Sumburgh Head Lighthouse

Sumburgh Head Lighthouse
Photo: Patrick Tubby

Sumburgh Head Lighthouse is located at the southern end of Mainland Shetland.

Off the southern headland of Shetland lies a turbulent stretch of water, the Sumburgh Roost. The name Sumburgh is thought to be derived from the Norse, Sunn Borg, or the South Broch.

Following trade development in the 18th century, coastal traffic increased along the eastern side of Shetland from Norway.  Vessels with timber and tobacco for Europe sailed eastwards past Sumburgh Head. With this increased traffic, more and more vessels were lost along this treacherous coast.

Sumburgh Head
Photo: Patrick Tubby

In 1815 Robert Stevenson, Engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board, inspected the area. Building commenced in January 1819 by John Reid, a builder from Peterhead. Because of its inhospitable position, the walls were built to double thickness specifications to keep out the damp.

During the lighthouse construction, disaster struck. The Freemason of Lerwick, bound from Peterhead with materials for the lighthouse, foundered at Greetness Voe. Only one of the crew survived.

The tower was first lit in 1821 and contained 26 parabolic reflectors with lamps.  It initially displayed a fixed white light, visible for 24 miles at an elevation of 299ft above sea level.

Sumburgh optic
Sumburgh Head optic
Photo: Patrick Tubby

On 19th January 1864, the Royal Victoria, a coal ship bound from Sunderland to Calcutta, foundered near the lighthouse. Of the 32 crew, 13 perished, including Captain Leslie, who was buried at Dunrossness Churchyard. His parents presented a bell to be used as a fog signal at Sumburgh Head.  This bell was used until the fog signal was established in 1906. The bell was removed and hung in the Parish Church at Dunrossness, where it remains.

The fog signal, which sounded one blast every 90 seconds, was discontinued in 1987.

Sumburgh foghorn
Sumburgh Head Foghorn
Photo: Patrick Tubby

In 1871 two of the keepers were charged with conspiracy when one fell asleep on duty. Falling asleep on duty was a dismissable offence.  They both agreed not to report the incident but were later found out. As a result, both the Assistant Keeper and Principal Keeper with 23 years’ service were dismissed.

The lighthouse was automated in Spring 1991, and the dwelling was bought privately in October 1993. The Shetland Amenity Trust has since bought it. The Trust is a charitable organisation set up to conserve and enhance Shetland’s heritage.

Lighthouse and cafe

The tower is located between the two dwellings, and behind these, offset, is the Engine Room and a third dwelling. The local assistant’s block and stores were located adjacent to these.

There is an excellent visitor centre and cafe on the lighthouse grounds.

Sumburgh Head is an Area of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of International Importance. It is now an official bird reserve with the RSPB. The area is on the flight path of migrating birds, and many stop off here in spring and autumn for shelter around the walls. During the summer months, puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and shags will be seen.

Sumburgh Head is also a good spot for whale watching, as Orcas often pass the headland.

Muckle Roe Old Lighthouse

The former harbour lighthouse from Muckle Roe is now located in the Visitor Centre car park at Sumburgh Head. The cast iron tower was built in 1897 and designed by David A and Charles Stevenson.

Muckle Roe Lighthouse
Former Muckle Roe Lighthouse
Photo: Patrick Tubby

Its successor was constructed in 2001.

The island of Muckle Roe is located on the west of Mainland Shetland, linked by a bridge.

Muckle Roe optic
Optic of the former Muckle Roe Lighthouse
Established: 1821
Engineer: Robert Stevenson
Tower Height: 17 metres
Light Character: Fl (3) W 30 s
Light Range: 23 miles
Elevation: 91 metres
Automated: 1991