The lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1821 and is the oldest lighthouse on Shetland.
The name Sumburgh comes from Norse – Sunn Borg, the South Broch. On Mr Stevenson’s inspection voyage of August 1815, he stated that “Sumburgh Head was an eligible situation for a lighthouse and he will survey the rock and report as to the proper site for a lighthouse.”
The building work started in January 1819 with Mr John Reid of Peterhead as the building Contractor. Sumburgh had walls of double thickness to keep out the damp. It also had 26 reflectors instead of the normal 21 and in 1822 the annual cost of maintaining this station was £650.00.
The optical apparatus is group flashing with Stevenson’s equiangular refractor showing flashes every 30 seconds. The contractors were Chance Brothers & Co Ltd of Birmingham and also James Dove & Co of Greenside, Edinburgh.
The following notes of wrecks at Dunrossness may be interest.
- 15th October 1820 ‘Freemason’. Ship of Lerwick, Leslie, Master. Foundered at the entrance to Greetness Voe bound from Peterhead to Greetness with glass & materials for Sumburgh Head Lighthouse which was then being erected. One man was saved.
- 19th January 1864 ‘Royal Victoria’. Ship of Liverpool, Captain Thomas Leslie. Foundered Latitude. 63°N Longitude 13°W Sunderland to Calcutta with coal. Nineteen saved, Thirteen perished, one lifeboat with Captain and some of the crew came to Scatness some of the crew dead and one badly frostbitten. Captain Leslie and five of the crew interred at Dunrossness Churchyard. A bell was presented by Captain Leslie’s parents and put to Sumburgh Head to be used as a fog bell but on the establishment of a fog signal in 1906 (which was discontinued in 1987) it was removed and hung in the Parish Church at Dunrossness, where it still remains.
Sleeping on the job
The most serious offence a lightkeeper could commit was falling asleep on watch as this might allow the light to be extinguished, impair its efficiency, or even alter its character by letting the revolving machinery run down. There were fifteen cases of this kind in the second half of the 19th Century, the worst was a conspiracy at Sumburgh Head in 1871 by which two lightkeepers agreed not to report the other for sleeping at his post; one of them was a Principal lightkeeper with 23 years service – both were dismissed.
The station was fully automated in 1991 and the former keepers’ cottages and outbuildings (not the tower) are owned by the Shetland Amenity Trust. The Trust has renovated and restored the buildings at a cost of £5.4million to create a world class visitor attraction which complements the sights, smells and sounds of this remarkable nature reserve and beautiful location.
The Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Visitor Centre and Nature Reserve was officially opened by our Patron, HRH The Princess Royal in 2014. For more information on the Trust visit www.sumburghhead.com.