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How to transform a lighthouse service tender into a luxury hotel

Fingal Edinburgh

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.

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

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.

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

Five years later, in 2007, Patrick and I visited the South West’s lighthouses. We visited Falmouth, where Windsor Castle was stilled moored up, no longer alongside Tamamima, but still clearly well maintained.

Some years later we were fortunate to see her returned to Edinburgh as a luxury floating hotel.

Fingal’s early days

Fingal was built in 1963 and served for nearly 30 years as a lighthouse tender for the Northern Lighthouse Board. She also occasionally assisted the Royal Yacht Britannia during the Royal Family’s official visits to Scotland.

The ship was sold out of the lighthouse service in 2000 and relocated to Falmouth.

Following several years of negotiation, the vessel was acquired by the operators of Royal Yacht Britannia and returned to Leith on 22nd August 2014.

Read more about her service history and early days.

Fingal Edinburgh

She reverted to her original name and was converted as part of a £5 million investment into a 23 bedroom luxury ‘boatique’ hotel, Fingal Edinburgh, over a two year period.  

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.  The top half of the funnel was returned to the Lighthouse Bar deck’s top to restore its original appearance.

On the first of these decks 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.  

Fingal Edinburgh was opened officially in January 2019 and is now berthed close to the former Royal Yacht Britannia. Since her launch in 1953, Britannia 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 her more illustrious berth mate’s finest accommodation.

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.

Fingal Edinburgh Dazzle Ship
Fingal, briefly painted as a Dazzle Ship prior to conversion

The next time in 2017, she was still having refurbishment work carried out when she was painted grey.

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

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 Edinburgh, 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.

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

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.

Ballroom

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.

Ballroom, Fingal Edinburgh
Ballroom

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.

Engine Room

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.

Engine Room Fingal Edinburgh
Walkway through the engine room

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.

Lighthouse Suites

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. 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 represented the beam, and other local colours were incorporated.

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.

Rubha Nan Gall Suite, Fingal Edinburgh
Rubha nan Gall Suite

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. 

Bathroom, Fingal Edinburgh

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.

Skerryvore mural, Fingal Edinburgh
The panel in the Skerryvore Suite

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

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.

Fingal Bar
The Lighthouse Bar

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.

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!

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.

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