In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Irvine, where the Scottish Maritime Museum’s Linthouse site is located, was one of the most important harbours in Scotland. It was a busy and popular site for both cargo and pleasure vessels. However, due to it being a tidal harbour and the River Garnock and River Irvine flowing into it, there were issues with silting and changing tides. Despite regular dredging, vessels were sometimes unable to leave for several weeks. The sandy deposits at the entrance to the harbour meant that larger vessels weighed down with cargo were often forced to unload out in the bay or wait for tides to bring deeper waters. Vessels also faced the difficulty of navigating their way along the narrow harbour channel, particularly as they had no way to know the depth of the water.
To try to solve this problem, in 1905 the Irvine Harbour Master, Martin Boyd, designed and patented an “Automatic Tide Signalling Apparatus” (now more commonly known as the “Pilot House”). His solution consisted of a float in the water connected via wires to an apparatus housed in a 50 foot tall tower located at the entrance to Irvine harbour. As the float rose and fell with the tide, a code of light signals at night, and a code of ball signals during the day, were automatically displayed on the tower signalling the depth of water in the channel.
The diagram below is in the Museum’s collection and shows what each combination of lights and balls signalled. This is what I came across during the Collections Review this week and led me to start researching Boyd’s Pilot House.
Boyd’s system proved to be a success and helped traffic in Irvine harbour until the 1970s when the harbour began to decline in popularity and the tower fell into disuse. Today, the Category ‘B’ listed Pilot House is in a state of disrepair but there are plans to redevelop it. Coastwatch Scotland Irvine are fundraising and seeking volunteers to help refurbish and maintain the tower. Their plan is for it to be a multi-purpose space for the community, including a bird and wildlife observation room, a first aid post, and a meeting room. For more information, see their website: http://www.coastwatch-irvine.co.uk/pilot.html