Back in July 2015 I spent a few hours on the island of Stroma in the Pentland Firth. The blog post written about it was titled ‘Alone on an abandoned island’ as I joined the trip alongside a number of photographers whose target on the island was clearly very different to mine. This time I have called this post ‘Stroma with friends’ as I was most definitely in good company second time around. A number of my lighthouse friends were around this week for the fantastic Sule Skerry trip and they had all expressed an interest in getting across to Stroma if they possibly could. A few of them had tried to make it before on Association of Lighthouse Keepers trips to the North Coast, but had not managed for various reasons. After our trip to Sule Skerry on Tuesday the weather began to deteriorate and I spoke to the owner of the island that evening to find out what the likelihood of being able to get over there was. He asked if we minded a bit of rain and I, of course, said no. You can’t let rain stop you on these endeavours. He asked me to call back the following morning for a final decision. I must admit I wasn’t hopeful, but was pleasantly surprised when he asked us to be there for 10am on Wednesday morning.
We all gathered and hopped on board the Boy James at Gills Bay. It is only a short trip across to Stroma, but the Pentland Firth can be lethal. I’ve heard it said by too many boatman that it is very dangerous and you can certainly see, when crossing it, that it is a very disturbed stretch of water. Stroma, apparently, translates as ‘island in the stream’, which is something of an understatement when you discover that strength of the tidal races that run through the Pentland Firth, some of which are believed to have been running at up to 30km an hour. One of these tidal races is The Swilkie off of the northern point of Stroma, which gives the name of the point on which the lighthouse sits the name ‘Swilkie Point’. It seems that ‘Swilkie’ translated into Old Norse means ‘Swallower’, which is probably more representative of the hazardous tidal situation there.
Fortunately we made it safely over to the island, thanks to the great experience of the boatman who is also the island’s owner. He farms sheep on the island and has recently stayed over there for a month during lambing. I was interested to discover that he still has some lambs yet to be born, which I thought was quite late. It turns out that the reason they lamb so late (with pre-planning of course) is because it takes longer for the nice green grass to grow on Stroma and, as a result, the good quality milk produced by the ewes doesn’t come in until later than in many other places.
Once we were on the island we had just over 3 and a half hours to explore. Of course the priority was the lighthouse so we set off, deciding that we would do anything else we wanted to see on the way back. I recalled it well from my first visit, not that it is a particularly difficult place to navigate around, but it was all very memorable to me, which can’t be said for all of the islands I have been to.
On the way to the lighthouse we could see the two towers on the island of Muckle Skerry, the largest of the Pentland Skerries, basking in sunlight as well as Cantick Head on Orkney and the beacon on the neighbouring island of Swona. Watching those lights come on at night must be wonderful to see from Stroma.
It didn’t take us long to arrive at the lighthouse. From a distance the lighthouse looks very similar to many others, but there are a number of small features that stand out. I was surprised by just how many gates they had going into the main compound and there were some small decorative touches that are often a good indication of a Stevenson-designed lighthouse. The presence of the old foghorn building as well as another oddly-shaped tower adds even more interest to the area. It is reported that the old 4th Order lens from Sule Skerry (not the original hyper-radial lens) was transferred to Stroma for use as the lighthouse was undergoing automation in 1996. The current tower on Stroma is actually believed to have replaced an earlier, non Northern Lighthouse Board, lighthouse of which there are no remains. Clearly attempts were made to address the hazards of Swilkie Point before it was brought up on a national level.
The hazards in the area had not been limited to the sea though as a plaque on the side of the lighthouse honours the memory of John Calder an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper who fell to his death from the tower on 22nd April 1910. The plaque was placed on the tower by his family in 2010, 100 years after his death.
After we felt satisfied that we’d spent enough time at the lighthouse, we walked back up the path. We’d all spotted a building on the east coast of the island on the way to the lighthouse, which had drawn our attention due to the Northern Lighthouse Board colours, white and bamboo/biscuit/buff (apparently all the same colour, but it depends which supplier you get it from). We took a stroll down there. There was not a lot to see in the building itself, but just to the south of the building was an old pier and slipway with a rather rusty boat looking ready to be lowered into the sea at the top of the slipway. While I say the pier was old, it is in very good condition and the plaque part way along explains that it was build by the local community. It reads “1900. The foundation stone of this pier was laid by Mrs Carrow on 4th August” and lists members of the local pier committee. Clearly not much happens here these days with the fantastic harbour arrangement at the south of the island now, but it’s a great area to explore.
We passed the War Memorial on the way back, which is a beautiful piece of art made up of stones of various shapes and sizes. Considering Stroma is only a small island, the memorial features a lot of names. Both wars must have been a real blow to the community on the island. It is yet another reminder of how close the community must have been before the last residents left in 1962.
Stroma does feel remote, although you are not far from mainland Caithness. There is a similar feel on a number of abandoned islands. Aside from St Kilda, a lot of these places weren’t so far away, but still have a sense of isolation, but certainly not a bad one.
The weather had been kind to us until we were making our way back to the harbour and by that time the wind and rain was on our backs. We arrived back at the harbour just before the owner did and we all hopped on board the boat back to the mainland, waving a fond farewell to the island.
Last time I had been over I was not aware of having sailed close to the beacon off of the south coast of the island, but we certainly did on the way back this time. I imagine it was to enable us to work best with the current. It was nice to see the beacon from a lot closer, although I discovered later that evening when I got back home and showed my picture to Bob that the beacon must have changed since 2015. Below are two pictures, before and after, to illustrate the change.
Another fantastic day on Stroma and one that has actually made me even more desperate to visit again to explore even more of the island. A really wonderful place 🙂