uklighthousetour

One crazy lady and a bizarre obsession = an ongoing tour of the best lighthouses the UK has to offer

A change of plan in Dundee

This is not the blog I was expecting, or hoping, to be writing today, but it is a blog post which means lighthouses have been visited, so never a bad thing.

We’d planned to travel down to Dundee and head over to the Isle of May today to take advantage of the Doors Open Days, which would allow us to get into two of the three lighthouses there.

Book release

Collecting my book from Whittles Publishing

Before I begin on that though, I should say that I received a message from the publisher of my book, The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide, to say that my advance copies were now in their office. Of course, that meant that I had to head over to see them after work before we began our journey south.

What a delight that was to be handed a copy of my own book! It’s taken me years to develop and I have been looking back at the process recently in preparation for a presentation I am due to give in a couple of weeks. It really has been a labour of love. To get my hands on the result is so rewarding and entirely wiped out the frustrations and stress I went through in order to get it to where it is. Such a fantastic feeling!

Right, back to our weekend. The visit to the Isle of May was not to be as I discovered by email this morning. We needed a back-up plan and this came in the form of Dundee Science Centre to entertain the kids in wet and windy weather.

Stopping here also gave the perfect opportunity to catch up with my lighthouse friend Laura who had also travelled to the area for the Isle of May. It was great to see her and nice to test out a copy of the book on exactly the type of person it is aimed at. Laura went away with a few lighthouses to do today that she’d missed the first time around and I hope she got on well with them.

We spent considerably longer at the Science Centre than anticipated, but when we did drag ourselves away we decided to take a drive up to Montrose as the kids needed a sleep and I was keen to get closer to the rear of the two range lights in Montrose harbour.

On the way to Montrose we passed the old Whitehill (or Vatsetter) light on the approach to Arbroath. I’ve seen this one a few times, but having recently been to the modern light at Vatsetter in Shetland where this one was previously located, I now have an extra level of enjoyment of it.

Montrose

Montrose Harbour Rear lighthouse

A little while later we arrived in Montrose and thanks to my book, which had the street names, we easily found the lighthouse. It’s an interesting one. It’s quite tall, but fairly slim with a fairly small, red section at the top which contains the light. I wandered around in the dunes next to it grabbing pictures from different angles. I was surprised to see dunes there to be honest. It’s a very industrial area and the lighthouse is just next to a massive warehouse. When we spotted the sign saying “Beach access” close to the lighthouse I was intrigued. I’ve since found some old pictures of the tower when it was white at the top rather than red and it certainly looks like there was much more of a beach next to the lighthouse then with no sign of the dunes. Presumably the river is shifting the sand banks over the years.

The river runs next to the lighthouse and there were a number of birds floating around on the water until a massive boat turned up and they drifted slowly towards the side of the river. It was brilliant to see Scurdie Ness in the distance too. It was great to get closer to this one after seeing from the south side of the river a couple of times.

 

Montrose and Scurdie Ness

Montrose Harbour Rear light with Scurdie Ness in the distance

The kids were both wide awake by the time we were passing back through Arbroath so we decided to stop at the Signal Tower Museum for a quick look around before it closed. It has been six years since I was last there. Life was very different then. Bob and I weren’t married and had no children, but also it was still very early in my lighthouse days. I wrote about it in my post at the time of my first visit. I had forgotten that it was as big as it is, and that they had the film depicting the building of the Bell Rock on a loop in one room. I caught the end of it and was reminded of just how incredible a feat it would have been to build a lighthouse on the Bell Rock. The film shows the Robert Stevenson, or at least the actor who played him, getting emotional when the light was first lit. It made me wonder how much of that was artistic licence (I suspect there was). It must have felt like a great achievement, but I wonder whether the Stevenson’s dealt with their successes by celebrating or whether they just moved on to the next task.

 

Signal Tower

Arbroath Signal Tower Museum

Anyway, I digress, the museum is still just as great as it was before. In fact it is better as, since 2017, they have held the old mechanism from the Bell Rock lighthouse (not the original, although they do have small parts of that too). It’s in a side room with a light inside and the mechanism is still in good working order, so it was lovely to see that in action.

I have heard that they are hoping to temporarily open the tower itself up to the public soon. It has been closed for health and safety reasons, but they are hoping to allow people to get up there a bit more in the future.

Signal Tower internal

Looking up the beautiful Signal Tower staircase

We stopped off at The Bell Rock Restaurant opposite the Signal Tower where we enjoyed smokies – we were in Arbroath after all. When we left the restaurant we spotted the Bell Rock tower in the distance with the sun shining off of it. I’d love to get back out there again some day to appreciate it all over again, and possibly even more so this time.

Although today turned out differently to how we had hoped it would, it’s still been a very good day with some lighthouses crammed in too. 🙂

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Circumnavigating Mull

If there was one light that had been bothering me for a while then it would have been Bunessan, which is on an island just north of the village of Bunessan on the Ross of Mull. It was the last one in the area from Mull to Islay that I had left to visit, or even see. Fortunately it tied in quite nicely with some islands off of the south west of Mull that had been bothering some island-baggers for a while too. Our good friend Mervyn got in touch to say that he was organising a trip there with Coastal Connection (a great boat operator based in Oban who got me out to see Dubh Artach and Hyskeir among others a few years ago). Of course we jumped at the chance.

Yesterday was the day that we’d set. We’d been warned that the trip was expected to last 12 hours. That’s quite a long day for one lighthouse, but when they’re bothering you then you do what it takes. Heading out from Oban we saw the Pharos berthed at the Northern Lighthouse Board Depot and a short while later we passed the lighthouse on Sgeirean Dubha in the Sound of Kerrera. We were aware that it might be choppy going out, but should calm down as the day progressed. Arriving towards the south west of Mull the lads began their bagging while I watched, read and slept mostly.

Bunessan approach

Approaching Eilean na Liathanaich island with Bunessan lighthouse

After nine hours it was finally time to conquer that troublesome lighthouse once and for all. There was still a bit of movement in the water around the island and a few people got wet feet because of it, but landing on the rocks on the north east corner wasn’t too bad. Fortunately Bob took a leap of faith, as he tends to do, onto the island to help get us on. Once we were beyond the rocks we were in some of my least favourite terrain, vegetation of all shapes and sizes and you have no idea where you are putting your feet – the random holes don’t help either. There was also a section where you had to go down a sloped section and then back up the other side. I’m not ashamed to say that using my bottom did the trick!

Bunessan

Bunessan lighthouse

We were greeted by a standard flat-pack lighthouse at the end and we decided to attempt to establish how many people we could fit around the lighthouse with arms outstretched – a game played formerly on Rona and the Crowlin Islands. Although I didn’t check everyone’s positioning I was led to believe that it was 8. Following that we appeared to play a brief game of Ring a Ring o’ Roses around the tower, although I’m not entirely sure why! It was nice to finally be there and everyone else had got off of the boat too, so there was plenty of good company. The walk back was uneventful and the bottom was utilised again. We celebrated me finally reaching that one with cake once we were all back on board.

I heard that we were bound for the Sound of Mull and assumed that there were some islands there that others had left to do. I’ve just been informed that it was actually to make up some time as the sea was expected to be calmer around that way, so off we set. As we sailed up along the northern side of Mull I could see Ardnamurchan lighthouse from a distance and then the lighthouse at Ardmore Point, the most northerly tip of Mull, came into view. Once we were around the corner there was Rubha nan Gall looking as lovely as ever.

Rubha nan Gall

Rubha nan Gall lighthouse

I discovered around this time that a plan had been formulated between Mervyn and Bob to land on both Eileanan Glasa and Glas Eileanan in the Sound. Both of these boast lighthouses (known as Green Islands and Grey Rocks respectively) in case you were wondering. The first one we came to was Green Islands and you can see where it gets its name. All of the islands in the Eileanan Glasa group have two different colours of rock topped with lovely green grass. It struck me as a bit like Little Holm in Shetland which we visited back in June. They are all small, but perfectly formed. Again the landing was easy and it was another flat-pack lighthouse, one that’d only seen from the sea previously. It’s always good to get closer to these ones, especially when the sea had calmed down as much as it had. There was no swell at all by this point.

Green Islands

Green Islands lighthouse

Onwards we went to Grey Rocks lighthouse. I was really pleased to be getting onto this one as, again, I’d seen it from the sea, but never landed. This one has a neighbouring building that we’ve not been able to find out any information about. There were plenty of barnacles on the rocks to cling to as we made our way from the tender to the lighthouse. At one point the vegetation got a bit thick, but it calmed down once you reached the little building and the lighthouse. The building appears to be split into two parts. It is brick built with a couple of doors and windows. The actual windows and doors had long since disappeared as had the roof, but it was just nice to see a different building in the area.  It also creates quite a nice image of an old, ruined building next to a very modern looking lighthouse.

Grey Rocks

Grey Rock lighthouse

As far as I was aware that was it for the day and we would then be heading straight back to Oban. However something caught our eye on the way so we got a little waylaid and decided to go for a quick ad hoc stop on Lady Rock which features a rather unique lighthouse. The tapered white base with a standard flat-pack section of framework on top, but that framework was covered in red rather than white panels. There was a lot of seaweed about near where we landed, but it didn’t seem too slippy. There was also a lot of bird “waste” on the rocks, but we made it to the tower just fine. It’s only when you are standing next to it that you realise how much bigger the lighthouse is than you think. There’s a ladder going up the side, which looks significantly taller than most other lighthouse ladders!

Lady Rock

Lady Rock lighthouse

As it was getting late and we’d already been out for over 12 hours it was time to get back on dry land. What a fantastic day it’s been with one successful bag that I’d hoped for plus three bonus bags. Huge thanks to Mervyn for such a brilliant day and to the guys at Coastal Connection too! 🙂

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5 days in Orkney – day 4

After the excitement of boat trips over the last three days, today was a return to dry land. Well, that was the plan anyway. Looking out of the window this morning suggested that there would be nothing really dry today with rain pouring down. The rain rarely stops us though, and we are glad it didn’t as it cleared up. Our aim of today was to reach Tor Ness lighthouse on the west coast of Hoy. I knew this one was never going to be easy. If it had been we would have done it a couple of years ago when we looked out towards it. That day the rain did stop us, along with the cows and the fact that we had our then 2-year-old son with us. We knew it wouldn’t have made for an enjoyable trip so it was postponed. This trip to Orkney seemed like the best time to do it. We were child-free and had John, who has already walked out to Tor Ness, with us to lead the way – or at least that was the plan!

We easily found the farm from which you can access the lighthouse, but we weren’t comfortable parking there so returned to the main road and parked up in a lay-by. As we walked up the road towards and through the farm we were wary of the barking dog on the left and then the bull and two calves with their mother in the field to the right. This wasn’t going to be an easy one, we could already tell. Fortunately the dog was inside and the cows in the small field watched us but didn’t seem too bothered. We then followed the track between the fields which was fine and I was secretly wishing that the track would go with us all of the way to the lighthouse.

The track ended at a gate into a field where a number of cows and a bull were hanging around. The three of us are all a bit concerned about cows and so we lingered at the gate for a while, trying to decide which route to take to avoid being trampled. John showed us the route he had taken by cutting along the fence line down to the beach, but it seemed the cows had preempted that and positioned themselves exactly across the route John would have taken that time. While we faffed about, trying to work out what to do, the cows slowly began moving over to the left and after a while the area alongside the fence on the right became clear. John bravely decided to be the one who went first to check out the cows reaction. Fortunately they seemed fine so we followed on behind. The cows weren’t bothered by us, but we hurried on along the fence line anyway and we soon felt we were out of the danger zone.

RK and JB looking back

Bob and John looking back at the “danger zone”

We then came across some rather boggy ground and managed to negotiate our way around it, but I don’t think any of us came out with dry feet (Bob’s shoes were still wet from paddling yesterday when he was helping to move the tender). We then reached higher ground and Bob suggested sticking to the coastline so we did. I didn’t realise why at the time, but discovered later that there was a reason for this, and it wasn’t just the great sea views. The walk out from here was fine. A little boggy in places, but nothing too bad. We could see the lighthouse which helped to push us on. It was getting really quite hot by this point as the sun had come out and there was very little wind.

Tor Ness approach

Tor Ness lighthouse

Tor Ness lighthouse is a fairly unique one. While the tower that houses the light is similar to the one we saw on Cava yesterday and a number of others, it is accompanied by another round tower and the Northern Lighthouse Board name plate is on this extra tower. A different tower was here previously, but I’m not sure if this other building was part of that or just required for storage. This little feature makes it more recognisable, which is always nice. There is a brick (or unpainted) section around the door of the second tower. I’m not sure if they left that bit for a reason or for decorative purposes.

IMG_5553

Tor Ness

 

There’s a fantastic view of the lighthouse from the little bit of cliff that juts out just to the south of the lighthouse – or at least there is when the sun is on that side of the tower. Bob discovered it first of course and it was only after we then wandered around behind the lighthouse that we realised that particular section of cliff is overhanging underneath. Pretty scary, but everything was fine. With the blue skies every angle on this one was great. It was a real achievement to get to this one as I’d seen it from a distance and seen the light flashing from Dunnet Head. The biggest achievement though would be to get back in one piece!

Tor Ness seaward

Tor Ness from the seaward side

We began the journey and seemed to be taking more of a cross-country route. It was a bit boggy, but not too bad. John pointed out a bird being attacked by what looked like an Arctic Skua and it was then that I was made aware of the bonxies off to the right, which of course left me cowering in fear. Bob had spotted them on the way out, but had suggested taking the coastal route in order to avoid them. He knows better than to tell me when bonxies are about as it immediately gets me stressed. Fortunately they were fine with us though and there was no need to worry – although I still did, of course.

All of the way back we were thinking about the cows and bull and where they would be. John got his camera out and had a look around using his zoom. It turned out that, rather annoyingly, they were in the worst place possible, right by the gate we needed to get through. They may well have been fine and moved away if we had gone near, but we weren’t willing to take the risk.

Cows

The cows

We followed the same fence line along as we had on the way out, but when we reached a gate into the next field we hopped through it and followed the line of the wall. The cows watched us, but we felt more comfortable with a fence and wall between us and them. There was a bit of damage to the wall part way up the field and Bob suggested we get over the wall into the next field, from which we could then get back onto the normal path. He tested the wire in the fence to see if the electricity going to it was turned on. After checking a couple of times, he was sure it was off so he went to step over and a moment later he retreated backwards and I put my hands out to stop him falling over. It turned out the electric fence was on. So we abandoned that option and walked to the top of the field where there was a gate.

Field

One of the fields we used to avoid the cows

 

We managed to get into the next field, which would take us down to the main track again. This field was filled with growing vegetables and such like so we skirted around the outside. Aside from the nettles and thistles prickling my legs it was all going ok until I fell down a hole – or at least my leg did. Not ideal, but I was fine and continued on – and John who was behind me learnt not to step where I had. As we neared the corner closest to the field with the cows in they all moved away and we realised that maybe it would have been fine anyway. We finally reached the gate and could see people working up at the farm. I had visions of them flying down on a quad bike to confront us about walking through their field, but they didn’t. In fact they drove off just as we were approaching the farm so I thought they couldn’t have been that annoyed.

The bull in the field with his family watched us pass and John paid the bull compliments as we passed in an effort to stop him marching through the wall to get us, which he wouldn’t have done anyway. There was no dog barking at the house and we finally made it back to the car – where we were attacked by midges. I must say I was very relieved to have made it back safely.

We then took a quick spin along to Cantick Head to see the lighthouse quickly. While we’d had lovely sunshine on the walk it was so misty here that we could barely see the lighthouse as we approached. In complete contrast to the weather when we saw it yesterday, and in fact when I first saw it. That’s often the joy of these places, each visit is different.

Cantick Head2

Cantick Head lighthouse

I realise that the majority of this post has been describing the journey to and from Tor Ness, but when you’ve been doing this for a while you realise that (as stated in the Hokey Cokey) that’s what it’s all about! 🙂

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5 days in Orkney – day 3

Our third day in Orkney has been just as enjoyable as the first two were. We changed boat operator today. Going out of St Margaret’s Hope, we spent the day on Scapa Flow with Gareth and Liam from Orkney Marine Charters on board the Mary Ann. They are a new company, and the only small boat operator on Scapa Flow to offer charters in the area.

We set off from St Margaret’s Hope and, on the way out, spotted Barrel of Butter in the distance and then Hoxa Head a little later. As the view really opened up on our way to Swona we could then see Cantick Head, then Pentland Skerries and Stroma. When we’d established the islands we wanted to visit in preparation for the trip I hadn’t really considered just how many others we would see on the way.

Hoxa Head

Hoxa Head lighthouse and old wartime defences

We arrived at Swona a little while later and managed to land successfully. We have been blessed with some particularly calm days this weekend, which is great, it makes trips so much more enjoyable. While the island baggers went off to the high point, I joined John in walking around to (what I would call) the beacon on the north of the island. There are a number of derelict houses on the island in various states of disrepair. Along with the houses there are a number of other objects that have seen much better days, such as an old tractor and a boat that has either been wrecked on the island or is just falling to pieces from lack of use. It certainly feels abandoned, much like it’s neighbour Stroma. Continuing around the coast it wasn’t too far to get to the beacon. There’s not a lot to the light here, just a little cabinet, a post with a light on top and then some solar panels on a frame. It was still good to see though and we also spotted the south light from here. As we walked back we noticed a post sticking up with a few holes in it. If you looked through the holes you were looking straight at the two towers on the Pentland Skerries. We jokingly referred to the post as the Pentland Skerries signal tower.

 

Swona north

The beacon at the north end of Swona

Due to time limitations and risks from getting too close to the island’s resident cattle, we decided that we would just sail around the south of the island instead. There are some stunning cliffs around the east side of Swona and we were pleased when the top of the light on the south appeared over the rocks. We took some pictures and Bob suddenly appeared carrying a a lifejacket and put it on John. He’d managed to arrange for the tender to the taken into the rocks so we could get a closer look at that light too.

We soon found ourselves back on the island and we could see the cattle high up in the distance so weren’t concerned about them at all. The sun had come out too and we managed to get up to the light. While my priority is always about lights with internal access, which this one doesn’t have, it was still a good one to visit. Something a bit different. Along with the light on the north end of the island and others I’ve seen recently such as Brother Isle, it’s quite interesting to see the range of layouts the Northern Lighthouse Board use for these types of structure. They all appear to be slightly different in layout and component parts. There was a cleit close to the lighthouse as well as the remains of an old building that may well have been used for storage for the lighthouse. It used to be a proper little white tower in the location of the current tower and it is likely that more storage was needed for that one. This light was well worth a visit.

Swona

Swona lighthouse (or beacon)

Heading north towards some of the islands within Scapa Flow, we passed close by Cantick Head and stopped for a while to enjoy the views of it from the bottom of the cliffs. It’s a lovely lighthouse and the whole complex is very well looked after. It’s always nice to see lighthouses from the sea as they very often look entirely different – and, of course, that is the angle they are supposed to be seen from. Leaving Cantick Head we passed the Ruff Reef beacon sitting off of the coast just off of Cantick Head. John had previously walked out to this one, but with the tide higher when we were there today there would have been no chance of that. It’s very similar to how the beacon off of Stroma looks. It was great to look back and get views of both Cantick Head and Ruff Reef together. It presented a nice picture of the various structures that light the coastline and rocks.

Cantick Head

Cantick Head from the sea

It was the turn of the island baggers to get a bit more done so I chilled out on the boat for a while. A few islands later we reached Cava. After dropping the lads off at the bottom end of the island to walk over the high point and meet us at the top, John and I had a lovely beach landing just to the south of the lighthouse. This visit was a good one as it marked John’s final lighthouse on Orkney. He’d seen it from the ferry, but it was the only one he’d not got close to. Once we reached the highest point on what is referred to as the Calf of Cava (the little bit at the top of the island that is joined to the main island by a narrow strip of beach and grass), the view really opened up and we could see the lighthouse with the coastline of Mainland Orkney in the background. A fantastic view to approach the lighthouse. Once we were at the lighthouse John did a celebratory star jump and we wandered around the lighthouse to get views from all angles. It’s a wonderful little spot. The rest of the group joined us a little while later and it was then time to make our way back to the boat.

Cava

Cava lighthouse

We had one final stop before we headed back to St Margaret’s Hope. We’d requested a sail past of Barrel of Butter in the original communication with Gareth, not realising that there would be an option to land there. As we approached it was looking like landing would actually be possible so we hopped into the tender and set off with waves splashing in our faces on the way to the rocks on which the light sits. It was fairly shallow on the final stretch and Liam and Bob climbed out and dragged the tender closer to the exposed rocks/seaweed where Charlie and I then jumped out and slowly made our way across the deep seaweed to the dry rocks. Thankfully it has been dry for a while as I imagine it would be a much bigger challenge to walk on the rocks if they were wet. We made it safely to the light and had a quick check to make sure that it definitely didn’t have any internal access – it didn’t. That means it doesn’t make it onto my list, but I’m so pleased we stopped there. It was a real treat to have landed there. It seems there are a couple of stories about where it got its name from. One theory is that its central location to so many of the islands and land in and around Scapa Flow meant it would be the perfect place for a market for residents to go and get their “barrel of butter”. Another story says that the name originates from a time when residents in Orphir wished to hunt seals on the rocks there (and there are still seals there to this day, I can confirm) and paid an annual rent of a barrel of butter in order to be allowed to do so. Whatever the origins, it’s a good name and a fantastic place to visit. I imagine it’s rarely landed on so that always gives it a special edge too.

Barrel of Butter

Barrel of Butter

Thinking that was us done for the day, Gareth said he would sail close to the Nevi Skerry light, which was good to see. Again, something a bit different. This one is owned by Orkney Islands Council, which would explain why it looks so different to the rest. It was nice to see this one up close as it’s been flashing away out there at night and very much visible from our B&B, Ayre of Cara. It had been bothering me that I couldn’t work out which light it was I could see, but now I know!

Nevi Skerry

Nevi Skerry with a seal!

That was it for our three-day island bagging extravaganza. We had a fantastic time out on the boats. We now have just under two days left to fit in a few more adventures on dry land or using scheduled ferries. Orkney really is a very special place. 🙂

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5 days in Orkney – day 2

The Orkney adventure continued today with a second day out on Northerly Marine Service’s covered RIB Sula. We’d taken a quick look at Helliar Holm yesterday before heading back, but the tide was too low to get onto the slipway. The decision was made to do it first thing in the morning.

We started the day with a closer view of the old lighthouse in Kirkwall. It was nice to see it without fishing paraphernalia surrounding it.

Kirkwall pier

Kirkwall West Pier lighthouse

We had to wait a little longer though as our first stop was Shapinsay, which is the island Helliar Holm sits just off of. While the island baggers went off to the high point I wandered around with John. Shapinsay is a beautiful island, particularly the harbour area where you have The Douche, an old salt water shower with a dovecot on top, and the beautiful Balfour Castle with it’s gateway. I would have liked to have walked to The Douche, but the Highland cattle in the way put me off a bit. There was still plenty to see there though. From the old public toilet just above the pier to the fantastic stone towers that littered the coastal roads and decorative stone architecture all around. It’s a wonderful island and I’m very glad that the guys needed to get to the high point. I think it would be a great place to take the kids sometime.

Helliar Holm from sea

Approaching Helliar Holm

It was just a quick hop over to Helliar Holm once we’d left Shapinsay. The tide was a little low again, but I managed to get onto the slipway with no trouble. The landing is well maintained as is the short tower. It’s a great little tower and particularly attractive. The sector lights add to its loveliness – a bit of extra colour never goes amiss. While the tower is in good condition, the same certainly can’t be said for the old keepers’ houses behind it. You can see from the sea that they are in a particularly bad way. When you are on the island and see pigeons flying out of the broken windows it’s never a good sign. It’s in a really bad way as can only be expected when it was abandoned in 1967 and nothing has been done with them since. It has been said that someone bought the cottages when they were sold by the Northern Lighthouse Board after automation, which is a real shame. It’s a great little island. Responsibility for the lighthouse was passed to Orkney Council due to the light only really being used for navigation into and out of Kirkwall. The old sundial is still there, but even that looks like it needs some renovation. Having said that, I think the building is beyond renovation now. We walked up the steps to the first floor entrance, but it certainly wouldn’t have been a good idea to have gone inside. No doubt we would have ended up on the ground floor having gone through the floorboards. Instead John and I played see-saw on part of an old door that was resting across the top step. Not your average thing to do at a lighthouse! It was a really interesting island to visit though and certainly a good one to get to as it’s so visible, but not necessarily easy to reach.

Helliar Holm on island

Helliar Holm lighthouse

After we left Helliar Holm the island baggers did what they do best and reached the high point of a few islands. While they were on the island of Wyre we popped across with the boatmen to get a cup of tea on Rousay, which was a nice relaxing way to spend half an hour or so. We all then landed on Egilsay. To me Egilsay felt like a smaller version of Eday. There was no one about and we caught glimpses of St Magnus Church as we walked up to the crossroads. We decided to carry on ahead and stopped at the local community centre, which was open. They’ve got a fantastic setup there with a kitchen, big room for events, lounge and, most importantly, a toilet!

A few islands later we entered Calf Sound between Eday and the Calf of Eday. It was a perfect opportunity to land at the little lighthouse for another visit. It was a seaweed-covered landing and I was glad to have Bob the Handrail there to help me across. The tower is looking a little rusty now, but it’s always good to revisit an old friend.

Calf of Eday

Calf of Eday lighthouse

 

Our final island for the day was Sanday. Unfortunately not for the lighthouse at Start Point this time, but we got in touch with a friend who lives on the island and he came to pick us up from the ferry and whisked us up to the island high point. It felt a little like Challenge Anneka, but it was good that everything came together at the end of the day and it was another successful day for all involved.

Northerly Marine Services have been exceptional over the last two days, doing everything they can to help us out. Also, we now know that if the conditions are right it’s possible to visit Auskerry, Copinsay, Helliar Holm and Pentland Skerries all in one day. Wonderful! Got to love lighthouses! 🙂

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5 days in Orkney – day 1

It feels like a long time since I wrote a post on here although it’s really not been so long at all. It’s been a busy year though, but I’m delighted that it’s nowhere near over yet for my lighthouse adventures.

Gathering a small group of island and lighthouse baggers, we set off for Orkney last night and were delighted to see that the forecast for our entire five days on Orkney was looking calm and dry. The mist that had plagued the area for a few days earlier in the week had also lifted. With a report from the Paul at Northerly Marine Services that it was due to be flat calm, it was all looking very positive for my endeavour to “tidy up” all of the Orkney lighthouses I’d yet to do that weren’t covered by scheduled ferries. On the way to Stromness from Scrabster last night we, of course, spotted the two lights on Graemsay as well as Sule Skerry shore station, which was fantastic. I grow fonder of Orkney every time I visit.

This morning we watched Paul’s boat, Sula, glide into Kirkwall Harbour this morning, and a short time later we were off, waving goodbye to the little old Thomas Telford light in the harbour. Our first two stops were the islands of Muckle Green Holm and Linga Holm, neither of which were home to lighthouses, but the island bagger were pleased to land on those two.

Kirkwall

The lifeboat at Kirkwall along with the old lighthouse

In preparation for the trip, I’d been in contact with the monks at Golgotha Monastery on Papa Stronsay. They were happy for us to go, so that was our next stop. As soon as you arrive at the pier you are greeted by welcoming signs and as you walk through the grounds there are some lovely little touches that have been introduced since the monastery was established after purchasing the island from a cattle farmer. We met one of the resident monks who was very kind and welcoming and wished us an enjoyable time on the island. That sort of thing really enhances your enjoyment of these places. It was a bit of a walk to the lighthouse, but all relatively flat so quite nice really. The island baggers headed off to the high point while I continued on with my flat-pack partner in crime. This one was fairly standard, as many of them are, but again in a great location. The island baggers joined us a short time later and it was great to see them wanting to visit another flat-pack lighthouse. Bob has always been interested in visiting them anyway (even if it is mainly just to get me there), but the others in the group seemed pleased too. It’s a fantastic island with a lovely feel about it.

Papa Stronsay

Papa Stronsay lighthouse

After leaving Papa Stronsay we made a stop on Stronsay itself while the island baggers got a pre-arranged taxi (organised by the really helpful skipper) to take them closer to the high point of the island.

Heading south our next stop was Auskerry. I’d seen the lighthouse on Auskerry from the ferry to Kirkwall from Lerwick in late June and realised how beautiful it was then, so having the opportunity to visit it was great. I’d contacted the owner of the island a few weeks ago to check that she was happy for us to visit and fortunately she was. Landing on the island, as was the case with all of the lighthouse islands today, was really straightforward, just step off of the boat onto the slipway. From the landing it is a really short walk to the lighthouse, and what a lighthouse it is! There’s something very elegant about it. It looks different with its band of bamboo/buff etc. underneath the very top section of the lantern. It’s a tall tower and you can see why when you realise how flat the island is. There were some sheep roaming in the fields around the lighthouse (and we spotted the old sun dial in the neighbouring field), but we all tried not to bother each other too much. The best view of the lighthouse is from the beach side, particularly with the position of the sun as it was at the time. There are the remains of a wrecked ship at the coast here too. As we arrived back at the slipway we spotted the owner of the island who lives there. It was nice to meet her. What a life she must have, living there with her family. The certainly are keeping the buildings attached to the lighthouse in good condition, which is always lovely to see.

Auskerry.JPG

Auskerry lighthouse

It was time to leave Auskerry, but onwards we went as the next island that beckoned was Copinsay. As opposed to the flatness of Auskerry, Copinsay rises up gradually from sea level on one side to rather high cliffs on the other. In that way it was very reminiscent of Barra Head lighthouse. It’s a bit of a stroll up to the lighthouse, but entirely worth it. We stopped off at the helipad on the way and checked out the panoramic views from there – it really was lovely weather by this point. The lighthouse came closer and closer until we were there and I headed up to the highest point of the island to get a wonderful view of the tower standing there alone with some fantastic clouds above it. It’s not a big tower, it doesn’t need to be, but what it lacks in height it makes up for in general appeal. Once I’d left the high point and made my way down to the gate, during which time I squealed about a bonxie flying nearby and dashed to the nearest person to hide, I had a beautiful moment I can only describe as the “grand reveal”. Although I had already seen the lighthouse, I was not expecting to be quite so taken aback by how wonderful it looked when I came around the side of the building it was there in front of me, sitting up on the raised grassy area. Although it’s not tall it is fairly imposing from below.

Copinsay2

The view from the highest point of Copinsay

The buildings around the lighthouse are, unlike Auskerry (but again like Barra Head), looking very sad and neglected. We learned from the boatman that they are actually owned by different people, not all the Northern Lighthouse Board. It is such a shame to see it left like that looking so shabby, particularly when the lighthouse has recently been painted (for Princess Anne’s visit in the last couple of weeks). Still a wonderful place and definitely a major highlight for me today. The landing was ok, although there were some of the panels missing so you definitely needed to look where you were stepping. As we came back down to the boat I realised the tide had gone down a bit and I was worried we would have to go on the particularly dodgy bit of the landing area where bits are broken and missing all over the place, but it was fine.

Copinsay

Copinsay lighthouse

An added bonus was our final stop of the day. We were talking about the plan this morning and there was mention of Copinsay and possibly Swona (which we didn’t get to). Bob just happened to ask the boatman if he would be willing to go to the Pentland Skerries to land on Muckle Skerry and it was only Bob and I in the group who had been there before. The answer from Paul the skipper was that it would be fine. Nothing has been any trouble for him today at all, which is perfect. He had not been to or landed on Muckle Skerry before, so was quite interested to go there. The sea was so calm today and had continued to be so. Unsurprisingly, the roughest stretch was after we entered the Pentland Firth when it got more choppy. It was still fine, but you certainly noticed the difference. As we had been there before, Bob told the skipper where the landing place was, which made it a lot quicker. Landing was fine again, although a little slippy on the rocks to start with. The next section of the walk up to the lighthouse involved a large number of rocks in step formation, which was massively helpful for getting up to the grass. From there you have a nice stroll towards the lighthouse.

Pentland Skerries

Pentland Skerries

Some of the cottages have seen better days. One of the cottages had a door open so we checked to see if anyone was in before we slipped inside. I noticed on the mantlepiece that there was some sort of black board with the names of the Principal Keeper and Assistance Keepers. It had a date at the top: 1994. Having just checked online, the lighthouse would have been automated in that year, so those three could very well have been the last keepers at the lighthouse. I also walked around the walled gardens a bit to establish where the graveyard is, but I didn’t see it. I think we are all aware that the tide was dropping so we didn’t want to leave it too late in case the boat dropped too low next to the landing area. It’s a brilliant island. I could just do with a bit of a longer trip there to find everything on the island, which is bigger than it looks!

We all left Muckle Skerry feeling very happy with our achievement and the day in general. We did wonder if we could manage a visit to Helliar Holm on the way back to Kirkwall, but the tide had dropped a lot, so it would have involved some effort to have got up onto the slipway (for me anyway with my short legs)! We decided to leave it until first thing tomorrow when the tide will be higher. I was pleased to get close though as the light on it was amazing. I think it’s a beautiful tower anyway, but bathed in yellow-y light, it was even better.

Helliarr Holm

Helliar Holm lighthouse

Something fun to look forward to tomorrow after such a successful day today! 🙂

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18 hours in Orkney

Another delayed post and this one follows on nicely from my Shetland Adventure last month.

After we’d booked our holiday in Shetland I was invited to present at the Scapa 100 event, marking the centenary of the scuttling of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow back in 1919, which still remains the largest loss of warships ever to have taken place on a single occasion. The talk was to be related to my forthcoming book, The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide. I was a little worried about it as all of the lighthouses were turned off during the war and only used when required by the Navy, so I wasn’t sure if it would be relevant to the subject matter, but I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity.

This invitation meant cutting the Shetland holiday short by a day, but it was easy enough to get from Lerwick to Orkney on the ferry and the best bit was that we would pass islands with lighthouses on them. When we set off from Lerwick it was the longest day so there was still plenty of light for being able to spot the two lighthouses at either end of Fair Isle on the way past. Fair Isle is very high on my priority list and I hope to make it there next year at some point. It’s a beautiful island from the sea and I’m sure it is equally impressive from the island itself.

Fair Isle

The perfectly formed Fair Isle

Also lovely to see from the ferry was Auskerry lighthouse, another one on my list. The ferry sails fairly close to it and I am now hoping to get out there next month – fingers very much crossed! Another one I have on my list for next month is Helliar Holm. Such a lovely little lighthouse. It’s a great shape and I enjoyed seeing this one from the ferry too.

Helliar Holm.JPG

Helliar Holm lighthouse with a midsummer sky – taken through the window

There was still a little light in the sky as we arrived in Kirkwall. I was particularly excited to see the Pharos, the Northern Lighthouse Board‘s vessel moored up in the harbour. Also part of the Scapa 100 event was the opening up of the Pharos in Kirkwall and their second vessel, Pole Star, in Stromness. I was even more excited about this as I’d managed to take a look around the Pharos in April and with the Pole Star being in Stromness, the location of my talk, I was hopeful that I would get a chance to get on board that one too during the day. I knew it would be touch and go as it was open from 1-4pm and my talk was scheduled for 2-3pm. I spotted the Pole Star in the harbour as I arrived in Stromness that evening and also got the pleasure of seeing both the Hoy High and Low lights on Graemsay in action.

The following morning I had a plan of what I was going to do before my talk. I had plenty of time to kill so I first set off to get a view of the Pole Star. It is quite a bit smaller than the Pharos, which I hadn’t realised before. As I was leaving the harbour I saw the ferry to Graemsay set off and felt very jealous of those who were going to spend the day over on the island. It is a great island and it would have been a perfect day for a trip over there.

Pole Star

NLV Pole Star

Being a little bit obsessed with Sule Skerry at the moment, following my visit to the island and lighthouse in May, I was very keen to pay a visit to the old shore station in Stromness where the families of the keepers lived when the lighthouse was manned. To get there meant walking the length of the main street through Stromness, which is never a chore. It’s got a really lovely feel about it and a lot of history too.

On the way along I was on the look-out for the old Northern Lighthouse Board depot. Until 2004 the Pole Star (not the current one, but its predecessors) was based out of Stromness and I knew that the old building and pier were still around somewhere. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find them, but I need not have worried as I recognised the buildings straight away, mainly due to the distinctive quoins around the windows. While the quoins are a different colour to the current bamboo/biscuit/buff that is so common among Northern Lighthouse Board buildings, it was obviously the place I was looking for. The building has since been taken over by the local Council so I wasn’t so keen on wandering around the area, but the view from the main street was good enough for me.

NLB depot

The old Northern Lighthouse Board depot with the entrance to the old lighthouse pier in the background

A little further on was Stromness Museum, which was also on the agenda for the day, but didn’t open until 10am so I continued along the coastal road. Once I’d passed the buildings on the right the view opened up across Scapa Flow which was stunning in the bright sunshine. I imagine that stretch of water saw its fair share of divers during those 12 days of Scapa 100 events. I was so busy looking at the sea and ahead to try and see if I could spot the old Sule Skerry shore station that I found myself at the end of the road and, turning to look back, realised I’d already walked straight past it. I continued on around the corner and walked past the back of the building first. It always feels a little strange to be taking pictures of someone’s house, but then if you live in a place like that then you would probably need to get used to it. It’s a really big building, which isn’t surprising really when you think that it needed to house up to four families at a time.

Sule Skerry shore station back

The view from the rear of the Sule Skerry shore station

Walking back around to the front of the house I discovered the true majesty of it. It is amazing and its location is fantastic to look up at and, I imagine, equally impressive to look out from. It is very similar to the old shore station in Breasclete, Lewis where the families of the Flannan Islands keepers lived. I noticed the old Northern Lighthouse Board design above the door, which again is the same as the Breasclete building. There’s a wonderful garden in front of the house and then, on the opposite side of the road there is a little gate leading down the a small pebble beach. What a wonderful place that would have been to have grown up – and all the while your dad would have been out working on the most remote manned lighthouse in the British Isles. What a way to live!

Sule Skerry shore station

The former Sule Skerry shore station from the front

Not wanting to hang around too long taking pictures of someone’s house, I began the walk back towards the Museum. I arrived there to find that there was some filming taking place and I was told that I could either look around quietly or I could go back again in an hour when the filming should be finished. I decided to go for the latter and found a cafe to stop at for a cup of tea. An hour later I began to walk back and happened to bump into Mike Bullock, the Chief Executive of the Northern Lighthouse Board. I’d seen him give a talk about the Northern Lighthouse Board back in 2017 when we visited their headquarters in Edinburgh during the Doors Open Days, but never met him to have a conversation with. We chatted for five minutes, during which time I’m quite confident he established that I am very much an enthusiastic “enthusiast” when it comes to lighthouses, particularly Scottish ones. I also informed him that I was the one who tweeted about really wanting to get onto the Pole Star that afternoon (a tweet he had commented on the previous day). He very kindly gave me a Northern Lighthouse Board keyring and pin badge, we said our “hope to see you later”s and I continued on to the Museum.

The filming was still going on at the Museum, but I decided that I couldn’t delay my visit any longer. They have a wonderful array of lighthouse artefacts in there, particularly relating to the lights in Orkney. While there aren’t rooms and rooms dedicated to lighthouses they have certainly packed a lot of information and items into the area they do have for it. For anyone interested in lighthouses it’s a must visit place, that’s for sure. By the time I’d finished looking around the museum the filming had come to an end so I was able to speak to the staff there. They were particularly helpful as I was keen to get someone local to the area to help me with pronunciations of place names ahead of my presentation and they certainly did that!

Old Hoy lens

The original lens from Hoy Low lighthouse in Stromness Museum

Once I’d finished at the Museum I just about managed to find somewhere to have lunch (it was very busy) without needing to go back to the same cafe I’d been to that morning. I also took the opportunity to add pictures of the Sule Skerry shore station and old depot buildings into my presentation.

Walking back across to the venue I saw people heading over to the Pole Star and for the second time that day I was envious, but still held out hope that I would be one of them too. I was taken to the room I was presenting in and we managed to set up in time for the audience’s arrival. I was pleased to see that a good number of people had come along, but it did also make me slightly more nervous. From what I could tell the presentation went well. I’d focused it specifically on the lighthouse of Orkney and added in some information about lighthouses in wartime and war-related lighthouse incidents in Orkney. It was structured as a timeline starting with the old North Ronaldsay light and ending with Tor Ness (the last one to be introduced) and World War II. People seemed to engage well with it and asked a number of questions at the end – a couple of which I wasn’t able to answer (but I later put the same questions to Mike Bullock and he wasn’t sure either, so that made me feel better). A number of them also came up to speak to me at the end too, which was lovely.

It turned out that a lady who lives in the old Sule Skerry shore station was in the audience. She said that they would really like to restore the old Northern Lighthouse Board design above the door, but aren’t sure how to do so. She lives in a quarter of the building and is the only one to have kept most of the old fixtures and fittings as they would have been when the keepers’ families lived there. That would be amazing to see. She did invite me back for tea, which was really very kind, but I was on the late afternoon ferry so didn’t have time unfortunately. We happened to meet again on the Pole Star, which I did manage to get to in time!

As I mentioned before, it is a smaller vessel than the Pharos with no heli-deck, but still great to get onto. I was chatting to one of the crew and said “You must have been to some amazing lighthouses” and his response was that he can’t keep track of which ones he has and hadn’t been too, which seemed crazy to me, but then again I am a self-proclaimed enthusiastic enthusiast! After looking around the bridge I started speaking to another member of the crew. Unlike her colleague she is a massive fan of lighthouses and we spoke for quite a while about her adventures on the Pole Star, my lighthouse tour and the book, which she is really excited about. Her suggestion that I go on a world tour of lighthouses and take her along as an accomplice was a nice idea, although I’m not sure how I’ll fund that one! I was really pleased to have met her. If I’d had more time I would have carried on standing around chatting, but it was time for me to leave Stromness and Orkney and head back home.

On board Pole Star

The view from the bridge on the Pole Star

It had been a fantastic 18 hours in Orkney. I’d started out feel rather nervous and wanting to escape to Graemsay, but actually ended the day feeling glad to have been part of such a fantastic event. The organisers put in so much time and effort and delivered such a varied programme. I wished I’d stayed longer to see more of it, but I had to get back home to hide away and read through the draft of my book. I got a seaward look at both the old Lighthouse Board Depot and the Sule Skerry shore station as I said farewell to Stromness from the ferry.

Lighthouse pier and depot

The old lighthouse pier and depot from the sea

Another really positive and enjoyable experience in Orkney. I’m growing rather fond it that place. 🙂

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A Shetland Adventure – part 10

This post is somewhat delayed due to other tasks taking priority (namely, the book and a presentation related to it – more on that soon!), but it marks the final of my Shetland Adventure series. Reaching double figures is fairly impressive and what a fantastic two weeks it was. The final bagging day was certainly a good end to a thoroughly enjoyable holiday. So, here is what occurred on the final Shetland boat trip…

Aside from the two lighthouses on Fair Isle, I only had one more of the big lighthouses left in Shetland to visit, and that was Out Skerries. I’d been informed by my good friend Brian that landing on Bound Skerry, the lighthouse island within the Out Skerries group, was straightforward and was only difficult on a few days each year. So I was fairly confident about it.

We went out with Seabirds and Seals from Lerwick and I think everyone was a little worried initially about how we might combine. They, of course, are far more used to taking the average tourists about on their lovely, comfy boat to see seabirds and seals, as their name suggests. We, on the other hand, are much more focussed on getting off of the boat and onto islands numerous times a day. It took us a little while to get used to each other, but it turned into a fairly efficient process once we were all settled in. One thing I particularly enjoyed was the number of cups of tea and biscuits we were offered on the boat. It’s a great little set-up they have – and clearly one of the benefits you get from going with a tourist-orientated crew. Earlier in the week I did manage to wangle a flask of tea from Kevin from Compass Rose Charters, the operator who landed us on Muckle Flugga, though while the others were busy doing their island bagging business.

So, back to Out Skerries. The journey out there was easy enough. I’m not used to being on catamarans, clearly, as it felt different. Not so bumpy, a bit more rocky, but it was fine. Unfortunately it was a bit of an overcast day with plenty of rain, but we were informed that it should clear up by the afternoon.

Out Skerries distance

Out Skerries lighthouse awaits

After dropping a few of the group on one of the two main islands, we headed around to Bound Skerry. We’d seen the lighthouse for some time before we arrived there and it was nice to finally be approaching the island. There were only 5 of us going onto the island so we did two runs across in the tender, landing onto slippery platforms and then walking up slippery paths to get to the lighthouse. That’s the problem with rain it automatically makes rock more difficult to walk on, but we arrived at the lighthouse without incident.

Out Skerries path

Looking up the path from the landing area

It felt different there than I thought it would. For some reason I expected there to be more life about in the Out Skerries in general, of course not on the lighthouse island, but there appeared to be no one about – although I must admit that I didn’t land on the main island of Bruray. It all felt a little deserted, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think some of the most fantastic places I have been to are those where people once lived, but no longer do. It is certainly the case with a number of lighthouse islands, but there are others too.

Out Skerries and shore station

The lighthouse with the shore station in the background

The lighthouse is beautiful, and perhaps more so from a distance. It is wonderful to see it close up of course, but when you see it from further away (particularly from the neighbouring island of Grunay) it looks like it is nestled so nicely on the island, almost like it has always been there, as nature intended it to be. There is very little space on the island once you look beyond the lighthouse and helipad. You can see why they built the shore station for the keepers’ families on Grunay instead, although I have just discovered that Grunay was the location of the temporary lighthouse built in 1854 before the current tower was built on Bound Skerry in 1858. You feel very abandoned there, or maybe that was just because our boat went off to drop someone on Bruray and took longer to get back than we had thought! It was a great experience being there though and it’s definitely one of those inspiring places that, if I had the time, I might write some sort of story about. A very interesting visit.

I appeared to be the only one present to have known that Grunay, the next door neighbour island, was home to a little Shetland Islands Council lighthouse. As we approached it I was looking around towards the landing steps and knew exactly the view I was looking for, but just couldn’t see the lighthouse. It turns out that Grunay has a “dog leg” (I’m not sure that’s the right term, but I’m sticking with it). The small islet at the end of this dog leg is what I was looking for. It is separated from the main island by large boulders, which are tricky to navigate your way across – or at least that’s what I found. Whether or not the islet is tidal I’m not sure. I imagine that if it isn’t then in stormy weather the waves would crash over the boulders. Thankfully that day the sea was nice and calm.

Grunay

The lighthouse on Grunay

The little lighthouse on Grunay is similar to those at West Burrafirth, only it is round rather than square. It does have a Council look about it and it’s just tall enough to feature a door. We wandered around it in the long grass for a while before crossing back through boulder city. We knew we didn’t have a lot of time, but wanted to get to the old Out Skerries shore station. By this point I was pretty hot and I’d not had any lunch, so I wasn’t at my best, but as soon as I spotted the lighthouse peering up over the island I felt a bit better.

Out Skerries shore station

Out Skerries shore station (you can just spot the top of lighthouse above the roof)

The shore station, while still standing, has seen far better days. The windows and doors are all gone and nature has been left to do what it will to the buildings. I didn’t want to go far into the building as you never know what condition they might be in structurally, but I saw enough to feel a little sad about it. When you are seeing furniture in rooms where people once lived looking in such a bad way it does make you think. Ailsa Craig was the first one I saw,  but at least that one was being used (or should I say abused) occasionally by bird watchers. Here there has been no one since the keepers left the tower in 1972, when it became one of those in the first round of lights to be automated. Forty seven years without maintenance certainly takes its toll.

Out Skerries shore station internal

Inside one of the rooms at the Out Skerries shore station

The rain arrived just as we were walking back to the boat. Once we were back on board and attempting to dry out we went to collect the others who had been sheltering in the public toilets. Due to there still being a number of islands left to pick off on the way back to Lerwick, we only sailed past Muckle Skerry with no attempt to land. Muckle Skerry lighthouse is a flat-pack, and from the distance we saw it at and the conditions at the time it was considerably less inspiring than Out Skerries had been, but still a nice one to see.

Muckle Skerry

Our distant view of Muckle Skerry lighthouse

Our final lighthouse stop of the day was Hoo Stack. I had been informed the night before that: “Hoo Stack is called a stack, but it is anything but”, which I was pleased to hear. Landing on the island was fine, but it was then a bit of a clamber up among rocks and I was very kindly led by Alan while Bob helped with the landings. Alan had also led me up Gruney a couple of days before, so I am grateful to him (not that he will see this as he is a self-confessed techno-phobe). Once we were off of the rocks it was just a short walk up to the lighthouse.

Hoo Stack distance.jpg

Hoo Stack (or is it an island?!)

The lighthouse on Hoo Stack is another flat-pack, but quite an interesting one as it has three levels to it and the bottom level is missing the white cladding, which was very exciting as it meant I could physically get inside it. I’d been wanting to experience that for some time and managing it on the final one of my lighthouse islands of the trip was great. The sun had come out by this point too, which also increases your enjoyment of a place. Of course the others joined me inside the lighthouse too. I think they are really getting into this lighthouse bagging malarkey.

Hoo Stack

Hoo Stack lighthouse in the sunshine

A truly brilliant way to end the two weeks in Shetland. Reflecting back on it now, it seems almost like a dream, as if it never really happened, but it certainly did. The highlight though had to be Muckle Flugga, of course. After that I can’t even begin to pick out the best bits – there were far too many of them. 🙂

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A Shetland Adventure – part 9

Every now and then I have a day involving lots of little lights and today was certainly one of them. We spent the day on a boat with Compass Rose Charters (who landed us on Muckle Flugga the other day) in Yell Sound, Shetland. I’d been looking forward to this one as there are plenty of small lighthouses on the approach to Sullom Voe. Some are Northern Lighthouse Board while others were installed by the council.

Our departure point was Toft on Mainland Shetland. First we headed out to the islands of Linga and Samphrey, which gave us a nice view of Firth’s Voe, which we’d walked to the other day.

Firths Voe

Firths Voe from a distance

From Samphrey we set off for the Sound and immediately you begin to spot little white towers around. The rest of the group wanted to get onto a couple of the islands on the east side of Yell Sound, which gave us an opportunity to see the Ness of Sound lighthouse, another one we had walked to during this trip.

Heading towards Brother Isle we could see Mio Ness, which is on the Mainland to the north east of Sullom Voe. Brother Isle was our next stop. By this time the sun had come out. Although the light on Brother Isle has no possible internal access to the tower itself I was still interested in seeing it as we were going there anyway. It’s a fairly interesting structure with a few little additional boxes around it. I’m glad I went to see it anyway.

Brother Isle

The light on Brother Isle

We sailed close to the light on Tinga Skerry. This one appears to be typical council style with the circular white tower made up of panels. The sun began to shin on it just as we were passing, which always has a way of making any structure look better than it otherwise would.

Tinga Skerry

Tinga Skerry lighthouse

Lamba was our next stop and this was a very interesting one. Not like any I had seen before. Next to the tower was what looked like three little gun barrels lined up. I’m pretty sure they are actually some sort of sector lights, so not quite so dramatic. It was a bit of an uphill walk to get to, but the blue sky in the background was great and it was nice to see something a bit different. It was a bit of a scramble on the rocks to get up, but not too bad.

Lamba

Lamba lighthouse

Little Holm was next on my hit list. It’s a tiny island really, but very beautiful. It is covered in patches of thrift and is also relatively low lying so no hills, no bonxies, just a lovely little place. It’s a Northern Lighthouse Board flat-pack but, as with so many of these, it’s the surroundings that make it so enjoyable and that was definitely the case here.

Little Holm

Little Holm lighthouse

It’s neighbour to the north, Muckle Holm, was steeper, but most of the height gain was done before we even left the rocks. This one has a far more dramatic coastline with a couple of big geos to look down into as you walk to the lighthouse. Again it’s a standard flat-pack.

Muckle Holm

Muckle Holm lighthouse

As we continued north we began to see the Point of Fethaland lighthouse, yet another we had paid a visit to on this holiday. It looks very small up on the high cliffs. I think I preferred seeing it from the land!

Our destination was the island of Gruney, which sits off of the coast of Point of Fethaland. We had seen the lighthouse on our visit to the Fethaland light, but now it was time to get onto the island and see it close up. This was where it got a bit interesting. All day we’d had flat calm landings on to dry rocks. Due to the direction of the wind and swell we needed to land on the east of the island. There was a relatively sheltered area, but the only problem was that we would be landing on a sloping slab of rock covered in seaweed with no easy place to go to avoid it. We were also struggling a little with the swell, which was moving the boat a bit as people got off. Fortunately Bob and a couple of others had micro spikes with them so Bob was able to land and stomp up the slab to hold the rope. When one of the group slipped on the seaweed I thought “I’m not sure I want to do this”, but a couple of them told me it would be ok so I got off of the boat and clung on to the rope while I shuffled my way up. Once we were past the worst of it one of the other group members helped to guide me up the rest of the rocks. You might think that I would have been relieved to have reached the top, but I was already worrying about how I was going to get back on the boat. I was, however, rewarded with some incredible views in various directions. Firstly the lighthouse was another interesting type. I was surprised to see a Northern Lighthouse Board plate on it as I’ve not seen any of their structures looking like this before. It made me question whether the Lamba light was also something to do with them, although it didn’t have a plate. The views across to Point of Fethaland were great, but the most impressive view was towards the array of sea stacks and a natural arch to the north. It made the effort to get there worthwhile. Getting back onto the boat wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Bob leant me his micro spikes and the combination of those and holding the rope again made me feel much safer. I was still glad to get back onto the boat though!

Gruney

Gruney lighthouse with Point of Fethaland in the distance

On our journey today we spotted a small white and orange tower on the island of Little Roe. It looked similar to the front light of the nearby Skaw Taing range so we felt it was important to get a closer view in order to judge whether or not it was the type that had internal access. On our way back down to Toft the skipper agreed to travel via Little Roe to give us a closer view. Looking through the zoom lens on the camera it was clear that it was the twin structure to the Skaw Taing Front range light. This was one I had not previously had on my list so I’m glad I found it today. As I said towards the beginning of this post, Yell Sound has plenty of lights.

Little Roe.JPG

Little Roe lighthouse

A really enjoyable day and a very successful one for getting to some of the lights I would otherwise only have seen from a distance. 🙂

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A Shetland Adventure – part 8 (the best day)

I’m not even sure how to begin this post really, so I’m just going to dive straight in there and say it. Today was the day we landed on Muckle Flugga!

I’m sure many of you will know it already, but if not then Muckle Flugga is the most northerly lighthouse in the British Isles. It is perched beautifully on top of a big rock a short distance off of the north of Unst in Shetland. Interestingly the lighthouse did, in its early days, used to be known as North Unst. It is renowned for being difficult to land on and fairly wild in terms of sea state and weather.

Last week we took a drive up to Saxa Vord with the kids and my parents to see if we could spot the lighthouse. After the fun we had with trying to do that last November I thought it might be difficult to see again, but fortunately the cloud was high and the sun was out. We joined a number of others in looking across at it. My dad had taken his telescope so I was able to get a closer view without actually being closer. That afternoon we went to Unst Heritage Centre, which has a small but incredibly interesting exhibition space dedicated to Muckle Flugga lighthouse. There’s obviously a lot of local knowledge, experience and information there and it gives a great picture of the human side of the lighthouse with the keepers and boatmen. It’s well worth a visit for anyone interested in the lighthouse.

MF through telescope

Muckle Flugga lighthouse through a telescope

I should point out before I get too carried away with today’s trip that the Northern Lighthouse Board do not advise anyone lands on the island and we approached it fully accepting that we were doing it at our own risk.

Back to today’s trip, we had known since early last year that an attempt to land on Muckle Flugga was on the agenda for this two-week stint in Shetland. While I thought that two weeks in June would maximise our chances as much as we possibly could, I never really believed we would manage it. The boatman was hesitant to take us there for a start. He obviously knows the area well and understands that landing there is a rare occurrence. We went out with him on a trip last week and through conversations I had with him it seemed unlikely that we would even attempt it. One thing that did work in our favour though was that the skipper got a chance last week to see just how capable the group are of carrying out tricky landings. I’m not necessarily talking about myself. In fact, not at all, I tend to be helped a lot by my very able companions.

A few days later, yesterday in fact, we received a message from Alan who is organising the trips to say that the first Muckle Flugga group (which included us) would be going today and the forecast was also looking good. It was all sounding positive, but I wasn’t going to get my hopes up to much, just in case.

It was a fairly calm journey up the west coast of Unst, which was encouraging, but of course we had the shelter of the island on our side. The wind had moved around to the south east and the skipper had said last week that any wind/swell from the north would make it impossible to land – another thing in our favour.

 

MF from sea2

The view from the sea

Around 50 minutes into the trip the lighthouse came into view. The sea still didn’t seem to be too bad and I did think that perhaps we may well be able to do it. This was confirmed about 10 minutes later when we arrived near the landing and the skipper gave a positive indication that we would give it a go. There was still movement in the sea so we moved to the slightly sheltered north west side of the island to unload into the tender. Bob hopped into the tender along with Brian who has experience of landing there. I asked if I should go in the first run too and in I hopped, well slid really as it was a bit of a drop from the main boat into the tender (as I was to find when getting back into the main boat afterwards)! It was a bit splashy on the way to the island and I tried not to laugh too much as the others got splashed full in the face.

MF distance

The view from the sheltered side

Arriving at the landing place we knew we would need to go up the old steps as the new steps have been removed in places. Bob leapt off of the boat with his micro-spikes on to pull the boat in. The landing on a flat piece of rock was fairly straightforward, but it immediately got slippery for those of us not wearing micro-spikes. There were plenty of steps ahead of us (246 in total I was informed), but we took it slowly and a short time later we were there at the top with the lighthouse in front of us.

MF front

Muckle Flugga lighthouse

It’s astounding to think how the lighthouse and all of the associated buildings came to be here. It’s not even a particularly basic layout for a lighthouse complex. There are more buildings than there are at some other, much less remote lighthouses. How you would look at a big rock like that and think “I need to build a lighthouse there” without also thinking “Where on Earth do I even start?” I don’t know.

MF sector

The old sector light building

In the main courtyard there is the tower and attached buildings along with an old store room as well as a small square building that once housed an old sector light pointing eastwards. This sector light operated until it was replaced by a new light on Holm of Skaw, further around the coast to the south east. On the far side of the tower, just outside the compound, was the helipad and beyond this you could wander downhill slightly to another very small building. Apparently this was used at one point for keeping the Muckle Flugga resident chickens in! Just down the steps from the helipad was a great place to see the local puffins and fulmars from.

MF and helipad

The lighthouse and helipad

The views from the top of the rock are stunning. The low cloud was still rising in the distance when we were first there so there were the tops of a number of the nearby stacks with their heads in the cloud. We could also clearly see across to Out Stack, the most northerly piece of land in the UK, or as the promotional leaflets will tell you ‘The full stop at the end of the British Isles’! Standing on Muckle Flugga feels like a real achievement. The height of the island, the location and everything else bundled together is extraordinary. I found myself singing a lot while we were there, which is a sure sign of excitement.

We’d been brought across in three loads (I think, although I wasn’t paying too much attention to the others at that point) and the final group had a little more trouble with landing. It was becoming clear that we couldn’t spend much longer there without the swell picking up too much, so we began to make our way back down. I may have enjoyed the steps slightly more if they hadn’t been so slippery with some half covered in grassy tufts which seemed to be growing out of the stone! Getting back into the tender was fine, but the journey back was a little wet. The tide was changing and going against the wind, which was making things a bit more interesting. As previously mentioned, I just about managed to clamber back up into the main boat and enjoy the feeling of having been to such a challenging and inaccessible lighthouse.

MF steps

Some of the 246 slippery steps

Bob and a couple of the others were keen to land on Out Stack while we were there. If I was more able to bound about onto and off of rocks then I would have gone too just to be able to say that I’d been to the top of Britain. The skipper was concerned that there was only a short window of opportunity left to get them on the stack before the swell got too big. After a while looking for the best place to land the three of them got onto the stack and successfully reached the top. Getting them back onto the tender was a bit more interesting as they leapt in. At one point I think we all thought one of the guys had gone into the sea, but he emerged out of the boat. Bob was the final one off and leapt like a gazelle onto the tender, as he does!

The others landed on a couple of other islands/big rocks in the area so we were able to gaze lovingly at Muckle Flugga and its lighthouse for quite some time. One of these islands (just south of Muckle Flugga) was Cliff Skerry from which Bob took the most amazing picture looking across to the lighthouse.

MF from Cliff Skerry

Muckle Flugga from Cliff Skerry

What a fantastic place. I feel the same as I did with Sule Skerry and the Flannans, which is something along the lines of “was I really there?”, but I most definitely was and it may sink in at some point. What a place. 🙂

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