Scheduled Monument

Dennis Head, Old Beacon, North RonaldsaySM6596

Status: Designated


Where documents include maps, the use of this data is subject to terms and conditions (


Date Added
Industrial: light, warning, signal; marine
Local Authority
Orkney Islands
Cross And Burness
HY 79013 55393
379013, 1055393


The monumnet comprises the Old Beacon at Dennis Head, North Ronaldsay, and represents the remains of the earliest surviving purpose-built lighthouse tower in Scotland. It was built for the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses in 1788/9 by Thomas Smith, engineer, and Ezekiel Walker, lighthouse designer, and was first lit on 10 October 1789. Materials and workmen were brought from Leith, and the masons were John White and James Sinclair. The total cost was 199.12s.6d.

The tower was cylindrical, standing 70ft (21.35m) high with the house for the keeper, one James Smith, abutting it on the west side. The light system designed by Thomas Smith was of the catrophic or reflecting kind, in which light from a cluster of oil lamps was reflected by means of copper reflectors covered with facets of mirror glass.

Unfortunately, one immediate result of the provision of a light to guide mariners around the northernmost part of Orkney was an increase in the number of shipwrecks; for ships which had formerly kept to the open sea were now encouraged to sail closer to land, often coming to grief off the coast of Sanday. In 1802, an unlit beacon tower was therefore erected at Start Point on Sanday. This was provided with a revolving light in 1806. Three years later, in 1809, the North Ronaldsay light was extinguished, its lantern being replaced by the stone ball removed from Start Point. At the same time the keeper's house, to which another had meanwhile been added, was unroofed and abandoned.

The tower is built close to the water line, and although its base is now surrounded by shingle it is apparently founded on bedrock. The original cylindrical tower stands entire up to the corbel course that would have supported the external gallery enclosing the lantern. Except for the corbels and an internal spiral stair, it is built in undressed stone. There is a plain lintelled door at the base on the west, and two rectangular windows with timber rear-lintels (the lower one now blocked) on the south. The stair, which was built in yellow sandstone, has collapsed inside the tower, leaving some of the stubs projecting from the walls.

The ball finial that surmounts the tower is made of finely jointed ashlar, and is carried on a corbelled stone roof with a low rounded profile. This incorporates some timber work internally; but it is uncertain whether this represents a survival of the original timber superstructure enclosing the lamp, or is simply part of the form work used in constructing the corbelling.

The keepers' houses are built against the western side of the tower, in an elongated block with a pitched roof. This was originally roofed with Welsh slates, some of which still survive in the raggle cut into the wall of the tower. The masonry is undressed, and set in a hard lime mortar, which includes beach sand and small pieces of coal. The main dwelling, in the middle of the block, had two rooms, with a fireplace and chimney in each crow-stepped gable.

The second dwelling represents a subsequent addition to the west; it consisted of a single room with a west gable containing a fireplace similar to those in the first dwelling. Between the main dwelling and the tower is a passage or vestibule leading to the door to the tower. To the left of the outer entrance to this, in the angle betwen it and the tower, is a small rounded closet with an external door, which may have been used as a store room or possibly as a latrine.

The tower and ruined keepers' dwellings are now incorporated into a system of drystone dykes; some may be contemporary with the tower's period of use, when the keeper had grazing for a cow, while others are evidently later and associated with sheep management.

The monument to be scheduled includes the tower, the keepers' accommodation block, the associated drystone dykes and an area of ground encompassing these structures and measuring some 90m E-W by 90m N-S, as shown in red on the accompanying map.

Statement of National Importance

The monument is of national importance because it represents the earliest surviving purpose-built lighthouse tower in Scotland (1788/9). Its importance is enhanced by its remarkable state of preservation and the fact that it is still associated with the remains of the original keepers' houses, which were abandoned and unroofed when the lighthouse was converted into an unlit beacon in 1809.

The history of the lighthouse is well documented, while the buildings and surrounding area have the potential, through detailed study and excavation, to shed further light on the life of the keepers during the brief period during which the lighthouse was in use.



RCAHMS records the monument as HY 75 NE 23.


Hood, E. (1988) 'For Those in Peril...', The Sunday Mail Story of Scotland, 3.33, 920-24.

Wilson, B. (1975) The Lighthouse of Orkney [Stromness], 6-7.

About Scheduled Monuments

Historic Environment Scotland is responsible for designating sites and places at the national level. These designations are Scheduled monuments, Listed buildings, Inventory of gardens and designed landscapes and Inventory of historic battlefields.

We make recommendations to the Scottish Government about historic marine protected areas, and the Scottish Ministers decide whether to designate.

Scheduling is the process that identifies, designates and provides statutory protection for monuments and archaeological sites of national importance as set out in the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.

We schedule sites and monuments that are found to be of national importance using the selection guidance published in Designation Policy and Selection Guidance (2019)

Scheduled monument records provide an indication of the national importance of the scheduled monument which has been identified by the description and map. The description and map showing the scheduled area is the legal part of the scheduling. The statement of national importance and additional information provided are supplementary. These records are not definitive historical or archaeological accounts or a complete description of the monument(s).

The format of scheduled monument records has changed over time. Earlier records will usually be brief. Some information will not have been recorded and the map will not be to current standards. Even if what is described and what is mapped has changed, the monument is still scheduled.

Scheduled monument consent is required to carry out certain work, including repairs, to scheduled monuments. Applications for scheduled monument consent are made to us. We are happy to discuss your proposals with you before you apply and we do not charge for advice or consent. More information about consent and how to apply for it can be found on our website at

Find out more about scheduling and our other designations at You can contact us on 0131 668 8914 or at


There are no images available for this record, you may want to check Canmore for images relating to Dennis Head, Old Beacon, North Ronaldsay

There are no images available for this record.

Search Canmore

Printed: 16/06/2019 19:40