Rattray Head Lighthouse was established in 1895, 46 years after Alan Stevenson, Northern Lighthouse Board Engineer, had first carried out a series of experiments to ascertain whether Rattray Briggs could be effectively marked by a red arc shown from the flashing light of Buchan Ness Lighthouse approximately 10 miles to the south.
Following years of debate, on 18th November 1874, the Sheriff of Renfrew and Bute recommended to the Northern Lighthouse Board that a lighthouse be erected at Rattray Head.
However, Trinity House refused to sanction the erection of a lighthouse. They suggested that a bell buoy be substituted for the one marking the reef.
Finally, permission was eventually granted, and work began in 1892. Engineer David A Stevenson, the nephew of Alan, built a rock tower in two parts to an unusual design, the lower containing a foghorn and engine room, and the upper with the lighthouse keepers’ room and lantern. It was the first time that a first-class siren fog signal had been installed in a rock lighthouse.
The masonry of both portions of the tower was completed in sixteen months, spread over three seasons. The lower section was 46ft high, with an entrance door reached by a 32ft outside ladder.
The light was finally exhibited for the first time on 14th October 1895.
The tower is covered to a depth of 7 feet at high water, but it is possible to walk ashore when the tide is out with care. With a case diameter of 21 feet for the lightroom, lantern and dome, the upper section brings it to a total height of 120ft above the rock. The engine room is at the entrance level, and the upper tower and siren are planted on a platform known colloquially as the ‘quarter deck’.
When first lit in 1895, the five-wick paraffin lamp had an intensity of 44,000 candlepower, compared to just 6,500 at neighbouring Buchan Ness Lighthouse.
During the Second World War, on 20th September 1941, an enemy plane circled the lighthouse and dropped three bombs, one of which did not explode. The lantern was machine-gunned, but the damage caused did not seriously impair the apparatus. Fortunately, no one was injured in the attack.
Many changes have taken place since 1895. A mains electricity supply and telephone cable were laid under the seabed and completed in September 1977. In February 1982, the light was made fully automatic, and the keepers were withdrawn.
During the twentieth century, additional accommodation was provided for the lighthouse keepers ashore. The old granite block adjacent to this is the original shore station.
The former optic is on display at Aberdeen Maritime Museum.