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The Wreck Of The Oscar

All of September: 

12.30pm – 4.00pm Monday – Friday. 

10.00am-2.00pm Sat & Sunday
The Old Torry Community Centre, 2 Abbey Place


Exhibition of The Oscar Whaling ship that sank in Greyhope Bay in 1813. plus Duke Of Sutherland in 1853.

Also – The story of the Girdleness Lighthouse
Thanks to Aberdeen Maritime Museum & Aberdeen City Council Archives

The wreck of the Oscar and Girdleness Lighthouse

  The Wreck Of The Oscar: Image Supplied By Aberdeen Maritime Museum

The wreck of the Oscar was one of the final tipping points in creating a groundswell of opinion in favour of getting a lighthouse erected on the coast close to Aberdeen’s harbour. In part the need for a lighthouse was a long standing one but it was given more impetus by the series of harbour improvements that were being carried out by the Harbour Commissioners in the early decades of the 19th century. They sought to improve navigation and create a more commodious harbour that could deal with the needs of modern shipping.

There had been earlier lighthouses in Aberdeen. From the 1490s there are references to lights being lit to aid navigation on Aberdeen’s Castlehill. Whilst by 22 April 1566 the council ordered to ‘make repair and uphold a great lamp where the same was before on the east gable of St Ninian’s chapel [Castlehill]…with three great flaming lights to burn continually there in the winter season from day light unto night and to begin upon the first day of September and continue unto the last day of March…’. This was to be paid for by a tax weighted on imports and exports, the collector of which was appointed to be John Tullydeff, and the keeper of the light Sir John Wrycht.

The wreck of the whaling ship the Oscar in April 1813 (it went down very close to the shore and the crew could clearly be seen struggling, mainly in vain, to save their lives) prompted the Harbour Commissioners, with the Shipmasters Society, to petition the Commissioners of Northern Lights. The Commissioners replied after their meeting on 13 July 1813 stating that they did not agree to erect a lighthouse near Aberdeen harbour because ‘the Harbour from its present situation on almost a straight line of coast, at the entrance of a rapid River, and exposed to the whole Fetch of the German Ocean can never be so improved as to become the general resort of shipping in a storm…’.

Despite this negative answer the need and desire for a lighthouse was unabated in Aberdeen. After more negotiations and petitions eventually Lord Provost Hadden of Aberdeen went down to attend a Commissioner of Northern Lighthouses meeting on 9 January 1830 at which he made special representations for Aberdeen and presented a petition written by shipowners and merchants in Aberdeen. This appeal was successful and the Commissioners undertook to erect a lighthouse.

In Aberdeen the harbour Commissioners appointed a sub committee to investigate where a lighthouse might be best situated and to make the necessary arrangements for the transfer of land. In early June the sub committee erected several flag-staffs along the Torry coast and hired a tug boat. They went to sea in the boat to see which flagstaff was most visible. One at Findonness was not visible enough whilst the one at Girdleness was felt to be the most visible.

On 30 July 1830 the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses applied for ten imperial acres of ground at Girdleness to erect the lighthouse and a smaller piece of ground at Torry pier for a storehouse. The Council agreed and stipulated that there was to be no quarrying near the site, save for quarrying for stones for the lighthouse itself. Robert Stevenson was appointed and work was finally set to begin.

The lighthouse was built by an Aberdeen contractor, John Gibb in 1833 and was designed by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the author Robert Louis Stevenson.

The lighthouse when completed had a new double light system, showing 2 lights from the same tower, one above the other, this is not entirely uncommon in lighthouses and it meant that the lower light could be seen if the top was shrouded in mist or vice-versa. The lower light was discontinued in 1890, however its corbelled gallery can still be seen today. The light was first lit at sunset on 15 October 1833, the lighthouse contains 189 steps.

The main light was altered in 1847 and the old lantern, which was then considered too small, was transferred to Inchkeith. In 1996 the original cast-iron lantern was found; it is now property of the National Museums of Scotland. In 1860 Girdleness was visited by the Astronomer Royal, Professor George Airy, (later Sir George) who described it as ‘the best lighthouse that I have seen’.

The light was automated in 1991 and today it remains one of the most striking landmarks in Aberdeen and a strong testimony to Aberdeen’s maritime heritage and future.

Christopher P.Croly
Education Culture and Sport

Aberdeen Maritime Museum

Ships and Harbours Image Library