Fingal has come a long way since she started working with the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1963. After being retired to Cornwall for several years, she was finally moved back to Scotland in 2014, where she now resides as Fingal Edinburgh, a luxury floating hotel.
This post may contain affiliate links. You can read my affiliate policy here.
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, called 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 visited the South West’s lighthouses. So we visited Falmouth once more, where Windsor Castle was stilled moored up, no longer alongside Tamamima, but still clearly well maintained.
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, tenders’ names are transferred to their replacement. However, the name lives on; Fingal is now the name of one of NLV Pharos’s workboats.
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 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.
On occasions, Fingal 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. Simultaneously, 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 work the northern isles and the east coast mainly. 1993 also saw the new NLV Pharos‘ introduction, 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. 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, the Northern Lighthouse Board announced that a new buoy tender, the fourth Pole Star, was to be built to replace Fingal. The Fingal crew were to be transferred to the replacement vessel, and both Fingal and her staff 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.
The Northern Lighthouse Board had sold Fingal to Tamahine Investments Ltd of Hong Kong. She was renamed the Windsor Castle and would spend 14 well maintained years in Cornish waters.
Return to Edinburgh
In December 2008 negotiations began for her acquisition. After several years of discussion, in 2014 she was acquired by the Royal Yacht Britannia operators. She 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, Fingal Edinburgh, 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.
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 restore its original appearance.
Fingal Edinburgh was opened officially in January 2019 and is now berthed close to the former Royal Yacht Britannia. Since her launch in 1953 served for 44 years as the Royal Yacht for Queen Elizabeth II members of the Royal family.
Britannia was decommissioned in 1997, and her ship’s bell is on display in Trinity House in London. She is one of Scotland’s most popular tourist attractions; Fingal Edinburgh offers the finest accommodation to her more illustrious berth-mate.
We 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. The next time in 2017, she was still having refurbishment work carried out when she was painted grey.
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 Edinburgh: Hotel Transformation
Following a fantastic lighthouse cruise in June 2019 around the Inner Hebrides with some friends from the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, we headed to Edinburgh. Arriving at Leith, we drove along Ocean Drive, past the cruise terminal and Royal Yacht Britannia. Here, in Alexandra Dock, we found Fingal, now permanently moored, looking graceful and majestic once more, beautifully painted in a deep navy with a bright red waterline, and most importantly, the words FINGAL proudly adorning her bow and stern once more.
We walked along the cobbled path that flanked the dock, lined with bay trees and boarded the red-carpeted gangplank to the beautifully finished wood doors. Already we felt like VIPs, and inside didn’t disappoint. The spacious wood-panelled lobby revealed a beautiful glass door lift ahead, its design inspired by a lighthouse, with a sweeping spiral staircase alongside.
Kirsty McKee, the Guest Relations Duty Manager, warmly greeted us and proudly showed us around the ship. We were pleased to see such craftsmanship and attention to detail.
Kirsty explained that she had been involved with the project since the previous year, and had been very much hands-on with the refurbishment; indeed, her passion and enthusiasm was evident. Because there are only a small number of rooms, the personal attention from the staff is paramount. She explained that she had done her homework when she had applied for the job by reading the excellent book In Fingal’s Wake by Trevor Boult.
First, we were escorted through the double doors from the lobby into the Ballroom, which was the former ship’s hold, and during her working life would have seen numerous buoys stored and maintained.
Two sweeping staircases from the balcony led down either side into a large wooden panelled function room, which was remarkably light. Within the railings on the stairs were inset bullseye lenses. The carpet had a large diamond pattern, to represent the astragals from a lighthouse lantern. The colour of the panelling and flooring reflected off the beautiful hammered stainless steel ceiling which gave off a remarkable copper effect. A vast skylight let in plenty of daylight. A display board along one side of the room showed the ship’s transformation from the date she was purchased, and during the restoration process.
Returning from the function room, we passed the beautiful bespoke circular art deco style glass-lined lift, one of only a handful of this design in the world. A spiral staircase wound around the outside taking guests to different decks.
Heading along the corridor on the lower deck, we walked along a red-carpeted glass floor and glass corridor, through which we could see the engine room, which has been fully preserved. Even the light fittings were original; it was lovely to see that the designers had retained this aspect.
This glass corridor led to the cabins on this deck.
The theme throughout the ship was very much lighthouses. It was heartening to learn that close consultation had taken place with the Northern Lighthouse Board during her reconstruction to ensure as much authenticity as possible. Indeed all 23 cabins were named after lighthouses, chosen by the NLB, and each room had its name engraved on the wooden threshold.
Kirsty first showed us the Rubha Nan Gall suite, one of two Luxury Duplex Cabins (the other being Ornsay). Inside, the room was immaculate, with sloping wood-lined walls and portholes, retaining the elegance and feel of being onboard a ship. Each headboard had been specifically made to display a location map depicting the lighthouse’s position of the room it was named after; in this case, the headland of Rubha Nan Gall on Mull. These headboards had been finished by Transcal, who design the interior upholstery for luxury cars, including Rolls Royce.
Even the cushions and bed runner were unique, made in a specially hand-woven tartan designed for Fingal by local weaver Araminta Campbell. The tartan’s design depicted a thick white stripe to represent a lighthouse, a yellow band representing the beam, and other local colours were represented.
The flooring in the room and the en-suite bathroom had diamonds representing lighthouse astragals, with beautiful shimmering tiling, a freestanding bath, engineered brass taps, and luxury bathroom products, and the shuttered blinds in the portholes were opened and closed by remote control.
We climbed the spiral staircase from the bedroom into a compact, cosy lounge above, which formed part of the duplex suite. The wardrobes were covered with leather in the seafoam colour, which reflected the green colours used in the engine room when Fingal was in operation. Andrew Muirhead from Glasgow made the beautiful leather wardrobe panels.
Even the curved mirror above the mini bar (stocked with local products) represented the prisms of a lighthouse optic. The wooden chairs were specially designed to look like the original engineers’ chairs.
After visiting the Flannan Isles Suite, a Classic cabin (there are ten Classic cabins in total: Mull of Galloway, Fair Isle South, Start Point, Lismore, Isle of May, Muckle Flugga, Bass Rock, Neist Point, Cape Wrath and Flannan Isles), Kirsty then showed us around the Skerryvore Suite; this was the ultimate in luxury.
Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal had stayed in this suite – sort of. On a visit to the newly refurbished ship, she said that when she’d sailed aboard Fingal with the Lighthouse Commissioners, her cabin had been in what is now the en-suite bathroom of the Skerryvore Suite!
The Skerryvore Suite was the largest of all the cabins, with interlinking doors, should access be required to the adjoining cabin and a private dining area. Wooden doors opened out on to the teak-lined foredeck allowing access to personal deck space towards the ship’s bow.
The headboard in Skerryvore, rather than depicting just the one lighthouse, showed all the significant lighthouses featured in Fingal along the Scottish Coastline, though a Skerryvore panel was also displayed.
In addition, there were two Classic Duplex cabins: Kinnaird Head and Mull of Kintyre, and a further eight Luxury Cabins: Tarbat Ness, North Ronaldsay, Bell Rock, Monach Isles, Girdle Ness, Dubh Artach, Ardnamurchan and Hyskeir. These all have doors leading out directly on to the side decks.
The Bridge above was another treat; this room could be used as a private dining room or meeting room. Various logbooks were displayed on the table, which we enjoyed browsing through; though curiously they were from the 1961 built NLV Pole Star. On the table, a beautiful silver cocktail shaker in the shape of a lighthouse made a stunning centrepiece, and various archive photos adorned the walls, alongside some exhibition cabinets.
The Lighthouse Bar
Finally, we arrived in the stunning Lighthouse Bar on the top deck. Again the hammered copper effect ceiling and large windows made the room look very spacious and light, with glass bullseyes lining the bar. Doors led out onto the top rear deck, where you could imagine lavish cocktail parties being held. A sweeping spiral staircase from the outside deck led down to the deck below. This deck leads to the side doors of the cabins on that deck.
We were left to relax over a cup of coffee in the Lighthouse Bar, which is open to non-residents, subject to availability – of course, guests get the first booking!
Unfortunately, we were not staying this time, but we did have a tour of the nearby Royal Yacht Britannia, which was extremely interesting. We spent several hours onboard the beautifully restored ship on a wet Saturday afternoon. We hope to return to Fingal one day, perhaps to celebrate a special occasion; it would undoubtedly be a special treat! She is the height of luxury, and no expense has been spared in lovingly restoring her.
I am grateful to Kirsty McKee and Fiona Strauss for their generosity and patience in answering my endless questions, and to Kirsty for her time in showing us around the beautiful ship.
Read more about Fingal in Trevor Boult’s book In Fingal’s Wake: A Tender Tribute