Do we really need to restore Old Beacon, or is conservation the best way to proceed?

When I was writing one of my letters to The Orcadian in September, I referred to the BBC Restoration Village competition and of how, at that time, the Dennis Head Beacon had won the Scottish entry.

As everybody now knows the island went on to take third place overall – a noteworthy achievement indeed.

The BBC Restoration programme obviously captured the imagination of many people. There is, without doubt, an undeniable romance and mystique connected with lighthouses: the history of their construction; their eye-catching, elegant design; their presence round the coastline of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, and, of course, their guidance to shipping with the familiar motto ‘For the Safety of All’.

People voted for the Beacon up and down the land, and as a result great publicity was achieved for the island with whatever benefits it might bring.

The final restoration plan for the Beacon seems to be as follows:

* The restoration of the tower with a new stairway giving access for tourists to the top;

* The outside and inside of the tower to be picked and pointed with doors and windows replaced.

* A “green road”(?) to be constructed between the public road and the Old Beacon.

* The restoration of the ruined cottages with finished interiors which will include box-beds etc — forming what is described as a living museum.

* Water, electricity, public toilet facilities and lighting systems will be installed.

* A replica lantern will be constructed at ground level.

Another part of this restoration package is the repair of the New Lighthouse pier (still in use locally for fishing activities) some distance away – a necessary, and easily achievable piece of work. Of course, those structures are listed with an A listing for the Beacon.

In my letter I merely touched on another word used by those who have responsibility for ancient monuments in England and Scotland.

That was the word conservation – quite a different word from restoration.

I had hoped there could have been a debate within the island as to which of those two might have been chosen or preferred by islanders.

Hopefully, this debate will be undertaken by Historic Scotland. I also, in the letter, mentioned the name of William Morris, who was responsible for establishing the Society for the Protection of Ancient Monuments in England in 1877. He argued very strongly for conservation rather than restoration.

Here is one of his ideas that might, I think, be worth considering:

“If it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine, to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners…”

The original plans for the tower and the lightkeeper’s accommodation show the tower to be only 26 feet in height, though in the ‘agreement’ with the two masons, John White and James Sinclair, Kirkwall, it says the tower shall be 60ft high.

The thickness of the tower wall (in the plan) is 3ft 9in at the base narrowing to 3ft at 26ft.

A measurement taken at the actual base appears to be some inches over 4ft – ensuring more strength. The plan details a solid stone stairway. The steps (sandstone) were broken down at a later date in order to prevent access and little now remains.

The plan for the lightkeeper’s cottage shows only one house. In fact there are two, with the west-most facing house having been added, possibly at a later stage – the division between the two is clear and there is no connecting doorway.

From close observation the remains of Welsh slate can be seen at the point of abutment with the tower, which would indicate that roofing was of Welsh slate.

Measurements of the remains of the two joined houses indicates that what was built (excluding the second building) does not match the plan.

However, those inconsistencies and lack of every detail, may not have been unusual in the early days when the first four experimental lighthouses were built.

There is no indication of the interior finish – box beds etc – though we know that a box bed was acquired by a farm on the island after the vacation of the building.

The restoration of the joined buildings, and the interior, will therefore be restored, it seems to me, based on conjecture rather on proof.

The keeper’s house was still intact in 1871 when a local family connected with lighthouse work – the New Lighthouse (lit 1854) – was recorded in the census as living there. Shortly after this the building was vacated and, presumably, the roof removed at the same time.

So far, seriously missing from the Beacon’s history, as presented to the public, is the very obvious fact that the structure is extremely vulnerable to heavy sea.

Certainly, it has often been said that during the inhabited lifetime of the living quarters, the sea entered the buildings on more than one occasion causing the inhabitants to leave.

Today, it is very evident that sea-thrown stone has piled up on the seaward side of the buildings so that the floor of the dwelling houses varies from being 1ft 8in, to over 4ft below the outside surface.

One can see, for example, how unusually low the seaward-facing window in the first cottage is in relation to the outside ground level.

As recently as 1993 (when considerable damage was done to the A-listed sheep dyke) the wall of the sheep pund (trap) which borders the cottage buildings was partly demolished.

The dyke is really no distance from the building and without doubt, with the right combination of sea, wind and the height of a stream tide, water would have been sweeping through the area.

With the predictions of global warming and subsequent rising of sea levels this problem will probably become much worse as the years pass.

The Old Beacon tower is quite sound and stands as straight as the day it was built (John Sinclair, former OIC building inspector, now deceased, stated in a report written in 1995: “As it stands at present, it would be reasonable to assume that further deterioration of the structure would be minimal and I would fully expect the Beacon to be structurally sound in another hundred years”).

The masonry ball which so elegantly crowns the tower also appears to be sound.

The masons who placed the ball on the top of the tower certainly knew, one would think, what they were about.

To have remained in place for 200 years – come 2010 – is surely proof that it is on the rather unique design of the stone base upon which the cone and ball stand that everything depends, not on the visible, seemingly fragile, few wood timbers.

However, a proper survey by an architect or civil engineer should confirm the durability and construction methods employed to build the supporting structure and whether, in fact, there is a problem.

Health and safety requirements to allow tourists up on the top would certainly seriously alter the elegant lines of the top structure and the architectural balance of the tower.

In fact, I should think that the top stone work would have to be changed (almost re-built in fact) to allow sufficient width for a safe walking passage-way and to provide some form of secure base into which suitable railing could be securely fixed – both to prevent falling from the top and prevent access up to the masonry ball.

In any event, what is the point of climbing another tower when the New Lighthouse commands a spectacular view at almost twice the height (139 ft) and boasts the highest land-based lighthouse in the British Isles?

After all, we are talking about an unlit beacon which was not designed for sight-seeing from the top.

Why sacrifice the aesthetic appeal of the tower for an unnecessary balcony?

Two eminent Scots have both publicly stated that the top of the Dennis Head Beacon should not be compromised: Professor Roland Paxton MBE FRSE (The Scotsman, July 27, and Margaret D. Street MBE FSA (Scot.) The Orcadian, August 31).

Roland Paxton, teacher, researcher, writer and honorary professor at Heriot Watt University, along with Jean Leslie wrote the book Bright Lights – The Stevenson Engineers 1752 – 1971.

He is a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a former chairman of its panel for Historical Engineering works and commissioner on the Royal Commission on the Ancient Historical Monuments for Scotland.

Margaret Street is a former chairman of the Saltire Society, and a life member of the Orkney Heritage Society, having been involved in raising money for St Magnus, the conservation of Papdale House and the Strynd.

She has also been involved, and still is, in the commemorations of Samuel Laing and John Rae. In addition, the preservation of the North Carr Lightship, Wallace statue and many other commemorative project achievements, can be listed in a lifetime of dedicated work for Scotland’s heritage.

What many of us on the island and elsewhere would like is a professional inspection of the tower, with scaffolding erected outside and inside, with the purpose of checking on the top structure and making sure that the crowning masonry ball remains safely in place for the foreseeable future.

In addition, we would want what remains of the dwelling houses to be preserved in their present state.

Weather-resistant outside display boards, now commonly in use at historic sites, could be installed with a general tidy-up of the area.

The buildings could be cleared from fallen stone, and beach stone thrown in, from time to time, by over 200 years sea invasion.

An easy, safe access to the buildings; a ‘cleaned out’ tower, made secure against further bird invasion would be necessary.

There is also, of course, the immediate repair of the Lighthouse pier – a real south-easter would certainly inflict more damage.

The argument put forward that the Old Beacon project would secure a glowing future for North Ronaldsay needs to be debated.

It would, no doubt, increase tourism but it does not solve the one pressing, serious problem that the trust, along with the community council, should be addressing even more vigorously – lack of housing, jobs, and young families.

With about 34 of the present population of 60 inhabitants over 60; five in the 50 – 58 category and around nine aged 30-50, it’s time to concentrate on the three essential requirements mentioned above.

An ambitious programme of change and development is slowly going on at the New Lighthouse, costing many thousands of pounds.

In explanatory trust literature and the BBC Restoration programme, the Old Beacon is mentioned, along with the development of the New Lighthouse.

I was thinking, therefore, that, perhaps, instead of attempting to restore those vulnerable cottages, Morris’s idea mentioned above could be considered.

This could be a carefully-designed interpretation centre constructed entirely separate from the Old Beacon. Additional exhibition space would be gained and such a building, with modern amenities, would be safe from sea invasion.

The Old Beacon is spectacular – provided the masonry ball remains in place. It always has been so and will always attract visitors, as presently does the New Lighthouse.

Once the National Trust for Scotland promotes the two high-quality, self-catering houses planned for the New Lighthouse many more people will be tempted to visit the island.

The full restoration programme will, to my mind, most certainly change the appearance of this familiar and enduring monument and the unique atmosphere of the Dennis Head area created by the passage of time.

There is a continuity there of landscape, ancient stonework backed by the sea and sky in every colour and mood. I was there recently making some studies of the beacon.

A drawing of the Dennis Head Old Beacon on North Ronaldsay,
by Ian Scott.

Before I left, the moon was rising behind the dark tower and ruined buildings. The scene was truly magnificent.

As an artist working in North Ronaldsay, these past 44 years, I would be very disappointed if any of those irreplaceable icons were to be unnecessarily lost without a full and open debate with the people of the island.

I hope that Historic Scotland will look very carefully at any changes proposed to the Old Beacon.

It is a monument of national importance, familiar to generations of islanders and passing mariners.

There it stands on the Dennis Head peninsula, an imposing landmark and, I hope, a lasting memorial to Thomas Smith, the engineer, and those masons and builders who built it there over 200 years ago.

Let me now, if I may, comment on another island issue that has featured prominently, recently in The Orcadian. Since it has generated much discussion on and off the island, perhaps it should be mentioned. Certainly, it merits further open debate.

Once, North Ronaldsay was almost self-sufficient. It was an adventure to get to the island and, once here, there was a real sense of island life and this is something we need to preserve.

Its population in the 1930s was around 283 and by the 1960s still over 130. The island was served for a time by a steam ship sailing once every two weeks in the winter, once a week in the summer and run by a company that had to balance its books at the end of the year.

Nowadays, we hear, it costs millions to subsidise the running expenses of the ro-ro system. Will this support continue I wonder?

On steamer days, in the summer time, the pier was covered with tons of unloaded cargo with many islanders’ goods waiting to be shipped.

Today, as a result of a seriously depleted population, the turn-about time of our weekly ferry can be as short as 35-45 minutes.

Indeed, one might ask whether the weekly, wintertime, freight trip is justifiable in terms of time and oil spent.

Are all those many scheduled trips to the other islands that we read about really sustainable? Is this the only way for the islands to survive?

What, for example, is the breakdown on cargo shipped here and there and what is the revenue generated? And the problem, if it is indeed one, of getting certain types of material out to the island in a timely fashion could perhaps be resolved with better planning and negotiation.

During the summer months, we have three planes per day for seven days, with a freight plane carrying perishables once a week.

More planes are being asked for, plus extra freight flights – even night-time flights are being considered. A second ferry in the week (summer time) has been requested. It’s argued that this is essential. But, once implemented, will this then lead to more planes, more boats, more cars, more tourists?

Is that what the island really wants? Let us be careful that we don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs and destroy the real values of island life.

I reiterate the three essentials which most islanders agree are vital if this island is to survive – houses, jobs and young families.

Hot stones, codling and a well-attended fundraising event

I have just returned from posting some letters at our local post office While I was waiting for attention, I was thinking of the scene that would have been before me had I been able to travel back in time.

I’m thinking of, I suppose, some 50 years or more ago when the population would have been around 140.

In those days it was fairly common for islanders to send Christmas presents of domestic fowls to their relatives. Such a gift in those days was greatly appreciated.

The post office would have been very busy around this time of year. In would come first one customer and then another.

The legs of the hen, duck, or whatever would be tied and labelled, and round the head would be securely wrapped some brown paper.

Those Christmas gifts would go to the Orkney Mainland and even much further afield.

In the wintertime the island’s post boat would still be making the passage to Sanday, though weather conditions at that time of year caused frequent delays.

Otherwise, the SS Earl Sigurd might carry the Royal Mail. For a while that service only occurred once a fortnight.

Sometimes neither post boat or ship would be able to make the trip, which often then meant that the perishable gifts certainly did get the ‘hanging time’ recommended for game.

Such carryings-on would not be tolerated today. As I write I can hear the early morning Loganair plane taking off on its return journey to Kirkwall. Yes, we are living in changed days.

And still on interesting reminiscences from the past, this time I was managing a little shopping at the local shop, Trebb.

There I was, telling of a recent unfortunate episode when I had burned my foot with a hot water bottle. Just imagine such a thing to happen. Anyway, the conversation then centred round the old-fashioned way of making one’s bed warm at this time of year – before the days of rubber, hot water bottles or electric blankets.

When I was staying in the early 1940s at the house in which I was born, there would have been at least eight individuals living ‘under the same roof’ as they say.

How did we manage to heat up cold beds one might ask?

In those days there were at least two makes of stoves. The Enchantress was one and the Victoress, or was it Victress, was another.

Those cast iron stoves, of size 6, 7, and 8, stood well out in the kitchen or living room on four ornate-looking legs.

They had, I remember, two little iron doors that could close up the front which had narrow bars, or ribs, as we used to say, to hold in the burning coal.

And just above that was a narrow, oblong, plate which could be opened for shovelling in coal or sometimes dried cow-pats. When the fire was open, its redness and heat was very lightsome on a cold winter’s night.

A little platform extended in the front with a small recess to hold the ash. On either side were two oven doors, and on at least one of those stoves two smaller doors situated near the burning space of the fire could be utilised, I believe, to shove in a long wood log which seemingly burned satisfactorily.

Those fires – were they, or, at least one of them American – were polished with a black polish called, I think, Zebra and on the lid of the box was, in fact, the striped (yellow – why yellow? – and black) body pattern of this animal.

Also, I remember, on the doors – oven doors, front and side doors – was an attractive design in relief.

On the top were four removable round plates, two for feeding in coal and two giving more heat for cooking or heating water, at least I’m sure I remember the four. Apart from a poker, a special iron tool, called a lifter, was used to raise the top plates which had a little grove for the purpose

But I have digressed mightily. I was going to tell you that the method that I remember best for heating the beds was a carefully chosen, round, not too thick, beach stone.

Those stones, some nine or ten inches in diameter, were put into the fairly ‘roomy’ ovens through the day and so by evening they were very hot.

As bed-time drew nigh, old stockings or whatever were used to cover the stone bed warmers.

I recall especially the lengthy ritual associated with the covering and dispersal of the bed warmers.

Believe it or not this method of warming one’s bed was very effective and, through time, the stones became quite smooth and shiny and a dark brown colour.

Also, I may say, folk had lame or ceramic bottles, called ‘pigs’, which were filled with hot water. They were a round shape, maybe ten or more inches long and some six or so inches high and are still available.

Well, we will not be allowed to send Christmas presents such as those I’ve described, but there is nothing to stop one making use of the old stone bed-warmers – I’m certainly tempted to try one just for old times sake.

This brings me to the main reason for writing this letter.

On Saturday, November 18, the North Ronaldsay Lifeboat Guild held its annual fundraising event.

President, Isobel Muir, opened the proceedings with Evelyn Gray, treasurer, and Sheila Deyell, secretary, on duty at the various stands.

On sale were the usual Lifeboat Institution’s Christmas cards and a variety of other sale-catalogue goods.

There were many other donated items: vegetables, books, baking, jars of home-made jam, ornaments and other attractive things were nicely laid out on tables.

In addition a goodly collection of raffle prizes tempted folk to buy tickets and that alone brought in over £100.

Total monies spent amounted to almost £700, a magnificent sum indeed. Those present enjoyed refreshments at set tables after the event. How very fine it is to have such a get-together in order to support that great organisation, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Time to finish I think. I’m about to make my tea. For a change I shall set about cooking a bit of codling.

Codling, I may say, fished from around the ‘Riff Dyke’. Yes, on two fishing trips, our (my partner and myself) 26-year-old boat, the Mary Jane, – still in very good shape – cut her way through blue seas and three of us successfully tried our luck at the fishing.

Ivan Hourston, the Shapinsay boatbuilder (now retired) certainly made a fine job of the Mary Jane.

The boat, scaled up to 20 feet LOA from detailed measurements, was based on that most famous of our island’s boats, the North Ronaldsay Praam.

The one time Coxswain of the Aberdeen lifeboat, and lecturer in sculpture at Gray’s School of Art, the late Leo A. Clegg, DSC drew up the plan.

The name of the most successful of these praams, and the one used as the model, was the Ruth (15ft 9in LOA) built in the early 1920s by the island boat-builder, Hughie Muir, Shaltisquoy.

William Alister Muir, Waterhouse, his grand-nephew, who died recently, continued to make use of this boat until he hung up his sea-boots in 1982.

How very enjoyable it was to venture forth over familiar waters once more and to see, as the afternoon spent, the low shoreline with the little houses beginning to darken against the evening sky.

And how very grand it was to see the diving gannets in the distance and to watch that most graceful of flying birds, the fulmar.

They would glide and bank, away up into the sky and back round the boat skimming the water one minute and then, with almost unmoving wings, climb once more into the pale blue of a faraway sky.