Butt of Lewis Lighthouse

Butt of Lewis Lighthouse

The Butt of Lewis Lighthouse is on the most northerly tip of the island of Lewis. An information board outside the lighthouse compound boasts its claim to fame in the Guinness Book of Records as being the windiest spot in the UK!  

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A lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis was first discussed in 1853, but construction did not start until 1859.  The 121 feet tall lighthouse was completed in 1862. 

The lighthouse is unusual in that it is unpainted, revealing its red-brown brickwork.  Northern Lighthouse Board buff coloured outlines are painted around the doors, windows and gallery.  

David and Thomas Stevenson designed the tower. They specified that the bricks should be “similar to those used in the Edinburgh Gas Works chimney instead of common brick”. It was deemed that common bricks would be unsuitable for the location due to the exposure to the salty air.

Butt of Lewis Lighthouse

John Barr and Co of Ardrossan were contracted and started the work, though little was achieved in that first year. This was not helped by the fact that a vessel attempting to land some of the building materials was wrecked nearby at Port Stoth.

There was controversy over whether the light should be fixed or flashing. The Stevensons and the Northern Lighthouse Board favoured a flashing light, but the Board of Trade and Trinity House (who at that time had a say in the discussions) insisted on a fixed, first-order light. The NLB Commissioners protested, saying that it should be flashing to distinguish it from the lights at Cape Wrath and Stoer Head.  They were overruled, and a fixed light was established in 1862 with a range of 19 miles.

In 1863 an application was made to the landowner for permission to sink a well outside the lighthouse grounds. Although granted, it was not until the following October that it was up and running.  The well was about half a mile away, and water had to be carried to the lighthouse by a small hand cart. When the water was later tested, it was unsuitable for drinking. Following further investigation, it was decided to use a well at Lionel, 2 miles away, and the keepers were provided with a cart and donkey.

An incandescent paraffin lamp was installed in 1869.  This continued as the main light source until electricity was installed in 1976.

Headland and lighthouse

In the early 1930s Butt of Lewis Lighthouse provided a radio link to the Flannan Islands Lighthouse 50 miles to the west.  This continued until 1971 when the Flannan light was automated.

The siren fog signal, established in the early 1900s was mounted on a slightly shorter, white painted tower in front of the lighthouse. This was discontinued in 1995. Other than its circular base, there is very little evidence of its existence today, though many older postcards do show this second tower.

Old lighthouse postcard
Old postcard showing the old foghorn tower

In the book Halcyon in the Hebrides, author Bob Orrell recounts an amusing visit to Butt of Lewis Lighthouse.  He was a keeper there in the 1950s.  He recalled being posted to the Butt in 1956 via train, boat and bus. “The following morning, I borrowed the Assistant’s bike and had hardly gone a mile when, from croft after croft, old ladies rushed out, screaming at me in Gaelic and hurling lumps of peat at my head.” He pedalled back to the lighthouse as fast as possible and later learnt that he had made the cardinal sin of cycling through the island on the Sabbath.  He was publicly denounced at the next church gathering for riding a bike on the Lord’s Day!  Lesson learned.

On his more recent return to the Butt, he went to find the Bochan, an illegal drinking den that he had once visited in the 1950s. It was an all-male gathering that met at the Bochan, and an Assistant keeper had visited with him. As well as a few illicit drams, he had also been introduced to the acquired taste of guga, a delicacy of dried and pickled gannets collected at Sula Sgeir.

Butt of Lewis Lighthouse

In the 1970s, a cave was discovered under the tower and a special cement was injected through holes bored in its roof. During this work, a temporary light was shown from the lighthouse.

The fog signal was discontinued in 1995, and the lighthouse was automated in 1998.

Established: 1862
Engineer: David and Thomas Stevenson
Tower Height: 37 metres
Light Character: Fl W 5 s
Light Range: 25 miles
Elevation: 52 metres
Automated: 1998