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Discover the story of the people who designed, built and operated Scotland's lighthouses, lighting a safe passage for mariners for more than 250 years, through the objects which brought their role to life.

The history of our lighthouse collection

The National Museum of Scotland is full of fascinating objects revealing the history of lighthouses in Scotland. Our remarkable collection of objects relating to lighthouses was mainly assembled during the second part of the 19th century, for display in the Royal Museum building on Chambers Street. At the time, the museum was known as the Industrial Museum of Scotland, before becoming the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art in 1866, and the lighthouse material formed part of a collection that celebrated contemporary advances in science and technology.

Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art 1866

Above: The lighthouse collection at the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art in 1866.

The collection on tour

The many models in our collection were not just objects of interest, but were used to showcase the groundbreaking engineering achievements of the Northern Lighthouse Board and the famous Stevenson dynasty, who built most of the lighthouses in Scotland and to promote their work with an aim to selling their systems overseas.

Until its eventual transfer to National Museums of Scotland in 1993, the lighthouse collection was owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board. Therefore, before the First World War, as well as being on display in the Museum, the collection was often shown at international exhibitions, as a shining example of British innovation.

The stereo photo below, made by the London Stereoscopic Company, shows a display put on by the Northern Lighthouse Board at the 1862 International Exhibition, held in London.

The display by the Northern Lighthouse Board at the 1862 International Exhibition, London.

Above: The display by the Northern Lighthouse Board at the 1862 International Exhibition, London.

The collection today

A selection of objects from our lighthouse collection are on permanent display in the Industry and Empire gallery, which highlights the way in which industry carried the name of Scotland across the globe during the Victorian era. Lighthouse lenses can also be found in the Grand Gallery and Discoveries gallery.

Here is a selection of objects we have in our collection:

  • A nocturnal shows the local time at night. This brass example was made around 1620, probably in the Flemish workshop of Michael Coignet.

    A nocturnal shows the local time at night. This brass example was made around 1620, probably in the Flemish workshop of Michael Coignet.

  • Engraving of Henry Winstanley's Eddystone Lighthouse.

    Engraving of Henry Winstanley's Eddystone Lighthouse.

  • Reflector with facetted mirror parabolic reflecting surface

    Reflector with facetted mirror parabolic reflecting surface

  • This three-face skeleton clock was made by James Clark of Edinburgh in 1828, for use at Cape Wrath Lighthouse.

    This three-face skeleton clock was made by James Clark of Edinburgh in 1828, for use at Cape Wrath Lighthouse.

  • Oil painting of the Bell Rock, by A Macdonald of Arbroath in 1820: The Bell Rock is the oldest surviving rock lighthouse in the world.

    Oil painting of the Bell Rock, by A Macdonald of Arbroath in 1820: The Bell Rock is the oldest surviving rock lighthouse in the world.

  • Model of a first order dioptric fixed light. It stands on an elaborate pedestal of cast bronze Egyptian figures and is a work of art in its own right.

    Model of a first order dioptric fixed light. It stands on an elaborate pedestal of cast bronze Egyptian figures and is a work of art in its own right.

  • 4000 watt electric lighthouse lamp

    4000 watt electric lighthouse lamp

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

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

  • Group flashing hyper-radiant lighthouse optic.

    Group flashing hyper-radiant lighthouse optic.

  • Group flashing apparatus, designed by David A. Stevenson for Eilean Glas on the Isle of Harris. From 2000, this item has been out on loan at the Science Museum, London.

    Group flashing apparatus, designed by David A. Stevenson for Eilean Glas on the Isle of Harris. From 2000, this item has been out on loan at the Science Museum, London.

  • First order dioptric holophotal revolving light, designed by David A. Stevenson for Inchkeith Lighthouse between 1889 and 1985.

    First order dioptric holophotal revolving light, designed by David A. Stevenson for Inchkeith Lighthouse between 1889 and 1985.

  • Compressed-air foghorn

    Compressed-air foghorn

  • This glazed lantern structure, designed by Robert Stevenson, was originally installed at Girdleness Lighthouse, Aberdeen, in 1833.

    This glazed lantern structure, designed by Robert Stevenson, was originally installed at Girdleness Lighthouse, Aberdeen, in 1833.

  • This fixed azimuthal condensing light was used for the River Tay leading lights at Buddonness for the Fraternity of Masters and Seamen, Dundee.

    This fixed azimuthal condensing light was used for the River Tay leading lights at Buddonness for the Fraternity of Masters and Seamen, Dundee.

  • This alternating current lighthouse generator machine, devised by Michael Faraday, was installed in 1871 in the South Foreland lighthouse.

    This alternating current lighthouse generator machine, devised by Michael Faraday, was installed in 1871 in the South Foreland lighthouse.

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A lighthouse keeper's life

In 1998, the last lightkeeper left Fair Isle, the only manned lighthouse left in Scotland. This video shows what life was like for lighthouse keepers stationed around Scotland.

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