Revisiting the saga of the Old Beacon

In the more northerly regions of Britain, “saga” is a word conjuring up something of our Viking forebears and their stirring escapades. The word originates from the Old Norse or Icelandic. In Icelandic the word means: “some­thing said” or a “narrative in prose”, somewhat along the lines of a “story”, a “tale”, or a “history”.

Well, the Old Beacon, in North Ronaldsay, about which I have previously written two letters to The Orcadian, one in 2006 and one in 2012, is indeed becoming something of a saga. It’s a saga that will not, I think, be described as one of the greatest of Orkney’s “Ultima Thule”, but nevertheless it’s one that warrants another letter – for not only is the Orkney Beacon some­thing special and historic for North Ronaldsay – it is also unique and available to a far wider community as the only remaining, untouched and impressive example of the first four lighthouses built in Scotland over 222 years ago

It still stands with its tower – pronounced as” structurally sound” by a structural engineer – as it was built, apart from the crowning stone ball replacing the original lantern. And the unroofed (by order of the Northern Lighthouse Board after 1806) adjoining build­ing remains as a substantial and attractive ruin, showing the mason’s interesting internal stonework.  One room (6.5 by 4.7 metres) is obviously a living room, but the other, a later addition (5.1 by 4.9), is puzzling in that it features a roughly constructed, uneven, cobbled floor, such as is nor­mally used for animals, amounting to more than three-quarters of the floor space. It also has the remains of a fireplace with chimney.

The building and tower are about 11.8 metres distant from the high water mark and stand only about 1.5 metres above – measurements to be seriously considered with the recent sea-rising predictions as a result of global warming.

When the 70-foot-high lighthouse was built in1789, it must have indeed been a spectacular sight for the 420 or so inhabitants living at that time in the island. It would have dominated the flat landscape with its scattering of little crofts. Had the lantern been a revolving one instead of being fixed (which caused more shipping casualties) it might have lasted longer than its short operational lifespan of 17 years or so.

This letter is an attempt to clarify some points, respond to arguments, and encourage discus­sion about the future of the building and North Ronaldsay’s continued survival.

Those who admire the Old Beacon made their views clear in a survey distributed by the North Ronaldsay Trust round the island last October/November, when just on 90 per cent of the island expressed an opinion. This is a very high figure, indicative of the intense interest by the community (compare the recent OIC elections where only around 50 percent voted).

Decisively, on the overarching question of whether the Old Beacon should be left more or less as it is, apart from some necessary repairs, 35 out of 39 people (90 per cent) who voted on this question want to leave as it is. Just four people wanted to go ahead with changes to the tower. Similarly, 75 per cent of those voting were in favour of leaving the Old Beacon’s associated buildings as they are. The overwhelming majority feel, as I do, that the monument is special and should be preserved as it has come down to us over the decades.

I’m afraid that the result of the “survey”, though decisively clear, is almost totally being rejected by the directors of the North Ronaldsay Trust (most of whom do not even live from day to day on the island).

An argument, continually reiterated by the trust, is that the development at the Old Beacon is important to the future of the island economi­cally. The directors say there will be: extra planes – for the workers who will transform the build­ing; extra boats (for materials) and more tourists; work for new islanders etc. This, it is said, will keep “everything” going for another three or four years as this work progresses.

Another reason – a so called “moral” one – propagated by a few, is the argument that some 70,000 people, out of Britain’s population of 65 million, voted in the BBC Restoration Village programme for the Old Beacon restoration. What indeed is that in percentage terms? Where is the moral reason for ignoring between 75 percent and 90 per cent of islanders who want the Old Beacon left as it is? Are they less significant than the 70,000 votes out of 65 million?

The proposed development (if allowed) entails the transformation of the remains of the living quarters into at least one three-star grade self-catering cottage. Underfloor heating is proposed, with hidden storage heaters and unobtrusive light­ing, with toilet, shower and electric power; a car park; safety railings, access for people with dis­abilities; some form of protection against the sea, which twice in the past forced a family to leave the building when storms, with high tides, flooded their home. A stairway with preferred access to the top of the tower is another desired feature.

Interestingly, in their “criteria”, Historic Scotland state: “Restoration is regarded as unac­ceptable at those monuments that are of outstand­ing importance for their scenic value, that is, as ruins in the landscape.”

To change the still spectacular ruins of one of the first, and the only remaining original of the first four Scottish lighthouses is, as an art school col­league of mine, of years ago, put it, “sacrilege”. The proposed Old Beacon project is an ambitious undertaking, costing probably more than two million, with many hurdles to overcome i.e. planning permission from OIC, approval by SEPA and Health and Safety authorities, and permission from agencies such as the Scottish Government, Ancient Monuments Scotland and Historic Scotland.

At the end of the day, a few years down the line, if the money becomes available and the full devel­opment goes ahead, what will the island be left with? It will have a monument, once admired and loved by generations of island folk, visitors and decades of tourists in the past, changed mainly into another self-catering cottage in an island which already can cater for over sixty visitors through existing services: Bird Observatory, guest house, and at least five self-catering estab­lishments (some with three and four-star status) and other advertised accommodation.

All of these places in a small island are hard enough to maintain financially. Yet, it seems that grant-giving bodies are being actively pursued, and even convinced, to award public money for another self-catering facility. It is, to my mind and many others, a short-sighted, unnecessary, venture, which will detract from already estab­lished businesses.

It will, if it happens, develop the Old Beacon into something it never was historically for a very few months in the summer time. Will it bring more young families into the island? I don’t believe so, for they require houses to live in. Where is the independent business plan for such a transformation? Where is the convincing justi­fication? I have not, so far, heard a very construc­tive argument — although it has been asked for on numerous occasions.

Another part of the argument put forward is that if two million pounds is available, then just take it – even if the Old Beacon project can’t be justified. But surely the starting-point for everything has to be to target all effort, all thought, all energy, on what is needed to transform North Ronaldsay, and then to seek the money for it; and grants are available for many worthwhile projects apart from modifying ancient monuments.

And one much more disturbing argument is the so far unfounded one (after repeated requests for information) that the three main bodies involved – Endemol/BBC Restoration Village Programme, OIC (who supplied funding) and then Estate/Rinansay Trust – have signed agreements with those who would pursue this controversial project, insisting that the restoration idea must go ahead. I have seen written statements from all three bodies, which deny the existence of such agreements. And is it morally acceptable that grant-giving bodies award public money for com­munity development of up to two million pounds or more, to a project that would, after 26 years, revert back to its original owners, a private trust?

If there is “division” on the island – as is claimed – over the Old Beacon issue, it’s not the first time. Generations ago, a far more serious division occurred with the break-up of the Established Church of Scotland, in 1843, at the time of the Disruption, which involved the island. Another important island issue voted upon was the decision to have the Royal Mail carried by plane (Capt. E. E. Fresson) instead of by sea. There are other examples. But in the case of the Old Beacon, what the island wants has been made indisputably clear. There is not a large division on this issue.

Important is the “criteria” statement by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, who empha­sise the importance of community participation in decision-making. Open consultation (stipulated by all the major grant-giving bodies) within the community is what they advocate. This was done in 2006, when the development officer of the time visited every household on the island and drew up a comprehensive ten-year development plan. This contained many good ideas put forward by people in the island, but no action ever seems to have been taken on it, by the appropriate agencies, in these past five years, and the document has now vanished from sight.

Last week, the first public meeting to be held in the island on the subject of development in over six years took place. No early indication locally was given about the importance of the meeting; no information as to who would be present was provided until the day before the event, and no indication of who had called the meeting. It is possibly not surprising that of the 58 or so adults on the island only 21 attended.

The meeting was hosted by Rory Dutton, devel­opment officer north for DTAS (Development Trusts Association Scotland), who talked about the work of Scottish Trusts, including the North Ronaldsay Trust. Other officials were: marine archaeologist Ted Pollard, who talked on several aspects of this subject and the Old Beacon; Luke Fraser, OIC development officer, who dealt with issues of development, and housing in particular; and Leslie Burgher, chartered architect, who pre­sented a report on the ambitious plans for the Old Beacon. Those presentations, including an account of the North Ronaldsay Trust’s achievements by one of its directors, John Tulloch, took up most of the meeting.

Housing was an important issue discussed – apparent from the many suggestions in an island questionnaire and very much along the lines of my ideas below. Gateway housing was another alternative talked about – successfully utilised in other islands.

The presentation on the proposal for the Old Beacon did not mention the survey of island opinion, with its strong wish to avoid major alter­ations to the monument.

The question for OIC and the grant-giving bodies is just this: do they see the absolute prior­ity for the island’s survival as a big development of the Old Beacon, so important that it must be forced through against the overwhelming weight of island opinion? Or, will they focus instead on the immediate needs of the island with an ageing population — to bring in more families? Would they instead be prepared to look at supporting a practical alternative, which could do some real good for the island?

This would be to single out initially four or five traditional unused/derelict crofts that are close to water and electricity services and restore them in a way that follows sympathetically the continu­ity of the North Ronaldsay crofting landscape, while also incorporating the latest insulation and sustainability features.

This should surely meet the aspirations of organisations such as Historic Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund who, in fact, should want to preserve the unique overall appearance of an old crofting community still virtually – com­pared to elsewhere – unspoiled, and so begin the process of real opportunity and regeneration.

One old croft is, in fact, already being renovated in this way by someone connected to the island. And a number of others have been renovated over time in a way that fits well into the island’s character. Crofts restored in this way could be offered to young families who want to live in North Ronaldsay and can bring in their own work with them. Indeed, it could soon be possible to live in North Ronaldsay and commute to the Mainland as the island might shortly have an early morning and late evening Loganair plane service.

That there are people who want to take up an island lifestyle has been proven in the Fair Isle situation, where there are always applicants for the National Trust’s advertisements for available crofts. Such potential new islanders are made aware of the limitations of work availability, and so arrive sensibly prepared with an alternative source of income.

If only the main grant-giving bodies could forget about the Old Beacon and give instead funding for this kind of housing development, then they could make a real contribution to North Ronaldsay’s survival. OIC already have a new concept in erect­ing inexpensive but highly efficient, temporary kit houses, as explained recently to the North Ronaldsay Community Council, who successfully negotiated with Orkney Housing Association the building of two new houses. Incidentally, those kit houses can be dismantled and taken back to the Mainland if necessary.

Five new families would boost the popula­tion by upwards of 20, with additional children attending the schools. If they should stay, then the “continuity of the North Ronaldsay crafting landscape” could evolve with restored traditional housing.

Looking at it this way, for far less than the cost of the unwanted Old Beacon “theme-park” type transformation, the island could have instead five instant kit houses; a small, necessary surgery/waiting room and a modest care home for our ageing residents, giving immediate work for carers.

Direct investment in new housing and care facil­ities seems to me to be a vibrant living alternative to spending huge amounts of public money on a Grade A Ancient Monument a few yards away from the fury of the winter seas

Historic Scotland have preservation grants and, with other assistance, the monument can simply and inexpensively be preserved as most islanders and others prefer it should be. In Orkney alone, there are many historic build­ings and ancient ruins dating back thousands of years. They are maintained by a local conserva­tion team, approved by Historic Scotland. The work that is needed at the Old Beacon is a straightforward preservation job (including making secure the top of the tower) that abso­lutely should be done whatever happens.

The building and tower has survived remarkably well for over 200 years without any attention and it is still impressive and evocative as a once-lived-in dwelling – more so with the unroofed nature of the place and the visible interior masonry construction.

The Old Beacon should remain as it has come down to us — a unique and very impressive monument and the only remaining example of Scotland’s first four lighthouses. Simple conser­vation will ensure its iconic presence far beyond our lifetime.

And other generations will have the opportunity to admire, use their imagination and enjoy the beauty, mystery and solitude of that peninsula, and that old tower and dwelling house, that once commanded the high seas to the west, the north, and between Sanday and distant Fair Isle.

From ‘A Letter to North Ronaldsay’ by Ian Scott from The Orcadian, Thursday 17th May, 2012