Another delayed post and this one follows on nicely from my Shetland Adventure last month.
After we’d booked our holiday in Shetland I was invited to present at the Scapa 100 event, marking the centenary of the scuttling of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow back in 1919, which still remains the largest loss of warships ever to have taken place on a single occasion. The talk was to be related to my forthcoming book, The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide. I was a little worried about it as all of the lighthouses were turned off during the war and only used when required by the Navy, so I wasn’t sure if it would be relevant to the subject matter, but I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity.
This invitation meant cutting the Shetland holiday short by a day, but it was easy enough to get from Lerwick to Orkney on the ferry and the best bit was that we would pass islands with lighthouses on them. When we set off from Lerwick it was the longest day so there was still plenty of light for being able to spot the two lighthouses at either end of Fair Isle on the way past. Fair Isle is very high on my priority list and I hope to make it there next year at some point. It’s a beautiful island from the sea and I’m sure it is equally impressive from the island itself.
Also lovely to see from the ferry was Auskerry lighthouse, another one on my list. The ferry sails fairly close to it and I am now hoping to get out there next month – fingers very much crossed! Another one I have on my list for next month is Helliar Holm. Such a lovely little lighthouse. It’s a great shape and I enjoyed seeing this one from the ferry too.
There was still a little light in the sky as we arrived in Kirkwall. I was particularly excited to see the Pharos, the Northern Lighthouse Board‘s vessel moored up in the harbour. Also part of the Scapa 100 event was the opening up of the Pharos in Kirkwall and their second vessel, Pole Star, in Stromness. I was even more excited about this as I’d managed to take a look around the Pharos in April and with the Pole Star being in Stromness, the location of my talk, I was hopeful that I would get a chance to get on board that one too during the day. I knew it would be touch and go as it was open from 1-4pm and my talk was scheduled for 2-3pm. I spotted the Pole Star in the harbour as I arrived in Stromness that evening and also got the pleasure of seeing both the Hoy High and Low lights on Graemsay in action.
The following morning I had a plan of what I was going to do before my talk. I had plenty of time to kill so I first set off to get a view of the Pole Star. It is quite a bit smaller than the Pharos, which I hadn’t realised before. As I was leaving the harbour I saw the ferry to Graemsay set off and felt very jealous of those who were going to spend the day over on the island. It is a great island and it would have been a perfect day for a trip over there.
Being a little bit obsessed with Sule Skerry at the moment, following my visit to the island and lighthouse in May, I was very keen to pay a visit to the old shore station in Stromness where the families of the keepers lived when the lighthouse was manned. To get there meant walking the length of the main street through Stromness, which is never a chore. It’s got a really lovely feel about it and a lot of history too.
On the way along I was on the look-out for the old Northern Lighthouse Board depot. Until 2004 the Pole Star (not the current one, but its predecessors) was based out of Stromness and I knew that the old building and pier were still around somewhere. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find them, but I need not have worried as I recognised the buildings straight away, mainly due to the distinctive quoins around the windows. While the quoins are a different colour to the current bamboo/biscuit/buff that is so common among Northern Lighthouse Board buildings, it was obviously the place I was looking for. The building has since been taken over by the local Council so I wasn’t so keen on wandering around the area, but the view from the main street was good enough for me.
A little further on was Stromness Museum, which was also on the agenda for the day, but didn’t open until 10am so I continued along the coastal road. Once I’d passed the buildings on the right the view opened up across Scapa Flow which was stunning in the bright sunshine. I imagine that stretch of water saw its fair share of divers during those 12 days of Scapa 100 events. I was so busy looking at the sea and ahead to try and see if I could spot the old Sule Skerry shore station that I found myself at the end of the road and, turning to look back, realised I’d already walked straight past it. I continued on around the corner and walked past the back of the building first. It always feels a little strange to be taking pictures of someone’s house, but then if you live in a place like that then you would probably need to get used to it. It’s a really big building, which isn’t surprising really when you think that it needed to house up to four families at a time.
Walking back around to the front of the house I discovered the true majesty of it. It is amazing and its location is fantastic to look up at and, I imagine, equally impressive to look out from. It is very similar to the old shore station in Breasclete, Lewis where the families of the Flannan Islands keepers lived. I noticed the old Northern Lighthouse Board design above the door, which again is the same as the Breasclete building. There’s a wonderful garden in front of the house and then, on the opposite side of the road there is a little gate leading down the a small pebble beach. What a wonderful place that would have been to have grown up – and all the while your dad would have been out working on the most remote manned lighthouse in the British Isles. What a way to live!
Not wanting to hang around too long taking pictures of someone’s house, I began the walk back towards the Museum. I arrived there to find that there was some filming taking place and I was told that I could either look around quietly or I could go back again in an hour when the filming should be finished. I decided to go for the latter and found a cafe to stop at for a cup of tea. An hour later I began to walk back and happened to bump into Mike Bullock, the Chief Executive of the Northern Lighthouse Board. I’d seen him give a talk about the Northern Lighthouse Board back in 2017 when we visited their headquarters in Edinburgh during the Doors Open Days, but never met him to have a conversation with. We chatted for five minutes, during which time I’m quite confident he established that I am very much an enthusiastic “enthusiast” when it comes to lighthouses, particularly Scottish ones. I also informed him that I was the one who tweeted about really wanting to get onto the Pole Star that afternoon (a tweet he had commented on the previous day). He very kindly gave me a Northern Lighthouse Board keyring and pin badge, we said our “hope to see you later”s and I continued on to the Museum.
The filming was still going on at the Museum, but I decided that I couldn’t delay my visit any longer. They have a wonderful array of lighthouse artefacts in there, particularly relating to the lights in Orkney. While there aren’t rooms and rooms dedicated to lighthouses they have certainly packed a lot of information and items into the area they do have for it. For anyone interested in lighthouses it’s a must visit place, that’s for sure. By the time I’d finished looking around the museum the filming had come to an end so I was able to speak to the staff there. They were particularly helpful as I was keen to get someone local to the area to help me with pronunciations of place names ahead of my presentation and they certainly did that!
Once I’d finished at the Museum I just about managed to find somewhere to have lunch (it was very busy) without needing to go back to the same cafe I’d been to that morning. I also took the opportunity to add pictures of the Sule Skerry shore station and old depot buildings into my presentation.
Walking back across to the venue I saw people heading over to the Pole Star and for the second time that day I was envious, but still held out hope that I would be one of them too. I was taken to the room I was presenting in and we managed to set up in time for the audience’s arrival. I was pleased to see that a good number of people had come along, but it did also make me slightly more nervous. From what I could tell the presentation went well. I’d focused it specifically on the lighthouse of Orkney and added in some information about lighthouses in wartime and war-related lighthouse incidents in Orkney. It was structured as a timeline starting with the old North Ronaldsay light and ending with Tor Ness (the last one to be introduced) and World War II. People seemed to engage well with it and asked a number of questions at the end – a couple of which I wasn’t able to answer (but I later put the same questions to Mike Bullock and he wasn’t sure either, so that made me feel better). A number of them also came up to speak to me at the end too, which was lovely.
It turned out that a lady who lives in the old Sule Skerry shore station was in the audience. She said that they would really like to restore the old Northern Lighthouse Board design above the door, but aren’t sure how to do so. She lives in a quarter of the building and is the only one to have kept most of the old fixtures and fittings as they would have been when the keepers’ families lived there. That would be amazing to see. She did invite me back for tea, which was really very kind, but I was on the late afternoon ferry so didn’t have time unfortunately. We happened to meet again on the Pole Star, which I did manage to get to in time!
As I mentioned before, it is a smaller vessel than the Pharos with no heli-deck, but still great to get onto. I was chatting to one of the crew and said “You must have been to some amazing lighthouses” and his response was that he can’t keep track of which ones he has and hadn’t been too, which seemed crazy to me, but then again I am a self-proclaimed enthusiastic enthusiast! After looking around the bridge I started speaking to another member of the crew. Unlike her colleague she is a massive fan of lighthouses and we spoke for quite a while about her adventures on the Pole Star, my lighthouse tour and the book, which she is really excited about. Her suggestion that I go on a world tour of lighthouses and take her along as an accomplice was a nice idea, although I’m not sure how I’ll fund that one! I was really pleased to have met her. If I’d had more time I would have carried on standing around chatting, but it was time for me to leave Stromness and Orkney and head back home.
It had been a fantastic 18 hours in Orkney. I’d started out feel rather nervous and wanting to escape to Graemsay, but actually ended the day feeling glad to have been part of such a fantastic event. The organisers put in so much time and effort and delivered such a varied programme. I wished I’d stayed longer to see more of it, but I had to get back home to hide away and read through the draft of my book. I got a seaward look at both the old Lighthouse Board Depot and the Sule Skerry shore station as I said farewell to Stromness from the ferry.
Another really positive and enjoyable experience in Orkney. I’m growing rather fond it that place. 🙂