History in Structure

Gates, Esha Ness Lighthouse, Esha Ness

A Category B Listed Building in Shetland North, Shetland Islands

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Latitude: 60.4893 / 60°29'21"N

Longitude: -1.6269 / 1°37'36"W

OS Eastings: 420605

OS Northings: 1178460

OS Grid: HU206784

Mapcode National: GBR Q1B0.H9V

Mapcode Global: XHD1G.6MD3

Plus Code: 9CGWF9QF+P7

Entry Name: Gates, Esha Ness Lighthouse, Esha Ness

Listing Name: Esha Ness Lighthouse, including former keeper’s cottage, outbuildings (former generator house, water tank), walling, sundial and gateposts and excluding entrance porch and garage, Northmavine

Listing Date: 26 March 1997

Last Amended: 26 January 2021

Category: B

Source: Historic Scotland

Source ID: 407333

Historic Scotland Designation Reference: LB44556

Building Class: Cultural

Also known as: Esha Ness, Eshaness Lighthouse

ID on this website: 200407333

Location: Northmaven

County: Shetland Islands

Electoral Ward: Shetland North

Parish: Northmaven

Traditional County: Shetland

Tagged with: Lighthouse


Esha Ness Lighthouse was built 1925-1929 by the Northern Lighthouse Board to plans by David Alan Stevenson and Charles Stevenson. The lighthouse is a complex that comprises the light tower itself, a former keeper's cottage and ancillary outbuildings. Prominently sited on an isolated coastal clifftop location on the Northmavine peninsula, Shetland Mainland, its purpose was to warn passing seafarers of the point of Eshaness and the hazards of the Ve Skerries, a rocky reef located 16 km to the southwest.

All the built structures in the complex are constructed of concrete, except for the sundial, and gateposts, and have harled walls with painted dressings. The main buildings are the light tower and attached keeper's cottage which both have a deep basecourse. The light tower is a three-stage battered square building around 12 metres in height with a single storey double skin brick-built, flat-roofed entrance porch to the north. There are metal railings (later replacements) around the tower wall-head enclosing the lantern. This has an octagonal parapet with triangular glazing and an octagonal roof with a ventilator on top. The tower intersects the north-western corner of a four-bay, single storey flat-roofed building, a cottage which formerly housed the keeper's accommodation. The cottage has been subdivided to separate the main accommodation from a lighthouse technician's mess next to the tower. To the south of the main building is a second four-bay, single storey and flat-roofed building, referred to in Northern Lighthouse Board plans from 1975 as 'stores', but probably the former generator house. It is connected to the main building by a harled wall on the west side. To the north of the main building is a square water tank building with doors to a store in the south side and an iron water tank above. This building lacks the expressed base course evident on the tower and keeper's cottage.

The windows are mainly 12- and 8-pane timber sash and case type, although there are wooden plate glass timber sash and case windows in the upper stages of the tower itself, and there are vertically-boarded timber doors. Cast-iron ogee gutters and downpipes with semi-octagonal hoppers and decorative brackets are found on both buildings, and there are harled and coped stacks with circular chimney cans on the main building.

To the east of the two main buildings is a sundial, mounted on a cast-iron plinth around 1 metre high. The entrance is to the east of the main building, via two gates with wrought iron ball-finialled gateposts, one for vehicles (a modern galvanised steel replacement) and one for pedestrians (also later).

Internal images from 2015 show that although the keeper's cottage has been remodelled, subdivided, and updated, the layout shown on the engineering plans (Northern Lighthouse Board 6 June 1925) remains largely in place. The interior retains some surviving early 20th century features such as wooden doors and wooden window shutters. The inside of the stores (former generator house) and the technician's mess have not been seen (2020).

Legal exclusions

In accordance with Section 1 (4A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997 the following are excluded from the listing: the porch entrance to the lighthouse tower, and later garage to the south of the main building.

Historical development

Esha Ness Lighthouse was the last manned Northern Lighthouse Board light to be designed by one of the Stevenson family. It replaced an earlier temporary acetylene-gas powered light placed at the request of the Admiralty at Esha Ness in 1915. The earlier light was removed at the end of the First World War.

A major factor in the decision to build a light at Esha Ness was the threat posed to shipping by the reef at Ve Skerries, as evidenced by records of around 15 vessels lost there during the 18th and 19th centuries (See for example Canmore ID 239817; 239831). Although the number of casualties reduced after the lighthouse became operational, it did not prove to be totally effective with the loss of an Aberdeen trawler on Ve Skerries in 1930.

The original light at Esha Ness burned acetylene gas produced on site. The light was converted to electrical power and automated in 1974 (Munro 1979) while the original Fresnel Lens is understood to have been replaced by sealed-beam electric lamps.

In 1979, a lighthouse was built on Ve Skerries itself as part of a programme of lighthouse improvements in the Shetland area connected with increases in oil-tanker traffic associated with Sullom Voe oil terminal. Esha Ness was used as a construction site for this light.

Esha Ness Lighthouse remains operational as an automated light. The keeper's cottage has been updated and currently operates as a holiday let (2020). The water tank is no longer used since the provision of mains water to the property. The railings on the tower are also later replacements.

Statement of Interest

The Esha Ness lighthouse meets the criteria of special architectural or historic interest for the following reasons:

In accordance with Section 1 (4A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997 the following are excluded from the listing: the porch entrance to the lighthouse tower, and later garage to the south of the main building.

Architectural interest


The lighthouse at Esha Ness is of design interest as an example of the early 20th-century work of the engineers David Alan Stevenson and Charles Stevenson who were nationally and internationally renowned for their design of lighthouses. Esha Ness has a simple, well-proportioned design that is typical for a manned Stevenson lighthouse, comprising the main lighthouse tower and keeper accommodation.

Lighthouse keepers were responsible for keeping the light in good working order. Esha Ness only had accommodation for a single keeper rather than the three or four keepers normally on duty on lighthouses at one time. This means the overall size of the complex is slightly smaller than many other examples.

The design of the buildings at Esha Ness are typical of the Stevenson's 'house style' with early 20th century adaptations in materials and plan form. The focus on function is reflected in the design, with a simple rectangular plan, only simple architectural details included, and construction techniques adapted to local circumstances. Many lighthouses are built from stone using local materials. The concrete used for building Esha Ness was necessary because of the unsuitable nature of the local stone for the buildings. It is also more commonly used in the small number of 20th century lighthouses. The square design of the tower differs from the more common circular style used for these buildings during the 19th century. The reason for this is that a circular tower required custom-designed fittings and fixtures to fit within the interior spaces, and the use of a square tower at Esha Ness meant that this extra expense was not required. This square tower design had first been used by Northern Lighthouse Board at Holy Island in 1905 (Munro 1979:205) and is also a feature of the David Stevenson-designed Duncansby Head (completed 1925), the closest parallel to Esha Ness in design and age.

The ancillary outbuilding adjoining the keeper's cottage is probably the former generator house identified on engineers' plans (Northern Lighthouse Board 6 June 1925), albeit at a slightly different location on the site. Triple doors provided separate entrances to a workshop, the carbide store, and the generator. The presence of a carbide store suggests that this was used to process acetylene gas on site, for use in powering the light. Stevenson had experimented with acetylene as early as 1896, combining water with calcium carbide. This avoided the need to pump compressed gas from a lighthouse tender. Acetylene gas was more easily made than coal or oil gas, requiring less attention during burning. Also, masters of vessels spoke favourably of its greater power (Munro 1979).

An engineering plan shows a water tower where the existing two stage tower is located. A second illustrates a 'domestic water tank' that resembles the surviving iron tank (see Northern Lighthouse Board 13 April 1925). The same tank is shown in a photograph taken in 1976 (Canmore SC 463564). It therefore appears that this tank and the store building that supports it, is either original or a more recent like for like replacement. The water tank is of interest in helping us to understand the provision of freshwater for domestic purposes at this isolated clifftop location. Water would also have been important for production of acetylene gas on site.

The overall design interest of the Esha Ness Lighthouse has not been affected by the later minor alterations to the buildings at this site. It is a relatively unaltered example of an early 20th century design by David Alan Stevenson and Charles Stevenson and retains much of its original character.

There have been some alterations to the plan form of the lighthouse that are not of design interest in themselves, namely the brick porch to the lighthouse tower (added sometime during the mid-1970s, and the garage to the south (also understood to have been constructed 1950-76). While these features do not significantly detract from the overall design, neither are of architectural interest in the context of this lighthouse.


The location for any lighthouse is critical to its function. Esha Ness Lighthouse occupies a clifftop location at 61 metres above sea level, on the westernmost end of the Northmavine peninsula, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the shipping routes west of Shetland.

The location of a lighthouse at Esha Ness was chosen to warn shipping away from the Ve Skerries, located 16km to the southwest across St Magnus Bay. The strength of the light after automation meant that it was capable of being seen by passing ships from up to 40km away, as it continues to be so today. The prominent clifftop setting of the lighthouse within the isolated landscape and seascape of Northmavine has not significantly changed since its construction.

The principal lighthouse buildings and the ancillary outbuildings at the site are largely complete and form an important historic grouping which add to the special interest of the buildings.

Historic interest

Age and rarity

Esha Ness is of interest as it belongs to the last phase of manned lighthouse construction in Scotland and is one of only 13 major lights built during the period 1900-1968. Of these, only three (including Esha Ness) were built after the First World War. Esha Ness therefore forms an important chapter in the story of Scotland's lighthouses. There are over 200 operational Northern Lighthouse Board lighthouses within Scotland, with many other examples either decommissioned or operated by other organisations and groups. They range from elegant stone pinnacles on remote reefs far out to sea, to small navigational beacons and modern modular lights. Of these, around 150 lighthouses of various shapes, sizes and types are currently designated as either listed buildings or scheduled monuments, representing a wide range of specific navigational dangers that required marking at night.

Social historical interest

Social historical interest is the way a building contributes to our understanding of how people lived in the past, and how our social and economic history is shown in a building and/or in its setting.

Esha Ness is of social historical interest as it belongs to the last phase of building of manned lights in Scotland after the end of the First World War, when the Northern Lighthouse Board took steps to replace temporary wartime lights and to introduce additional lights at previously unlit sections of coastline.

The significance of Scotland's lighthouse network to the country's history is high. As an island nation with over 18,000 kilometres of coastline and over 900 islands, maritime industries such as fishing, coastal trade and transportation have long been significant social and economic factors. Scotland's coasts are also located on international sea-routes linking northern Europe with the rest of the world. The use of lighthouses was therefore vital to the safety of shipping in Scottish waters. Prior to the construction of Scotland's lighthouses, most navigation markers were landmarks visible only during daylight, and so nautical navigation at night or in poor conditions was a highly dangerous but sometimes unavoidable undertaking. This is reflected in the large numbers of records of ships and sailors lost in wrecking incidents around the coasts of Scotland during the 19th and 19th centuries.

The first lighthouse in Scotland was established on the Isle of May (SM887) in 1636. This light aided navigation into the many harbours around the Firth of Forth and took the form of a stone tower mounting a coal fired brazier. Although the Isle of May beacon was far from as bright as later examples, in good weather it good be seen from as far as the entrance to the Tay, and it would remain operational for 180 years. The Isle of May was followed by several other lighthouses and beacons being built from the late 17th century, improving navigation for the Tay, the Solway and the Clyde.

A common factor in all the lights established in the first 150 years was that they were conceived, built and operated by private interests and organisations, such as local magistrates, councils and individuals, supported by the king and parliament when necessary. By the early 1780s, however, there was a growing recognition that many shipping and navigational dangers existed far beyond the profitable harbours and estuaries that had driven the development of the early lights. To address this, in 1786 parliament passed "An Act for erecting certain Light-houses in the Northern Parts of Great Britain" and established a board of Commissioners (subsequently to become the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouses and then the Northern Lighthouse Board), initially to undertake the work of building and maintaining lights at four locations, including Kinnaird Head (LB31888), Eilean Glas (LB13487), Mull of Kintyre (LB19874) and North Ronaldsay (SM6596). These lights were the work of the Board's first engineer, Thomas Smith, and his assistant Robert Stevenson, and used improved lighting technology in the form of whale oil burners and mirrored reflectors to enhance the brightness.

Following the 1786 Act, the number of lighthouses around the coasts of Scotland began to rapidly grow, along with the technology and engineering skills employed. By the early 19th century oil lamps were replacing the earlier coal burners, and Robert Stevenson had been able to design and build a lighthouse on the Bell Rock (LB45197). Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Robert Stevenson and his descendants continued to push the boundaries of technology and engineering to expand the network, including lights on Skerryvore (LB17489), Muckle Flugga (LB17479), Dhu Heartach (LB12320), and the Flannan Isles (LB48143).

Esha Ness is also of social historical interest in helping us to understand how the operation of lighthouses changed during the 20th century. During the 1890s, Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) employed more than 600 lighthouse keepers around Scotland. These numbers reduced in response to advances in lighting technology and communications that allowed lighthouse operation to become increasingly automated. At Esha Ness, accommodation was originally provided for only one keeper. With the advent of reliable electric lighting, the NLB began a programme to convert many of its lighthouses to electrical power during the early 1960s, with electrification and automation at Esha Ness taking place in 1974 (Munro 1979). In addition to the advantages electrical lighting brought over oil, paraffin and acetylene gas technology in terms of power output and reduced requirement for fuel storage, electrical lighting could be controlled with a switch and this reduced the need to have keepers perpetually on watch.

Association with people or events of national importance

The buildings have a close historical association of national importance.

Esha Ness Lighthouse is the last manned Northern Lighthouse Board lighthouse to be designed by one of the Stevenson family, a connection stretching back three generations and spanning over 150 years. David Alan Stevenson was born in 1854, and his brother Charles Alexander was born in 1855. They were the sons of David Stevenson, grandsons of Robert Stevenson and nephews of Thomas Stevenson, all also distinguished lighthouse engineers for the Northern Lighthouse Board. Their cousin was the author Robert Louis Stevenson. The efforts of the Stevenson family in designing and constructing the network of lighthouses around Scotland's coasts, often against seemingly overwhelming odds, has led to their collectively being known as the "Lighthouse Stevensons", and as some of Scotland's greatest engineering minds.

Statutory address and listed building record revised in 2021. Previously listed as 'Eshaness, Eshaness Lighthouse, including oil tank, sundial, and gates'.

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