Located on the most north-westerly point of mainland Scotland, Cape Wrath Lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1828. The name is thought to be derived from the Norse for “turning point”.
When first built, there was no road to the lighthouse. As a result, all equipment had to be landed at Clais Charnoch, a sheltered inlet two miles away. Stevenson’s 13-year-old son David went on a lighthouse tour with his father, in the same year that Cape Wrath was established. By 31st August they had reached the Cape. Despite it being a Sunday, the Sabbath, they had a lamp to unload.
David noted that there was a near-vertical drop of 300ft on the cliffs in front of the lighthouse. That evening there was a Sunday service on board, “the night was truly beautiful”, recalled Stevenson. “the stars seemed to be infinitely numerous and the water of the sea on fire with phosphorescent appearance where it impinged or dashed against the vessel. After we had gone to bed we were called up on deck to see the singular appearance of the moon in the southeast. The aurora borealis also formed a splendid semi-circular zone which enlightened the whole north.”
The 11-mile drive to the Cape is made along a bumpy windy road. The road crosses over narrow bridges and an MOD firing range. As a result the Cape Wrath minibus service only operates when there is no firing taking place! The magnificent stone arch bridge close to Kearvaig had been built by the lighthouse engineers over 190 years ago.
The most serious offence a keeper could commit was to fall asleep whilst on watch. The Principal Keeper at Cape Wrath committed this misdemeanour after over-exerting himself one day. He had been helping to bring up provisions from the MV Pole Star. He could have been dismissed from the service for falling asleep. However, on this occasion, the Commissioners showed leniency towards him.
Although not a particularly high tower, the height of cliffs meant that the lighthouse was often shrouded in low cloud or fog. Proposals were made to build a new tower nearer to sea level, using a vertical shaft in the cliff, and a covered walkway over the rocks with two bridges connecting it.
A tower and fog signal house was to be built on the extreme end of the headland, and quarrying and blasting began in June 1914. However, by the time the shaft had been sunk to a depth of 50ft, a disagreement occurred with the contractor, and the work was eventually abandoned due to the lack of labour and materials during the First World War.
The lighthouse was classed as a shore station up until 1975, meaning that the keepers’ families lived with them in this remote outpost, and there was at one time even a school on the Cape side of the Kyle of Durness.
On 17th January 1977 Cape Wrath became the first shore-based lighthouse to have a lighthouse relief by helicopter, although all stores, parts and fuel had to be landed once a year by one of the NLB lighthouse tenders.
The lighthouse was automated on 31st March 1998.
The nearby Ozone Café must be one of the UK’s most remote cafés. Located in the former engine room built in 1905, it now also houses a small hostel.