uklighthousetour

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

A cup of tea in Glenelg!

If you were based on the north coast and travelling home from Fort William which way would you go? Probably the A82 and then the A9 I would imagine. We’ve done that route many times and there’s nothing wrong with it at all, it’s quite beautiful in places, although it can get quite busy in the summer months. There may be other slightly more convoluted routes available, but one you’d possibly not choose to take would be via Skye.

Anyone who knows Bob will know that he rarely takes the path of least resistance, and today was a perfect example of that. But it was all fine because the reason for going that way was to pay a visit to the old Sandaig lighthouse, which is now located near the Glenelg-Kylerhea ferry. The lighthouse is really quite easy to access, you can either drive right up to it or take the ferry across from Kylerhea to see it. I had done neither and had just seen it from the other side of the water at Kylerhea a couple of times.

Setting off from Fort William, the first leg of the trip involved getting across to Mallaig for the ferry to Armadale. I booked it on the way there to avoid getting all of the way there to find it was fully booked. The joy of technology! We managed to get on an earlier ferry and in just over half an hour we were on Skye.

I think Skye is a wonderful place, but it is vast. While many might think that it’s just an island it can’t take that long to visit everything, I have found that no matter how many times I’ve been, there is still something left to see ‘next time’. It really is a massive island. Today though, we were just spending a short time on it, but fortunately that short time involved passing by the village of Isleornsay. Anyone who has spent any length of time visiting Scottish lighthouses will know the lighthouse on (and this is where it gets complicated) the islet of Eilean Sionnach, a tidal island off of the island of Ornsay which itself is a tidal island off of Isleornsay. Now, whoever decided to put a lighthouse in that particular location – I’m going for David and/or Thomas Stevenson – must have known that they were about to create what is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful views in Scotland. Some might say they wouldn’t have thought of that, but I think they must have done. Or even if they hadn’t they would have stood back at the end and said to each other “Well that was definitely worth the effort”!

Ornsay

Ornsay lighthouse

Continuing back up the main road we spotted the Ornsay East Rock light, which I hope to get a closer view of later this month – a very exciting trip coming up so look out for reports of that in a few weeks’ time!

A while later we arrived at the ferry at Kylerhea. From here it is possible to see the Kylerhea light to the north and the object of my attention today, the old Sandaig light, just across the water. The Glenelg ferry, a turntable ferry, is fascinating to watch, such a clever invention and not one I’d seen in action before. The ferry only started running for the season yesterday so that was lucky!

Glenelg ferry

The turntable Glenelg-Kylerhea ferry

As we approached Glenelg on the ferry I got particularly excited as the lighthouse doors were open. I’d heard that it was possible to go inside and I’d had my fingers crossed that it was still the case, which it certainly is.

Glenelg

The old Sandaig lighthouse, now at Glenelg ferry

Now for the history bit and how the lighthouse came to be in it’s new home. The cast iron tower, designed by David A Stevenson, was constructed on one of the islands off of Sandaig around 5 miles to the south west of Glenelg in 1909. As is often the way, as technology progresses organisations are always looking at ways to reduce costs and replacing these structures was one of the ways the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) did this. The tower was replaced in 2004 and this is where the local community stepped in and said they wanted to keep the lighthouse and move it to is current location. The NLB were very helpful, firstly giving some money towards the project along with a number of other funders, and then supporting the relocation itself. After the light had been dismantled it was taken by the NLB to it’s Oban depot to be renovated before being delivered to Glenelg.

Inside Glenelg

Inside the lighthouse

The lighthouse now contains the details of this process as well as information about the local area, including the turntable ferry. Various items are for sale there too, but of equal importance is the fact that you can get a cup of tea or coffee! It all works on an honesty box system. What a great place and a wonderful community effort.

Above Glenelg

The old Sandaig lighthouse with the turntable ferry in action

It is another picturesque location and the place has a good feel about it. Unfortunately not quite accessible enough to stop by for a cup of tea in passing regularly, but definitely somewhere I’d like to return to. Needless to say, I was very glad of our detour today 🙂

1 Comment »

The long road to Ardnamurchan

The Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) Oban-based event continued today (see yesterday’s post for adventures on Lismore and the in Northern Lighthouse Board’s Oban Depot). While yesterday involved very little travel time, today was a different matter – as it always the way when you attempt to get all the way to the most westerly point of the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

Corran across the loch

Corran Point lighthouse seen from the other side of Loch Linnhe

I met the rest of the group at the Corran ferry and had a little while to wander around taking in the views of the Corran Point lighthouse on the other side of the narrow stretch of Loch Linnhe. It was a dull morning with drizzly rain and overcast skies. I knew this would be the case as I have a theory that there are never blue skies at Ardnamurchan lighthouse, which is a shame as the beautiful Alan Stevenson granite tower would look much more wondrous with a bit of sunshine on it. Anyway, the group arrived on the minibus and I joined them before crossing over on the ferry. The plan had originally been to stop for a look around Corran lighthouse before heading along the peninsula, but with the weather as it was and the conditions looking better for the afternoon we decided to stop at that one on the way back.

You forget just how long a road it is out to the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan. There is no doubt it is picturesque, but there are some pretty scary moments when you are on a small coach, passing other vehicles on single-track roads or on particularly narrow stretches with a fairly sheer drop on one side. We stopped briefly at the distillery for a break before continuing the journey. We finally got there and the group showed their true commitment to lighthouse bagging by heading straight to the cafe!

After a cup of tea we set off to the lighthouse. I can’t recall a lighthouse with a more beautiful welcoming design inside the door. I could describe it, but instead I shall just include a picture as it really does speak for itself (see below). Ardnamurchan lighthouse has some very subtle design features which take some time to notice. The walk (or should I call it a hike) to the top of the tower is fairly exhausting and there is very little to see on the way up – in fact there is nothing except the stairs, blue walls and the occasional window.

Ardnamurchan entrance

Welcome to Ardnamurchan lighthouse

Near the top of the tower we met Stevie. He had a tough job today with all of us turning up in groups of 2 or 3 at a time and often overlapping. We did chat to him for a while though and he explained the concerns they have over the new LED arrangement they have very recently had installed in the tower. He, quite understandably, misses the rotating beam and is hopeful that at some point they may bring it back in some way. He used to enjoy seeing the sweeping beam across the beach near his home.

Ardnamurchan light

The current lights at the top of Ardnamurchan lighthouse

I went for a somewhat bracing stroll around outside at the top of the tower, looking down on the old fog horn and as far as I could see in all other directions. Neil Wright from the Northern Lighthouse Board, who also joined us on the trip, said that on a clear day you could see all the way out to the incredible Hyskeir from the top of Ardnamurchan lighthouse. It certainly wasn’t that clear today.

At the top of the tower Neil had turned the new LED light on. We were warned not to look directly at it due to the power of the light. As I mentioned before, the detail at the lighthouse is subtle. There are small lion heads within the metal frames around the windows which would very easily escape your attention. As I have tended to do at the top of all of these towers over the past couple of days, I was chatting to Neil about all things Northern Lighthouse Board. He said that when they do any work at Ardnamurchan they most often travel by road, which takes around 2.5 hours from Oban, but they sometimes arrive by boat, which knocks about half an hour off of the journey time. It really is quite remote. Stevie explained to us what life is still like out there and how you are fairly self-sufficient due to not being able to just pop to the shop! It’s refreshing to hear when so many people’s lives these days are all about convenience and spending money.

Adnamurchan decoration

An example of the decoration inside the tower at Ardnamurchan

 

I had a wander around the buildings there before we left. They have the original lens from the tower on display in the exhibition room and you can also see the old compressors for the fog horn. I had a quick look down towards where Neil said the NLB boat arrives when they do travel there by sea. There are even picnic benches down that way. I was surprised to learn that the lighthouse still attracts visitors in the winter months, which often causes problems for the NLB guys when they are trying to work.

Ardnamurchan fog horn

The lighthouse and fog horn at Ardnamurchan

Once we had all gathered back on the coach we set off on the long return journey. The sky had cleared a little by that point, although there was still some low cloud hanging around the hills, which was very atmospheric.

We made it back to Corran lighthouse and spent a while in the chilly breeze on the beach in front of the tower. From here it was possible to see across to the Corran Narrows light on the opposite site of the loch. I recalled from our visit to Islay in January that the Loch Indaal lighthouse seemed to very closely resemble the Corran lighthouse, and this was confirmed by Neil. Not only are they similar towers, but they both benefit from having a mountainous backdrop. They also, apparently, feature the same type of LED light, although the Loch Indaal light still holds a lens rather than the two lights we saw inside Corran today.

Corran Point

Corran Point lighthouse

It’s a tiny tower in comparison to Ardnamurchan and features three sets of very steep ladders. There’s not a lot to it, but the sector light panels at the top make for a very colourful picture. The light had been turned on again so we could get the full experience. Although there is no longer a lens filling the lantern it was a wonderful place to be and we did need to be kicked out in the end as we’d been up there too long! I could happily have stayed there for longer.

Corran light

Inside the lantern at Corran

Once we’d left the lighthouse we returned on the ferry and that was where I left the group. What a fantastic couple of days it has been, meeting new people, getting to know others I’d met before a bit better and seeing some great places I would never have otherwise been able to see. The highlights for me: Lismore, the tour of Pharos (the Northern Lighthouse Board’s vessel) and probably getting inside the tower at Corran. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to more adventures with my new-found lighthouse friends 🙂

Leave a comment »

Day one of some Oban escapades

As mentioned in previous posts, about six months ago I took on the role of Events Coordinator alongside two others for the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK). Although I had attended their AGM in South Wales last year, it was only a matter of time before a trip coordinated by the new team would take place. Today the time finally arrived in the form of a two-day event based in Oban.

The blue sky made an early appearance today, just in time for our journey over to Lismore lighthouse on the small island of Eilean Musdile, not (as the name suggests) on the island of Lismore itself. I’d previously landed on Eilean Musdile and seen the lighthouse at close range in 2015, but this time we were going to get inside the tower as well as meeting the couple who now own the cottages. Lismore is one of those lighthouses that you can’t go past on a ferry without noticing. The lady who now owns the cottages on the island said that you can almost see the ferry tilting over as people rush to take pictures of the lighthouse before it then starts to tip the other way as they get closer to Mull and Duart Castle.

Lismore from below

The boat ride over to the lighthouse with Coastal Connections, who also took us over last time, was good and it was nice to catch up with Struan, today’s skipper, and chat to my ALK friends. Landing on the island is a fairly dignified affair and as soon as you are there you are captivated by just how beautiful the place is. The owners of the cottages clearly do a fantastic job of keeping the island from getting overgrown and too wild, while also maintaining its natural beauty. When the owners first arrived, they knew there must have been a path there somewhere that joined the top end of the island (where the stone for the lighthouse arrived), across the beautifully constructed bridge, past the slipway and to the tower. The owner described how he spent a good few years (they are usually on the island for around 10 weeks every year) finding the path again and one of his jobs each year is to maintain the path. Another reason for doing this was so that nesting birds on the island could remain undisturbed in the longer undergrowth. They have also installed a small wind turbine to provide electricity to the cottages as well as pumping the fresh water from the well on the island to their houses.

Lismore entrance

The path that takes you to the lighthouse is a perfect match for the stunning white tower at the end of it. Before we got carried away with wandering up the tower we decided to walk down beyond the tower to get some pictures of it standing tall. There really is no angle that Lismore lighthouse doesn’t look awe-inspiring from. An incredible piece of architecture from Alan Stevenson and his attention to detail is evident at the top of the tower. With perfectly carved features inside the lantern room as well as even more impressive additions when you step outside the door at the top, you realise the thought that must have gone into so many elements of this amazing structure. I got chatting to Neil Wright, one of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s technicians who has recently been to and worked at the Flannans, Sanda, Skervuile and the Bell Rock. Neil posts some fantastic pictures on Twitter of parts of these lights that the general public would never be able to see. Needless to say we chatted for a while about his work with the NLB, where it has taken him and he also showed us how the remote monitoring of the lighthouses works. It is incredible to see just what they can find out about a lighthouse from just a laptop.

Lismore lens

Neil also pointed out how the lighthouse differs from many others as it has rectangular window panes rather than triangular, which is related to the characteristic of the light. The little lens in there is small but perfectly formed allowing for plenty of space to wander around. The lighthouse has not been upgraded to an LED light…which means it still has a number of buttons and panels inside. Neil told us that he was, sadly, responsible for the change of the light at Noss Head from a rotating lens to an on/off LED. They have recently upgraded Duncansby Head, but fortunately have decided to retain the rotating lens and just replace the lamp with an LED. We were informed that this will also be the case at Dunnet Head in the coming months. I am pleased to learn that the light will still work with a rotating lens, but I will miss the warm colour of the light as it is at the moment.

Back down at the bottom of the tower we stopped off to have a cup of tea with the couple who own the lighthouse. The cottage is very spacious with large rooms, a wide corridor and windows that allow plenty of natural light in. You can tell that they have maintained some of the original style of the cottages while also adding their own personal touches here and there. They are a really lovely couple and were incredibly welcoming considering they had 20 lighthouse enthusiasts wandering about.

Lismore bridge

Before heading back to the slipway, we took a short walk to the top of the island where you can look across the short stretch of water to Lismore itself and the snow-capped hills beyond. It felt a little bit like heaven, and I found that the longer you stayed there the more you wanted to stay. But leave we had to unfortunately. It was a very enjoyable and memorable morning at a wonderful place which I would return to in a heartbeat.

Back in Oban we had lunch before the second instalment of the day: a tour of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s Oban Depot and Buoy Yard. I always get excited when I see the Northern Lighthouse Board logo and it can be seen everywhere here! We were shown around by the Depot Manager initially who gave us a tour of the storage facility. When you first walk in all you see is large shelves filled with wooden boxes that appear at first glance to be of little interest. It’s only when you take a closer look that you notice that each box has the name of a lighthouse on it and, in some cases, the boxes contain the old lenses from the towers. Among the names written on the boxes were Calf of Man, Strathy Point, Sule Skerry, Barra Head, Stoer Head, Chicken Rock, Ruvaal and Rona. It was clear that there is a big plan for upgrading Eilean Glas lighthouse as we saw its new kitchen, tins of paint and various other items all destined for that beautiful place.

Storage Sule Skerry

The Buoy Yard gives you some idea of the scale and amount of work that takes place there. Every eight years the buoys are brought in and cleaned and then go through various other stages before being re-painted ready to go back out. It was really interesting to see the range in types of buoy and how big they actually are. In comparison to most things you see at sea buoys always look so small, but they aren’t small at all. I was particularly interested to see an example of the buoys used to mark wrecks.

Buoy yard

The next part of the tour involved Neil showing us the variety of LED lights that the Northern Lighthouse Board currently use. From his talk it became very clear just how quickly technology is progressing and as Neil said himself it will be interesting to see the types of lights they have lined up there in 5 years’ time. They also have some of the old lamps in storage in this area, including those from Cailleach Head and Lady Isle. It is clear that the shelves here are already becoming full and, over time, there will only be more and more coming in. Eventually another long-term solution for their storage/use will need to be found and I really hope there is something that can be done with them. While they aren’t as impressive as the Fresnel lens, for example, they are a big part of lighthouse heritage.

Lights

It was very obvious before we even arrived at the Depot that the Northern Lighthouse Board’s maintenance vessel, Pharos, was there. I recall the first time I saw Pharos and that was at the Bell Rock. Every time I’ve seen it since it’s been from a distance and you don’t realise just how big it is until you are standing right next to it! We were on our way towards the exit when we were delighted to hear that the captain of Pharos was happy to give us a tour. I’m not going to lie, I dashed back down the gangway before they changed their mind! Getting on board Pharos was a real treat for me. It was certainly not somewhere I ever thought I would get a chance to look around and here we were being offered the chance to do just that. First we set off for the helideck – what a place that must be when the helicopter comes into land. I’ve obviously stood on a number of helipads at some of the more remote lighthouses on Scottish islands, but this was somehow different.

Pharos

We were also shown the deck above where the crew communicate with the helicopter crew as they are coming in to land. We then looked down over the winch area at the back of the boat. The winch is huge, but then it would need to be with so much weight to be lifted in those buoys. Last, but by no means least, we were shown around the bridge where the magic happens. And when I say “magic” it really is magic. Thanks to advances in GPS, weather and sea monitoring the boat can near enough sail itself these days. The paper maps and amount of buttons and levers in the bridge though are a reminder that, if things do go wrong, the manual back up of a person is still very much a requirement. We finished off our incredible tour of this vessel with a group picture alongside the Northern Lighthouse Board’s longest-serving captain. What a special opportunity that was and, as much as I enjoyed seeing the maintenance vessels before, I appreciate them on a whole new level now.

Pharos bridge

More adventures to come tomorrow! 🙂

3 Comments »