uklighthousetour

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

A well-timed return to Dunnet Head

As you can imagine, we have a few lighthouse-related items around our house and so it was no surprise really that our 4-year-old son requested a visit to a lighthouse yesterday. With pretty strong wind about, we realised that there’s really no such thing as a sheltered lighthouse, so we decided to go all-out and head to Dunnet Head. Dunnet Head is probably our most visited lighthouse, partly because it’s one of the closest (after Strathy Point and Holburn Head) and also because it’s a great place to take visitors.

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Inside the lighthouse compound

I had been in contact with the man who now owns the buildings within the compound (excluding the lighthouse, of course) about visiting, but our timing had never been quite right. So we were nicely surprised to see the “Gallery Open” sign on the gate when we got there. I was mostly pleased to have the opportunity to get closer to the lighthouse, which we headed straight for.

After we’d touched (bagged) the lighthouse we popped into the art gallery, which is within the old engine room. There are some beautiful pictures in there, clearly very much inspired by the local landscapes. A number of local artists have paintings on display there, and it’s really interesting to see their different styles and takes on local views. While we were in there, we were accompanied by a friendly dog – clearly the compound tour guide as he was also wandering around the paths outside when we left. There are a number of artistic features around the compound too.

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Dunnet Head lighthouse, the view from the fog horn

After we’d been to the art gallery we briefly went through the gate towards the old fog horn. There is a sign next to the gate warning visitors of the high winds and that dogs and children are not allowed beyond that point. So, clinging on to our son’s hand, we went through. The wind direction meant that it was actually a little sheltered once we were down the steps. It was good to be able to see the lighthouse from the seaward side for a change.

It’s really good to see something being done with the lighthouse buildings that allows the public access. The man behind what happens there has set up a website which contains contact details if you are ever looking to visit 🙂

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The beautiful island of Fidra

As mentioned in my previous post, we were informed of a fairly last minute boat trip that was headed for Fidra on Wednesday. Fidra is one of those islands that, although it is fairly close to the mainland, isn’t so easy to get to. During bird nesting season landing on the island isn’t really allowed, meaning boat operators just won’t take you there. It is the same for Bass Rock, which is even more of a challenge to land on. Obviously as soon as the nesting season is over the weather starts to turn, so you just need to hope for a good weather window in autumn or winter in order to get to these places.

Bass Rock

Bass Rock from North Berwick

When we arrived at North Berwick and managed to jump into a newly vacated parking space on the sea front, we had wonderful views over to Bass Rock with its immediately identifiable shape and lighthouse. The sky was blue, but there was a fair wind coming from the west, which we thought wouldn’t have much of an impact on the Firth of Forth, but it certainly does!

We found our fellow passengers and the boat, Braveheart, where the skipper informed us we would need our waterproofs for the crossing. Always nice to hear! He was definitely not wrong though. While it wasn’t a particularly bad ride it was bumpy at times with a lot of splashing. Two of our party had taken up the most unfortunate positions at the back of the boat. You may recall in older television comedies where it was clear that buckets of water were being thrown at people to resemble being in a boat on choppy seas. Well that was what it was like. It was good fun though.

Fidra arch

The natural arch

As we approached the island the conditions became much calmer and by the time we pulled in alongside the jetty it was positively calm. Landing on the jetty was easy, much easier than many other landings. A couple of members of the group wandered off over to the tidal section of the island (the South Dog) while the rest of us followed the route of the old tracks leading up to the lighthouse, passing the ruins of the old 12th/13th century chapel. There is a wonderful natural arch in the rock to the right as you walk up. It’s not a big island, but it’s stunning. I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful, possibly because it isn’t particularly remote. I always felt that islands that took a long time to get to were often the most beautif

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Fidra lighthouse and the old cable drum

As the highest point of the island is to the east of the lighthouse, once you’ve landed on the island it’s not possible to see the lighthouse. It was only after a few minutes of walking up the old tracks that it came into view. Just after passing through the wall that surrounds the compound, we saw the old cable drum that was used to haul the carts up from the jetty to the lighthouse. We also spotted one of the wheels from a cart on our way back down too.

The different land levels around the lighthouse give a variety of perspectives on it. The large rock to the south of island, as one of the other group members said, almost seems as if it was placed there just for people to get a good view/take pictures of the lighthouse from. So often it’s the surroundings of the lighthouse that add to its appeal and that’s definitely the case with Fidra.

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Fidra lighthouse from higher ground

The lighthouse here was designed and built under the leadership of Thomas and David A Stevenson. The light was established in 1885 and was automated in 1970. In 2009, along with lighthouse on Inchkeith and Elie Ness lighthouse, ownership of the light was transferred to Forth Ports.

After we left the lighthouse, we had a stroll around the old lighthouse garden, which is a fair size. It is covered with old puffin burrows so we had to tread carefully.

Fidra is a stunning island and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit. A little gem in the Firth of Forth! 🙂

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Minor lights of Arbroath, the Tay and Fife

Last weekend we received an email to say that a trip to the island of Fidra in the Firth of Forth was imminent, so as we always say we “made it happen” by arranging childcare and time off work. While we’d originally been looking at Monday for the trip, it turned out that Wednesday could potentially be significantly better. After getting the kids to bed on Tuesday evening we set off for Dundee, our destination for the night.

In order to make the most out of the trip we had a look at other east coast lighthouses that were still on the list to be bagged. On Wednesday morning we got up early and set out for a day of lighthouses, with the aim of being in North Berwick for 1.30pm.

Arbroath

Arbroath lighthouse

Our first stop was Arbroath. For most lighthouse baggers this would the start of a wonderful journey out to the fabulous Bell Rock lighthouse or a stroll around the excellent museum in the former Bell Rock signal tower. Due to the excitement of both of these on our previous visit to the area, we had failed to see the lighthouse sitting in the harbour at Arbroath. This one was easy to find, once you knew it was there. A very interesting-looking structure, that you would never guess was a lighthouse from certain angles. There are some nice little staircases and railings around the lighthouse so you can wander around the area freely.

On the way into Arbroath we had another stop-off at the old Vatsetter (Yell) lighthouse at the side of the road. When the lighthouse was originally transferred from Yell it was kept at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh. In 2011 it was moved to Arbroath to mark the bicentenary of the Bell Rock lighthouse, the Year of the Light. It’s always nice to see a lighthouse a bit out of place. Even when you know it’s there, it’s good fun to spot again.

North Carr light vessel

North Carr light vessel

Our next lighthouse was the old King William IV Dock light, which has been relocated to the west of the north end of the Tay Road Bridge. On our way there we spotted the North Carr Lightvessel, which is looking a little worse for wear in Victoria Dock. It has a really interesting history. It was loaned to the Northern Lighthouse Board by Trinity House for use to protect ships from the North Carr reef, just off of Fife Ness, from 1933 to 1976. After that it was used as a floating museum in Anstruther. In 2002 it was sold on and then sold for ÂŁ1 in 2010. It is a sad condition that it is now in, particularly as it is the only one of Scottish light vessels that remains. There is more details of its history on the Northern Lighthouse Board website.

 

King William IV Dock

The King William IV Dock lighthouse

We found the old lighthouse next to the Tay Road Bridge. It is also know as the Telford Beacon, in honour of Thomas Telford. This little lighthouse became landlocked after the bridge and supporting road network was built and there is a fascinating time lapse video online showing how the lighthouse was moved (in one piece, might I add) from its former location to where it stands today. It’s great to see that the lighthouse is being looked after and the area surrounding it has recently been improved to support greater movement of pedestrians and cyclists along the bank of the river. If only they had done the same sort of thing with Beamer Rock lighthouse when the new bridge was built over the Firth of Forth! Hopefully that one will make a reappearance again some day.

 

St Andrews

St Andrews lighthouse

 

St Andrews was next on the list. Another village we had passed through without realising it had a lighthouse! The small semi-circular lighthouse can be found just above the harbour, in front of the old cathedral ruins. It is clearly not a structure that is raved about in the area, but sometimes that’s a good thing. In researching for my list I had read that there was also the remains of an old lighthouse in the wall of the cathedral. This had been the rear of a range of lights – the front light is long gone. When we got there we found the section of wall it had been on and I quickly decided that the old lighthouse should be demoted due to the tower on which it stood not being built originally to serve as a lighthouse. I was happy to have seen the smaller light above the harbour though, so still worthwhile visiting.

Pittenweem

Pittenweem’s old lighthouse

 

 

Carrying on around the Fife coast, we came to Pittenweem. The old lighthouse here sits halfway along the east pier. It was discontinued when the pier was extended. It is very much a fishing village harbour and was fairly quiet while we were there. I strolled out along the pier to see the lighthouse. It’s not the most impressive by any means, and it is currently cordoned off by cones and tape, which I take to mean that there is something structurally unsound or dangerous going on there at the moment. A new beacon exists at the end of the new pier extension, but this doesn’t qualify for the list.

 

 

Burntisland inner pier

Burntisland East Pier Inner lighthouse

 

 

Before we attempted the lighthouses in Burntisland (which I’d always thought was pronounced “burntis-land” until I was more reliably informed that it’s “burnt-island”), Bob had warned me that this visit may only be a recce for a future visit. It’s a fairly built-up area with the docks very much in use. We took a drive around anyway and noticed a private car park, which looked like it would allow a view to the lighthouses. We drove through the car park and continued on until we reached a fence behind which sat the East Pier Inner lighthouse. It is in quite a bad way now. I had a note that it was a “white tower”, but “rusty tower” would have been a more appropriate description. From the east pier light we could see the West Pier Head lighthouse, which is doing a lot better. Just from looking across to the other pier we could see that there was no way we would be able to get any closer without being approached or getting into trouble, so we were resigned to the fact that we would have to settle for a slight distance bag for this one.

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Hawkcraig Point lighthouses

Hawkcraig Point in Aberdour was our next stop. It seems like a nice area with some good spaces to walk along the coast. We parked a little further away that we needed to, partly because we didn’t know the area. It turned out we could actually have driven all the way there, but it was good to get some fresh air and stretch our legs. I had two lighthouses at Hawkcraig Point on the list, but I came away with only one. The front of the two leading lights is a more substantial structure. The rear light is taller and thinner than the front and not so easy to spot unless you are heading for the front light and happen to turn around, which is exactly how I found it.

 

 

Leith

The former Burntisland Breakwater light, now in Leith

 

 

Later on that day, and still on our way to North Berwick, we chose to go through Leith to see the old Burntisland East Breakwater lighthouse, which is now alongside the Water of Leith. By that point we were short on time and, although we used a grid reference and GPS device to find it (which was fairly accurate) it took us longer to find as it was obscured behind trees. I got there eventually though. It’s another example of a redundant lighthouse being displayed for the enjoyment of everyone – the third that day after Vatsetter and King William IV Dock!

After leaving Leith we made it in time for our boat out to Fidra. The lighthouse on Fidra, I feel deserves its own space, so a post on that will follow soon (a link to it will appear here once it is ready). 🙂

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A few random bags en route home

I’ve had a couple of short trips away recently, the Isle of Wight and Tiree, and the return journey on these trips has provided a perfect opportunity for some tidying up of lighthouses I still had to visit.

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The lighthouse at Egypt Point

I had been visiting family on the Isle of Wight last month and, during the process of finalising my lighthouse list, I discovered that the light at Egypt Point (the most northerly point of the Isle of Wight) qualified for inclusion. As is usually the case with places you have lived, you often pass by landmarks without taking much notice. I know that I’ve  been at Egypt Point a number of times, but that was long before my lighthouse definition was decided. So, my dad/chauffeur very kindly took a detour along the seafront and pulled over while he, my mum and aunt all watched me bag the lighthouse (a very kind lady who was walking her dog even paused while I took a picture of the lighthouse)! While the lighthouse is an unusual structure, it is not the most fascinating. Surprisingly, it’s actually quite old and the former lantern and optic is now on display in the Association of Lighthouse Keepers rooms at Hurst Castle. It was only a quick visit, but an important one, just to be confident that it can be ticked off of the list!

The second trip that allowed for more bagging was on the way back from Tiree (see my previous post for details of that very exciting weekend). Although we knew that travelling north on the A9 would be considerably quicker than the more scenic (and slow-moving) A82, Corran Narrows North East lighthouse beckoned. We’d looked it up on the map and wondered if it would be possible to see it from Corran itself, but when we got there it was clear that, with the new and beautiful homes being built along the coast, access would not be possible from there. Not what we were hoping for as the A82 north of Corran is lined with trees, which we didn’t fancy picking our way through.

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Corran Narrows North East lighthouse

We pulled over into a parking area north of Corran and, with both kids asleep, Bob went for a bit of a recce, heading straight down through the trees from where the car was parked. When he returned about 20 minutes later, he was able to report that that route certainly wasn’t the best. He described which point was the best to take from the main road and I set off. It was only after I’d attempted to get down by at least three routes and decided that I must have gone wrong somewhere that I found the lighthouse. It is a “flat-pack” type, but in a wonderful location. It is so close to the A82, but you wouldn’t really know it when standing there looking out over Corran Narrows. Bob had informed me that, to get back from the lighthouse, just head straight up to the road from behind the lighthouse. Amusingly, there was a well-cleared route up this way and, once I’d got back up, I discovered the best point to walk down from (for anyone interested, it’s at the first post to the south of the sharp corner sign)!

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The non-lighthouse at Dalmore

Further north we finally made a stop off at Dalmore Distillery – sadly not for a tour or taster, but to check out a potential lighthouse we had been meaning to take a look at for a while. On the end of what it known as Yankee Pier (apparently due to it being built by the American Navy during World World I). During my research I’d seen mention of the structure at the end of the pier being a lighthouse – or tower with a light on top, but I was unsure whether the tower was built for the sole purpose of being an aid to navigation or for another purpose. It was a nice walk out to and along the pier, which the kids seemed to enjoy too – probably because they had freedom from the confines of the car for a change! As we reached the end of the pier we asked a couple who were just leaving what they knew of the building, and they told us of the American war link. We both felt that the tower looked a little more military than lighthouse-y! I then spent most of the remainder of the journey home researching its history online and, although there was clearly evidence of a light on top (it is no longer there), there was nothing to suggest it had been built for such a purpose. After much deliberation I made the decision that it doesn’t qualify for the list, based on the aspect of my definition about the structure needing to be built to be an aid to maritime navigation.

Not the most enjoyable bags, but if it helps with ticking some more off… 🙂

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To Skerryvore or not to Skerryvore? That was the question!

Back in June an island-bagging friend of ours started plans for a trip to Tiree in August, taking a boat out to a number of islands, but more importantly to Skerryvore lighthouse. Now, anyone who knows anything about lighthouses will understand the delight I felt on hearing of such a trip. We’d previously been out to Dubh Artach with Coastal Connection based in Oban. They had said they would be willing to take us out to Skerryvore, but this trip would take us out from Tiree, which would give us the opportunity to see the shore station, signal tower and museum at Hynish. Another boat trip for the same weekend would be heading north to Coll, taking in the Cairns of Coll including the lighthouse on Suil Ghorm.

We were short on a few people to get a boat-load and I had recently been in contact with the Secretary of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, of which I am a member, so I asked him if he knew of anyone else interested in joining us. Due to the short notice of the trip there were a number of people interested, but had other plans. However, one particular person was able to make it – a former keeper on Skerryvore!

We set off ridiculously early to catch the ferry from Oban to Tiree and were informed on the ferry that, although the trip to Skerryvore was originally planned for that afternoon, it might happen the following day. While the sea seemed calm at Oban, once we were past Mull we could see a change in conditions. On the boat we met up with Ian Duff, the former keeper at Skerryvore who was joining us. He had served there for 4 years of his career with the Northern Lighthouse Board, as well as Duncansby Head, Fladda and Sanda. If there’s one way to pass time quickly on the ferry journey from Oban to Tiree it’s listening to a string of fascinating stories from a former lighthouse keeper! We were to hear a lot of stories over the weekend, leading me to wish I had been recording everything Ian had said while we were there!

Once we had arrived, the organiser spoke to the boatman from Tiree Sea Tours, who were taking us out on the trips in their RIB. Tiree Sea Tours have only started running trips from the island this year and, over the summer have regularly organised trips out to Skerryvore when the weather has allowed. For us, we were hoping to get onto the rocks surrounding the lighthouse, which the boat company will only allow on a private charter, so that was the plan. The boatman said that they would meet us that afternoon to discuss the plan, with a view to running both of the proposed trips in one day as the swell was due to go down the following day. It was clear from the sea conditions that going out that afternoon would have achieved nothing, so we headed off to Hynish with Ian and Brian (the organiser of the trip).

Hynish signal tower

The signal tower at Hynish

The key buildings and features at Hynish are the shore station for Skerryvore, including the accommodation for the keepers’ families, the signal tower to/from which semaphore signals were sent to communicate with the keepers at the lighthouse, workshops and a man-made dock. As with Skerryvore itself, the shore station building and dock were designed by Alan Stevenson, who also oversaw the building work. Hynish was also the location from which the stone for the lighthouse was dispatched after being quarried on Mull and then transported by tender to Tiree. The shore station and signal tower at Hynish have not been used since 1892 when it was moved to Erraid, which was already the location of the shore station for Dubh Artach. Ian pointed out that Hynish was a better location for the shore station due to its proximity to Skerryvore lighthouse, whereas it was often not possible to see the lighthouse from Erraid. By the time Ian was a keeper on Skerryvore the shore stations for Skerryvore, Dubh Artach, Barra Head and a couple of others in the area were all located next door to each other on a single street in Oban – I imagine there must have been good community spirit there!

The museum at Hynish is wonderful and it was great to be able to visit it with Ian, who was able to point out that the old telescope on display was definitely from Skerryvore, but the clock wasn’t! We took a stroll up to the signal tower, which unfortunately was closed, and then we had a look around the dock that was built for use during the construction and servicing of the lighthouse. To visit a place that would have been so busy back in the late 19th century and which is now so quiet is fascinating. The world has changed so much and Hynish is a good example of how advances in communication and transport technology have led to the abandonment of places. Luckily, The Hebridean Trust have stepped in and have done some wonderful work there, of which there are details on their website. It is great to see everything that was built there either being maintained or used for another purpose.

Scarinish

Scarinish lighthouse

That afternoon we met up with Fraser and Kris from Tiree Sea Tours at the Scarinish Hotel, which confirmed that we would be hoping to get both trips done in the one day on the Saturday. It also gave us a chance to wander across from the hotel to Scarinish lighthouse, which used to be a more substantial structure (similar to Sgeir Bhuidhe at Port Appin, but hexagonal in shape). Now it is a much less interesting structure (for me anyway), but it wasn’t a lot of effort to get to so I couldn’t complain! A little later we went for a drive around the island and the air must have cleared a little as we got our first glimpse of Skerryvore from Tiree. Would we get there? – only time would tell.

Overnight I was hopeful that the wind would drop and we’d wake up to calmer seas and blazing sunshine in the morning. I was a little disappointed that this wasn’t the case, with the sea calmer but not flat and lots of cloud and light rain. We all got onboard the boat and off we went. It was bumpy from very early on as we began our journey out to Skerryvore, with there being little in the way of shelter on the pier. Not long after we set off the skipper decided to abandon the attempt and head north that morning, with the aim of returning to try Skerryvore that afternoon. My heart sank a little, but all was not lost as the Cairns of Coll beckoned.

Cairns of Coll

Cairns of Coll lighthouse on Suil Ghorm

After a stop off on Coll to pick up a man who had done extensive work in surveying the Cairns of Coll, we continued north. As we sailed through the many islands in the area it took a while before Suil Ghorm and its lighthouse emerged. It’s a wonderfully-shaped island, almost like the top half of a whale sticking up out of the sea – with a lighthouse on its head! The lighthouse was built in 1909 by David A and Charles Stevenson, who were responsible for a significant number of the smaller lighthouses, including the former light at Scarinish as mentioned above – particularly those that, in more recent years, have been replaced with the “flat pack” type. They were also the creators of some of the larger lighthouses too. We had planned to land on Suil Ghorm and there had been no indication that getting onto the island would be a problem. However, when we got there, the tide was fairly high with rocks just under the surface of the water all around the island. This meant we couldn’t get in close enough to be able to get onto the land without damaging the boat. I was happy to see it from the sea though.

That afternoon came the chance to try again for Skerryvore. The sea seemed to have calmed down a little and the skipper sounded slightly more optimistic that he’d be able to get us out there, but pessimistic about us getting off of the boat and onto the rocks. I was satisfied with that, as long as I could see it close up I was happy – besides, getting good pictures of lighthouses when you are sharing a rock with them can be really tricky. Ian had told us that, if he had been making the final decision as the whether or not it would be possible for a NLB boat or helicopter to land that day he would have said “no”, and he knows those rocks better than most.

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Skerryvore lighthouse

We had a bumpy old ride out to Skerryvore, but as soon as I saw her pointing up ahead of us it all felt like it was worth it – and I knew that the return journey would be an easier ride. It is fairly widely reported that Skerryvore is often considered the most “graceful” lighthouse and there would be no argument from me on that. The Trinity House habit of replacing the top of rock lighthouse lanterns with helipads hasn’t done most of their wave-washed structures any favours, which automatically gives its Northern Lighthouse Board counterparts an advantage. In comparison to the Bell Rock or Dubh Artach lighthouses, which are both painted, Skerryvore’s untainted granite tower has more of a natural-ness to it.

While the sea to the east of the lighthouse (the side we were on) was relatively calm, you could see how rough things were to the west with waves breaking over the reef running north. Ian told us about a time that the Principal Keeper at Skerryvore had given the helicopter the go-ahead to land on the helipad (which sits on the rock next to the lighthouse), but after it had landed a wave broke over the top of the helicopter and damaged the blades. At the same time one of the other keepers was washed off of the rock and dislocated their shoulder. The coastguard helicopter needed to come and rescue both the NLB helicopter and the keeper. A pretty dramatic day!

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Skerryvore’s helipad is located on the flat section in the centre of this picture

Another, more amusing, story he told was of a video he had made while serving on Skerryvore that he had shown to his mother. The video was of the other two keepers walking in circles around the outside of the helipad. His mother, understandably, asked what they were doing and Ian responded that they were getting some exercise and seeing how many laps they would have to do of the helipad to walk a mile.

Visiting Skerryvore was very special for me. It’s a real pinnacle lighthouse and takes me one step closer to visiting some of the more harder to reach lighthouses. This year has been a great year for that, what with the Flannans, the Monachs, Barra Head and now Skerryvore – it’s turned out to be a pretty successful year, probably thanks to the good weather we have had. The visit to Skerryvore, though, was made just that little bit more special by visiting it with Ian.

Skerryvore with Ian

With Ian Duff at his former “home”, Skerryvore

Ian spoke very fondly of his time as a keeper and the range of characters he encountered at the various locations. He described how Duncansby Head lighthouse was a big part of the local community while he was there, and that it marked the first time his wife had moved away from her hometown of Oban. It was also interesting to hear that he wasn’t too keen on the lighthouses on Oigh Sgeir and Sanda, which I think are wonderful. A particular point he made, which I’d never thought of before, was that he needed to climb three towers at Sanda in order to get to the lamp! Very true – I still think it looks amazing though!

For Ian, working for the Northern Lighthouse Board was more than just a job, it was (and still is) a hobby too. We had the pleasure of being invited to visit his house after arriving back in Oban and it is clear before you even step foot inside the door that he has a great appreciation for lighthouses (as I believe everyone should). While we were there I was amazed by his extensive collection of lighthouse books and we got to see the Skerryvore model that he had built during his time living in the lighthouse itself.

So, there we were – we made it to Skerryvore! A fantastic weekend 🙂

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