A coal-fired beacon was established in 1635/36 by James Maxwell of Innerwick, and John and Alexander Cunningham. The beacon, the first permanently manned one in Scotland and considered at the time to be one of the best in existence, used around 400 tons of coal per year, requiring three men to look after it.
In 1814, the Northern Lighthouse Board purchased the island from the Duke and Duchess of Portland and a proper lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1816; an ornate gothic tower on a crenelated stone building designed to resemble a castle. Rising to 24 metres high and with accommodation for three light keepers and their families the structure is now a listed building.
The lighthouse was upgraded in September 1836, when a new light and refractor lens were fitted, and further extensive work took place in 1885–1886. Another smaller lighthouse, the Low Light was constructed a few hundred metres from the main light in 1843 to provide (with the main lighthouse) a pair of lights which would become aligned to help ships avoid the North Carr Rock 11 kilometres to the north of the island off Fife Ness. That building is now used for bird watching.
The light is now monitored and controlled via a UHF radio link to Fife Ness Lighthouse and then by landline to the Northern Lighthouse Board headquarters in Edinburgh.
The modern light produces two white flashes every 15 seconds and has a range of 41 kilometres in good visibility.
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