Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Lighthouse Island


LIGHTHOUSE ISLAND, the second of the three Copeland Islands, is located three miles off the mouth of Belfast Lough, and is an Area of Special Scientific Interest.

The island covers an area of 24 acres.

The common name of the islands came from the family of Copeland who settled here in the 12th century in the time of John de Courcy, but the island had earlier connections with the monks of Bangor Abbey till 1612, when it became the property of Sir James Hamilton.

When it was occupied by Bangor Abbey, it was known for a time as John's Island, after a miscreant monk who refused to leave when the monastery closed its island retreat some four centuries or more ago.

He spent the remainder of his existance there as a hermit.

In 1770, David Ker, of Portavo, purchased the Copeland Islands.

Little is known of what happened on the island between 1884 and 1941.

It has been said that a woman lived there on her own, or in the early 20th century, surviving on rabbits which she shot.

It is most likely that rabbits were only introduced after 1884, because the lighthouse keepers were always keen gardeners.

The walled garden, built between 1812-16 by two stone-masons, who carved their names on the wall of the cave on the east cliff.

It has also been claimed that, during the 19th century, the walled garden contained a very fine, canker-free orchard of apple and pear trees. 

The original lighthouse and dwelling were built from stones quarried on the island by convicts.

When the tower was built, an iron chafer was erected on top of the three-storied building and the beacon fire came into operation around 1711.

The lighthouse was 44 feet high, standing on an elevation of almost 70 feet. A new light came into operation in 1796.

In 1815 a new 52-foot lighthouse was built, close to the original one.

The work was commenced in 1813 and the new light, equipped with 27 oil burning lamps set in silvered reflectors, 131 feet above high water and visible for sixteen miles, was first exhibited on the 24th January, 1815.

At sunrise on the morning of the 1st November, 1884, the ancient wick lamps of the fixed light on Lighthouse Island were extinguished for the last time; and the same evening Mew Island light and fog signal were brought into operation.



LIGHTHOUSE ISLAND was once inhabited: In 1742 there was a family on it.

In 1811 there were two families, comprising about fifteen islanders, some employed in looking after the light.

There was a single family on the island in 1875.

They looked after the light and there was a small boat harbour which was probably in the area of the present landing place.

The lighthouse station had two keepers with their wives and families in residence. New houses were built to accommodate them.

For island lighthouses of the time, life on Lighthouse Island was most tolerable: The island was large enough to support goats, sheep and pigs, as well as a donkey.

The two families were virtually self-sufficient in milk, mutton, pork and bacon.

Their walled garden provided ample vegetables; and their poultry gave them chicken for Sunday lunch, and eggs to complement their bacon for breakfast.

A weekly boat from Donaghadee brought provisions and mail.

For many years the island was leased to Robert McConkey for shooting rabbits and sea-birds.

Before the sporting season started, stores were ferried out to the island in readiness for the sportsmen who came out weekly.

In the season there was the harvesting of the eggs by the commercial egg collectors for market on the mainland, and within memory these have been on sale in the relevant season of the year. 


The first recorded ornithological visit was made in 1939 by Douglas Deane.

He dug out a breeding burrow, complete with egg (now in the Ulster Museum), in order to prove that Manx Shearwaters bred on the island.

Another leading ornithologist, Arnold Bennington, brought out parties of enthusiasts after the 2nd World War, between 1947-53, to evaluate the island as a suitable site for an observatory.

His last group, in 1953, was a class of Workers Educational Association adult students. They decided to establish an observatory.

Thus began Copeland Bird Observatory, with a singular lack of formality.

The proprietor of Lighthouse Island, Captain Ker of Portavo, had agreed to let the island for a peppercorn rent of one shilling.

In 1967, he leased the island to the National Trust for 999 years, on the understanding that the observatory could continue as tenants as long as the organization existed.

The observatory's structure was set up swiftly: Three Heligoland traps were erected; accommodation was secured within the derelict lighthouse buildings; and the British Trust for Ornithology sanctioned accreditation in 1956.

The lighthouse keepers' former premises and storehouse now accommodate the Copeland Bird Observatory volunteers; and there is a laboratory where migratory birds are captured for examination, ringing, weighing, recorded and then released all within a few minutes from capture to minimise distress.

This island is an important breeding site for Manx Shearwater and Eider.

The rabbits on the island are important to the breeding of the Manx Shearwater, as their grazing keeps a short sward that is desirable for the fledglings and their burrows provide nesting sites.

The island vegetation includes large areas of rank bracken, sea Campions, elder scrub and many more.

Lighthouse Island is now owned by the National Trust, though administered by volunteer wardens of the Copeland Bird Observatory, one of sixteen observatories throughout the British Isles, monitoring bird migration and sea-bird populations.

There is self-catering accommodation at very reasonable rates, in the form of male and female dormitories, with a few family rooms.

Bear in mind, though, that the observatory is not a guest-house, nor a bed & breakfast establishment!

Its prime role is as a bird observatory.

First published in September, 2012.

5 comments :

Anonymous said...

when I was there about 15 years ago there were great swathes of a vigorous big plant called Himalayan Balsam I believe. This must now have been eradicated.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating article about Lighthouse Island. Where did you get all this information?

R Wombat

Timothy Belmont said...

Wombat,

I got it the old-fashioned way ~ by spending time trawling the web for info. and condensing it. :-)

xxdfarre said...

We went to the Copeland Islands as our annual outing from Somerton House Prep School twice back in the late 40s/early 50s. How we all loved it! Seemed very exotic then for a primary school outing though might not cut the mustard with today's pupils.

Anonymous said...

As a regular visitor to the observatory over many years, much credit is due to Lord Belmont for his research which to the best of my knowledge is entirely accurate.