Bressay Lighthouse is situated on the southwest of the island at Kirkabister Ness (Ness meaning headland). It sits on a low-lying shelf with the island rising steeply behind it. From the seaward, its white encircling walls and buildings stand out against the island’s greenery. A sea arch is close to the lighthouse.
The six-mile-long island of Bressay runs parallel with Mainland Shetland’s east coast. Bressay Sound separates the island from Mainland Shetland, providing a natural shelter for Lerwick and its harbour.
Along with Out Skerries and Muckle Flugga, Bressay Lighthouse was built to serve naval traffic during the Crimean War. The Commissioners of Northern Lights applied to build a lighthouse in November 1854, and the Board of Trade approved plans in the same month. However, Trinity House were concerned about the cost of building the new lighthouse. Much discussion took place over the plans and specifications, and building work was delayed until February 1856.
The 52ft high white tower and buildings were designed by David and Thomas Stevenson.
A light was first exhibited on 31st August 1858, with a paraffin vapour burner within a second-order revolving optic. The optic turned using a clockwork mechanism with a falling weight down the tower’s centre. Its character, a red and white alternate flash at one-minute intervals, was visible in clear weather for 16 miles.
An essential aspect of lighthouse keeping was good timekeeping. In July 1886, the Commissioners arrived at Bressay in fog aboard the NLB tender Pharos at 1.00 pm. On arrival, they found the lighthouse clock stopped at 11.00 am. The keepers had evidently not seen them coming!
In the summer, mornings can be light very early; this is known locally as the “Simmer Dim”. On one such occasion, the light was extinguished ten minutes before its official time. Unfortunately for the keepers, an observant person on the mainland had spotted the early extinction of the light. They reported the incident to Headquarters, and a few days later, the Principal Keeper was reprimanded.
The fog signal that had sounded two blasts every 90 seconds was discontinued in 1987.
Bressay Lighthouse was automated in 1989. Afterwards, the keepers’ accommodation was used as a shore station for the Muckle Flugga keepers and their families. Located at the tip of Unst, Muckle Flugga is the most northerly lighthouse in the UK.
Even in recent times, the treacherous coast has claimed many vessels. Probably the most notorious was the grounding of the oil tanker Braer in January 1993. This had catastrophic effects on the area’s marine wildlife. Later that year, in November 1993, a Latvian factory ship the Lunokhod also ran aground close to the lighthouse.
In November 1995, the Shetland Amenity Trust purchased the buildings. The two former keepers’ cottages were refurbished.
The Northern Lighthouse Board transferred the operation of Bressay Lighthouse to Lerwick Port Authority following a major review. On 12th September 2012, the light at Bressay Lighthouse, which had been operational for 150 years, was discontinued. A new structure with LED light on the former radar station and fog signal replaced the existing light, and its range was reduced from 23 to 10 miles.
Following decommissioning of the lighthouse, the lighthouse buildings were transferred to the Shetland Amenity Trust in June 2013.
The former optic from Bressay Lighthouse, which used rotating reflectors, is on display at the Shetland Museum in Lerwick.
Bressay is a five-minute ferry ride from the main Northlink ferry terminal on Mainland Shetland.