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A Light on Elie Ness

By Alan Provan

In the early part of the 20th century pressure was building on the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses for the erection of a lighthouse on Elie Ness a promontory of land on the North coast of the Firth of Forth between the Isle of May and Inchkeith. Master Mariners of all nationalities were in favour of this and their main argument was that in bad weather, when off Elie Ness, they couldn’t see the light on Isle of May or on Inchkeith.

In his report New Works 1907/08 the Engineer to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses David A. Stevenson B.Sc. F.R.S.E. M.Inst. CE, grandson of Robert Stevenson the famous Civil and Lighthouse Engineer and cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, made a case for a light to be sighted on Elie Ness. The Northern Lighthouse Board operates under statute and is the General Lighthouse Authority for Scotland and the Isle of Man. He said:

“this light would undoubtedly be of great assistance to vessels coming up the Firth of Forth. Problems with a great number of harbour and shore lights, increase traffic to ports on the Fife coast, Elie Ness is a decided projection from the line of the coast”

and he agreed with the Mariners that in dirty weather lights on the Isle of May and Inchkeith could not be seen when off this part of the Coast.

The Commissioners had approached Trinity House in 1906 and their approval had been received on 17th October to build a light at Elie. At a General Lighthouse Authority meeting on 30th January 1907, at the Board of Trade London, held for approval of new lighthouses the final decision of approval to erect a light on Elie Ness was given by the then President of the Board of Trade David Lloyd George MP (later to become Liberal Prime Minister and also involved in shortage of shells and controversy connected with WW1). The Northern Lighthouse Board was represented by Mr James Ferguson KC, Sheriff of Forfar.

In September 1907 permission was given to the Commissioners by the Admiralty to approach the HM Coast Guards and Reserves Edinburgh for the Coastguardsmen stationed at Elie to become attendants for the new light. In a letter dated 26thJune 1907 from C Dick Peddie for the Commissioners to the District Captain HM Coastguard and Reserves Queen Street Edinburgh, before permission from the Admiralty was gained, it said:

“the work involved and the time occupied, will be limited, consisting principally of lighting the burner at night and extinguishing it in the morning and possibly charging an Acetylene Gas Generator at intervals of a week or more”.  

Another letter dated 10th of August said that:

“it has been decided to fit it (Elie Ness) with a revolving apparatus which will require to be wound up every four hours”.

On 16thOctober financial agreement was reached, £20 per annum to the Station, and the Coastguardsmen at Elie were appointed as attendants. This allowed the power of the light to be increased from 2000 to 20000 candle power and also allowed the use of a revolving optical apparatus and fixed acetylene light showing 1 flash every 6 seconds, this is still the character of the light in 2023. Permission was received in November 1907 from Trinity House to this arrangement and set up at Elie Ness the letter stating:

“owing to arrangements having been made with the Admiralty for the Coast Guard to attend the light, it has been found possible to employ a flashing apparatus and a fixed acetylene light instead of the fixed apparatus and a flashing oil light originally intended, and that the Commissioners accordingly propose to adopt a character therefor of one flash of about one second duration every six seconds, with an intensity of about 20,000 candles, in lieu of a character of four seconds light and two seconds dark with a candle power of 2,000 only as previously agreed to”.

Following talks with Mr WL Jamieson, Factor for Elie Estate on whose land the Commissioners wanted to build the Beacon it was agreed on 21st October 1907 that the position would be Lat. 56° 11′ 5″ North  Long. 002° 48′ 50″ West. Mr Stevenson had initially chosen the high ground of Elie Ness, on Shepherds Law, for the site of the  two structures. This position was rejected, in a letter of 19th October from Mr Jamieson to The Secretary on the instructions of Mr Baird the owner of Elie Estate, as this land was under cultivation so the lower area locally known as the Fish Rock was agreed on. The letter also stated that the Commissioners or Contractor must arrange with tenant as to access during construction. A feu duty of 2/6 per annum was also requested.

In the East of Fife Record of 19th June 1908, when the buildings were complete, a poem written by G Bain, consisting of 13 verses, entitled “A WAIL FRAE THE FISH ROCK AT ELIE” the first verse said:

To ye wha care, come hear my wail
For I’m in great distress
Nae maire you’ll ken the auld fish rock
I’m noo ca’d Elie Ness

And the last verse:
O blaw ye winds, and rise ye waves
Wi’ vengeance sweep o’er me
And hurl this ugly fabric to
The bottom of the sea

[To view the entire poem CLICK HERE]

G Bain was obviously unhappy at the apparent change of name from Fish Rock to Elie Ness and the Lighthouse on it though a plan of the area of proposed changes to Elie Harbour in 1815 by Robert Stevenson had the point as Elie-ness with no mention of the Fish Rock. An elderly resident of Elie tells of a sweet shop on the south side of High Street, just before the First World War, run by “old man Bain”, was he the  poet? She used the shop there occasionally to buy sweets on her to way to and from the Station and Elie Primary. She would catch the train from Kilconquhar Station to Elie Station if the weather was bad.

On 24th October Mr James Lawrie, Builder of Anstruther, was chosen by tender to erect the Tower and Gas Room for Elie Ness Light. On his death in June 1909 it was reported in the East of Fife Record that Mr Lawrie had been born, in 1855, on the high seas on a transporter on its way back to Great Britain from the Crimean War. Mr Lawrie won the Tender, his price of £262 was chosen over tenders from other firms including Messrs. Sunter & Son, Elie – R Skinner, Newton of Balcormo, Arncroach – John Clark, Anstruther – Pearson & Simpson, Elie. Mr Lawrie said that granted favourable weather conditions he expected the work to be finished late March or early April. 

Elie Ness Light as built and up to 1959

The installation of the acetylene gas generating plant and flasher unit was awarded to Messrs. W Moyes and Co. Glasgow. The lantern and associated machine was awarded to Messrs J. Dove and Co. Edinburgh to install and the supply of the revolving apparatus was awarded to Chance Bros. Co. Ltd. Birmingham. Early in December Mr Stevenson appointed Mr A Sinclair of Port Ellen, Islay as Inspector of the masonry works at Elie Ness (usual rates of pay 10/6 a day and 10/- a week lodging allowance), at this time Mr Sinclair was also appointed as Inspector of the works at Bressay Fog Signal. Mr Lawrie commenced the building work shortly before Christmas 1907 and it was finished in the third week of April when work started installing the Gas Plant, all machinery and fitting out the insides of both structures.

Notice to Mariners No. 9 of 1908 (picture below) issued by C. Dick Peddie, Secretary to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, stated that on or after 1st October an unwatched Beacon Light will be exhibited from Elie Ness showing a FLASHING WHITE LIGHT – one flash every six seconds and will be visible all round the horizon.

This is a copy of the Notice to Mariners issued by the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses to advise Mariners of the commencement  of the light on Elie Ness (National Archives Scotland).

The light had been on trial for several weeks to ensure all machinery and apparatus was working correctly and to give time for the Coastguardsmen to receive instruction and become proficient in their duties as attendants and was officially lit on 1st October 1908. Although a good deal of trouble was experienced for the first year with the machine stopping during the night, making the light “stand”, the machine and weights problems were eventually overcome.

In his Report on the Progress of New Works 1908-1909 Mr Stevenson reported that “the light is a powerful one and is giving satisfaction to sailors”. He also reported that the cost of the light was £978-4s-3d, the estimate having been £2,000.

Elie Ness Light 2005

Elie Ness continued being powered by calcium carbide and water generating acetylene gas till converted to mains electric in July 1959, at a total cost of £2600. As early as 1956 it was reported that the machinery and associated workings were by this time needing replacement and the Commissioners foresaw the withdrawal of the full time Coast Guard station at Elie. At this time all Minor Lights round the coast that had their own gas generating plants were being changed to either gas in cylinders or to mains electric, this depended on the geographical position of the Light. As Elie Ness was close to the mains supply it was decided that mains power was best for this Light. The power cable was laid to the light in April and conversion work commenced at the tower in June. When this was taking place a rapid flashing temporary light, was established giving one red flash every second, known as a Winker Beacon.  Also installed at this time was an automatic back up battery supply to a secondary lantern and a little later in 1964 a single acetylene cylinder with gas lantern was fitted as a further back up. As the new light required to be switched on and off each day the Coast Guard continued as attendants. Instruction had also to be given in use of batteries, fuses, lamp changer etc. It can be seen from the two photographs that a significant change was made to the appearance of the light tower when the conversion took place to allow for the installation of the electric light. An outside ladder to gain access to the top of the tower was also fitted as the access from inside the tower was closed off when the top of the structure was opened and had to be sealed from the weather. The gas generating building was converted to take batteries, electric panels meters etc. It is rumoured that the lantern structure was found to be of use in a local garden for a number of years. All new equipment, machinery etc was supplied by Stone-Chance Ltd of Essex.

Full-time Coast Guard ceased at Elie in 1969 and a local man was appointed as attendant and observer of the Light (Mr J McGill-Ovenston). Further changes to the equipment were made and have been made over the piece to allow the light to work totally unmanned. The attendant was only required to visit the light once every two weeks or thereabouts. Local man, Eddy Stephen, was the last attendant with sole responsibility for Elie Ness, having been appointed to the post on 20th February 1975. 

As of August 2004, following reorganisation in attendant’s duties by the Lighthouse Board, the attendant for Elie Ness is now also responsible for the Lights at Tod Head, Scurdie Ness, Fife Ness and Isle of May. 

In January 2005 the three General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland issued a Consultation document following a joint review of Aids to Navigation of the coasts of the United Kingdom and Ireland. It stated in para.

“Elie Ness – This light is used solely by shipping entering/within the Firth of Forth and has no resultant value for general navigation. It is intended to reduce the light to a Category 2 light and approach Forth Ports PLC, Fife Council or Elie Harbour Trust  with a view to handover”.

In the conclusions from this review, issued July 2005, it is still the intention to transfer the light at Elie Ness into alternative ownership. Also to transfer into alternative ownership the buoy station at Thill Rock and the unlit beacon at East Vows. 

Elie Harbour Trust, Elie and Earlsferry Sailing Club and the Royal Burgh of Earlsferry and Elie Community Council have all made it known that they are against the withdrawal of East Vows Beacon, Thill Rock buoy and Elie Ness Light as Aids to Navigation, which could possibly happen if alternative ownership can not be arranged with the Northern Lighthouse Board and other parties.

On the 9th April 2008, NLV Pole Star withdrew the Thill Rock Buoy from station.

Except for a short period during the 1940s this was first time in 160 years that there was no buoy warning mariners of the dangers of the Thill Rock. It had been showing a red flashing light since 19 February 2001.

The Light on Elie Ness was upgraded from 9 to 17 miles and the modernisation of all electronics was carried out in 2010 with other minor alterations made.

After talks with Forth Ports Authority over a number of years the responsibility of Elie Ness as a lighthouse was taken over by them in 2013.

East Vows Beacon is now not a recognised navigation mark and is no longer maintained or painted. It has been in position since 1846.

Alan Provan 2023

2 thoughts on “A Light on Elie Ness

  1. Another excellent piece of work

  2. Always knew that area as the Fish Rock! The factor at that time was my Grandfather and his father before him was also factor, as was my father !

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