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Visitor Centre and Generator House (former engine houses), Inchcolm Island

A Category C Listed Building in Inverkeithing and Dalgety Bay, Fife

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Latitude: 56.0299 / 56°1'47"N

Longitude: -3.2995 / 3°17'58"W

OS Eastings: 319113

OS Northings: 682655

OS Grid: NT191826

Mapcode National: GBR 24.S2PD

Mapcode Global: WH6S5.9P1R

Entry Name: Visitor Centre and Generator House (former engine houses), Inchcolm Island

Listing Date: 28 April 2017

Category: C

Source: Historic Scotland

Source ID: 406656

Historic Scotland Designation Reference: LB52427

Building Class: Cultural

Location: Aberdour (Fife)

County: Fife

Electoral Ward: Inverkeithing and Dalgety Bay

Parish: Aberdour (Fife)

Traditional County: Fife

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The Visitor Centre is a two-storey, flat-roofed former engine house. It was built into a steep rocky slope by the War Office in 1916-17 when the military defences of Inchcolm Island were revised and strengthened, with the lower, advanced storey probably altered and adapted by the Office of Works in 1931-2.

The recessed upper storey is 9-bay, painted and rendered, with timber six over six sash and case windows and roof-top ventilators. The lower storey is of squared and snecked rubble, with lintelled openings, timber six over six sash and case windows and a concrete rooftop pedestrian terrace providing access to the upper storey.

The interior of the Visitor Centre was partially seen in 2016. The upper building contains staff offices, shop and a large display room that houses an early medieval hog back stone from Inchcolm Abbey. The lower building contains toilets and storage rooms.

To the southeast, the Generator House is another former engine house, built 1940-42. It is a single storey, rectangular plan, 2-bay, flat-roofed concrete building that is rendered and painted. There are air vents immediately below the roofline, steel window shutters on the front, (west facing) elevation, louvred steel window grilles on the north facing elevation and a steel door on the south facing elevation.

The interior of the generator house was not seen (2016).

Statement of Interest

These former engine houses are good survivors of wartime buildings on Inchcolm Island designed to work as part of a wider defensive system in the Firth of Forth. The Forth was one of the most heavily defended estuaries in the UK during the First World War and the Visitor Centre is tangible evidence for the construction and operation of that system. While other parts of the military landscape were dismantled or abandoned, these buildings were adapted for use in peacetime as part of the upkeep and presentation of Inchcolm Abbey to the public. This is also part of their special interest for listing. Their prominent setting above the landing pier, and in sight of the abbey complex contributes to this interest.

Age and Rarity

War Office plans show that the Visitor Centre building was originally designed as an engine house for seven engines in 1916 (WO78/5181). It replaced an earlier and smaller engine house immediately to the south and was built by the War Office as part of a programme to improve the defences of Inchcolm during 1916-17.

The purpose of the engines was to power defence electric lights, or searchlights, installed around the eastern section of the island. The War Office design of 1916 shows an area for cylindrical cooling tanks between the rear of the building and the rockface. It also shows two ancillary buildings to the front, although a special survey plan drawn up in 1918 suggests that only one of these; the mechanists store, was actually built (Ordnance Survey 1918). Substantial remains of the associated light emplacements survive to the east and are designated as part of the scheduled monument, 'Inchcolm, abbey, hermit's cell, First World War and Second World War defences' (SM90166).

Inchcolm Island played an important role in the Firth of Forth Defensive scheme during the First World War of 1914-18. Developed in response to the threat of attack by German warships, this scheme consisted of three defensive lines across the Forth estuary, made up of a chain of coastal and island gun batteries that could be deployed together to defend the whole channel of the Forth. Inchcolm was part of the Middle Defence Line, along with Inchmickery and Cramond Island to the south. From 1916-17, Inchcolm became the most heavily armed post within this line, with additional batteries and supporting infrastructure built on the island.

Following the First World War, the engine house was adapted for use by the Office of Works in 1931-2 as a display space and tearoom for visitors to the island. The Office of Works held responsibility for the upkeep of Crown property and is a predecessor body of Historic Environment Scotland. They secured the guardianship of Inchcolm Abbey from the War Office in 1924, and took over the lease of the entire island in 1931. Many military structures were demolished at this time and it is likely that the construction of the lower, stone-faced part of the Visitor Centre may date to this period. An article in the Scotsman in April 1932 mentions the building of a concrete terrace (the roof of the lower part of the Visitor Centre), and an accompanying photo shows the exterior of the building much as it is today (2016) (The Scotsman 1932: 8, 12).

During the Second World War of 1939-45, Inchcolm was again fortified with a garrison of around 500 men (Historic Scotland 1989: 30). The Visitor Centre was adapted for use as a telephone exchange and casualty clearing station, while the Generator House to the southeast was built in circa 1940-42 (Barclay 2016: 35). Its purpose was also to house engines to power searchlights, and it was built by the War Office to a standard design used on military sites elsewhere in Scotland. Other surviving examples include an almost identical structure further to the southeast on Inchcolm (at NT 319203, 682523) and on Cramond Island and Inchmickery, also in the Firth of Forth. The louvred hatches and high ventilation openings were important features of the design as they allowed excess fumes to escape.

The military use of the Visitor Centre and Generator House was short-lived, as by 1943, all the equipment and infrastructure on the island was reduced to a 'care and maintenance' regime. In 1957, Inchcolm was transferred back to state care, this time under the Ministry of Works. The Ministry resumed work to restore, interpret and present Inchcolm Abbey to the visiting public. They dismantled a substantial part of the surrounding military buildings and infrastructure, while also adapting some, including the Visitor Centre and Generator House, for their own use.

The Visitor Centre and Generator House are among a large number of military structures that were built on Inchcolm Island during the First and Second World Wars. While many other structures of these periods were later demolished or abandoned, the Visitor Centre and Generator House were adapted and now survive in good condition. Together, these buildings are of interest as good survivals of First and Second World War structures that supported a wider defensive system within the Firth of Forth. The exterior of the upper storey of the Visitor Centre and the Generator House are both little altered. The lower storey of the Visitor Centre adds to the building's special interest as it shows the early adaptation of the building by the Office of Works to help manage and present Inchcolm Abbey to the public during the interwar years. This function now continues.

Architectural or Historic Interest


There are no surviving internal features of architectural or historic interest.

Plan form

The simple rectangular plan form of these buildings is typical for functional military structures of the First and Second World Wars. The simple internal plan in the upper storey of the Visitor Centre is similar to that depicted on the War Office design plan of 1916, with the larger room to the right (south) formerly housing the engines.

Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality

The plain exteriors and concrete are typical for military buildings of the First and Second World War. The Visitor Centre is an unusually large engine house. The Generator House follows a standard design that can be seen on other surviving examples.

The squared and snecked rubble of the lower storey of the Visitor Centre contrasts with the rest of the building. The Office of Works may have chosen this scheme deliberately to blend in with the natural rocky slopes and outcrops around the landing pier.


The Visitor Centre and Generator House are visually prominent. Stepped into the slope immediately above the landing pier for Inchcolm Island, they are clearly seen on arrival on Inchcolm, and also from the ruins of Inchcolm Abbey, to the west.

Regional variations

The Generator House was built to a standard plan for military engine houses of the Second World War.

Close Historical Associations

This structure is associated with major national events - the First and Second World Wars.

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