Out Skerries Lighthouse

Out Skerries Lighthouse
Photo: Patrick Tubby

Out Skerries Lighthouse is on the island of Bound Skerry, on the eastern side of mainland Shetland.

The Out Skerries form a group of islands to the east of mainland Shetland. A small bridge links the two inhabited islands of Bruray and Housay, and together with Grunay form a sheltered harbour.  

Out Skerries Lighthouse was often referred to as Whalsay Skerries Lighthouse in early records.  In 1853 better lighting around the north of Shetland was needed as the Crimean War was imminent. The Royal Navy was concerned about navigation as they moved around the northern section of the North Sea from the Baltic to the North Cape.  Muckle Flugga Lighthouse was built at a similar time and for similar reasons.

Out Skerries Lighthouse
Photo: Patrick Tubby

In February 1854, David Stevenson travelled to view potential lighthouse locations in Shetland. He also spent time surveying the effects of wave action on the inhospitable cliffs of northern Shetland. He recommended that two lighthouses be built at Unst (Herma Ness or Lamba Ness) and Whalsay Skerries.

In 1854 the Northern Lighthouse Board built a temporary light on Grunay. However, Trinity House insisted that a permanent light should be built on the outlying rock, Bound Skerry, against the wishes of the Stevensons.  The lighthouse was built of brick, as this material was easier to handle than granite blocks.  The walls were 3½ft thick at the base of the tower and shipped over by local boats. 

A light showed for the first time from the current lighthouse in 1858.  Chance Brothers in Birmingham supplied the first-order optic.  Out Skerries cost £21,000 to build (the Stevensons had initially proposed a tower on Grunay costing £11,000).

A shore station was built on Grunay for the families of the Principal and two Assistant Keepers – with two being on duty at the lighthouse at any one time. 

Out Skerries
The shore station on Grunay can be seen in the distance
Photo: Patrick Tubby

In 1869 Robert Louis Stevenson visited the lighthouse, accompanying his father, Thomas Stevenson. 

James Ewing was appointed Principal Keeper in 1872. He was later transferred to the newly completed Dubh Artach Lighthouse, where he served for 11 years.

In 1906 the Nordwind, carrying a cargo of timber foundered on the rocks at Pillar in the South Mouth (a channel between Housay and Grunay).  The Skerries men came to her aid, saving 20 of the 23 crew on board — along with much of the timber! 

In January 1912, the Swedish barque Advena, was en route from Sunderland to Kalmar in Sweden carrying a cargo of coking coal. Within sight of the Norwegian coast, a south-easterly gale hit her and drove her back across the North Sea towards Shetland. The dismasted ship came ashore close to the South Mouth, and Assistant Keeper John Henderson assisted with the rescue.

Out Skerries was connected with a radio telephone in 1937, which linked the post office to the Coastguard in Lerwick. Previously urgent communication with the rest of Shetland was undertaken via a system of balls hoisted on poles.

View from Grunay
Out Skerries Lighthouse seen from the former shore station on Grunay
Photo: Patrick Tubby

In 1950, the off-duty keeper and the lighthouse families moved to a new shore station at Breiwick Road, Lerwick.  This comprised a single villa divided into four flats – one for each family. 

At the beginning of April 1972, a temporary electric light was installed. The old optic was then dismantled, and the inside of the tower was stripped, including the removal of all floors, wooden stairs and panelling.  

Parts of the optic were destroyed on site, but the bullseyes were preserved along with the lens belt.  These were later rebuilt and reused at Buchan Ness Lighthouse. The optic was later removed from Buchan Ness Lighthouse and is now in store at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses.

From 1st May, the keepers moved to accommodation on Bruray.  One of the keepers travelled with the contractors each day.  The keepers would help with the radio, charge the batteries and check equipment.  

Bound Skerry site
Photo: Patrick Tubby

Final automation took place in December 1972.  The main light was converted to Acetylene, with a similar Standby lamp.

The lighthouse stands at the top of a neglected inclined walkway, and outside, a bank of solar panels hangs from the gallery.

Inside, steep metal ladders lead into each floor rather than the typical spiral staircase. The kitchen was previously used as a bedroom and converted when automation occurred. 

There were stores on board for when engineering staff were working on the station. 

From the top of the gallery, there is a good view of the Skerries and the off-lying cluster of islands.  Directly opposite is the island of Grunay with its now derelict cottages of the former shore station.      

Established: 1854
Engineer: David and Thomas Stevenson
Tower Height: 30 metres
Light Character: Fl W 20 s
Light Range: 20 miles
Elevation: 44 metres
Automated: December 1972