How to transform a lighthouse service tender into a luxury hotel: NLV Fingal

Windsor Castle, River Fal
Fingal, renamed Windsor Castle, on the River Fal, 2002

NLV Fingal has come a long way since she started her working life with the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1963. After being retired to Cornwall for a number of years, she was finally moved back to Scotland in 2014, where she now resides as a luxury floating hotel.

In October 2002, I had chartered a yacht from Plymouth with some friends, heading to Falmouth for a few days.  We cruised into the deep waters of Carrick Roads, up the River Fal, past a procession of huge tankers laid up on floating pontoons flanking the river, some with a skeleton crew, awaiting further instructions, or funding to continue their voyage. Passing the King Harry chain ferry, we rounded the next corner ready to moor up at the country pub ashore.

Out in the river, on the bend, was a huge cargo ship named Tamamima, but what caught my eye was a much smaller ship in comparison, moored alongside her, named Windsor Castle.  She had the sort of line which, even to my untrained eye, had a familiarity about her, and I thought she looked like a lighthouse service tender.  Further research later confirmed that my instinct was correct, for this was actually the former Northern Lighthouse Board tender, NLV Fingal.

Five years later, in 2007, my husband Patrick and I were visiting lighthouses of the South West, and so we visited Falmouth once more, where Windsor Castle was stilled moored up, no longer alongside Tamamima, but still clearly well maintained.

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Fingal in Falmouth
Fingal, AKA Windsor Castle, River Fal, 2007
Photo: Patrick Tubby

Fingal’s early days

Registered in Leith, Fingal was built in 1963, the last ship to be built by Blythswood Shipbuilding Company in Glasgow, and the last of the classic motor ship tenders within the lighthouse authorities.  She was also the only Northern Lighthouse Board tender named Fingal; usually, the names of tenders are transferred to their replacement.  However, the name lives on; Fingal is now the name of one of the workboats on NLV Pharos.

She was launched on 8th August 1963, and spent most of her 30 years’ service as a lighthouse tender for the NLB based in Oban, relieving and supplying offshore lighthouses and maintaining buoys and navigation aids predominantly around the west coast of Scotland

The steel twin screw motor ship was 238’9” long by 40’3” wide and 18’5” draught and weight 1,342 gross tons.  She had two 6 cylinder oil engines.  During the latter half of her service a flight deck was added aft for helicopter operations.

Footage of NLV Fingal visiting Iona whilst still in service

On occasions she would share duties between the three General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland: Trinity House, and the Commissioners of Irish Lighthouses.  In 1994 Fingal was called to Dun Laoghaire Harbour for service, and at the same time, the Trinity House vessel Mermaid was also called to action; a rare occasion for vessels working for different lighthouse authorities to meet.

In 1988 the seventh Pharos was sold; like Fingal, she was fundamentally a lighthouse tender, but for a few weeks each summer she carried the Northern Lighthouse Board Commissioners on their inspection voyages. The Orkney based, NLV Pole Star was sold in 1993 and Fingal was relocated to the Stromness Depot to mainly work the northern isles and the east coast.  1993 also saw the introduction of the new NLV Pharos, the eighth NLB ship to carry this name.   Pharos was more versatile for helicopter operations, and she was employed in much helicopter work at offshore lights, with Fingal being used solely for buoy work.

Fingal was occasionally requested to accompany the Royal Yacht Britannia during official visits to Scotland.  In August 1991 the Queen visited Fort William on board the Royal Yacht Britannia, and Fingal escorted the Royal Yacht from the Corran Narrows into Loch Linnhe and on towards Fort William, where she anchored, and some members of the Royal Family came on board.  After their visit Fingal again escorted the party southwards.

Replacement vessel: Pole Star

In April 1999 it was announced by the Northern Lighthouse Board that a new buoy tender, the fourth Pole Star, was to be built to replace Fingal.  The crew of Fingal were to be transferred to the replacement vessel, and both Fingal and her crew were present to see the launching of the new vessel at Greenock, on the Clyde, by HRH The Princess Royal in April 2000.

Subsequently sold out of service, she left the main NLB depot at Oban on 13th August 2000 for her southwards journey where her next destination was Falmouth. Off St Anthony’s Head, in unfamiliar waters, a pilot boarded and took her into the River Fal, beyond the King Harry Ferry, and berthed her alongside Tamamima, the cargo ship that I had first seen her moored alongside.

Fingal had been sold by the Northern Lighthouse Board to Tamahine Investments Ltd of Hong Kong.  She was renamed the Windsor Castle, and would go on to spend 14 well maintained years in Cornish waters.  

Return to Edinburgh

In December 2008 negotiations began for her acquisition, and after several years of discussion, in 2014 she was acquired by the operators of the Royal Yacht Britannia, who herself had come to the end of her royal duties and was relocated to the Leith waterfront as a tourist attraction.  After heading for dry dock in Falmouth, Fingal was towed to Leith, finally arriving on 22nd August 2014.

She reverted to her original name, Fingal, and was converted as part of a £5 million investment into a 23 bedroom luxury ‘boatique’ hotel over a two year period.  During her conversion period, in the summer of 2016, she was briefly painted as a “dazzle ship”, as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival to commemorate the First World War.  Dazzle ships were so called because they were painted with confusing patterns to make it more difficult for German U-boats to clock their speed and distance.

Final as a Dazzle ship
Fingal, as a temporary Dazzle Ship in 2016, Leith Harbour
Photo: Patrick Tubby

The two year conversion involved gutting the ship, creating 14 cabins on the main deck, including four duplex rooms.  The funnel was removed and two new decks were built where this was located.  On the first of these are eight larger cabins and the largest, the Skerryvore Suite.  On the upper deck is the Lighthouse Bar; and in the former wheelhouse is a small private meeting or dining room, appropriately named The Bridge.  The top half of the funnel was placed on top of the Lighthouse Bar deck to help restore its original appearance.

Fingal was opened officially in January 2019, and is now berthed close to the former Royal Yacht Britannia, which since her launch in 1953 served for 44 years as the royal yacht for Queen Elizabeth II and members of the Royal family.  Britannia was decommissioned in 1997, and her ship’s bell is on display in Trinity House in London. Britannia is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Scotland; Fingal offering the finest accommodation, complements her more illustrious berth-mate.

We have visited the docks on several occasions to see Fingal’s restoration process; the first time in the summer of 2016 she had been painted as a dazzle ship, and the next time in 2017, when she was painted grey, as she was still having refurbishment work carried out.

Fingal being restored
Fingal, Leith Harbour, during her restoration – note the addition of extra portholes to the foredeck
Photo: Patrick Tubby

Little did I know back in 2002 that nearly 17 years after my original sighting, that I would see her again, this time restored as Fingal, floating in luxury in Leith harbour!

Fingal, now a luxury boatique hotel in Leith harbour
Photo: Patrick Tubby

Read more about Fingal in Trevor Boult’s book In Fingal’s Wake: A Tender Tribute

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