Last week we dragged the kids and my mother-in-law over to the island of Barra in the Western Isles with one specific target in mind: to get me to the island of Berneray to see Barra Head lighthouse. Bob had visited the island and lighthouse back in July 2014 when I had been 7 months pregnant – we thought not the best time for long and multiple boat trips with potentially risky landings! He had always promised that he’d get me there some time to make up for my missing out then.
The journey to Barra became a bit of a lighthouse tour in itself, beginning with a quick stop at Cromarty. As we were heading south on the A9 we decided to try something different and take the 2-car ferry across the Cromarty Firth from Nigg. It’s a really fun little ferry with just enough space for the two cars. The crossing also gave us a new vantage point for the lighthouse at Cromarty and, after the crossing, we wandered around the building. This was my second time at the lighthouse, my first being during my original tour back in 2012.
On the drive to Oban, we glimpsed Corran lighthouse and, once on the ferry, there was plenty of lighthouse fare on offer. We spotted Dunollie (north of Oban), Lismore, Ardnamurchan, as well as Duart Point, Rubha nan Gall and Ardmore Point (all three of which are on Mull), and a few of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s modern “flat-pack” lighthouses.
The week started well when our skipper, Francis (owner of the Boy James who routinely runs trips to Berneray’s neighbouring island of Mingulay) announced on the Monday morning that we would be heading down to Berneray first that day. A great start to the week, and exactly what I wanted to hear! We travelled down the east side of the islands of Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay on our way there. The majority of the time we were sheltered from the westerly wind by the islands, with occasional relatively rougher (or should that be “wetter”?!) sections in the more exposed areas.
The landing on Berneray was very easy, although we were surprised not to have landed on the island’s pier. Instead we arrived on the rocks on the north east of the island, just to the east of the pier. Thanks to both the Boy James and its tender being well set-up for moving onto and off of, getting onto the island was easy enough.
There is a clear track up from the pier to the lighthouse and we joined this track near an old shed close to the pier. It’s a fair wander up to the lighthouse, but there are points of interest scattered along the way with old houses in various states of disrepair, the helipad presumably used by the Northern Lighthouse Board, and what appeared to be a well with a pump. As we walked up the hill to the lighthouse the cloud was coming and going, at one point entirely obscuring the lighthouse. The light in Barra Head lighthouse sits higher above sea level than any other in the UK. While the lighthouse is only 58 feet (just over 17.5 metres), the huge cliffs on which it is located mean the light operates from a height of 693 feet (slightly over 211 metres). It is incredible to see. As you walk the track, the lighthouse gets bigger and bigger, but once you reach the start of the lighthouse wall and look over the edge you see the true extent of the cliffs, which dwarf the lighthouse.
The buildings, which I assume were the keepers’ cottages, in front of the lighthouse on the landward side are looking worse for wear, not surprising really given that the station was automated in October 1980 and the wild weather that hits the island on a regular basis. We were surprised to hear that the skipper of the Boy James had lost 19 working days in the month of July this year. This says a lot about the sea conditions and weather in the area; the sun may be shining and conditions can seem calm, but the extreme exposure changes everything.
Often we have visited islands with lighthouses on calm days and you can’t imagine how wild it can get. Barra Head is different though. The dramatic scenery of the cliffs and the slippery courtyard outside the lighthouse hint at just how bad it can be. Some of the aerial images I have seen since on the Canmore website of the cliffs on which the lighthouse perches give me the chills. You then get a better grasp on just how close we were to the edge of two cliffs at exactly the same time when we walked to the highest point on the island, which is just next to the lighthouse. The lighthouse sits right at the top of an extremely tall gully in the cliffs, and I imagine this gully sends up some pretty huge waves at times. I mentioned the word “dramatic” before and I think that is the best word to describe it in any conditions.
The lighthouse itself was built by Robert Stevenson and completed in 1833. While the island may seem like an almost impossible place to live compared to today’s standards, it was home to a small number of people in the past. The last remaining residents though were the lighthouse keepers who lived in the cottages there until the station was automated. The keepers, interestingly, have their own walled graveyard on the island not too far from the lighthouse. Within the walls are three graves, including those belonging to two of the keepers’ children who died at particularly young ages. The keepers’ cottages, which I referred to above, appear to have an interesting history since the keepers left. There is a fascinating summary of the plans for the buildings at buildingsatrisk.org.uk since automation. I really hope someone manages to find a use for it before too much more damage is done.
Berneray is a very special place and I feel privileged to have been able to make it there. If I were given another chance to visit then I wouldn’t hesitate to take it. If you are ever thinking of heading that way then I would definitely recommend getting there on the Boy James. A fantastic trip and a great day, and the kids were in bed when we arrived back at our accommodation too! 🙂