Having been a fan of lighthouses for many years, but never having been to any events or lighthouse locations specifically for International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend (the third weekend in August), we decided it was about time I did!
On my tour I’d stopped at Noss Head Lighthouse, just to the north of Wick (so not quite so far from home this time), but Bob had informed me since that there was an exhibition relating to the old optic at Wick Heritage Centre. So, taking advantage of the fact that it was that particular weekend, we set off to visit the Centre.
Rather than going straight there we took a small detour and stopped off for lunch at the Whaligoe Steps Café, just a short distance down the road from Wick. They serve some fantastic soup there and I’ve not yet managed to encourage myself to try anything else there as I enjoy the soup (and homemade bread) so much.
Arriving at the Heritage Centre, we were given a short introductory walk around and while the staff member strolled on through the lighthouse exhibition saying only ‘This is the lighthouse exhibition’, we made a mental note of where our first stop would be. The story behind the lighthouse optic now being at Wick Heritage Centre is that when the lighthouse was de-manned and automated in 1981, the plan was to just scrap the old optic and replace it with new technology. Fortunately Maisie Sutherland, a founder member of the Wick Society, stepped in and organised for the optic to be delivered to and displayed inside the Heritage Centre. So, we have Maisie to thank for allowing many people to continue to enjoy the optic and (I suppose for many), it is the only chance they will get to see what the Fresnel lens looks like close up. They’ve got lots of other lighthouse and maritime memorabilia there too and it’s great that it’s being preserved.
From the Heritage Centre we drove north to see Noss Head lighthouse itself. On the way we stopped for tea and cake at Rivendell’s Rumblin Tum Café, which was a great little place we’d never discovered before. The owner not only runs the café, but also makes some fantastic wooden carvings and can do personalised carvings too. A wonderful little discovery for us!
At Noss Head we weren’t able to get close to the lighthouse itself, but could see it from the car park. It was looking lovely in the sunshine when we arrived. We decided to take the opportunity to stroll along to Castle Sinclair Girnigoe while we were in the area. We’d spotted it a number of times from the road, but never been close so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Some areas of the castle have been cordoned off, clearly for safety reasons, and it does look like work had begun at some point to maintain it, but much of it is now in ruin and there’s no sign of a roof anymore. Still a really interesting place to look around and the cliffs surrounding it are stunning.
As we headed back to the car the rain began and we were treated to a lovely view of Noss Head lighthouse with a rainbow coming out of it! At least that’s what I saw anyway! 🙂
Another day of lighthouses and tourist activities lay ahead of us on the Western Isles and, once again, the sun was out. We were intrigued to find out more about and visit the beach on which the Lewis Chessmen had been found centuries ago. On our way there we passed a merry band of scarecrows (or figures) at the side of the road that we had previously seen on our first day. We stopped to see them and I partook in some pretend drumming alongside the piper and accordion player.
We travelled on to Uig, spotting a couple of large sculpted chess men replicas on the way there, and arrived at the biggest beach I’ve ever seen. Although it’s not the widest beach, with the tide out it was quite a walk to reach the sea and we were cautious not to spend too long near the water’s edge in case the tide started coming in quickly as we’d have had a long way to run back to shore! We followed this walk up with a stop off at the museum and café in Uig. There was a little more information about the chessmen at the museum, but also some really interesting exhibit pieces showing what life was like for those living on Lewis in the past.
As always, Bob was looking for an opportunity to do some hill-bagging while we were there. His previous trips to the Western Isles had mostly comprised of travelling on to somewhere else or hillwalking so he was enjoying being a bit of a tourist for once. However, we couldn’t go to Lewis without bagging one of its hills. Reaching the top of the hill turned out to be a lot easier than though in the end as a road led us almost up to the top, so all we had to do was climb one set of steps before we reached the peak where there was some fantastic views of the surrounding area on Lewis and other islands nearby.
Knowing that the Callanish standing stones were a popular attraction on Lewis we decided to pay them a brief visit and return later that day when the tourists were gone. The weather had gone downhill slightly during the day, so we had a quick look around at the stones before heading for our very exciting next stop – the Butt of Lewis. We’d both seen some fantastic pictures and videos of the lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis with massive waves crashing up above the high cliffs there, but there was nothing of that on the day we visited. There is a real sense when you get there that you are at the end of the road and there’s not a lot between the cliffs there and Iceland, although we were surprised to see how close we were to Cape Wrath and, therefore, home! It was great to see another different style of lighthouse, which itself (in my opinion) doesn’t look dissimilar to a chess piece. It’s natural brickwork with no white paint in sight (on the tower anyway) made it stand out from the rest. We enjoyed wandering around the impressive coastline there for a while and seeing the huge cliffs, which seem to dwarf the lighthouse in places. I was surprised at how many people there were walking around, although it did look like there was at least one group of adventurers around and I imagine it might be one of those places where you would choose to start or end some sort of endurance challenge. On our return from the Butt of Lewis we stopped at the Eoropie Tearoom for a drink and I was delighted to see, just along the road that someone had some small handmade stone structures outside of their house, one of which was a lighthouse with an operational light – I’m very easily influenced by these things!
On our way back towards the Callanish standing stones we stopped off at a single standing stone a short distance off of the main road. We also decided, allowing the tourists to have fully disappeared from the standing stones, to stop for dinner at the Doune Braes Hotel where we had some amazing food. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Lewis. We then had free reign at the impressive Callanish standing stones when we arrived. It is a fantastic site with the cross-shaped layout of the stones and the circle in the centre. If only we were able to travel back in time to see its development!
Before we called it a night and headed back to the campsite in Siabost, we popped in to see Dun Carloway, an old broch tower (an Iron Age dry stone structure). Although it’s old, we were still able to climb some of the original steps and it was another example of a site that has clearly been well-maintained without it looking too well-maintained. The Western Isles are very good at that!
Friday was our final day in the Western Isles, but fortunately we had enough time to do some more exploring and, of course, bag some more lighthouses. However, we began our day with a visit to the nearby Norse Mill and Kiln – again here are more examples of two buildings that are very well preserved, but haven’t been turned into multi-million pound attractions. They’re actually very well-hidden and the laminated sheets of information about them are tucked away. Some really great handiwork must have gone into them originally, even if the roofs have needed a lot of work over the years to maintain their thatched look. Gearrannan Blackhouse Village was the final of our tourist stops for the trip where we found out more about cutting peat, weaving and the lives of those who used to live in the village. A really interesting place to visit and nice to see that they have kept some of the houses in the condition they were in back in the day, although some have been renovated as accommodation for visitors.
We had two more lighthouses to fit in before catching the ferry. The first was Tiumpan Head, which sits at the north east end of the Eye Peninsula to east of Stornoway. Visibility while we were there wasn’t particularly good and we didn’t hang around for long as the lighthouse cottages are now home to kennels and I knew Bob wasn’t comfortable with the continual barking of the dogs there. I see why it may be a good location for kennels full of barking dogs, but the noise did detract a little from the experience of seeing the lighthouse. As is the case with many others, Tiumpan Head lighthouse looks very similar to many of the others, which actually isn’t so common in the Western Isles as there appears to be no set “look” for the lighthouses there.
Our final stop before heading back was Arnish Point lighthouse. We’d seen it on the approach to Stornoway as we arrived on the ferry, so it was just a matter of finding it from the main road. After a little driving around and “trial by error”, we finally found a bit of a dirt track that seemed to lead in the right direction. Aside from a couple there walking their dog there was no one else around. Being on the other side of an industrial estate probably doesn’t make it such a frequented spot and it was clear on the approach to the lighthouse that the area hasn’t been used much in recent years. The lighthouse itself though has been well-kept (as many operational lighthouses are) and is a fairly squat little tower. It may not be far from the harbour, but it’s a very quiet little location, even if you do get the feeling that being there isn’t recommended.
The ferry journey back to Ullapool allowed us another glimpse of Arnish Point as well as Cailleach Head and Rubha Cadail lighthouses, as we’d seen on the outward journey. We’d arranged to stay at a B&B in Lochinver that night and I was incredibly glad of a real bed after camping for the week. The following day Bob was joining his fellow volunteers from the Assynt Mountain Rescue Team for the Sutherland Trail in 24 hours challenge fundraiser. They successfully completed the trial with Bob setting off on the first of his legs (his second was during the night) while I headed home. I then met the team the following morning just after the final group had reached the end in just under the 24 hour time limit. A great achievement!
So, that was our week on the Western Isles with a few trips further afield. We had been so lucky with the weather and seen some amazing places. We shall definitely be heading back there again in the future 🙂
While the first half of our trip to the Western Isles hadn’t involved much exploring of the Western Isles themselves, the second half of the week was dedicated to just that.
We kicked off the Wednesday with a visit to the Butty Bus in Leverburgh, which is a converted coach serving tea, coffee and hot filled rolls at breakfast time. They have some seats inside so we sat watching the general goings-on at the harbour while we had breakfast. A great little place!
While we waited for the Seallam! museum to open we stopped off at a local craft shop, upstairs from the local convenience store. Our main reason for wanting to visit the museum was to see the exhibition on St Kilda and the evacuation in 1930. We’d been really intrigued by the whole story during our visit to St Kilda the previous day. The museum had a really interesting display of old photographs as well as some more general exhibitions about Lewis and Harris (and a small café area serving hot chocolate too!)
From the museum we headed toward Tarbert and then took the turning towards Scalpay to begin our walk to Eilean Glas lighthouse. We parked up near one end of the Heritage Trail and set off. Based on the mapping we’d used, we expected a fairly well-marked path to the lighthouse, but it wasn’t to be. Strangely enough there were some coloured posts along the way, but there was very little consistency with these and we ended up making it up as we went along! Once we’d spotted the lighthouse from a distance though we decided to abandon the post idea completely as we had very little confidence in them. There were some fantastic views of the red and white striped lighthouse on the approach with the Shiant Islands in the background. The lighthouse sits on a small peninsula and as we approached we could see there was a sense that there was a real disparity between the condition of the buildings there. While the stripes of the lighthouse were all perfectly maintained, the surrounding buildings were falling into disrepair, although it looked like efforts had begun to make improvements. There was a sign on the door of the old lighthouse keepers cottages saying that ‘Friends of Eilean Glas’ had been set up to improve the buildings following damage from vandals. It said that more information was available at the Scalpay Post Office, so we made a mental note to stop off there after our visit. Part of the building that made up the old lighthouse is still present at the site and a plaque is on display explaining that it was one of the first four lighthouses to be built in Scotland and was first lit in 1789.
The return journey from the lighthouse was a lot more straightforward. Bob was keen to reach the high point of Scalpay and we followed a path that seemed to go in the right direction. The path looked fairly new, which explained why it hadn’t appeared on our map and happened to run right back to where we had parked and alongside the island high point. It also gave us a distance view of Gob Rubha Uisinis lighthouse, which sits further up the coast of Lewis. Based on the maps I’ve seen, this lighthouse looks to be the most remote in the UK in terms of access, with a lot of rough terrain covered in small lochs to cross. We were also able to see the northern tip of Skye as we walked back.
As mentioned above we planned to stop off at the local Post Office to ask about the Friends of Eilean Glas plans. Having found the shop we asked the lady for more information and we were informed that there were currently no plans underway as the individual who had set up the trust was serving a prison sentence for fraud. It’s such a shame that everything has come to a standstill and hopefully someone with a genuine interest in making the necessary improvements steps in at some point. We grabbed an ice cream from the shop and Bob then drove us back to Lewis and to our campsite location for the night, Huisinis beach. The local residents run a small bathroom block, which we took advantage of and Bob pitched the tent just above the beach with the doors facing the sea. We had our own little barbeque and then spent the rest of the evening enjoying the beautiful views of the beach.
This is possibly my most delayed post to date, but very much a worthwhile one covering a trip we took out to the Western Isles back in June.
We were due to set off from Ullapool by ferry to Stornoway on the Sunday and had a nice, leisurely journey over the to west coast. We stopped off for a walk at Ravens Gorge Walk near Rosehall, which was a really picturesque and quiet stroll. We then had a short time at Knockan Crag in the North West Highlands Geopark, which I’d seen before, but never stopped at. We made it to Stornoway with plenty of time for an ice cream before our ferry.
Our lighthouse bagging kicked off during this trip with views of the Rubha Cadail lighthouse at Rhue just to the north west of Ullapool. We also saw the structure at Cailleach Head, north west of Scoraig. We’d been informed about this lighthouse before by a friend of Bob’s who had explained that there had been a local campaign in the area when the old lighthouse was removed and replaced with one of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s ‘flat pack’ (as I call them) structures. The old lighthouse has since been rebuilt in Scoraig and is open for visitors. So that’s somewhere for us to go in the future! As we continued our journey to Stornoway there were plenty of scenic views of the countless islands on the way. There’s truly nowhere like the west coast of Scotland in the rest of the UK.
As we approached Stornoway we spotted Arnish Point lighthouse to the south of the harbour – more on this one later! Upon arrival we headed across Lewis to Cnip where we were setting up camp for the night. There was a beautiful beach next to the campsite and we enjoyed an evening stroll before bed.
We had a long day lined up for Monday. Bob had arranged, in advance, for us to join a group on the Sea Harris boat from nearby Miovaig. The trip took us on a 3 and a half hour journey to Sula Sgeir. On the trip we saw Aird Laimisiadair on the west coast of Lewis from a distance as well as the Butt of Lewis lighthouse (more on that one to come too) on the very north tip of Lewis. Sula Sgeir has colonies of gannets and fulmar – as well as some puffins – at that time of year. We also got to see the beacon on the island, an interesting building unlike any I’ve seen before. It’s not a big island, but the quantity of birds flying around it or on the land itself would suggest otherwise!
From Sula Sgeir we then headed east to North Rona, which I was very much looking forward to as it has its own lighthouse and we – as well as the other boat on our trip – were the only ones due to be on the island. It took around 45 minutes to reach the island where we all climbed into RIBs to land on the rocks. From the rocks it was a fairly easy stroll up to the island high point (the reason everyone else was there) and the lighthouse. The sun had come out and we all happily wandered around in the sunshine, enjoying the remoteness of the island and sharing it with nothing but some sheep and birds (including some diving bonxies)! While Bob was there to reach the high point he was also more than happy to bag the lighthouse with me and fortunately these two objectives sit right next to each other. We were given a perfect length of time on the island and then enjoyed relaxing back on the boat, watching the seals in the water and eating ginger cake, while the RIBs returned everyone to the boats. We were then treated to a tour around the outside of the island before beginning the journey back. We returned back at Lewis late, but were in time to pick up a Chinese takeaway in Stornoway before heading to Harris (the smaller, southern section of the island) to set up camp in Horgabost ready for another adventure the following day.
Tuesday’s adventure yet again involved Sea Harris as we joined then for a scheduled trip out to St Kilda, which lies 41 miles (66km) west of the Outer Hebrides. For many this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but for Bob it was a fairly normal thing to do – being his fourth trip out there! We set off from Leverburgh that morning for a three-hour boat trip to the main island of Hirta. In comparison to the day before it felt relatively short! On our journey there we passed the North Lighthouse Board’s maintenance vessel, Pharos (which we had previously seen at Bell Rock), and witnessed the Stornoway Coastguard helicopter airlifting a member of staff from the ship. We also caught a glimpse of the lighthouse on Siolaigh island, part of the Monach Isles.
Just before we’d reached Hirta we had some stunning views of some of the other islands that make up St Kilda, such as Boreray with it’s head in the clouds. Hirta itself was also fantastic and Bob was keen to show me the view from ‘The Gap’ across to Boreray and the two sea stacks – the highest in the UK – next to it. Before this we listened to a short introduction to the island from the National Trust for Scotland team out there. The island seemed really busy in comparison to those we’d seen the day before! After enjoying the views across to Boreray for a while we headed back down to the old village, which was evacuated by its residents in 1930 after they made the massive collective decision to leave the island. Now the only permanent residents are the soay sheep who roam freely around the old blackhouses and not-so-old stone houses. We saw the graveyard, the old church and school room as well as the museum. We sat near the old gun, which has never been fired before and enjoyed the sunshine before heading back to the boat. There are no lighthouses on any of the islands of St Kilda, but there are a couple of leading lights at village bay on Hirta.
Before heading back to Harris, we were given a tour around the islands, seeing the highest sea cliffs in the UK, the islands of Soay and Boreray, as well as Stac Lee and Stac Armin. Bob recounted his previous visits when he’d climbed to the high point on Soay, Dun and Boreray, and his plans for one day reaching the top of both of the stacks.
On the return journey Seumas, owner of Sea Harris, kindly phoned ahead and booked us a table at The Anchorage near the harbour at Leverburgh. We had a lovely meal there and a quick stop off at St Clements Church before arriving back at the campsite.