North Ronaldsay Lighthouse

North Ronaldsay Lighthouse
Photo: Patrick Tubby

North Ronaldsay Lighthouse was the third to be constructed by the Northern Lighthouse Board. Located at Kirk Taing, it is the most easterly point of Dennis Head. The 70-foot-high tower and lighthouse keepers’ dwellings were completed in autumn 1789.

Edinburgh lamp makers Thomas Smith and Ezekiel Walker were the engineers. Smith was also assisted by his young apprentice, Robert Stevenson.

North Ronaldsay at sunset

The lighthouse was first lit on 10th October 1789, which 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 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 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.

Dennis Head Old Beacon
Dennis Head Old Beacon

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 that was 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.

Fog signal

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.

Dennis Beacon

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.

Lantern at North Ronaldsay

Access to the tower can be arranged with the North Ronaldsay Trust.

The island is accessible via air or boat from Kirkwall.

Visitor centre
Established: 1789
Engineer: Thomas Smith
Tower Height: 42 metres
Light Character: Fl W 10 s
Light Range: 24 miles
Elevation: 43 metres
Automated: March 1998