens displays below on the first floor.
Then we headed further up the ramp to the final level of the museum to learn more about the Lightkeepers and the supply boats that used to keep them stocked with provisions at various remote locations of the lighthouses.
More fun with the mirrors… and how they reflected images depending on how close or far you stood in front of it.
Before the introduction of radio, flag signals were the only means for keepers on rock and island stations to communicate with tenders. This guide was developed to include signals specific to the needs of lighthouses.
Then we saw displays regarding the Tenders; ships that brought supplies to the lighthouses.
After touring the museum, there was a lovely tea room just through a door on the upper level. We enjoyed a nice lunch before meeting up with our tour guide for the lighthouse. I had cream of mushroom soup while Lindsays enjoyed a jacket potato with ham.
As we worked our way to the first stop of the tour, we passed the Buoy Park and fishing net drying area with all of its 6 x 6 posts sticking up out of the ground that nets would get spread out over to dry.
Our guide began telling us all about the lighthouse, its history, about the now defunct fog horn and the built-for-purpose signal light which eventually replaced the old lighthouse in 1991.
As we entered the lighthouse buildings, the first one of the left was the old engine room that pumped air into two red pressurized tanks outside which supplied the fog horn on the cliff the air it needed for blasting warnings.
Kinnaird Castle, also known as Fraserburgh Castle and Kinnairdshead Castle, was begun in March 1570. The builder was Sir Alexander Fraser, 8th Laird of Philorth, (c.1536–1623), who also transformed the fishing village of Faithlie into the town of Fraserburgh in the 1590s.
In 1787 it was leased to the Trustees of the Northern lights, who turned it into Kinnaird Head Lighthouse. They kept the old tower portion of the castle and built a lighthouse inside of it. That’s ingenious! Designed by Thomas Smith, the lamp was first lit on 1 December. The structure was replaced by a new ‘purpose-built’ lighthouse in 1991.
When you enter the front door of the castle, you are standing inside the lighthouse on the ground floor. As you climb the spiralling staircase, there is a room on the first floor off to the left which used to serve as the Grand Hall of the castle. When the lighthouse was built, this room served as the storage room for paraffin tanks, tools, etc. for the lightkeepers.
They also used this lighthouse as a training centre for lightkeepers of other lighthouses elsewhere and it was in this room that the training sessions were taught on how to fix anything that might need fixing out on a rock island.
Further up the spiral staircase, another room appeared; it was the “Occasional Keepers Quarters.” Occasional Keepers were people who gave the regular keeper a day off for holiday or sick leave. They had their own little apartment to use and a place to keep supplies in while on duty and the way we see it today is basically how it was left when they shut the door when the lighthouse was no longer in use, complete with a 1991 “Motoring” calendar still hanging on the wall beside the bed and reclining leather chair.
We continued to climb the staircase, passing portal windows as we climbed until we came to the final brass ladder with a hatch door which leads up to the lamp and lenses!
We all clustered around the circular floor while the tour guide demonstrated how it all worked. She explained how the pressurized tanks of paraffin fed the light through the copper tubing. (The original lamp used is hanging on the wall beside me)
Below the light and lenses, there was the clock work gear box that rotated the lens around the light. The tour guide opened the door to the mechanisms, engaged the clutch and it started ticking away and began rotating the lens right before our very eyes. It was really cool. See the video below.
After that amazing show, since the weather was so nice that day, she took us out on the walkway outside of the lens and we got a 360-degree view of the town and surrounding area as we walked around the top of the lighthouse before heading back down the stairs to the ground level once again.
We could even see the Wine Tower, one of the few remaining buildings of the original castle.
The tower has been dated to the 16th-century and got its name through its use as a storage place for wine for the castle. The tower is accessed via the second floor and contains elaborately carved stone pendants. It is reputed that in the cave below, one of the Fraser family imprisoned his daughter’s boyfriend, leaving him to drown. The daughter then jumped from the roof of the tower. According to local tradition, the tower is haunted.
Down the spiral staircase, the way we came and once outside the lighthouse again, we then walked through each of the neighbouring buildings on site which were used as the Lightkeepers and their Assistants’ houses.
Inside were more displays with memorabilia and interesting stories of the Keepers told through pictures and well-presented signage.
What a great tour! We learned a lot about lighthouses and their Keepers. Evidently, it was a much sought after job and these brave souls were certainly dedicated.
As we made our way back to the car park our tour guide was already informing yet a whole new group and boy were they ever in for a treat!
We got back in our car and headed for the town centre of Fraserburgh, finding our way to the churches that belonged to the spires we had seen from atop the lighthouse.
We also managed to find the beautiful library, the primary school with its own tower and turret and the old hospital!
It was yet another wonderful, sunshiny day, full of explorations, education, enlightenment and wonderful memories to cherish… all the things one wants while travelling hither and yon.