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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 🙂