Sunday, 1 June 2014

An Arran Amble - seeing the light on Pladda

Pladda, the name comes from Old Norse and means "flat isle", is just 11 hectares in area but boasts its own natural water supply and the splendid Stevenson lighthouse.  The original light was constructed in 1790 and was the first Clyde light to be commissioned by the Commissioners of the Northern Lights (later to become the Northern Lighthouse Board).  To distinguish Pladda from the nearby lights at Mull of Kintyre, Cumbrae and Copeland (Northern Ireland coast) a second light was shown from a lantern 20 feet below the main light.  This arrangement operated for about 100 years.

The main structures of the Pladda light date from 1820 and were constructed under the supervision of Thomas Smith of the Stevenson company.  In 1901 it was decided that fixed lights were no longer sufficient for the great landfall and main coastal lights, so here as elsewhere a powerful group flashing light was installed. Pladda displays 3 white flashes every 30 seconds - but not from the original lantern.....

A hallmark of Stevenson lighthouses is an attention to detail and precision in everything.  Lines are almost always bold and striking, perhaps a reflection of the discipline and care required of both engineers and of the keepers who would attend the great lights.  "The Lighthouse Stevensons" written by Bella Bathurst is a really interesting account of the construction of some of the hallmark sea-lights and also gives an insight into the lives of the keepers.

The modern plaque at the base of the main tower bears the crest of the Northern Lighthouse Commisioners and the motto "In Salutem Omnium" - For the Safety of All.


The last of the lighthouse keepers at Pladda left in 1990 when the light was automated.  As at other stations, the main infrastructure is well maintained but there's a sense of faded order and gradual decline.

 Pladda was about the third Scottish light to be fitted with a foghorn, and the arrangement is a real feature of the station.  The horn itself points out to the outer Firth of Clyde and was capable of being trained through an arc by way of a ratcheted apparatus..........


 .....the arc of operation can be seen in this image.

The horn was powered by hot air engines and the tanks associated with these are still in remarkably good condition.

Also discernable in this image is the "new" lighting apparatus.  With no keeper to tend the intricate machinery, the main lantern no longer radiates a beam of light.  Instead, two tiny lights attached one either side of the lantern gantry continue the signal.  We watched these light from the Kildonan shore later in the evening, and although the signal remains it's nothing like the searching and powerful pulse of a lighthouse beam.  The automation of the lights was inevitable for years before it actually happened, but the downgrading, and in many cases extinguishing of the sea lights is a loss.  As a professional seafarer part of me understands that with modern navigational equipment and sensors there isn't the same pressing need for a light; yet part of me really misses their presence - because that above all is what a lighthouse signifies - a presence.

The apparatus for sounding the fog signal is Victorian engineering  at its ingenious best.  We had fun trying to work out the mechanism by which air pressure would build and lift the weight until inertia overcame air pressure, opening the valve and sounding the signal as the weight descended.  So well made is this machinery dating back to 1874 that it looks as if it could still be serviceable with a bit of TLC.

The generator house must once have been a very noisy place, but now the warning notice serves only to warn of the racket from the gull colony......

.....such power as is needed for the small lights and control system is provided by a solar array and battery.

As we walked back down to the harbour we could see a great practical demonstration of how well the tiny breakwater and harbour had been designed to protect against most weather.  Boatmen were employed to bring provisions and relief keepers to Pladda.  The boat was contracted to make four visits per month; two of these were stipulated to take place on Sundays  in order that the keepers could attend church.  The boat ran until 1972 when it was replaced by a helicopter service.

As we paddled out of the harbour Douglas had to take evading action to avoid a young and curious seal pup which popped up right in the entrance!  We paddled around the island, having some fun in the entertaining tidal race of the south end of the island.

The opportunity to explore Pladda and the lighthouse was a real highlight of the trip; one which could easily have been missed if we'd been tied to a specific itinerary.

As it was, we were now well past the time we could justify second luncheon, so we paddled with suitable determination over to Kildonan to enjoy a fine steak sandwich and a sports recovery drink   on the terrace of the Kildonan Hotel.


  1. Hello Ian,

    Can i have your permission to place these fine Padda lighthouse pictures at the non-profit site:

    Best regards--Hans de Graaf

  2. Hi Hans,

    Yes, that's OK, - please see email on the lightphotos site

    Kind Regards