HL Deb 19 July 1883 vol 281 cc1877-81

, in rising to call attention to correspondence respecting the buoying of the "Hen and Chickens" rock on the coast of Lewis, said, this matter was certainly not connected with politics, nor with any of those great social questions so often discussed in their Lordships' House; but it was, at the same time, a matter of considerable public importance with reference to the administration of lights and lighthouses. In the discussion which took place about a fortnight or three weeks ago on the mode in which our lighthouses were administered, their Lordships had heard that there was a separate Board for each of the Three Kingdoms—that for Ireland there was a Board which sat in Dublin; for Scotland a Board which sat in Edinburgh; and for the lighthouses of England and the Channel Islands there was the ancient and venerable Corporation of Trinity House. It had so happened that in very early life he became personally acquainted with the operations of the Commissioners of Northern Lights. Three of their principal stations were on his own property, and he was present at the laying of the foundation stone of one of their most magnificent edifices—the great oceanic lighthouse erected by the late Mr. Stephenson, a man whose high character and genius cast a lustre on the Profession to which he belonged. He (the Duke of Argyll) happened to be a Member of the Government of Lord Aberdeen, under which the Merchant Shipping Act was passed. That Act was introduced by his right hon. Friend the late Sir James Graham, then at the head of the Admiralty. One of the clauses of that Bill proposed to subject the operations of the Commissioners of Northern Lights in Scotland and the Irish Board to the judgment and discretion of the Trinity House. As those local bodies had great local knowledge, and had conducted their business to the satisfaction of the shipping interest, he showed something of the Scotch lion, and rather remonstrated with his right hon. Friend; but he was not supported at the time. Sir James Graham, as well as himself, was a Scotchman, and so was Lord Aberdeen, then the Head of the Government. They did not agree with him; besides, the mutterings of the Eastern Question were being heard, and the subject in which he felt interested was treated as a purely local matter. Well, from that time to this he really thought no more of the subject, because nothing had come before him to direct his attention to the working of the system. But, the other day, Her Majesty's ship Lively, which was not only commanded by a most distinguished and careful officer, but was under the care of a local pilot, ran full upon a rock in broad daylight in such a manner that she was lost, and a court martial, he was sorry to say, felt obliged to dismiss the distinguished officer from the ship. It occurred to him to inquire whether the rock was buoyed or beaconed, and he found that it was not. If their Lordships would look at the beautiful Admiralty chart, it would be seen that the whole eastern seaboard of Lewis was what sailors called a remarkably clean shore. A 10-fathom line ran close to the coast, and there was a 20-fathom line very near, and often touched it. There was a promontory at right angles to the coast, which had to be turned by ships seeking refuge at the harbour of Stornoway. Just as one came in sight of the harbour there was a most dangerous rock. The water was nine fathoms deep inside of it. It was a considerable distance from the shore, and outside the water was much deeper. At ordinary high tide that rock was entirely concealed. It was one of the most dangerous rocks which existed, and there was a large amount of shipping in the neighbourhood. It turned out to be a fact disclosed in the Correspondence laid on the Table of the House that so long ago as 1869 the Commissioners of Northern Lights had forwarded a distinct recommendation to Trinity House, under the Act of Sir James Graham, that this dangerous rock should be marked with a beacon. This recommendation was vetoed by the Trinity House on the ground that the sailing directions of the Admiralty were sufficient protection. In the case of a ship belonging to the Navy, that might be sufficient; but the number of the Queen's ships which went there was nothing as compared with the number of ships of the Mercantile Marine and the coasting vessels passing down the Mineh. The objection of the Trinity House was what he might call a red-tape objection. The Scottish Board was composed, first of all, of the eminent engineers, Messrs. Stevenson, and the Sheriffs of all the maritime counties in Scotland, and of the Provosts of certain towns connected with the merchant shipping. He must say that it was a very strange thing for Trinity House to reject a recommendation of this kind, and it was not a good indication of the working of the system which had put the Scottish Board under a Board sitting in London. Of course, there was an appeal from Trinity House to the Board of Trade. He did not know whether the Northern Lights Commissioners appealed to the Board of Trade to have their recommendation carried into effect. Apparently, the matter had been allowed to drop, because of the decision of the Trinity House. He had the greatest respect for the Trinity House; but their Board ought not, in his opinion, to overrule so competent a body as the Scotch Commissioners of Lights. The West Coast of Scotland was still very imperfectly buoyed, and a dangerous rock, not unlike the "Hen and Chickens," lay just at the entrance to the best harbour in the Isle of Mull, where, by the way, Her Majesty's Squadron was ordered to anchor a short time ago. Another very important harbour on the South-West Coast was not only not buoyed, but was rendered still more dangerous by the fact that two beacons that formerly existed had been allowed to go to ruin. In bringing forward this matter, he blamed no Member of the Government; but he repeated that it was a very serious thing that the recommendations of the Scotch Commissioners should be subject to the veto of the Board of Trade or the Trinity House.


As regards the particular case of the marking of the "Hen and Chickens" rock, I have to point out, as stated by the noble Duke, that, under the Merchant Shipping Acts passed in 1854, the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses had the right to appeal to the Board of Trade against the decision of the Trinity House, but they did not do so. And no representations on the subject, either from them or from any other quarter, have been received since 1869. As regards the relative claims of the two Boards to the confidence of mariners, it will be remembered that all the working Elder Brethren of the Trinity House are seamen, and that all the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses are ex officio members, being composed of the Law Officers, Sheriffs of the seaboard counties, and the Provosts of certain large towns in Scotland. I do not mean in any way to throw any discredit upon the Northern Lights Commissioners; but I only wish to point out, as to the relative merits of the two Boards, that undoubtedly Trinity House are the most practical body. But a curious thing has happened within the last few days. As recently as Tuesday of this week the Board of Trade received a Memorial from the Convention of the Royal and Parliamentary Burghs of Scotland, signed by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh—himself a Lighthouse Commissioner—complaining strongly of the esc officio constitution of the Board, and stating that the prevalent feeling in Scotland was in favour of a re-organization of the Scottish Lighthouse Board, and praying Her Majesty's Government, on the earliest opportunity, to take measures so to recast the constitution of the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses as to insure among its members persons having a personal and practical fitness for its duties. This only shows that, at any rate, in Scotland the opinion is different from what the noble Duke has expressed.


said, he thought his noble Friend had entirely misunderstood the spirit of the Memorial. Whatever dissatisfaction might exist as to the composition of the Northern Lights Commission, the feeling unquestionably was that the Scotch authority should not be overruled by the Trinity House or the Board of Trade.

In reply to Lord ELLENBOROUGH,


said, that the pilot on board the Lively was was one of the best and most experienced pilots in the district.


said, that, after all, no reason had been given to show why this rock had not been buoyed long ago. It was quite a small rock, being certainly not as broad as the floor of the House, and was surrounded by deep water. The sailing directions of the Admiralty were all very well in fine weather; but in thick weather it was often difficult to verify the buoys, and no soundings revealed the nearness of the danger. Now that one of Her Majesty's ships had been lost, he trusted that something would be done.


said, he considered it time that this dangerous reef should be distinguished from the surrounding sea, and he would recommend the erection of a lighthouse similar to one he had lately seen at Belfast.