Meeting Report: Life and Death on Little Ross

Date: 
9 February 2018
Speaker(s): 
David R. Collin

At its meeting in Dumfries on Friday, 9 February 2018, around 70 members and guests of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society gathered to hear a lecture entitled Life and Death on Little Ross, by Kirkcudbright historian David Collin. The lecture explored in particular the history of the lighthouse which stands on Little Ross island at the mouth of Kirkcudbright Bay.

David has recently published a book on the subject and began his talk by explaining that he was prompted to write it following the 50th anniversary of the infamous Little Ross island murder, which attracted much media interest. He felt this presented the island in a rather negative light and ignored the invaluable and literally life-saving service which the lighthouse and its many keepers have given to ships and their crews since it came into operation in 1843. David’s book aims to redress the balance and a detailed history of the building and operation of the lighthouse provided the basis for his talk.
A lighthouse on the island was first proposed in print in 1792 by the Rev. Robert Muter, then Kirkcudbright’s parish minister. Capt. James Skelly took up the project and in 1819 supervised the construction of two beacons on the island as navigational aids for ships entering Kirkcudbright Bay, which were useful in daylight but unlit at night. Further losses of ships and their crews, particularly in a severe storm in 1835, and local pressure eventually persuaded the Commissioners of the Northern Lights to build a lighthouse. The famous lighthouse-building Stevenson family were engaged on the project; Alan Stevenson designed the lighthouse and the keepers’ accommodation and ancillary buildings. Both the principal keeper and his assistant had walled gardens on the island, where they were expected to grow most of their vegetables.  Thomas Stevenson was resident engineer on the island, supervising the construction work which was undertaken by Robert Hume of Gatehouse. Bricks used in the construction were made in Hume’s brickworks at Gatehouse.

The lighthouse came into service on 1 January 1843. The first lighthouse keeper was Thomas Ritson; previously he had been keeper at the Mull of Galloway. Between 1842 and 1960, 61 Principal and Assistant Keepers served on Little Ross, many with their families. David presented some fascinating biographical details of several of the keepers. Amongst these was Joseph Dick, appointed assistant keeper in July, 1867. Born locally, Dick had been an apprentice gardener on the Earl of Selkirk’s estate at St Mary’s Isle. He served on Little Ross for 2 years, and then went out to Japan to help the engineer Richard Brunton establish a lighthouse service there. He worked at several Japanese lighthouses, training local keepers.  In 1914, William Begg was appointed principal keeper. He had a strong interest in ornithology and made valuable records of bird observations on the island. He contributed articles and reports to The Scottish Natural Magazine and wrote regular columns for the Galloway Gazette and the Manchester Guardian.  George Mackie was Begg’s assistant, and he kept a diary which his granddaughter has transcribed and kindly made available for David’s research. In this he gives a clear impression of daily life on the island and notably the difficulty of obtaining basic food supplies at reasonable cost during the First World War.

Little Ross drew the attention of the national press in 1960, following the murder on the island of Hugh Clark, the relief keeper, by assistant keeper Robert Dickson. Shortly after this, the lighthouse was automated and left unmanned.  However the keepers’ houses were leased in 1986 and restored by the tenants. Very recently the island was put up for sale and attracted a great deal of media interest.

Members were very appreciative of David’s presentation and clearly impressed by the depth of his research, both in the background to the construction of the lighthouse and in the biographies of many of the keepers and their families who served there.