National Records of Scotland
Records of the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses (Northern Lighthouse Board)
Some restrictions on access: consult National Records of Scotland staff.
Unless otherwise indicated, items in sections NLC1-19 are closed for 30 years from the date of the last entry.
1 Annual Reports
2/1 Board Records: Minute Books
2/2 Board Records: Schedules of Meetings
2/3 Meeting Papers
2/4 Committee Records
2/5 Miscellaneous Board Records
3/1 Correspondence and reports
3/2 Indexes to correspondence and reports
3/3 General files (general administrative files)
3/4 General Letter Books
3/5 Blue Letter Books
3/6 Blue Memo Books
3/7 Miscellaneous Secretary's and General Manager's Department Records
4/1 Staff Records: Registers and Lists of Lightkeepers
4/2 Staff Records: Establishment Books and other lists
4/3 Lightkeeper's Applications
4/4 Personnel Files
4/5 Miscellaneous Staff Records
5/1 Orders and Circulars: General Orders
6/2 Returns: Shipwreck Returns
7 Notices to Mariners
8 Financial and Accounting records
9 Publicity and Public Relations
9/1 Northern Lighthouse Board News Sheets and Journals
9/2 Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses Christmas Cards
9/3 Miscellaneous Publicity and Public Relations Records
10/1 First World War Letter Books
10/2 Second World War and Emergency Planning Letter Books
10/3 Second World War Files
10/4 War/Emergency Planning Files (cold war)
11/2 Harbour lights letterbooks
11/3 Bound file
11/4 Bound files: first sequence
11/5 Engineers Department Bound Files
11/6 Engineers Department Bound Files
11/7 Miscellaneous Engineer's Department Records
Buildings and maintenance
12/1-9 Lighthouse specifications and schedules
12/10 Dhu Heartach [Dubh Artach] Journal
13/1 Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses: Annual Inspection Voyages
13/2 Inspection of Local Lights
14/1 Ship Logs and other Books
19 Miscellaneous Records
Records of individual lighthouses
Unless otherwise indicated, items in sections NLC20-NLC111 are open to inspection.
20 Ailsa Craig Lighthouse
21 Ardnamurchan Lighthouse
23 Barns Ness Lighthouse
24 Barra Head Lighthouse
28 Buchan Ness Lighthouse
30 Butt of Lewis Lighthouse
36 Copinsay Lighthouse
38 Corsewall Lighthouse
40 Cromarty Lighthouse
42 Davaar Lighthouse
44 Dubh Artach Lighthouse
47 Eilean Glas Lighthouse
48 Esha Ness Lighthouse
51 Fidra Lighthouse
53 Flannan Isles Lighthouse
57 Holy Island (Inner) Lighthouse
58 Holy Island (Outer) Lighthouse
62 Inchkeith Lighthouse
63 Isle of May Lighthouse
70 Loch Indaal Lighthouse
72 Maughold Head Lighthouse (Isle of Man)
73 McArthur's Head Lighthouse
75 Muckle Flugga Lighthouse
78 Neist Point Lighthouse
80 Noss Head Lighthouse
83 Out Skerries Lighthouse
85 Pentland Skerries Lighthouse
86 Pladda Lighthouse
87 Point of Ayre Lighthouse (Isle of Man)
89 Rinns of Islay Lighthouse
91 Rona Lighthouse
92 Rubh' Re Lighthouse
94 Ruvaal Lighthouse
95 Sanda Lighthouse
96 Scurdie Ness Lighthouse
97 Skerryvore Lighthouse
99 St Abbs Head Lighthouse
103 Strathy Point Lighthouse
107 Tarbat Ness Lighthouse
108 Tiumpan Head Lighthouse
110 Turnberry Lighthouse
111 Ushenish Lighthouse
The Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses are vested with the superintendence and management of all lighthouses, buoys and beacons throughout Scotland and the adjacent seas and islands and the Isle of Man under Section 195 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. They are a corporate body, known as the Northern Lighthouse Board (the Board), constituted by Section 193 of that Act. The Commissioners presently consist of: the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General for Scotland; the Lords Provost of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen and the convenors of the Councils for Highland, and Argyll and Bute; the Sheriffs Principal of all the sheriffdoms in Scotland; a person nominated by the Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man and appointed by the Secretary of State; and up to 5 co-opted Commissioners.
In 1782 a number of severe storms highlighted the lack of lighthouses around the Scottish coasts. This prompted George Dempster of Dunnichen, MP, provost of Forfar, to raise the matter of lighthouse provision at the Convention of Royal Burghs in 1784 and subsequently in the House of Commons. The resulting Commons committee recommended legislation, and the Act of Parliament of 1786 (26 Geo III c.101), which founded the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, followed. The act appointed 19 commissioners:
The Lord Advocate and the Solicitor-General for Scotland
The lords provost of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, and the provosts of Inverness and Campbeltown
The eldest bailies of Edinburgh and Glasgow
The sheriffs of Edinburgh, Lanark, Renfrew, Bute, Argyll, Inverness, Ross, Orkney, Caithness and Aberdeen.
The act gave them powers to borrow money, purchase land, and to levy dues from ships to finance their activities. It authorised them to construct four lighthouses:
Scalpay (Eilean Glas)
Mull of Kintyre
Kinnaird Head lighthouse (near Fraserburgh) was the earliest to be built, with a light first exhibited on 1 December 1787 (this building is now open to the public, in conjunction with Scotland's Lighthouse Museum). The other lights were completed within three years.
Extension of Powers
The powers of the Commissioners were extended by Acts of Parliament in 1788 and 1789 (28 Geo III c.2 and 29 Geo III c.52). The latter gave them the general power to construct new lighthouses as they deemed necessary out of surplus dues collected. All the Commissioners' lighthouses in Scotland (apart from the four named above) were constructed under this provision, which was confirmed in subsequent acts. The 1789 Act also gave them the power to enlarge the number of Commissioners by electing the provost of the nearest burgh, or sheriff depute of the county in which a new light was built. A local and personal Act of 1798 (38 Geo III c.57) constituted the Commissioners a corporate body as the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouses.
Purchase of the Isle of May light
The earliest lighthouse in Scotland was constructed on the Isle of May by James Maxwell of Innerwick and John Cunninghame of Barnes, under a patent from Charles I of 1635 (Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, V, pp. 494-5). An 1814 Act (54 Geo III c. 136) empowered the Commissioners to purchase the May light from the Duke and Duchess of Portland, its then owners, and the present lighthouse was then built and illuminated from 1816.
Jurisdiction extended to the Isle of Man
Until 1815, the Isle of Man lay outwith the jurisdiction of any of the lighthouse authorities. To ensure lighthouse coverage there, a Local Act of 55 Geo III c.67 gave the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouses powers to erect two lighthouses on Man, and subsequently the Calf of Man and Point Of Ayre lights were illuminated from 1818. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, ss. 389, 404 gave the Commissioners general powers to construct lighthouses on Man.
Supervision by Trinity House
The Commissioners retained unfettered control over the construction of new lights and seamarks until 1836, when, by the Act of 6&7 Wm IV c.79, ss. 42 3, their proposals for new lighthouses were made subject to the approval of Trinity House. The aim of this was 'the attainment of uniformity of system in the management of lighthouses'. As the funding arrangements of the Commissioners and of Trinity House remained separate at this date, the latter's oversight referred to the character, rather than the cost of the work.
Supervision of local lights and seamarks
Local lights and seamarks were generally erected and maintained under special local Acts of Parliament or burgh charters. The earliest light on the Tay, at Buddonness, was constructed under an Act of the Privy Council of 24 February 1687 (Register of the Privy Council, XVI, p. 616; SRO ref: PC2/23) by the Fraternity of Masters and Seamen in Dundee (later Trinity House of Dundee). On the Clyde, trustees were first authorised by the Act of 29 Geo II c 20 to build a light on Little Cumbrae (records of the Clyde Lighthouses Trust are held at Glasgow City Archives, Ref.: T-CN40-44,T-CN).
Section 38 of the Act of 6&7 Wm IV c.79, s. 38 made lights and seamarks established by these and other harbour and local authorities subject to the inspection and supervision of the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses.
Board of Trade's powers
Section 7 of the Merchant Shipping Law Amendment Act, 1853 provided that dues collected by all the lighthouse authorities (ie Trinity House, Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses and Port of Dublin Corporation) should be aggregated into the Mercantile Marine Fund, administered by the Paymaster General, and payments to the authorities from the fund were made subject to the approval of the Board of Trade. In addition to this financial oversight, section 21 of the Act increased Trinity House's powers over the other authorities. This meant that they could direct the Commissioners to build, maintain, alter or remove any lighthouse within their jurisdiction. Trinity House's directions could, however, only take effect with Board of Trade sanction, and after giving the Commissioners the opportunity to make representations to the Board.
The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 confirmed the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses as a corporate body and as the general lighthouse authority for the lighthouse area defined as 'Scotland and the adjacent seas and islands, and the Isle of Man'. The other general lighthouse authorities were Trinity House for England and Wales, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights. It also consolidated the relative powers of the Commissioners, the Board of Trade and Trinity House.
Funding arrangements for the Highlands and Islands
From 1891, the Western Highlands and Islands Commission recommended the construction by the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses of a number of lights which did not fit the usual criteria for new lights, in that they were too local in their benefits to be financed from the Mercantile Marine Fund (from 1898, the General Lighthouse Fund). The costs of erecting and maintaining 17 lights, two beacons and one buoy were therefore met by the Treasury from the Congested Districts Fund, under the management of the Congested Districts (Scotland) Commissioners.
Removal of Trinity House's powers
Section 33 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1979 removed Trinity House's powers of control and inspection over the Commissioners. It also empowered them to elect up to five members, but specified that they or existing Commissioners should have special knowledge of nautical matters (amending the power given by Section 18 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1974).
The records divide into two main groups:
1. NLC1-20 Headquarters Records. These comprise the annual reports, minutes etc. of the Board of Commissioners itself (NLC1-2 - the only extensive series of records to survive from the 19th century), and the records created by the board's central departments, principally those overseen by the Secretary and by the Engineer, as follows:
The Secretary to the Commissioners was responsible for services to the Board of Commissioners, personnel matters, finance and general administration (see NLC3-10). The Secretary's department recorded its business in the extensive series of Correspondence and Report volumes (NLC3/1-2), and various files. It kept the records of the Board's personnel (NLC4). It also issued various series of orders and circulars to shore stations and lighthouses (NLC5), and issued 'Notices to Mariners' to the seafaring public.
In 1893 the Secretary had under him an Accountant and Cashier, an Examiner of Accounts, three Clerks, and the Superintendent and his staff.
From 1956, the Secretary's title changed to 'Secretary & General Manager'. A separate General Manager was appointed from 1964.
The Superintendent was responsible for the routine activities of the lightkeepers and other outdoor staff, routine maintenance of lighthouses, stores, ships and shore stations and boat attendance. He had under him an Assistant Superintendent, a number of District Superintendents. By 1972, he was reporting to the Engineer-in-Chief. A Marine Superintendent, in charge of the Commissioners' ships, was appointed in 1970.
The Engineer had overall responsibility for the construction and maintenance of lighthouses seamarks and buoys, for radio and radar installations, and for inspections of NLC and other lights. His department generated various series of bound files (see NLC11). His title was changed to 'Engineer-in-Chief' in 1972.
It is worth noting that members of the Stevenson family served as Engineers to the Board from 1808-1938. Many of the family's records, including material relevant to their work for the Commissioners, are held by the National Library of Scotland (see under associated material).
2. NLC20-111 Lighthouse Records. This group comprises records originating in or provided for the manned major lighthouses themselves. These include the orders to the keepers from the Board, returns (monthly, wreck and meteorological) which they were required to make to the Board, visitors albums, and records of the routine running of the lighthouse. All NLC lighthouses have now been automated.
The main sources of genealogical information within these records are the Registers and Lists of Lightkeepers and Establishment Books (NLC4/1-2). However, the Board Minutes (NLC2/1) often note the employment, dismissal, retirements of, and accidents to, individual employees, especially in the 19th century. The General Orders (NLC5/1) detail disciplinary offences of individual keepers, and the Secretary's Correspondence and Reports (NLC3/1) also contain material on individual employees (see especially under subject numbers 93).
Allardyce, K and Hood, E, At Scotland's Edge (1986)
Allardyce, K, Scotland's Edge Revisited (1998)
Hume, J, Harbour Lights (1997)
Mair, C, A Star for Seamen: the Stevenson family of Engineers (1978)
Munro, R W, Scottish Lighthouses (1979)
Stevenson, Robert Louis, Records of a Family of Engineers (1896)
National Records of Scotland:
AD56/325: Lord Advocate's Department (North Unst, status of the Board's Engineer)
CS96/1788-96: Port Authority at Leith, cash books and register (Isle of May)
E73/82/8: Customs Records (Isle of May dues)
GD1/36/9/2-4, 7: Ivory papers (Northern Lighthouses)
GD3/1: Eglinton muniments (Little Cumbrae)
GD9/410: British Fisheries Society (Pittenweem Harbour light)
GD18/3260: Clerk of Penicuik (Parliamentary select committee on lighthouses)
GD46/1/530, 539; GD46/13/89; GD46/1/17/48, 76: Seaforth papers (Lewis lighthouses and beacons)
GD45/16/1432: Dalhousie Muniments (Buddonness)
GD84/2/78: Reay Papers (Cape Wrath)
GD226/1, 18: Trinity House of Leith (Isle of May)
GD271/1, 16: Mackenzie of Muirton (Tarbat Ness)
PA11/10 f.84: Register of the Committee of Estates (Isle of May)
PC2/23: Register of the Privy Council of Scotland (Isle of May)
Register House Plans.
National Monuments Record for Scotland: The Northern Lighthouse Board Drawings Collection was deposited with the National Monuments Record for Scotland in 1986 and 1996.
National Library of Scotland: The National Library of Scotland hold records deposited by the Stevenson family, engineers to the Commissioners for most of the 19th and early 20th century, as Acc.10706.
Glasgow City Archives: Glasgow City Archives hold the records of the Clyde Lighthouse trust (their ref: T-CN40-44,T-CN).