A lighthouse has been in existence on the Isle of May since 1636, when a fire beacon was first erected. This stone structure was topped with an iron chauffeur and coal fire. A pulley system hoisted coal, and three men were employed to attend to the fire, which consumed about 400 tons of coal a year. This beacon was the first permanently manned lighthouse in Scotland.
A tragedy occurred here in 1791 when fumes from the fire suffocated the lightkeeper, his wife and five of his six children. It is thought that smouldering coals falling from the beacon set fire to piles of ash surrounding the beacon, which had built up over many years.
The coal-fired light varied considerably depending on weather conditions, and tragically on 19th December 1810, two ships were wrecked near Dunbar, mistaking the light of a lime kiln on the coast for that of the Isle of May.
In 1814 the Lighthouse Commissioners purchased the island from the Duke and Duchess of Portland. A new lighthouse was built in 1816, designed by Robert Stevenson. This grand and ornate castle-like structure in the centre of the island was first lit on 1st September of that year. The spacious building had accommodation for three lightkeepers and their families, and additional room for visiting officials.
In 1836 the lighthouse was upgraded, and a new light and refractor lens was installed. The lighthouse housed the first British dioptric fixed light.
Further extensive work took place in 1886. Three additional dwellings, an engine house, boiler house, workshop and coal store were built in a small valley containing a freshwater loch, 270 yards from the lighthouse. The keepers referred to this as Fluke Street. Nowadays, some of the buildings are used by volunteers for the bird observatory, which operates on the island.
The engine house was fitted with two steam-powered generators, powering an electric arc lamp for the lighthouse. The current fed up to the tower by conductors. This new lamp was exhibited on 1st December 1886, producing 4 flashes every 30 seconds.
Heading up the aptly named Palpitation Brae (named by the former lighthouse keepers) is the impressive castle-like lighthouse. It must have been an idyllic place for the keepers and their families to have lived, and their walled gardens were still evident, although the gardens were now sadly overgrown.
The whole station was labour intensive, needing the services of a Principal Lightkeeper, four Assistants—two for lightroom duty and two to attend the engines and boilers—and an auxiliary attending to the delivery of 150 tons annually of steam coke for the boiler. The keepers used a horse to transport coals from the landing places to the engine room.
In 1924 the electric light was discontinued due to the high cost of the coal and, with improvements in oil lighting, it was replaced with an incandescent mantle.
About a quarter of a mile from the lighthouse on the east side of the island is the tower and buildings for the Low Light. This was first exhibited in April 1844 in conjunction with the main lighthouse which, when aligned, guided ships clear of the North Carr Rock, seven miles north of the island.
When the North Carr Lightship was established in 1887, the Low Light was discontinued. This is now occupied as an ornithological centre, and volunteers can stay here.
The Isle of May Lighthouse was converted to a ‘rock’ station in 1972. The keepers’ families moved into a quarter villa at Salvesen Crescent in Granton, which became vacant when Fidra Lighthouse was automated.
The north fog horn is located on the adjoining island of Rona, which used to be connected to the rest of the island via a footbridge. However, this has now been removed to discourage visitors to this part of the reserve from disturbing the nesting birds.
The first fog horn was built in 1886 but could not be heard clearly, as it was too low. The current South fog signal replaced this in 1918, and the North Signal was built in 1938.
It is about a mile from north to south horns, and still in place are the cast-iron pipes that supplied compressed air from Fluke Street to air tanks located alongside each horn. The north horn gave one blast, and the south horn four blasts every 135 seconds. They were timed to never sound at the same time. The siren fog signals were finally discontinued in March 1986, and the lighthouse itself was automated on 31st March 1989.
The South Fog Horn, a massive tower with a huge trumpet on top, is accessible. Visitors can go inside this building, where there are some interpretation boards.
The Altarstanes, which offered a sheltered boat landing if seas or wind were from the north or east, and was the preferred landing of the NLB before the introduction of helicopters in the 1970s.
There are regular sailings over to the Isle of May from Anstruther.