Living on the north coast of Scotland there is one lighthouse that, relatively, seems so close and yet so far away. For years I have been aware of Sule Skerry, which lies around 35+ miles north of the north coast and 40 miles west of Orkney. It is the most remote (formerly) manned lighthouse in Britain and has proven to be extremely difficult to get to. The only people I had known who had been there were Northern Lighthouse Board employees or guests – as well as my doctor who has previously been out with a bird-ringing group. Getting there was becoming a bit of a problem.
During a drive through Kylesku in August last year, Bob noticed a trailer advertising trips to North Rona and Sula Sgeir run by a company called North Coast Sea Tours. Those who regularly read my blog posts will know that we recently travelled north from Ballycastle in Northern Ireland to Kylesku in the north west Highlands of Scotland with North Coast Sea Tours. That trip was a result of our discussion with the skipper, Derek, about possibly getting out to Sule Skerry. Derek was happy to take us out there, weather permitting, and has since proven that there is very little he says ‘no’ to!
So, that was how we came to organise a week’s charter of the North Coast Sea Tours covered RIB in an attempt to get two groups (island-baggers and lighthouse-baggers) out to Sule Skerry. We chose the week of 20th May as it’s normally a fairly settled time of year, the tides times were right and my birthday fell on the Tuesday. Then we just had to hope for the best. The best clearly came on Monday when the island-baggers set off and arrived safely there within a couple of hours, travelling at a good speed most of the way. Bob was part of that group and when he got home that night and showed me the pictures my spirits rose at the thought that we may actually manage to land on the island too the following day.
Looking out of the window on Tuesday, which was incidentally my birthday, I saw there was significantly more wind than there had been the previous day and my spirits dropped a little. As we set off in the boat it soon became apparent that our good sea conditions luck was running out. It was an uncomfortable ride and about 30/45 minutes into the trip the skipper stopped and asked if we were willing to proceed, reassuring us that we would definitely be able to get out there, but that landing was very unlikely. I was disappointed, but we collectively agreed that we wanted to continue and if we had to settle for seeing it from the sea then we would do that. It was a long three-hour journey out there, but some of us settled into it after a while and there was great excitement as we approached the island and saw the tower. As we neared the island it became apparent that actually the landing areas were fairly sheltered. Derek asked for a few of us to go over to check out the landing area to see if getting onto the island was possible. I jumped at the chance to be in the first shuttle.
We found a perfectly flat platform to land on and I gave a little shout “yes” once I was on the island. It was a pretty slippery landing area and the stone around the old tracks leading up the path were also slippery with some sections of the path broken over time. We made it to the lighthouse though, which was incredible. We had puffins just a short distance away to the left and, beyond the puffins, were a number of gannets. It is believed that these gannets have recently starting nesting on Sule Skerry after moving on from the nearby Sule Stack. We also spotted some bonxies as we reached the highest point of the island.
The lighthouse, although looking a little worse for wear in places, is beautiful. The look of the tower is very similar to the Flannan Isles lighthouse with the “oversized” lantern. While the lantern now only contains a very small light, when built in 1895 it had to accommodate a huge hyper-radial lens, hence the need for such a huge lantern. While these two towers (Sule Skerry and Flannans) don’t have the more elegant look of some of the others, I am a big fan of them. I think it helps that they are in very remote and beautiful places.
The shape of the buildings around the tower is really interesting. The tower rises up out of the middle of an octagonal building, which presumably was where the keepers’ accommodation would have been. In this way it is similar to some of the rock lighthouses, except the lower level of the tower is much wider. It’s certainly very compact. The tower itself also appears to have old bands on it. Whether this is related to the stone used to build it or a previous paint job I’m not sure (note: see explanation in comments below from Ian Cowe). There is also what looks like a large curved indentation across one side of the tower. Who knows what caused that, but this tower clearly receives more than its fair share of brutal weather. It’s very much still standing though!
We didn’t have long on the island as the conditions were fine for landing in a sheltered spot, but we didn’t know whether the swell situation would deteriorate any further. We wandered around the lighthouse, taking in the nearby helipad and very interestingly shaped weather station. We also went to the highest point of the island (it’s fairly flat really) and sheltered behind a little black hut, and both of these locations were good angles for taking pictures of the lighthouse. It was raining, which always poses a few problems when using cameras, and the wind was strong in places so not quite ideal conditions, but that didn’t really matter.
I was pleased to be accompanied by my friend John while looking around. John completely understood the significance of reaching Sule Skerry and what a rare opportunity it was. He was also just as excited as I was about being there. However, he was much more negative about the possibility of getting there during the bumpy ride out to the island, while I tried to remain positive. I am glad I was right, but I should say that I am grateful to John for his assistance with getting up the worst of the slippery slope on the island.
Getting back down to the dinghy involved sitting down and shuffling slowly down the slippery rocks with the support of a rope Derek had tied on to ensure that if we did slip then we wouldn’t go far/end up in the sea. We returned to the boat feeling elated at what we had achieved, but at the same time with a sense of “did that really just happen?”. It certainly did happen and every minute of the rough crossing was worth it. The return journey, via the very impressive Sule Stack, was much easier and quicker as we were going with the swell. As I said on the boat, it really felt like we were just riding the waves as a surfer would. Great fun.
Sule Skerry lighthouse, in my opinion, rarely gets the recognition it deserves. People talk a lot about the rock lighthouses, the Flannans lighthouse and many others, but in my experience it is rare to hear people speak about this one. Whether it is because people cannot see it unless they are out on the Atlantic in that particular area, or it is deemed too remote to be achievable I don’t know. I know that I will be speaking about it for many years to come though. A trip that I will remember very fondly 🙂