Northern Lighthouse Board

The Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) is the general lighthouse authority for Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is a non-departmental public body responsible for marine navigation aids around coastal areas.

Ensign of the Northern Lighthouse Board
Commissioners' Flag of the Northern Lighthouse Board


Kinnaird Head
Mull of Kintyre
North Ronaldsay
Eilean Glas
The first four lighthouses required by the Northern Lighthouse Board

The NLB was formed by Act of Parliament in 1786 as the Commissioners of Northern Light Houses, largely at the urging of the lawyer and politician George Dempster ("Honest George"), to oversee the construction and operation of four Scottish lighthouses: Kinnaird Head, North Ronaldsay, Scalpay and Mull of Kintyre, for which they were empowered to borrow up to £1,200. Until then, the only major lighthouse in Scotland was the coal brazier mounted on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, together with some smaller lights in the Firths of the Tay and Clyde. None of the major passages around Scotland, which led through dangerous narrows, were marked.

The commissioners, whose first president was the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir James Hunter-Blair, advertised for building estimates, but there were no takers. They received an offer of help from Ezekiel Walker of King's Lynn, who had developed a parabolic reflector for the Hunstanton Lighthouse,[1] and sent Thomas Smith, who was making his name in street lighting in Edinburgh and had offered help, to England to learn from him. Smith soon returned and instructed an Edinburgh architect to prepare the plans for four lighthouses.

The £1,200 was spent before the first light at Kinnaird Head was finished, and a further Act of Parliament was required which allowed them to receive half their dues[clarification needed] before all the lights were finished. By the end of 1787 the first light had been installed. At the Mull of Kintyre everything had to be transported by pack horse from Campbeltown, 12 miles away, but it was lit by October 1788. To get to Scalpay in the Outer Hebrides and North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Isles needed boat trips across rough waters for Smith and Mills, the stonemason, but all the same the job was completed by October 1789, to widespread praise. The dues[clarification needed] which had originally been set at two shillings per ton of cargo in the 17th century, were now reduced to one penny per ton.[2]

The Commissioners' most famous engineer was Robert Stevenson, whose sons David, Alan, and Thomas followed their father into the profession. The Stevenson dynasty built the majority of the Northern lights, in some exceptionally challenging locations. Their lights were some of the engineering masterpieces of their time, notably those at Bell Rock, Skerryvore, and Muckle Flugga.

Sign outside the Board's offices in Edinburgh

Between 1876 and 2005 the NLB also maintained foghorns at a number of locations. The last (at Skerryvore) was sounded for the last time on 4 October 2005.[3]


The board is based at its Georgian headquarters building in George Street in the centre of Edinburgh, from where it remotely monitors its network. Technical operations are carried out from a base in Oban, Argyll and Bute, where there are maintenance workshops and facilities for the construction of buoys and beacons. The NLB's vessels are also based here. The Oban depot has been recently modernised.[when?]

Under the terms of the Scotland Act 1998, the NLB is not a devolved body and thus remains directly accountable to the UK Secretary of State for Transport. In practice, there is close co-operation with both the Scottish Government and the Isle of Man Government. The NLB is funded by pooled light dues administered by the UK's Department for Transport, and distributed to the NLB, Trinity House, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights.


As of 31 March 2019, the NLB operates the following:[4]

Navigational devicesEdit

  • 206 lighthouses, sub-divided as:
    • 65 with a range of over 15 nautical miles
    • 141 with a range of under 15 nautical miles
  • 170 buoys
  • 25 unlit beacons
  • 4 DGPS stations (and monitoring an additional 2 stations)
  • 29 radar beacons[note 1], sub-divided as:
    • 22 on lighthouses
    • 9 on buoys
  • 47 Automatic identification system units, sub-divided as
    • 26 on lighthouses (and monitoring an additional 1 unit)
    • 20 on buoys
    • 3 Virtual AIS unit
  • 2 lighthouses (and 2 in Norwegian waters)
  • 117 buoys
  • 3 radar beacons (and 2 in Norwegian waters)
Local Authority
  • 1117 light stations
  • 762 buoy stations


The NLB operates two lighthouse tenders, known by the prefix Northern Lighthouse Vessel, or NLV. NLV Pole Star has been in service since 2000 and NLV Pharos was delivered on 31 March 2007 to the Oban depot.[5] This is the tenth Pharos, replacing the ninth Pharos which was sold in September 2006 for use as a Fishery Protection vessel for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

The commissionersEdit

The Board's headquarters in George Street, Edinburgh. The nameplate on the door gives the traditional name of 'Commissioners of Northern Lights'.

Most of the commissioners have always been ex officio appointments. The original commissioners appointed in 1786 were the Scottish law agents of the Crown, the sheriffs of Scotland's coastal counties, and the provosts and lord provosts of Scottish cities and towns with strong mercantile interests. Reform of local government and sheriffdoms have since resulted in changes. Previous commissioners include Richard Vary Campbell.[6]

The current Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, as provided by Schedule 8 to the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, are the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General for Scotland; the lords provost of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, the conveners of the Highland Council and the Argyll and Bute Council; the sheriffs principal of all the sheriffdoms in Scotland; a Manx representative nominated by the Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man and appointed by the Secretary of State; and up to five co-opted commissioners.[7]


Commissioners' Flag, flown outside the NLB HQ in Edinburgh

The NLB uses two flags, an ensign and a Commissioners' Flag. The ensign is a Blue Ensign defaced with a white lighthouse in the fly, and is for general use. The Commissioners' flag, a plain White Ensign with a pre-1801 Union Flag in the canton, defaced with a blue lighthouse in the fly, is the only British flag still in use which incorporates the pre-1801 Union Flag.[8] This flag is only flown from vessels with Commissioners aboard.

The Board HQ flies the Commissioners' flag, alongside the Saltire and the Isle of Man flag.[9]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Three sites have more than one radar beacon.


  1. ^ Hillen, Henry J (1907). History of the Borough of King's Lynn. Vol. II. Norwich : East of England Newspaper Co. p. 461. Retrieved 19 July 2015.
  2. ^ Allardyce, Keith; Hood, Evelyn M (1986). At Scotland' Edge: A celebration of the lighthouse service of Scotland and the Isle of Man. Glasgow and London: William Collins Sons & Co. pp. 10–18.
  3. ^ "Sounding Out". Northern Lighthouse Board. Archived from the original on 3 March 2008. Retrieved 20 February 2010.
  4. ^ "Northern Lighthouse Board — Annual Report and Accounts to 31 March 2019" (PDF). Northern Lighthouse Board. Retrieved 23 December 2019.
  5. ^ "MV Pharos". Northern Lighthouse Board. Archived from the original on 19 September 2009. Retrieved 20 February 2010.
  6. ^ "Former Fellows of The Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783 – 2002" (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. Retrieved 23 January 2019.
  7. ^ "Merchant Shipping Act 1995: Schedule 8". Retrieved 29 September 2018.
  8. ^ "Northern Lighthouse Commissioner's Flag". Flags of the World. Archived from the original on 24 October 2006. Retrieved 20 February 2010.
  9. ^ "Northern Lighthouse Board". Archived from the original on 6 May 2008.

External linksEdit

Coordinates: 55°57′10″N 3°12′05″W / 55.9527°N 3.2014°W / 55.9527; -3.2014