IN her prime, North Carr Lightship’s beacon shone brightly to guide mariners to safety, her loud foghorn heard 10 miles away, blasting its warning not to come too close. 

Gleaming red, she bobbed on the waters around a mile east of the North Carr Rocks, a reef of 14 sandstone rocks off Fife Ness in the Forth Estuary. With evocative names such as Englishman’s Skelly, Kneestone, Tullyboth Craigs and Lochaber Rock, without the lightship’s protective forces, they could easily rip the hull of a passing vessel and leave it for dead. 

After more than half a century of serving the seas, new systems of protecting those at sea saw her light dimmed and her horn silenced. 

Now, although a little rusty and with her red paint faded as she sits in Victoria Dock at City Quay, Dundee, the North Carr Lightvessel is on the brink of a new chapter. 

Recently, for the first time in about four decades, a bright light again shone from her defunct lantern tower – a dazzling blue LED beam specially fitted to pay tribute to frontline workers, from NHS to mariners bringing food and goods across the seas. 

As well as a shining beacon of support, the light has heralded a new era that is set to see the North Carr Lightvessel undergo extensive repairs and refurbishment to eventually take her place alongside RR Discovery and HMS Unicorn as another of Dundee’s seafaring tourist attractions. 

A major project is underway to see the former Northern Lighthouse Board vessel lovingly restored, while at the same time offering work experience and training to people with a range of disabilities and social challenges. 

Once at risk of being lost for good, she will eventually be put to work once again, providing a focal point as a community hub and training school of waterborne activities. 

According to lighthouses historian Peter Gellatly, who volunteers with Dundee-based charity Taymarra, which is behind the lightship’s restoration, the project will ensure the last vessel of its kind in Scotland can shine again.

“We are a nation of rich maritime history, and this ship is part of that heritage,” he said. “She was built in Glasgow when the city was a main shipbuilding hub, she was part of a lighthouse service that is second to none and is a link in that chain of important maritime heritage.

“It would have been such a shame if she had been lost and to have the opportunity to stop her deteriorating and maintain her for future generations to visit and learn from is really important.”

Built in 1933 by A & J Inglis Ltd at  Pointhouse Shipyard, at the spot where the River Clyde and Kelvin meet, she measured 101ft in length and 25ft in breadth with the name ‘North Carr’ painted in brilliant white across her red hull. 

One of just two vessels of her type at the time, – the Abertay lightship was the other – she took up her position in 
the Forth close to the turning point for ships coming from the north and bound for the Tay, or from the south heading for open water. 

Her position was crucial; for many years the North Carr Rocks had claimed vessel after vessel. Attempts to alert seafarers to the risks – a buoy and then a metal pyramid beacon erected in 1821 by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the author Robert Louis Stevenson, were scarcely effective and required a light to be shone from a second small lighthouse on the Isle of May seven miles away.

HeraldScotland:

A lightvessel that could be anchored a mile east of the rock, provided the solution.  

“There were several vessels at the site before the North Carr Lightvessel arrived in 1933,” said Mr Gellatly. “They served an important role. 

“Mariners would be sailing from the North Sea, making their way to the River Forth but these rocks were not visible. 

“The lightvessels enabled them to make safe passage past the rocks without the need for the low lighthouse on the Isle of May.”

Today the disused low lighthouse on Isle of May serves as a bird observatory, while the grand castle-style lighthouse also constructed by Stevenson, continues to shine, controlled remotely from the Northern Lighthouse Board’s headquarters in George Street, Edinburgh.

For years the lightship stood sentinel in its post, with her crew of 11 remaining on board for a fortnight at a time before being swapped for a fresh crew. 

However, even she was not completely immune to risk. 

A severe December gale in 1959 saw her break adrift from her moorings. With no means to propel herself – her engine room had been given over to generators and air compressors to work her light and horn – the vessel called for help from the Broughty Ferry Lifeboat, Mona. 

Tragically, the lifeboat capsized, and was lost along with all eight hands.

The lightship eventually managed to make anchor off the rocky shore at Kingsbarns near St Andrews and the crew rescued by helicopter – only after they cut away the 40ft aftermast to allow the helicopters to fly as low as 5ft above the lantern.

She returned to her station within weeks however, the events went down in maritime history as Dundee’s darkest day. 

By the mid-1970s, the lightship’s service would be brought to an end, replaced by new technology that has enabled highly-efficient buoys with solar panels and operated by satellite technology to be positioned at hard to reach danger spots. 

The North Carr Lightship went on to be used as a floating museum in Anstruther, before being bought for 
£1 by the Taymara project, which works with young people experiencing a range of difficulties. 

Having been towed to Dundee, she is now awaiting extensive repair and restoration work expected to cost in excess of £1 million. 

While the vessel is watertight, it’s feared that without essential repair work her hull and open deck areas – left to the ravages of the North Sea for almost five decades – could become almost impossible to fix. 

According to Mr Gellatly, however, hopes are high that Scotland’s last lightship will once again shine brightly. 

“She has the potential to do so much for the local community rather than just rusting away,” he said. “She will bring a rich piece of maritime history to everyone to enjoy.”