Dubh Artach Lighthouse is located on the dangerous Torran Rocks. The Torran Rocks are a group of small islands located around 15 miles southwest of Erraid off Mull and 18 miles west of Colonsay. Also sometimes known as Dhu Heartach, its name in Gaelic means Black Rock.
The Firth of Lorn is a wide tapering channel that provides access to Oban and Fort William. Its mouth is around 60 miles across and marked by Rhinns of Islay and Skerryvore Lighthouses.
In 1866 a lighthouse was proposed at Dubh Artach. It was built between 1869 and 1872, and the engineers decided to use Erraid as the base for quarrying granite and transporting it to the reef. It took several years to build the lighthouse due to its remote location and challenging conditions. A temporary iron barrack was constructed near the lighthouse site on the rock.
David and Thomas Stevenson were responsible for its construction. They knew that a tower of the utmost strength had to be built to withstand the pressure of the waves.
The design was a gracefully curved tower, 107ft high, 37 feet in diameter at its foundations. The tower contained six rooms, with the entrance through a door 32 feet above its foundations.
The reef had been considered almost impossible to build on. Between December 1865 and January 1866, storms tore along the west coast of Scotland. Twenty-four vessels were lost in the vicinity at the end of December 1865. There was greater pressure than ever to build the lighthouse. Sanction from the Board of Trade finally came in October 1866 when the Stevensons began work on their plans.
In his account of the building, David Stevenson remarked, ‘it is believed that at no lighthouse tower hitherto constructed have such remarkable proofs of the violence of the sea at high levels been observed‘.
In 1870, during its construction, Robert Louis Stevenson, son of Thomas, spent three weeks observing works as a civil engineering student. He wrote:
“An ugly reef is this one of the Dhu Heartach; no pleasant assemblage of shelves, and pools, and creeks, about which a child might play for a whole summer without weariness, like the Bell Rock or Skerryvore, but one oval nodule of black trap, sparsely bedabbled with an inconspicuous fungus, and alive in every crevice with a dingy insect between a slater and a bug. No other life was there but of sea birds, and of the sea itself, that here ran like a mill-race, and growled about the outer reef forever, and ever and again, in the calmest weather, roared and spouted on the rock itself.”
The island also had a good supply of granite. 14 miles away from Dubh Artach, the site of Erraid, on Mull was chosen as a base for communication with the rock. There was also space here for the erection of permanent buildings for masons and seamen and later for the keepers and their families. A wharf was also constructed for servicing the boats, and an observation tower was built to signal to the lighthouse.
For the first season, work started building a barrack on the reef to house men while the work was in progress. The steam tug Powerful from Leith was used to land workers between June and September. Work started on the tower’s foundations, and the first tiers of circular wrought iron supports for the barrack were set in position.
Over the winter, the paddle steamer Dhu Heartach was built to tow the stone out to the rock. Cranes and winches were constructed at the shore station at Erraid.
In 1868, strong winds hampered early progress, and only two landings were possible in the first two months. In May, a small group of men were able to land, to find only one section of ironwork from the barrack was missing. At the end of June, work started until mid-September.
By August, the barrack was complete, meaning that the workers could stay on the reef, thus speeding up progress. On many occasions, the waves rose over the top of the barrack, itself 77ft above high water. A hatch burst open in the floor of the lower tier, 55ft above sea level, washing out vital provisions. It was five days before the sea was calm enough for the men to be rescued.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his Memories and Portraits:
“When the dark nights fell and the neighbour lights of Skerryvore and Rhuval were quenched in fog, and the men sat high up prisoned in their iron drum, that then resounded with the lashings of the sprays. Fear sat with them in the sea-beleaguered dwelling, and the colour changed in anxious faces when some greater billow struck the barrack, and its pillars quivered and sprang under the blow. It was then that the foreman builder, Mr Goodwillie, whom I see before me in his rock-habit of indecipherable rags, would get his fiddle down and strike up human minstrelsy amid the music of the storm.”
Meanwhile, at Erraid, the buildings progressed well. The wharf improved, and many of the lowest courses of stone were ready to be shipped to the reef.
1869 saw just sixty landings. A severe gale in July forced workers off the rock for six days. During that time 14 stones were removed from the third course, each weighing 2 tons. The landing cranes were completely destroyed.
The engineers decided to increase the height of the base by 11½ feet raising it from 52′ 10″ above high water to 64′ 4″.
At Erraid, Robert Louis wrote:
“There was now a pier of stone, there were rows of sheds, railways, travelling cranes, a street of cottages, an iron house for the resident engineer, wooden bothies for the men, a stage where the courses of the tower were put together experimentally, and behind the settlement a great gash in the hillside where granite was quarried. In the bay, the steamer lay at her moorings. All day long there hung about the place the music of clinking tools, and even in the dead of night, the watchman carried his lantern to and fro in the dark settlement and could light the pipe of any midnight muser.”
The season of 1870 started late, but then conditions improved. The engineers ordered the lantern casing and optical equipment.
1871 passed without undue trouble. All dwellings at Erraid were completed, as well as the remaining courses of masonry.
By 1872 the lantern was ready to assemble with its mechanism and internal fittings. When completed the lantern rose 145 feet above sea level.
A fixed white light was displayed, with an arc of 7 degrees showing red. Dubh Artach Lighthouse was lit for the first time on 1st November 1872.
The fog bell sounded 10 seconds of rapid strokes every 30 seconds to distinguish it from the single stroke of Skerryvore Lighthouse every minute.
On 5th November 1872, less than a week after it became operational, another winter gale struck the west coast of Scotland. The copper lightning conductor was wrenched away and bent at a level with the kitchen window 92 feet above water level. The tower survived the winter.
The barrack was dismantled the following year. The remaining circular iron framework can still be seen today.
In 1890 the red band was added to make it more visible as a daymark and to avoid confusion with Skerryvore Lighthouse.
Dubh Artach was a less popular post for the keepers, as it was damp and more cramped than Skerryvore Lighthouse.
The lighthouse was converted to automatic operation on 7th October 1971. Its acetylene lamp and electric foghorn were then monitored from Ruvaal light in Islay.