Dr Alison Morrison-LowBy Dr Alison Morrison-Low, Principal Curator, Science

As we await the full reopening of the transformed National Museum of Scotland next summer, it is always good to be reminded of the outstanding collections held by National Museums Scotland. The material that has come to us over the years relating to lighthouse technology is of international significance, and no other collection in the United Kingdom has quite the same depth and breadth. Much of it had been on display in the former Civil Engineering gallery, which opened in April 1928. However, the contents of the gallery were packed up just before construction work began on the National Museum of Scotland in 1992.

It all started in 1859, when the Royal Society of Edinburgh decided to pass over to the newly opened Industrial Museum of Scotland a group of items associated with the building of the various lighthouses on the Eddystone Rock, off Plymouth. These items had come to the Society in 1828 from the widowed Susan, Countess of Morton. The material had been put together for, and consulted by, the great early civil engineer, John Smeaton, whose pioneering stone lighthouse on this dangerous reef remained standing until the 1870s, when the rock itself proved to be crumbling.

Engraving of John Smeaton's lighthouse at Eddystone

Engraving of John Smeaton's lighthouse at Eddystone.

This stone-built structure formed the inspiration for lighting one of Scotland’s most dangerous hazards for shipping: the Inchcape Reef off the east coast of Scotland, which threatened sailing vessels trading with the ports in the rivers Tay and Forth. Twice a day the reef is entirely submerged, but when the water is at its lowest it is uncovered to reveal a razor-sharp rock about 430 feet in length by 230 in breadth; for much of the time the danger lies just below the surface. There is an old legend that  a good Abbot of Aberbrothock (Arbroath) Abbey put a bell on the rock, which swung in the wind to warn mariners of the peril;  hence the name ‘the Bell Rock’.

The Northern Lighthouse Board was formed by Act of Parliament in 1786, with authority to make Scotland’s dangerous coasts safer for those who sailed around them. Their first Engineer was Thomas Smith, originally an Edinburgh lamp-maker, who took to his new trade of lighting Scotland’s coasts with great success. Smith brough this stepson Robert Stevenson into the business in 1796, and in due course he became Engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board; his memorial remains the Bell Rock lighthouse, first lit in February 1811.

Oil painting of the Bell Rock Lighthouse by A MacDonald of Arbroath

Oil painting of the Bell Rock Lighthouse by A MacDonald of Arbroath. MacDonald painted this when out at the Bell Rock in 1820, painting the interior walls! The image helped form the basis for JWM Turner's famous watercolour.

But the collection here contains much more:  items constructed for the international trade exhibitons held during the latter part of the 19th century; the oldest lens-structure for a UK lighthouse; the prototype of the largest lens formation ever used; and, now, modern  additions for these days of automation, including an automatic bulb changer, hand-held GPS and a solar panel.

Automatic lamp changer

CG – 6P Lampchanger. Mechanisms such as this allowed lightbulbs in electrified lighthouses to be changed automatically.

You can see an array of items from our collection in the Shining Lights exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland. The exhibition is part of the Bell Rock 200 celebrations, which will continue well into 2011.