Shining Lights


Virginia Mayes-WrightA guest post by Virginia Mayes Wright, Director, The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses

Most people don’t realise how often museums work together. The Shining Lights exhibition has given National Museums Scotland the opportunity to work with other museums such as the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. As the Director of the Museum, I would like to tell you a little bit about it and how we fit into the Shining Lights story.

Kinnaird Head lighthouse at sunset. Photo by Best DSC.

Kinnaird Head lighthouse at sunset. Photo by Best DSC.

The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is a small museum in Fraserburgh. It has a staff of ten but a nationally recognised collection of over 100,000 artefacts, archives and images. The Museum tells the story of Scottish lighthouses from the inception of the Northern Lighthouse Board to the modern day. Based at Kinnaird Head Lighthouse, the first Scottish Lighthouse run by the Northern Lighthouse Board, the Museum also offers visitors an opportunity to step back in time and learn about the lives of the keepers who lived and worked here.

Virginia Mayes-Wright outside Kinnaird Head lighthouse, home of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses

Virginia Mayes-Wright outside Kinnaird Head lighthouse, home of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. Photo by D Brown.

The Museum is extremely lucky to have two ex-lighthouse keepers and one lighthouse keeper’s daughter working as guides. This connection to the site gives visitors a personal sense of an otherwise unimaginable way of life. In the Museum’s fifteen years of operation we have tried to include the memories of our ex-keepers in the stories we tell throughout the galleries. Shining Lights gave us a chance to film our lighthouse keeper’s daughter Kirsten for the first time.

The day of the filming loomed and staff prepared as best we could for the invasion of the cameras. As a small museum, anything unusual has to be prepared for. The crew arrived and set up a filming area in the Museum. There was a real buzz of excitement that only a film crew can produce. Staff tiptoed around and held their breath.

Kirsten survived the ‘ordeal’ or her debut in front of the cameras. The film of her experiences, and the memories of other people involved in the lighthouse service, can be seen in the Shining Lights exhibition, and below. We will also be showing sections on the computers in the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. Most importantly we have these recordings for posterity, so that we can continue to tell the story of Scottish lighthouses into the future.

I hope you agree that Shining Lights has been greatly illuminated by the inclusion of the stories of our staff and other ex-keepers. There is no replacement for real human experience.

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.

Julie OrfordBy Julie Orford, Assistant Curator of Science

As many others that work in museums will agree, we have the kind of job that isn’t left behind when we leave the building at the end of the day. Since January, the majority of my days have been spent working on the Shining Lights exhibition and, as a result, I’ve found the wonderful world of lighthouses seeping into my free time as well.

It started when I ordered the lighthouse-based Doctor Who classic ‘Horror at Fang Rock’ from the Tom Baker era (who I consider to be one of the finest Doctors) which is well worth viewing if only to laugh at the pitiful special effects and wooden acting.

But there was a moment on a holiday I took over the summer when I think this infiltration of work life into my free time took on a new dimension, with the creation of a lighthouse inspired home-made parabolic reflector.

We have a number of genuine parabolic reflectors going into the exhibition, two of which are my favourite objects so before I show you my example, here’s where I found my inspiration!

The first is a reflector which has the appearance of an inverted glitter ball:

Parabolic reflector

An early parabolic reflector.

This is an example of early lighthouse illumination. The small rectangles of silver backed mirror are set into the tin surround in a bed of plaster of Paris and the light is fuelled by whale oil – you can see the oil reservoir which rests on a small ledge at the back of the reflector.

The second reflector is a far more sophisticated example designed by Robert Stevenson and installed at the Bell Rock lighthouse in 1811. It displays a number of innovations in lighthouse illumination such as the frost lamp under the oil reservoir which keeps the oil at an ambient temperature throughout the winter months. But what I like most about this object is purely aesthetic: I love the contrast of the silvered reflective inner surface with the copper exterior and gleaming brass Argand lamp. I doubt the Lightkeepers whose job it was to keep the brass work shining thought of it in the same way, but it could be down to their constant cleaning that has kept this object looking ready for service 200 years later. (Although I mustn’t give the Lightkeepers of old all the credit: museum conservation staff have also worked very hard on the objects!)

Parabolic reflector designed by Robert Stevenson

Parabolic reflector designed by Robert Stevenson.

Stevenson's reflector from the side

Stevenson’s reflector from the side.

So now for my fine example:

Julie's home-made reflector

My home-made reflector.

I think my version, which is constructed from a £20 barbecue and a hurricane lamp, does lack the elegance of Stevenson’s design but it demonstrates the principle of reflected light producing stronger illumination, especially when it’s compared with the inferior light emanating from the lamps hanging in the background. My lamp is fuelled by citronella oil rather than the whale oil and paraffin used in the past – we normally use paraffin but switched to citronella – a decision made to try to keep the midges at bay!

I didn’t go as far as trying to fashion a Fresnel lens or a Brewster burning glass to increase the beam but that’s a modification that may come about the next time I’m on holiday…

A guest post by Susan Ciccantelli, descendant of two generations of May Isle light keepers.

Three generations of descendants of Lucy Anderson returning from their day on the Isle of May – July 4, 2009. (l. to r.) Susan Ciccantelli, Dale and Roger Acker, Allison Bohr. Photo courtesy of James Allan, who also kindly flew me over the island on my second visit in 2003.

It is both great fun and a privilege to have the chance to tell my family’s story of survival, rescue, and romance in the run up to the opening of Shining Lights, an exciting exhibition devoted to Scotland’s lighthouses, coming up in October at the National Museum of Scotland.

My ‘three greats’ grandmother, Lucy Anderson Dowie, was born in 1790 on the Isle of May, the last child of eight. Her father, George Anderson, and his father, James, both keepers of the May light, were also born on the May. Lucy was barely one year old when a violent storm hit the area, ripping iron ornaments from churches in Edinburgh, and flooding houses throughout Fife.

On Sunday evening, January 23, 1791, George, his wife, and their six youngest children went to sleep as usual on the second floor of the tower. The storm raged on and at some point, the assistant keepers were forced to retreat from their task of tending the light. The coal brazier was extinguished, and the winds forced the coal ash lying about the tower into its tiny rooms, filling them with smoke.

Back on shore a group of concerned citizens noticed the light out on Monday. The storm finally died down enough by Wednesday so that a rescue boat filled with men was able to make its way out to the island. The assistant keepers were found alive, but dizzy from the coal fumes. The discovery of the family, mostly all of them perished, must have been a grim one. But nestled under the covers, barely alive at her mother’s breast, was little Lucy. She was brought back to shore, and, some years later, married one of the men who had been in her rescue ship, Henry Dowie, my ‘three greats’ grandfather!

Old Parochial Register, Edinburgh, showing marriage of Lucy Anderson and Henry Dowie

Old Parochial Register, Edinburgh, showing marriage of Lucy Anderson and Henry Dowie.

In 1811, with the first three of their 12 children in tow, Henry and Lucy sailed over and settled in the (then) brand new village of Andes, New York.  Henry Dowie made a name for himself in business and local government. And, like Lucy, my ‘two greats’ grandma, Sarah Booth Dowie Acker, was Lucy and Henry’s last born daughter. Sarah became a school teacher, and travelled to her students on horseback. She married a Presbyterian minister, Henry Jacob Acker, who would later serve in the Civil War. We have many of his letters and diaries.

Of Sarah and Henry Acker’s five children, only one, my great grandfather, Henry Sherwood Acker, married and had children. And Sarah’s last born daughter, Margaret Kate Acker, also a school teacher, and one of the first graduates of Vassar College, lived to be 100 years old. It was our Aunt Margaret (I met her just once when I was very young) who saved and handed down all of the documents that provided so many clues for all of my research and findings. Were it not for these saved documents and the fabulous resource and search engine of Scotland’s People, I could not have discovered most of this wonderful story.

I guess there is one other important ‘driver’. We — me, my siblings and Acker cousins — were told the story of Lucy and the lighthouse as small children, but I really never got interested in knowing more about it until my own son, Noah Anderson Graves — yes; middle named for Lucy and the lighthouse keepers — was born in 1993.  Such is the miracle and mystery of life: the notion of Lucy’s survival truly packed its punch when I peered into Noah’s shining little face! On a trip back to Philadelphia from a stay with friends in Cooperstown, NY, we decided to try and locate the monument in the cemetery that tells the stories of Lucy and Henry.  All we had to go on was a photocopy of the 1893 article published in the Andes Gazette.

Article about Lucy and the Isle of May in the Andes Gazette, 1893

Article about Lucy and the Isle of May in the Andes Gazette, 1893. Note for those of you paying close attention to such details: the ‘1789’ date reported in the excerpt below IS an error.

It was a rainy day, and I was eager to get home to Philadelphia. Fortunately for all of us who are now enjoying the fruits of my subsequent research into our ancestors, Michael (Noah’s dad) has far better navigational skills than I do, and was just as curious as I was. After many rounds through the tiny village I was ready to head home. Not Michael! With his persistence we finally located the walled off section where Lucy, Henry, and many of their children and grandchildren are buried. What a find!

Grave of Lucy Anderson and Henry Dowie

Grave of Lucy Anderson and Henry Dowie, in Adnes Cemetery, New York.

Inscription on the grave of Lucy Anderson Dowie.

Inscription on the grave of Lucy Anderson Dowie. The full text reads: “To the memory of OUR MOTHER, Lucy Anderson, wife of Henry Dowie. Born on the Isle of May, in the Frith of Forth, Scotland; where in 1789 (sic – she was born in 1790) her parents and their entire family met an awful death from suffocation. She alone, by a special providence was preserved, and was found three days after the fatal event, alive and sucking the corpse of her mother. God in His infinite mercy preserved her, and in His goodness blessed her with a disposition in which every female virtue shown preeminently; a pattern of piety, of patience in affliction; was invaluable as a mother, beloved as a friend, and for the last thirty years of her life was a member of the M.E. church of which she was an ornament. She breathed her last in the full hope of a glorious immortality, January 5, 1845, aged 54 years, 10 months, 20 days.

The Dowie plot in Andes Cemetery

The Dowie plot in Andes Cemetery.

And our story continues, since many of the mysteries surrounding the lives of Lucy and Henry remain to be solved. Where did Lucy grow up? She had two older sisters, possibly married and living in Fife, who were not in the lighthouse that night. Where is her Scottish family buried? Probably, I think, on the May, but there is no proof of this. How did Henry ‘connect’ with her again? And where are all my fellow descendants of their many other children here on this side of the ‘pond?’

I know that in this age of Internet and split-second discoveries it is not out of the question to imagine that, with the help of interested individuals on both sides, I might get to solve many of these mysteries before I myself am scattered to the winds around the May (a flock of puffins as my escort, aye!).

Before that day, however, I hope to enjoy many more visits to this jewel of an island, including an extended stay during the (brutal!) month of January. Yes! I would love to experience the May as it was, that fateful night in 1791.

Photo taken by me from the aircraft of James Allan. Without a doubt, one of the most exciting moments of my life; to finally see the Isle of May with my very own eyes!

Photo taken by me from the aircraft of James Allan. Without a doubt, one of the most exciting moments of my life; to finally see the Isle of May with my very own eyes!