Muckle Flugga Lighthouse is Britain’s most northerly lighthouse. It was originally known as North Unst Lighthouse.
The jagged towering rock of Muckle Flugga lies a mile off the northwestern tip of Unst. Its name derives from “mikla flugey”, which means large steep-sided island in old Norse.
The Northern Lighthouse Board considered establishing a lighthouse at Muckle Flugga as far back as 1851. However, work did not start until 1854 since the authorities could not agree on the lighthouse site. David Stevenson surveyed sites for several lighthouses in Shetland in atrocious weather. He recommended temporary lights at Whalsay and Lamba Ness on the northeast tip of Unst. The Admiralty overruled Stevenson’s recommendation and insisted that a light should be erected on Muckle Flugga.
A temporary light was established on the rock and was first lit on 11th October 1854. Although the 50ft high tower was 200 feet above sea level, it suffered serious storm damage. It soon became clear that the tower would need to be raised.
In June 1855 work started on a new permanent structure, a 64ft high brick tower, with foundations sunk 10 feet into the rock. Building conditions were challenging, and it was difficult to find workmen to take on the task. As a result, the workers were offered more than double the normal rate of pay due to the dangerous conditions they would be working in. All the materials had to be transported by boat, landed at an exposed rock, and carried up to the 200ft summit. Sometimes provisions could not be landed due to the weather conditions.
When the temporary light was built, materials were carried up manually. When the permanent light was constructed, a steep rail was laid to transport the heavy pieces of stone up to the top. The North Unst Lighthouse as it was then known, was first lit on 1st January 1858.
Robert Louis Stevenson visited Muckle Flugga on 18th June 1869 with his father Thomas. It is reputed that Unst may have been one of the locations to inspire Robert Louis to write his novel Treasure Island.
Four keepers and their families were based at Burrafirth Shore Station, which was built at the same time as the lighthouse. The attending boatman also had a cottage here, and a boatshed and pier were located just below the shore station.
Once the relief boat was moored at the landing, a fixed steel cable was anchored into an iron fitting. This fitting was fixed into a long jagged stack called Da Comb. The wire went 200 feet up to the winch house at the top, across the geo so that supplies could be hoisted straight up to the light. In March 1949 the Blondin wire broke, and the cargo belonging to the keepers was lost to the sea.
Landing by boat was always a tricky manoeuvre. Sometimes on calm days, a plank was laid across from the boat to the landing stage for keepers to walk across. On rough days they were hoisted across on a sling. On 24th September 1948, the Assistant Keeper fell into the sea during a relief. He was unhurt but given a small glass of brandy to ward off the chill.
Communication was originally carried out by semaphore from a hut at Hermaness Hill. The path to the hut was marked with posts to guide the way in bad weather. The Lightkeeper ashore would go to the hut on a daily basis to check that all was well.
By 1939 radio contact came into operation, making it much easier for the keepers to keep in touch.
During the Second World War, Naval operations moved north, and the old radio beacon at Muckle Flugga was re-opened. The keeper ashore would be engaged in passing service messages between the rock and headquarters.
Accommodation for the keepers was very basic and cramped. A new accommodation block was built, with the keepers moving in on 11th April 1969. Three keepers were stationed on the rock at any one time, initially working two months on and one month off, although this was later reduced.
The subsequent introduction of helicopter reliefs every fortnight made life much more civilised. Fresh water and stores were also landed by air.
Automation came to Muckle Flugga in March 1995 when the keepers were finally withdrawn.
Only one rock lies further north than Muckle Flugga; Out Stack, which marks the northernmost extremity of Great Britain.
A good place to view the lighthouse, other than by boat, is from Hermaness Nature Reserve. It is a challenging walk, and beware of Bonxies (Great Skuas), but it is worth the effort.