Norwegian Lighthouses – Cathedrals of the sea

Fjords, islands and bays define the Norwegian coastline for approximately 100.000 kilometres.  The coast is known for its rough seas and unpredictable skerries.  Nevertheless, along these battered shores, we can find structures that have stood implacably through centuries.  A total of 212 lighthouses define the essential constructions for nautical navigation in Norway. These icons of Norwegian coastal identity stand as symbols that merge the land into the sea.

Wooden structures named vippefyr are considered to be the first method used on the land to safeguard navigation at sea. Vippefyr consisted of a bascule basket lit through burning coal. Lindesnes fyr was established in 1656 as the first lighthouse in Norway, based in the southernmost point on the mainland.  At the beginning of the 18th century, other attempts at building permanent navigation lights succeeded. At the time of the dissolution of the union with Denmark in 1814, only ten lighthouses were to be found in Norway. Most were located in the south, where marine traffic concentrates. An important breakthrough came in 1882, however, when an experiment showed that gas oil could beam continuously without attention for two to three weeks. Consequently, during the following hundred years, the government directed resources to maritime support infrastructure. By 1900, 162 lighthouses stood and when the last manned station was established in 1932, the total number had reached 210. Additionally, thousands of smaller unmanned navigation lights and other seamarks were also built.  After World War II, most of the lighthouses where electrified and by 1992, all of them were automated.  In 2006, the last lighthouse keeper in the country finally went ashore from Bøkfjord fyr, marking the end of 350 years of manned lighthouses along the Norwegian coast.

[1] Sketch of a vippefyr.

Lighthouses can be interpreted as a mirror of the various Norwegian coastline landscapes. They are not neutral; they are the result of a society’s art and technique that contributes to define specific and unique landscapes. Five types of lighthouses were crafted to serve different functions: coastal, entrance, fairway, harbour and lightships. The Oslofjord is an excellent representation of these diverse lighthouse typologies, and also an accurate reflection of their history.

[2] Plan of the lighthouses in the Oslofjord, categorized by their typology. 

[3] Skyline of the lighthouses in the Oslofjord, from the outermost to the innermost point.

Færder fyr was the first lighthouse to be built in 1857.  Like Torbjørnskjær fyr, coastal lighthouses were designed to be the first signs to be seen when approaching land.  They tower like giant gateposts marking the main route into the Oslofjord. In terms of materiality, they must resist exposure to continually harsh seas. The 47 meters tall iron tower in Færder and the reddish-brown granite building in Torbjønskjær are both placed on islands, surrounded by smaller wooden buildings such as houses, sheds and boathouses.

As you get deeper into the fjord, entrance lighthouses lead coastal traffic from the open sea to the inner channels, an example could be Rødtangen fyr which guides the entrance to Drammensfjorden. Normally, they are situated on islands surrounded by smaller buildings and painted with a red vertical stripe on the walls to make them more visible during daylight.

One of the most common typologies in the Oslofjord is the fairway lighthouses, which guide ships between islands and skerries in the route along the fjord. Because of their distance to the open sea, most are built in wood. Fulehuk fyr is an exception because it is considerably exposed; therefore, its base was built in stone.

Nearer to land, harbour lighthouses show safe access to ports for vessels to dock. Several of them were originally houses near a pier or a light at the end of the harbour, such as Moss fyr.  In Drøbak fyr, the light is located in an elevated small window in the corner of the house. As a result of the relationship with the mainland and the direct communication with the nearest village, auxiliary buildings are not needed.

Where it is complicated or very expensive to build, anchored vessels functioned as lighthouses. Nowadays, lightships are not used anymore. However, they are an important part of coastal memory. Ildjernsflu fyrskip was located in the fjord but it was later replaced by an automatized lantern.

[4] Axonometric drawings of the lighthouse typologies.

“The skerry, a forty-foot high islet, has no protection on any edge, neither the smallest bay where a boat can find shelter. The sea, which in storms from the south, rains above the highest point, peaks and breaks on all sides, and landing is not infrequently at risk of loss of boat and life.”                                                                               
–Torbjørnskjær’s lighthouse keeper

Sacrifice and dedication represented the life of a lighthouse keeper.  They were committed to keep the lights lit and make the route safe. Most of them lived with their family or an assistant, who helped with the lighthouse’s duties. Others could be isolated for weeks due to strong winds, high sea level or ice. Occasionally, this could be a dangerous workplace. Bad weather often forced everyone to stay indoors for extended periods. Then, a supply officer was hired to ensure that the lighthouse keeper received regular supplies. However, many times it was impossible to get ashore and the goods were not delivered for some weeks. Despite long vigils, arduous physical work and tough weather, many lighthouse keepers had a very long service life, even generations followed each other. The lighthouse keepers’ lives also differed, just as their workplace typology. For example, the children at Heggholmen fyr could probably expect to get ashore and go to regular school, while the people living at Færder had to have a teacher among them so they could be taught. At Gullholmen fyr they could have an orchard, while at Torbjørnskjær fyr even the smallest garden was washed by the sea. Sometimes, the location of the lighthouse made fishing very easy. The lighthouse keeper could just throw the bait out of the window and hope for a good catch while putting the pan over the stove.

                                   [5] Illustration of Stabben fyr from 1869.

[6] Lighthouse keeper and his family. Filtvet fyr, 1905.








Norwegian lighthouses have known an architectonic and maritime history of their own. The introduction of new technologies and the decline of the maritime navigation have caused the abandonment of these iconic sea structures. Nowadays, two factors have stimulated interest in lighthouses again: tourism and cultural identity. Giving a new purpose to lighthouses rediscovers them as part of Norway’s coastal heritage and fosters their preservation. They are structures that have great potential as their typology can be adapted to multiple different uses. At the same time, this recovers the identity and memory of the territory and rejoins the local community with their roots to the sea.

[7] Map of all the lighthouses in Norway. Categorized into protected and unprotected by the Directorate of Cultural Heritage.

Bjørkhaug, B. and Poulsson, S. (1986) Norges fyr. Oslo: Grøndahl.
Kristoffersen, K. and Larsen, R. (2006) Fyrene. Sandefjord: Skagerrak Forlag.
Johanne, E. (2007) Finn et fyr. Trondheim: Tapir Akademisk Forlag.
Ersland, B. (2010) Fyrbyggerne. Kystverkmusea.
Monrad-Krohn, D. (1997) Norske fyr: narsjonal verneplan for fyrstasjoner. Oslo: Riksantikvaren.
Lauritzen, P. and Schau, A. (2010) Fyrene i Oslofjorden. Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag.
Magnani, E. and Pistocchi F. (2017) The Role of Lighthouses in the Coastal Identities. Almatourism Special Issue N.6 Norsk Fyrhistorisk Forening. Riksantikvaren. 

[Featured Image]  “Fyr på den norske kyst” by Peder Balke (1855)
[1] Douglas B. Hague (1975) Lighthouses: their architecture, history and archaeology. Llandysul: Gomer.
[2] Drawings made by the authors.
[3] Drawings made by the authors.
[4] Drawings made by the authors.
[5] Kystverket.
[6] Given up by the Filtvet Lighthouse Museum archive.
[7] Riksantikvaren.

Simen Lunøe Pihl, Curator of the Lindesnes Lighthouse Museum
Inger Stokstad Eriksen, member of the board at Filtvet Lighthouse