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CILT Scottish Region webinar "The Northern Lighthouse Board" by Commodore Mike Bullock OBE FCILT, Chief Executive of the Northern Lighthouse Board: Thursday 13 May 2021

Commodore Mike Bullock OBE FCILT, Chief Executive of the Northern Lighthouse Boardd

Commodore Mike Bullock OBE FCILT, Chief Executive of the Northern Lighthouse Board

© Mike Bullock 2021

The Northern Lighthouse Board is the General Lighthouse Authority (GLA) for Scotland and Isle of Man responsible for the provision of Maritime Aids to Navigation including lighthouses, buoys, beacons and radio aids. The responsibility for England, Wales, Channel Islands and Gibraltar is held by Trinity House with the Commissioners of Irish Lights covering the whole of Ireland. The three GLAs represent the interests of the British Isles at IALA, the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities which brings together representatives of the aids to navigation services of about 80 countries for technical coordination, information sharing, and coordination of improvements to harmonise marine aids to navigation throughout the world.

Supported by a hypothecated tax called Light Dues which is paid by shipowners whose vessels use UK and Irish ports. The revenue generated is managed within the General Lighthouse Fund by the Department for Transport (DfT), NLB receives no taxpayer support and must submit an annual bid which is subject to close scrutiny by DfT and the Shipping Industry.

NLB was established by statute in 1786, and has been headquartered since 1832 at 84 George Street in Edinburgh, where the working model lighthouse that graces the building prompts tour bus guides to make predictable jokes about there being no shipwrecks in that part of town. The Merchant Shipping Act 1995 provides for its superintendence and management of lighthouses, buoys and beacons. Within its respective area NLB also discharges the UK responsibility for the provision of aids to navigation in accordance with the International Maritime Organisation's Safety of Life at Sea Convention. Although the function carried out by NLB is a Reserved Matter and not a devolved responsibility, The Scotland Act 2016 provides a welcome link with the Scottish Parliament. The Commissioners' flag being pre-1801 makes it the only one still flying that omits the diagonal cross of St Patrick.

The Board who carry the title of Commissioners, comprises the Lord Advocate, Solicitor General, six Sheriff-Principals, the Lord Provosts of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, the Convenor of Highland Council and the Provost of Argyll & Bute plus six co-opted members, three of whom must be maritime specialists. Its original construct reflects a time when the coming of safe navigation was not necessarily welcome to coastal communities reliant on the cargoes and timber from shipwrecks. The Patron is HRH The Princess Royal, who provides links with the other transport bodies including CILT in which she occupies the equivalent role.

The Board's strategic focus is provision of efficient and effective marine aids, driving towards making its operations Net Zero Carbon with maximum exploitation of commercial opportunities, continuous improvement of assets, cooperation with the other lighthouse authorities and support to the sustainable economic development of Scotland and the Isle of Man.

Having gone through a recent organisational change programme continuous improvement is the central ethos supported by ISO accreditation for occupational health and safety management, quality management systems, environmental management and information security management. Risk management is embedded at every level, and the aim is to sustain a dedicated and happy workforce in which safety is the number one priority.

Along a 10,000-km coastline with 790 islands, around 90 of them inhabited, there are 207 lighthouses, 170 statutory buoys, 23 beacons, radio navigation aids and superintendence of over 2000 aids to navigation including local lights provided by harbour authorities, 130 oil and gas platforms and 500 aquaculture sites. Around 80 staff work at HQ, 20 in Oban, with 68 mariners, 19 retained lighthouse-keepers plus small teams of 3 technicians based in Inverness, Orkney and Shetland totalling 188 full-time-equivalent staff made up of full and part-time employees. The main operating base is at Oban which as well as refurbishing buoys and providing stores and workshop facilities supports two ships. NLV Pharos which mainly supports refurbishment of lighthouses, and an older vessel NLV Polar Star which services buoys. The latter is obsolete and increasingly unreliable and in need of replacement, with a hybrid successor operated by both diesel and battery now receiving authorisation. The three Lighthouse Authorities share a common research and development resource at Harwich. NLB is the main user of their shared helicopter which works with Pharos to convey building materials for refurbishment of lighthouses, a task that demandingly must be accomplished avoiding the breeding season for both seabirds and sea mammals.

NLB has been providing lights on the Isle of Man ever since it won the task in 1815. It is embedded in the communities that it serves, offering job opportunities including apprenticeships and helping aquaculture and tourism industries. An example of recent responsiveness to economic opportunity was provision of a new lighthouse at the Corran Narrows enabling larger cruise vessels safely to reach Fort William.

Wrecks are similar to crashes on the roads since the first need is to prevent a further accident being caused by the wreck. NLB responds by deploying one of its vessels to identify the exact location, which must then be marked by either guarding the site or placing of a buoy so the risk is mitigated. Carbon consciousness can be seen in NLB's deployment of solar panels, LED lights and batteries, its planned use of wind turbines and expansion of the electric vehicle fleet. Commercial opportunities arise in working with the Met Office, oil companies like Total and with the Ministry of Defence who appreciate NLB's professionalism and continuity of vessel crews. The jetty at Oban is used to berth visiting cruise and aquaculture support vessels which also generates income. During CoVid NLB has provided leadership of a maritime mutual support group offering a clearing-house for exchange of ideas on how public service vessel operators can best respond to the pandemic.

As an organisation whose last staffed lighthouse on Fair Isle was automated as recently as 1998, NLB is proud of its heritage epitomised by the built legacy of the Stevenson dynasty in which it seemed that only Robert Louis was diverted from this path to do other things. Bella Bathurst has narrated the striving for perfection of its successive generations, and links have been maintained with the family including support to refurbish the family tomb in New Calton Cemetery and by ensuring that the Marriott Hotel which now occupies Robert Stevenson's home has a lighthouse theme. NLB's former vessel Fingal was acquired by the Royal Yacht Britannia Trust and is now a luxury floating hotel in Leith with a distinct lighthouse theme. There are heritage displays in the basement at 84 George Street and at the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street. Lightships are no longer used by NLB, but the one from the North Carr can be seen at Dundee.

The Northern Lighthouse Heritage Trust helps promote awareness of NLB's astounding portfolio, with the museum of Scottish Lighthouses at Fraserburgh offering a lighthouse built inside a castle

The eight lighthouses offering public access in normal times are Ardnamurchan, Fair Isle, the Isle of May, the Mull of Galloway, the Museum at Fraserburgh, North Ronaldsay, Start Point and Sumburgh Head. The most graceful light, Skerryvore has become synonymous with shipping forecasts and a folk band, both Dubh Artach and Hyskeir are glorious for their names and Neist Point has been made iconic by its appearance in many advertisements including Irn Bru.. Conspiracy theorists may never rest from speculation about the fate of the keepers on the Flannan Isles, but Muckle Flugga will retain its fame as the most northerly light. North Ronaldsay is looked after by the legendary Billy Muir who is reputed to have twenty other jobs on the island, while the Bell Rock will always be renowned as the first sea-washed tower and the Isle of May deserves note as Scotland's first light in 1636.

The continuing story of our lighthouses can be followed on Twitter and Facebook, and anyone who wonders if the need for them has been done away with by modern technology should bear in mind that GPS and other Global Navigation Satellite Systems are far from fool proof since they can be disrupted by space weather or spoofed by those with bad intentions. The cause of many accidents can be traced to mariners simply not keeping a good look out, and sometimes there is just no substitute for the visual reference provided physical aids to navigation.

Notes by John Yellowlees


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