Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Visitor Centre and Nature Reserve


Building owner/client:

Shetland Amenity Trust

Architect or lead designer:

Groves Raines Architects

Local Authority Area:


Nominating Body:

Shetland Amenity Trust

Project Description

Designed by Robert Stevenson in 1819, Sumburgh Head Lighthouse is the oldest Stevenson Lighthouse in Shetland and has been in continuous use since its construction. The foghorn, Engine Room and additional Keeper lodgings were added in 1905, with the further addition of radar installations during WWII. Proposals to develop Sumburgh Head into a Visitor Centre progressed when Shetland Amenity Trust acquired the site in 2003 and, with Groves-Raines Architects as lead consultants, sourced £5.4million in grant funding and developed plans to renovate and restore these historic listed buildings which were falling into serious disrepair. The conservation and repair of Sumburgh Head encompassed all of the existing buildings on the site, with the addition of a modern extension: the curved glass fronted Education Centre which blends in perfectly, taking advantage of the breath-taking views. This building is now available for school groups, conferences, meetings and special events. Many features were replaced or restored during construction works, including chimneys, pediments and windows. The lead roof was fully replaced using traditional techniques and many original fixtures and fittings were retained. Restoration of the original Engine Room included a full overhaul of the three Diesel Kelvin engines with the addition of interpretive display materials. The new spiral staircase to the repaired Foghorn Tower has greatly improved access. With the foghorn being returned to working order, powered by the restored engines, it is the last working lighthouse foghorn in Scotland. The former Principal Keeper’s cottage has been fully renovated to accommodate RSPB Scotland staff offices. The historic Radar Hut, which detected attacks on the British Home Fleet during WWII has undergone extensive repair and been refurbished with detailed interpretive displays to replicate how it would have appeared in its operational days. The West Pavillion building has benefited from the addition of a new staircase and lift during its transformation into the Marine Life Centre. With extensive interpretation, visitors are taken on an interactive educational tour. The lower level immerses the visitor in an ‘underwater’ experience, while the upper floor focuses on the upper levels of the ocean and the seabird colonies on the surrounding cliffs. The East Pavillion building, unused for many years, has been fully renovated and now serves as luxury self-catering accommodation, sleeping up to five people. The original flagstone floors were re-laid after the underfloor heating was installed, which is powered by the new ground source heat pump. Additional bunk style accommodation is provided in the refurbished Occasional Keeper’s cottage. This is available for hire when it is not being used for artist or writer’s residencies. A fully fitted kitchen has been supplied here for use by guests, or groups using the Education Centre. In the extended and improved carpark at the lower entrance to Sumburgh Head, visitors are welcomed by the restored ‘Minor Light’ from Muckle Roe in the North West of Shetland. External work to improve the visitor experience included new road surfaces, extensive dry stone walling and the addition of informative panels about marine life, seabirds, geology and the archaeology of the area.

Supporting Statement

This project has been nominated because of the exceptionally high standard of refurbishment on the listed Lighthouse Buildings, and the sustainable ways in which this was done. The community involvement, and future benefits to the area are also key factors for nomination. The quality and attention to detail during renovation was vital, as Sumburgh Head is an iconic Shetland landmark. The historical significance of the architecture, and the successful re-use of the buildings as a visitor attraction and community resource was at the forefront of design and build plans, to highlight the natural, cultural and social heritage of the buildings and surrounding area. Photo Voltaic panels were installed, along with geo-thermal ground source heating. The PV Panels were carefully designed to follow the contours of the landscape, to ensure a minimal visual impact, but also to reduce the wind loading, as the area is very exposed to high winds. The panels are non-intrusive for native wildlife and have blended in well, in keeping with the area’s status as an RSPB nature reserve, Site of Special Scientific Interest, and Special Protection Area. The Project Team were keen to ensure that the wider community were kept informed and involved in the design and construction process. During construction, Local Authority Councillors and members of the Community Council were part of the project team, and regularly invited to tour the site. Towards the end of the build, this invitation was opened up to Tour operators, schools, community and history groups. One local primary school undertook a project to create ‘graffiti’ blocks which were inserted into the sash window voids, in replacement of original blocks of wood with messages and writing placed there by craftsmen who installed the original windows. Another school group submitted whale poetry which was used on interpretation panels. Many ex-lighthouse Keepers and their families who still live in the local area were involved in the research for the interpretive materials on display in the Engine Room and Smithy. They provided stories and images which were fundamental to the story being told for visitors. Many challenges were addressed, culminating in the completion of works on time and within budget on a very exposed and remote site. Sumburgh Head is home to extensive seabird colonies and is the most popular outdoor visitor attraction in Shetland. Access needed to be maintained for visitors throughout the construction, and extra care taken to schedule certain works to take account of the bird breeding season when tens of thousands of seabirds were nesting in the immediate vicinity. In partnership with RSPB Scotland, and regular communication with tour operators and other local groups, all of these issues were successfully dealt with. The facilities at Sumburgh Head are now a valuable community resource for the future. Groups will be able to visit in poor weather, the educational resources being developed will benefit schools and history groups, jobs have been created and the additional amenities available will benefit all visitors to the area.