The first lighthouse at North Ronaldsay was the third to be constructed by the Northern Lighthouse Board. Located at Kirk Jaing it is the most easterly point of Dennis Head. The 70 feet high tower was completed in Autumn 1789 along with the lighthouse keepers’ dwellings.
Edinburgh lamp maker Thomas Smith and Ezekiel Walker were the engineers. Smith was also assisted by his young apprentice Robert Stevenson.
The lighthouse was first lit on 10th October 1789. This coincided with the first lighting of Eilean Glas Lighthouse on the island of Scalpay in the Outer Hebrides. The catoptric lighting system was the most advanced system at the time and consisted of a cluster of oil lamps with copper reflectors. Strict instructions were issued to ensure that the keepers cleaned the reflectors carefully to ensure no loss of light.
However, the tower proved to be ineffective, and in 1806 a new lighthouse was built at Start Point, on the neighbouring island of Sanday. The lighthouse on Dennis Head was extinguished in 1809. Its lantern was replaced by a ball of masonry, which had been removed from Start Point.
Over time it became clear to ships rounding the north of Orkney that a lighthouse would still aid them on North Ronaldsay. To ease visibility from the west, a location was chosen half a mile from the Dennis Head beacon, nearer the island’s northern tip. This also improved the warning of the dangerous outlying rocks of Reef Duke and Seal Skerry.
Engineer Alan Stevenson recommended that a brick tower be built. He had also designed an iron tower, which would be more economical to build. Stevenson warned the Commissioners that the vibrations caused by high winds might affect the lighting apparatus. They therefore accepted his recommendation of a brick tower.
Everything had to be transported to the site by sea. Landing here was difficult, and there were poor anchorage conditions. So before work could start on the tower, a half-mile-long stone jetty had to be built to land the materials.
The red-brick tower was built in 1854 to a soaring height of 139 feet, making it the tallest land-based lighthouse in the British Isles. In 1889 two broad white bands were painted on the tower to distinguish it as a daymark.
The beacon at North Ronaldsay was featured on the BBC2 TV Programme Restoration. The North Ronaldsay Trust received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Orkney Islands Council. In May 2008, restoration began on the Old Beacon at Dennis Head.
The island has been continuously occupied since prehistoric times. It is home to seaweed-eating sheep. They are kept on the seashore by a 2-metre-high wall, the Sheep Dyke, which was built in the mid-19th century.
Access to the tower can be arranged with North Ronaldsay Trust.