Isle of may national nature reserve managed by scottish natural heritage

The nation was gripped by the ravages of the Great War which was raging across much of northern Europe. The British Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet had been involved in one of the deadliest and bloodiest navel battles of all time at Jutland just 20 months previous, with the loss of over 6,000 men. As a result, the Fleet Admiralty were keen to improve on ‘battle readiness’ for any further sea confrontations with the enemy which may come about as the war continued.

It was decided a navel exercise would take place out in the North Sea involving two components of the Grand Fleet; that based at Rosyth near Edinburgh which would meet up with the battle group from Scapa Flow.

The exercise, known as EC1 was kept secret and involved the 13 th Submarine Division (known a K-boats) and a number of Destroyers, Battleships and Light Cruisers. The K-boats were specially designed to operate with a battle fleet and soon all the waiting boats were ready to sail. The orders were simple; all boats would follow in line and sail out of the Firth of Forth, head north passing the Isle of May before eventually heading direct north to meet up with the

At the head of the line, two cruisers would lead the way; HMS Courageous and HMS Ithuriel which were backed with submarines K-11, K-12, K-14, K-17 and K-22. Then came the battle cruisers which included HMAS Australia, HMS New Zealand, HMS Indomitable and HMS Inflexible with their destroyers. Finally HMS Fearless which was backed by submarines K3, K-4, K-6 and K7. In total with each boat sailing in a single line, it stretched for 30 miles.

At 18:30 the boats sailed from nearby Rosyth and were sailing with dimmed stern lights and were maintaining radio silence due to the sighting of a German submarine in the area earlier that day. The fleet were not helped by misty conditions whilst travelling under the cover of darkness. Then luck changed and disaster struck. Submarine K-14 rudder jammed and the boat struck K-22 and unfortunately both boats were locked unable to break free from each other.

The huge battlecruiser HMS Australia narrowly missed the stricken K-boats and disaster had been averted. But not for long. Communication eventually reached the lead Light Cruiser HMS Ithuriel about the original collision and the captain of the ship decided to turn around and head back to the two K-boats which had struck each other. Alongside the Light cruiser, the other K-boats also followed her back but communication was poor and unfortunately the boats and submarines further back, lead by HMS Fearless were unaware of the accident ahead and ran straight into their sister flotilla.

Over the following minutes, disaster struck as HMS Fearless rammed K-17, and the submarine sank with the loss of all life in a matter of minutes. Submarines K-6 hit K-4, and nearly cut her in half but locked together but had K-7 fast approaching. Spotting K-6, she just managed to avoid her, but was totally unaware of K-4 lying across her path, and a further collision ensued. The second hit proved fatal for K-4, and she sank. Only nine men were pulled from the water, and one of these died before he could receive medical treatment.

That evening a total of 104 men lost their lives as two submarines were sunk, four submarines were damaged along with the light cruiser HMS Fearless. Despite it being remembered (black humour) as the ‘Battle of the Isle of May’, there were actually no enemy warships involved and only a combination of bad luck and human error resulted in such a great loss of life. The terrible events of that night took place just 1.5 miles off the north end of the Isle of May. It will never be forgotten.

Wednesday 23 rd January comments: The main Stevenson lighthouse was constructed in 1816 and powered by electricity from 1886 (the first Scottish lighthouse to be powered by electricity) and the Beacon fell into disrepair. However a third smaller lighthouse was constructed in 1843, called the Low Light which was built to provide (with the main lighthouse) a pair of lights which would become aligned to help ships avoid the North Carr rocks as ships sailed from Dundee. However this smaller lighthouse was only functional until 1887 as a Light Ship was placed over the Carr rocks and the islands smaller lighthouse became redundant.

There was also changed in the main lighthouse as the high cost of coal along with improvements in oil lights led to the decision to change the main lighthouse back from electricity to oil. In 1924 the lighthouse was converted back to oil and as a result only four men were needed to look after the light so the number of families living on the Isle dropped.

During this period, despite the presence of the light, accidents still occurred with some interesting stories amongst them. During the 19 th century a total of thirty-nine ships were documented as having come to grief on the island. Over half of these ships were total wrecks whilst the rest were either salvaged or saved. In only two cases there was loss of life; two people drowned when the steamer Newcastle Packet ran aground near Kirkhaven (near the jetties) in heavy seas on 5 th April 1889 and two were drowned when the steamliner George Aunger struck the North Ness in fog on 25 th Aoril 1930.

Looking through the history certain dates stick out and in 1843 the original fixed beam light was replaced by a revolving flash operated from oil but in 1885 that all changed. Work began to alter the light to operate on electricity and on the 1 st December 1886, the Isle of May lighthouse became the first lighthouse in Scotland to be powered by this form of energy.

As a result of this change, more staff were needed and additional accommodation complete with boiler house, engine rooms and workshop were constructed in a small valley nearby. This also included a small dam to produce a fresh-water loch for cooling of engines. The engine room was then fitted with two 4.5 ton steam-powered engines which powered the light. These buildings later became known as Fluke Street and still stand today as they are home to the reserve staff who live on the island.

A total of seven families were required to live on the May as a result of these extra engines and during this time two fog horns were constructed at the north and south end of the island. These fog stations were powered by compressed air, generated from the island’s power plant in the centre of the island, and delivered by cast-iron pipes laid on the ground. The North horn provided a single blast of 7 seconds duration every 2¼ minutes and the South horn provided four 2½ second blasts of the same pitch every 2¼ minutes. The North and South horns did not blast together, being approximately one minute apart.

Friday 11 th January comments: The Beacon stands proudly on the highest point of the Isle of May and was constructed in 1636 making it Scotland’s first and oldest lighthouse. The building was three floored (about 12 metres in height) with keepers living in the centre floor and a coal burning basket on the top lit nightly to warn passing ships of the presence of the dangerous island.

The coal burning basket on the top used approximately 400 tonnes of coal per year (that is a lot of lifting by hand from the jetty to the top of the island) and the coal was originally paid for by passing ships with levy’s. Each ship was charged on the amount of tons it carried although interestingly English boats were charged twice the amount as Scottish boats but eventually this charge was dropped.

However there was tragedy linked to the building as in January 1791 the lighthouse keeper family (George Anderson, his wife and five of his children) were found dead having suffocated from carbon monoxide poisoning from fumes from the ash heaps surrounding the Beacon. The baby girl which survive; Lucy was saved and brought up in Anstruther before emigrating to the United States with her husband.

Gradually the Beacon started to show its limitations as although it was good in principal, burning coal in strong gales would limit its visibility and use. Locally the issues were known but it was soon noted nationally as in 1810, two Royal Navy boats were wrecked off Dunbar as they had mistaken a lime kiln on the mainland coast for the Beacon. After 179 years it was time for a rethink and in 1815 the Isle of May welcomed the construction of a new addition…