In recent years while I’ve been visiting lighthouse of all shapes and sizes, particularly those smaller lights in Scotland, I’ve seen a number of very negative comments about these modern lighthouses. What I am referring to here are the Northern Lighthouse Board’s SPLATs (solar powered lattice aluminium towers). That acronym describes it rather perfectly actually, although regular readers of my blog will be aware that I personally refer to them as flat-pack lighthouses.
These towers are limited to only the north and west of Scotland, which gives a good indication of their often remote locations, on islands or tucked away on headlands. There are 53 of these structures in Scotland: 18 in Shetland, 2 in Orkney, 1 on the North Coast, 7 in the Outer Hebrides, 11 in the Inner Hebrides and West Highlands, 13 between Mull and Islay, and 1 in South West Scotland.
To start with, some history. My recent research suggests that, although it was around 1996 that these structures began to replace the older, small lighthouses, the two towers of this type on Gasay and Calvay – found on the approach to Lochboisdale in South Uist – were actually installed in 1985. These two framework towers aren’t as enclosed by the white cladding as many of the newer versions are, but they are still very much the same arrangement.
I’ve been fascinated to find that the history of these towers actually goes back a lot further than I’d originally thought. Along with being left off most lighthouse lists, and left out of near enough all books on Scottish lighthouses, they are so rarely mentioned anywhere which is a shame as it appears they played a key role in shaping the future direction of small Northern Lighthouse Board structures for many years to come when those first two were installed.
For a good few years now I’ve had a growing appreciation of these structures. To begin my defence of them, I want to highlight the purpose of a lighthouse. Lighthouses, unless purely decorative, were never built for us land-based folk to gaze at adoringly. That is certainly the case for many of us now who travel to admire the big, old lighthouses. However, their primary purpose was to exhibit a light that could be seen at night and would help to guide ships. At night you can’t see the structure, all you know is that it’s a light helping to guide you or assisting you with working out exactly where you are. If it achieves that, regardless of what the structure looks like, then it is fulfilling its core purpose.
In an ideal world money would be no object, but of course cost plays a role when deciding what type of structure will be installed. As much as I love a large, dramatic lighthouse I recognise that, for any lighthouse authority, paying out hundreds of thousands (or more likely millions) of pounds to build a new one is not a wise financial decision.
Financial restrictions force a company to look at what is required for the new or replacement structure in this case. The big lighthouses we all know and love were built to be lived in and to contain a considerable amount of machinery and equipment too. If you’ve ever been in a lighthouse that contains the old equipment you will see that even then a lot was squeezed into a small space.
If you have ever visited one of the flat-pack type lighthouses you will see just how little equipment is in them, usually just one or two cabinets on the ground or first floor and then the external light and another small cabinet on top. There is no need for bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom etc. so it’s understandable that the decision wouldn’t be made to build a lighthouse that has the space to accommodate those.
I’ve often seen mentions of ‘The Stevensons would be turning in their graves if they saw these’ and I’m not so sure they would. The Stevensons were engineers. Yes, engineers probably like to design the most awe-inspiring buildings which would give them a big personal boost, but practicality is key for them and if they were having to work within today’s budgets I’m sure they would opt for this type too. The final generation of Stevenson lighthouse engineers designed a range of smaller wholly practical lighthouses, such as the former Sandaig Islands Lighthouse (pictured below). These lighthouses are not grand, although I am still very keen on them myself. They were a sign of the times and reflected the changes in what was needed for new and unmanned lighthouses as well as availability of more cost-effective materials.
On a final and personal point, I’ve visited a considerable number of these flat-pack towers over the past 9 years and I’ve had some of the best days out with them as my objective. I’d like to share a few examples. The light on Loch Eriboll, my first flat-pack, is one of those I’m most fond of. It’s a relatively short walk compared to many of the others, as long as you know where to start and the right direction to head in. The coastline of Loch Eriboll is top class and my first walk to the lighthouse really kicked off my ever-growing appreciation of that loch.
These lighthouses aren’t often easy to get to. You can’t drive to them as you can with some of the larger towers and they certainly don’t have obvious tracks or paths leading to many of them as all of the older lights do. Getting to the flat-pack now located on Cailleach Head near Scoraig was a massive personal achievement. I wasn’t sure I’d ever make it as I knew it involved a long walk in from the nearest road or making arrangements with a local boatman. This was also the case with Hoo Stack in Shetland, which was great fun to visit alongside some island bagging pals. The shared enjoyment with friends could very much also be said of Glas Eileanan (Grey Rocks Lighthouse) in the Sound of Mull, the Sandaig Islands light and Bunessan Lighthouse on the west coast of Mull.
It’s not just friends though, my son visited his first flat-pack lighthouse when we walked to Point of Sleat. It was a great walk, but was super windy and I remember well us setting up a little pop-up shelter not far from the lighthouse to hide away in at lunchtime with the little man. My daughter only recently bagged her first flat-pack lighthouse, the newest one, Rubha Cuil-Cheanna near Onich. That was a great walk made slightly more challenging by having the kids to keep safe, but still good fun.
There have been some fairly unique experiences involved in reaching them too. Wading through a channel of water to get to the flat-pack on Hestan Island was great fun. Visiting Papa Stronsay was also an interesting experience with the island being home to the Golgotha Monastery and having a long history of occupation by religious groups.
There have been so many great times getting out to these small but really important little structures. I suppose if there was one final thought I would like to end on it’s that, with the recent addition of the Rubha Cuil-Cheanna light, I’m just glad they are still adding new lighthouses, even if it is only one every 11 or so years 🙂
Although the ALK events had begun, it didn’t put a stop to my own trips. The previous December we’d made contact with the owner of North Coast Sea Tours to find out if they would be willing to get us to the particularly tricky Sule Skerry. Not only did they agree to that, but the owner also suggested we and a few of our friends could join him and a few of his pals as he brought his boat back up from Ballycastle, Northern Ireland in April 2019. The idea for the West Coast Adventure was born. With Derek the skipper in charge of the boat, Bob in control of the island and lighthouse itinerary and myself taking the lead on organising accommodation for everyone, it was a big task to pull it all together, but for the incredible days we got out of it there was no denying it was worth it. It’s really unlike any other trip I had been on before or have been on since. A really great experience and opportunity.
The fun with North Coast Sea Tours continued the following month when we finally managed to get out to Sule Skerry. The first day a group of island baggers made it there and the second it was the lighthouse baggers’ turn. It was another incredibly unique trip and much more like the bagging years times, but with some of my new lighthouse friends along for the ride too. An added bonus with this trip was sailing around Cape Wrath as Derek brought the boat around to the north coast in preparation for the Sule Skerry trips.
June 2019 saw the biggest overlapping of this period with the ‘bagging years’. On the last big trip I joined with the collectors of all things, which was in Shetland, I was desperate to go out and enjoying visiting lighthouses and islands as I had in previous years. I had a wonderful time – how could I not, especially with reaching the magnificent Muckle Flugga and so soon after Sule Skerry felt like a huge achievement – but my enjoyment was, in some ways, hampered by the pressure of having so much else to do at the same time. At one point I was wandering the streets of Lerwick on my way to the library to print out two copies of my 200+ page book and then heading onwards to the Post Office to get one copy sent off to a friend to review. There was a tight deadline on reviewing it and, at the same time, I’d done little preparation for the presentation I needed to deliver in Orkney on the way back home from the Shetland trip. That period really was the most stressful, when I realised that perhaps I had overcommitted somewhat. I still managed to get to and enjoy some of the most fantastic places though, thanks in no small part to Alan who did an amazing job of organising trips for around 40 of us, especially when the first week was almost a write-off for so many of the planned boat trips.
My presentation in Orkney was followed just a couple of months later by a trip for a small number of us to some of Orkney’s beautiful islands and lighthouses not covered by ferries. While the north coast had thunderstorms we had absolutely gorgeous weather and made it to so many fantastic islands, including Copinsay, Papa Stronsay and even landed at Barrel of Butter in Scapa Flow.
Mervyn joined us for that trip and returned the favour at the end of that month when he invited us on a fantastic boat trip around Mull, picking up far more lights than I even thought we would, including a landing on Lady’s Rock. By this point I was well and truly caught up in the ALK efforts and I remember travelling to Oban for the Mull trip and having a phone call with a boatman based in Eastbourne about the trip I had organised for some ALK members to go out to Royal Sovereign and Beachy Head lighthouses. There was a lot of overlapping, but thankfully not as much as in Shetland!
September 2019 was a particularly busy month. Always trying to make the most of an opportunity a visit to Scurdie Ness lighthouse was in order during the Angus Coastal Festival. A chance encounter there led to a wonderful tour of Tod Head lighthouse too, which was a huge bonus. Just a few days later I was in Edinburgh for the launch of my book at the National Library of Scotland. This involved a presentation to almost 100 people and a book signing afterwards. Once that had passed it was full on over the next couple of weeks with final plans coming together for the ALK AGM at Spurn. A lot of trips involve doing something else on the way there or back to break up the journey or maximise on opportunities. That time it was a visit to the National Museum of Scotland’s large item store in Granton to see the old Sule Skerry hyper-radial lens. On the way back it was a quick spin out on the Firth of Forth to land at both Oxcars lighthouse and on Inchkeith. It was a very busy month, but a real variety and a lot of fun.
After that life calmed down a bit and there was background planning to do for the ALK and various promotional articles to write for my book, but not a lot else until the following February when I travelled to Bidston lighthouse and observatory for an ALK archive event. I am so pleased I made the effort and spent all those hours on the train as it was to be my last trip for some time.
Then along came COVID-19 and lockdown. Personal trips and ALK events were being cancelled all over the place and that was really quite hard to take when there had been so many exciting plans for the year. It was a relief when restrictions were eased and it really became about just taking opportunities for last minute trips like Galloway, Ayrshire and Argyll, Canna, Suffolk and the Western Isles (which was actually Plan C after the ALK AGM weekend in Belfast – Plan A – was postponed, and travel to Ireland for some new lighthouses – Plan B – wasn’t permitted).
The past year has been such a strange time as I’m sure it has been for so many. A rollercoaster really, but I’ve also benefitted from it in a number of ways. A few months into the pandemic I rediscovered my love of music which had fallen by the wayside during the years of lighthouses and kids, and I’ve started walking a lot more, partly just to be doing something outside but also to see the local landscape in much greater detail than I ever have just driving through it.
I suppose most importantly though I’ve realised how important people in my life are. Some of these people I expected while others have come as a really lovely surprise. I’d never really considered myself to be a “people person” and I’m really quite happy in my own company, but I’ve realised I do need people and it’s great to know they are there, as I am for them. We are always stronger when we stick together.
It’s also been a good time to reflect on many things and my lighthouse journey has been a massive part of that. Before I started these posts I was thinking a lot about where I’d come from, where I’d been and how all of this had impacted on my life and me as a person. To be able to write these thoughts down in some sort of semblance of chronological order has really helped me to gather it all together and say to myself ‘Right, that’s what has happened. This is where I am now. How will I go forward from here?’ Of course none of us really know what will happen, which is one of the the joys of life, or the most frightening aspects depending on how you see it. What I do know though is that I want to be out there, seeing more, enjoying more and being more glad than ever before that I can do it. I hope you’ll continue to join me for the journey 🙂
I left my previous post, which covered up to Summer 2018, at the end of what I called ‘the bagging years’, when there were lighthouse and island trips aplenty on board chartered boats. Those years were relatively care-free with little knowledge of the 18-month juggling act that was to come. With so much going on it has been difficult to fit it all into one final Reflections post, so this is part one of ‘the storm before the calm’. As usual I have scattered pictures taken during this period throughout.
As mentioned in a previous Reflections post, the idea of writing a book containing a comprehensive listing of UK lighthouses came about in 2012/13. I had been working on this list on a fairly casual basis since, but it was in around 2017 that my efforts to get it completed and into some sort of semblance of order that could be published really picked up. By Spring 2018 it felt like I was getting there and, encouraged by Bob, I contacted Whittles Publishing to see if they would be interested. I have a tendency not to give myself much credit for the work I do and so had expected I would need to self-publish. As you can probably imagine, I was delighted when I had a response from Whittles saying that they were very interested and even included a paragraph about why they thought they would be the best publisher for the book!
Just a month or so after this initial contact I was having a look through the quarterly journal from the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) and noticed some vacancies for their events team. By that point I’d been a very inactive members of the ALK for almost five years with my only contribution being writing a piece about my favourite lighthouse after I happened to meet Stephen who owns Bidston Lighthouse and is a Trustee for the ALK, and made him aware of this blog. The role looked interesting – organising events to see lighthouses, why not? I’d had plenty organised for me over the years so it seemed like a great opportunity to do the same for others. I made contact with David, the ALK’s Secretary, and within a couple of days I’d spoken to three of their Trustees and was near enough on board.
With hindsight, taking on both the publication of the book and the role at the ALK within a couple of months was a little over the top. I was already working part time and had a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old to look after. However, I knew it would take a little while before the ALK events would get up and running and so the book could be done and dusted by the time that picked up – or at least that’s what I thought.
In the meantime there were more bagging trips to be had. A trip to Tiree in September 2018 with an attempt at landing on Skerryvore was an offer I simply could not refuse. The organiser, Brian, asked if I knew of anyone else who would be interested in joining as there were some spaces available. With my new contacts at the ALK and at fairly short notice I was able to recruit one man and he just happened to be a former Skerryvore lighthouse keeper – what could be better!? There is considerably more detail about that trip here, but it was the first to combine the bagging trips with another person primarily interested in lighthouses. Just 10 days or so after this there was a day trip to Fidra planned by organiser-extraordinaire Alan. It was excellent to be back in the company of a number of those on some of my earliest bagging trips.
My efforts for the ALK really began in September that year at their AGM in South Wales. There were so many people to meet, things to learn and ideas to take in. It was a great weekend though and I left feeling like I’d made so many new friends in a very short space of time. One of these friends in particular has had a few mentions here since, my lighthouse pal John. I found out before the AGM that John was also into the flat-pack lighthouses dotted around Scotland so I was, of course, keen to meet him. John actually turned out to be one of the overlaps in much of what was going on back then. He was happy to review my list for the book and share some of his pictures with me to help fill in some gaps. He was also was very helpful in getting me up to speed with the ALK and he would, a short time later, go on to join a number of trips with me.
Later in 2018 I arranged a meeting with Whittles and prior to that they sent over a draft publishing agreement. I was asked for a sample chapter and so I sent over the text and pictures for the Northern Scotland section. When Bob and I turned up for the meeting I was amazed to see there in front of me a draft design of the chapter. It was an incredibly bizarre but brilliant feeling. We agreed some minor changes to the publishing agreement and decided on a deadline of February 2019 for me to get all content to them.
The deadline for the book put a little pressure on as I knew there were some gaps where neither myself or John had good pictures of certain lighthouses. Prior to 2018 I’d had a fairly clear “bagging season” which generally ran from about April to September, give or take a month every now and then. With Autumn approaching I was going to need to put in some out of season effort.
Possibly the most outlandish trip happened in late October/early November that year when the kids were left with a grandparent while Bob and I flew south to the previously unexplored Jersey where we spent two days cramming in all of the lighthouses. We then were in Ayrshire for a day or two with the kids and on a RIB ride along the Clyde to see more lights before driving to Aberdeen where we flew up to Shetland for a couple of nights. That was some adventure and probably best described in the posts from those times rather than summarised here. As we prepared to leave Shetland at the end of that week I was falling asleep in the hire car on the way to the airport after all of the travelling, rushing about and staying up late to write up what the antics of the day for my posts.
Three further, but less intense, trips followed with one to Northern Ireland in December 2018, another family trip to Islay in January 2019 and finally a day out in South East England to grab a few more pictures before settling down to get the content pulled together in that final month. Always happy to fit in just one more opportunity I finally made it out to, and landed on, Bass Rock in January 2019, which was a real achievement after a failed attempt a couple of months earlier.
The deadline for my book came and went with everything submitted on time. I felt I could temporarily take a deep breath before diving back in again. The best and worst was yet to come… More very soon 🙂
I write this post after thinking over it for a few days, I can honestly say that the thing I miss most, aside from seeing family and close friends, at these times are the times I spent out on chartered boats, setting off for the relatively unexplored islands around the UK, particularly those in Scotland. These “bagging” years, as I call them, ran from around mid-2014 to mid-2019, although this post will only cover up until Summer 2018 for reasons that will be made clear in the next and final post. I have thought about those times a lot over the past year and not only because I’ve not been able to do them as I used to, but because I don’t imagine they will feature in my life in the same way going forward.
This is a fairly long post this time as there is a lot to say. I did consider splitting it over two, but I didn’t want readers to lose the essence of it in the transition between posts. I have included pictures from the bagging years throughout to make it slightly easier on the eye.
To clarify what the bagging years were here is a bit of background. As explained in my previous post, I’d met and married Bob. For those who don’t know Bob, two of his favourite pastimes are hill-bagging (reaching the summit of hills – mostly in the UK now, but he has also completed 6 of the 7 summits – or 6.9 as he says after his Everest attempt in 2013) and island-bagging (reaching the high point of an island). Both of these are guided by lists. Of course I like lists too, more specifically lighthouse lists. Bob was, back in 2014, a member of a group of like-minded people called the Relative Hills of Britain (now the Relative Hills Society) with islands naturally falling under that as they also contain hills, although members are also interested in various Ordnance Survey-related points such as trig pillars and benchmarks. Members of RHB organised group trips to islands not covered by schedule or routine ferries and boats. With Bob going off on these adventures it was only a matter of time before I was invited along too.
The term “bagging” and the idea of ticking things like islands off a list seems to divide opinion. Those against its use see it as simply a ticking exercise with no time spent enjoying or experiencing these places. There are three reasons I fully support what they (and I, in fact) do:
It is not necessarily the case that baggers do nothing in these places to enhance their experience of it. On some of the very small islands there is little else to do than walk around a bit and then leave. On the larger islands they often do spend more time there, checking out old buildings, walking the beaches or looking at other points of interest.
When they get to these islands they do what they love, walking up hills, visiting a lighthouse or getting to trig points. If others with different interests went to these places they may choose to sit on the beach and sunbathe, for example.
Finally, but most importantly in my opinion, when you have been out on any of the trips with the baggers, you will end up in places that you can never imagine, that most people don’t even know exist. If they weren’t into lists then they would never see these magnificent places.
From those I’ve met most are happy to be called “baggers” and to do what they are doing. In the process they aren’t harming anyone and that, to me, is the most important thing.
My introduction to these trips came in May 2014 with a trip organised by Alan who has done so much towards getting me and others to places we had only dreamed of. We went out from Skerray harbour on the north coast of Scotland to the Rabbit Islands, which had looked so alluring from a distance for some time. It was rather an embarrassing start actually as when I went to get off the boat onto the island I was completely in control of what I was doing and going at my own speed, but Bob obviously thought otherwise and went to haul me onto the island faster than I was planning to go. The result of this being me ending up lying on top of Bob. It gave everyone a laugh and all of those on the trip went on to become friends who I always looked forward to seeing in one place or another, just like many of the others I was yet to meet.
A month later, at 6 months pregnant, we spent a week over in the Outer Hebrides, camping at various stunning locations and heading out on a couple of boat trips, including my next island bagging adventure. This one was to the tiny island of Sula Sgeir followed by nearby North Rona, both to the north of the main Outer Hebrides. This was organised by John who I’d met on the Rabbit Islands trip. If I was ever going to wonder what I’d let myself in for and say “never again” it would have been then. Thankfully, whatever stressors I had to deal with at Sula Sgeir were all forgotten upon arrival at North Rona. North Rona was bliss, with the exception of a few bonxies hanging around ready to swoop on any unsuspecting bagger. While there the group wandered in groups or alone in various directions, chatting and laughing – just really enjoying their time on the island. The atmosphere was wonderful and from that point I was a little bit hooked.
Over the few years that followed our annual holiday would always tie in with the hill/island bagger events. One of my most memorable days spent out on boats was in 2015 on another Alan trip from Oban with Coastal Connection when we visited the island of Oigh Sgeir and its lighthouse, more commonly known as Hyskeir lighthouse. During that visit I grew so fond of the place, and I recall the enjoyment I hit from wandering along the bridges, checking out the basalt columns, spotting minke whales in the distance – in fact everything about the place was stunning. We also visited Eigg lighthouse on the little island Eilean Chathastail afterwards which I enjoyed so much for the peaceful surroundings. I remember staying at the lighthouse enjoying the sounds and views while the others went to the high point. Later that day a couple of us waited on the boat while the rest of the group disembarked for a trek across Muck. Heading around to the pier the rest of us then enjoyed sitting in the sunshine outside the little cafe where we had lunch, ready to welcome the others back with big smiles.
The bagging years have taken me completely out of my comfort zone on numerous occasions. In fact most island landings without a nice pier, jetty or steps get me a little nervous. Thankfully I’ve not had any major incidents so far and hopefully it stays that way, but I think that is down to the other baggers and the boatmen always being willing to help me out if I end up struggling at all. I am always amazed at the baggers who will sit on the boat, fall asleep, wake up when we get to the next island and just go without giving any thought to checking out where the landing might be. One landing attempt stands out far above the others though for being really frightening and it was actually at Dubh Artach lighthouse, which we attempted to land at the day after the perfect Oigh Sgeir day mentioned above. A group of us were in the tender edging closer to the rock and Bob was just about to attempt to step out onto the rock. He got his foot onto a bit of metal grate just as the swell came in and as it was going back out we weren’t going with it. A result of this could well have been that we’d be tipped out of the boat, but thankfully the skipper handled it superbly. I was pretty glad to be back on the main boat that day!
Later in 2015 and then into 2016 there were some Welsh visits organised by Adrian. We visited the Skerries, a truly beautiful island off the Anglesey coast, and Tudwal East in South Wales to get a closer look at the Tudwal West lighthouse, as well as landing at both Smalls and South Bishop lighthouses off the west coast. One of my most amusing memories was on The Smalls. There were numerous seals hanging around on the rock as we approached and they went off for a swim and kept a close eye on us as their heads bobbed up and down in the water. Seals, like most animals, leave a lot of mess and I recall making my way over a section of rock that was pretty slippy with their waste. I remember seeing a slightly craggier bit and thought “oh, I might get better grip on those rocks” and a few seconds later I was stranded on said rocks knowing that wherever I stepped I was going to slip. Thankfully Bob came to the rescue and escorted me to safety.
Later on in 2016 Rick organised a trip out to Little Cumbrae. This was an excellent island to explore and a real treat to be able to get inside the old lighthouse for a look around. One of my favourite parts though had to be standing around for about 20 minutes at or near the island high point while a few members of the group debated which point out of two was actually the highest. I have some amazing pictures of the group standing around with some scrutinising their GPS devices while others gaze at a bit of rock looking a little bemused by the whole situation. Before the boat came to pick us up we had a little time to spare back at the jetty on the east side of the island and so we decided to make the most of the falling tide and visit the tidal Castle Island. The tide wasn’t low enough to get across without getting wet feet initially, but Bob went wading on through boots and all anyway. Others removed their boots and paddled through. I joined the final lot who waited patiently until the tide had dropped enough to allow for a dry crossing.
Building on an already successful year, Alan’s annual trip for 2016 saw us all travelling to the Isles of Scilly. We were so lucky with the weather that week and managed to achieve near enough everything we wanted to. Lighthouses were visited, island high points were bagged and on one particular day I ended up staying in the small tender with another of the ladies on the trip as the side of the main boat was so high I knew I would struggle to get back into it from the tender. The skipper said that Gladys and I could stay in the tender and be dragged along until we reached an island where he could get the main boat in to pick us up. It was such a fun ride along. There was minor panic (probably more major panic in the main boat though) when a wave caught the boat and sent Gladys falling backwards into the middle of the tender. She was absolutely fine and we had a good laugh about it.
2017 didn’t start so well with an awful bout of morning sickness, but by April I was ready to head out on a Douglas-organised trip and this time to Lady Isle. It was so good to be out in the real fresh air again and going to a lighthouse that was so unique too. We were accompanied on the boat by the skipper’s lively spaniel who wasted no time in jumping into the tender for a big old run around on Horse Island, which the group visited after Lady Isle. It was a really enjoyable day and the time spent on Lady Isle itself was really pleasant.
Then came the big bagging year: 2018. For three years between 2014 and 2017 we’d been to the Outer Hebrides, shipping in grandparents for childcare duties once the kids had come along. The big aim was always to get out to the Flannans Isles and the Monach Islands, but we’d just never had good enough sea conditions to be able to do it. Then 2018 came around and our first two bagging days offered calm seas, calm enough to allow us to reach both of these places, the Flannans on the Monday and Monachs on the Tuesday. Those were both such special trips and to have waited for so long to get there made me appreciate them all the more. I was also delighted to land at Haskeir after the Monachs which allowed me to see the little light there too.
Later that year Mervyn planned a trip to Barra with a number of boat trips organised including one to Berneray, home to Barra Head lighthouse. That was a superb day and not only for the lighthouse. Some of the highlights of trips I have been on have actually been on islands with no lighthouse in sight. On this particular trip one such moment was on a beach on Pabbay where I walked along the beach and at one point spent about 10 minutes watching a ball of foam spinning around in one of the little streams leading down the sea.
During these few years there were many other lighthouse adventures with Bob, and then with our son, and from 2017 our daughter too – all of which have been included in posts on this site. I am delighted to report that the kids are well and truly into this lighthouse bagging malarkey, and can even be encouraged to do a small hill here and there if there is the promise of Smarties at the top. The little one even demands to be let into every lighthouse we see. She will go far, that one!
I am super grateful to all of those who organised the trips mentioned here as well as the other adventures not included in this write-up. I am also hugely thankful to the baggers who really supported my book and bought their own copies – to Douglas who suggested the inclusion of the listing on haroldstreet.org.uk and then to Alex and Rob who supported the case for it to be added to the site which usually only features hill lists and walking routes. Charlie and Mervyn were among the handful of people I knew at the launch of my book at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh in September 2019, and the Relative Hills Society were keen to feature my book in their regular newsletter as a members’ publication.
I have a lot to thank so many of the baggers for. Although my interests didn’t start out being the same as theirs (and they really are “collectors of all things” as a skipper once described it) they welcomed me, helped me and – probably because they love a good list anyway – embraced the opportunity to visit lighthouses too, even enjoying bagging the flat-pack types more than most other lighthouse enthusiasts I know. I have a real fondness for them and what they do. They are amazing to watch when you’re out and about with them, they just seem to keep going and going. They will be out on a boat doing island after island and it gets to the afternoon lull period at 2.30/3pm and they are still going and you know it’s because it is what they love to do, and for some it is even more than that – it is what they live to do. 🙂
In this third part of my series of posts about my lighthouse journey I will be covering the period from mid-2012 to mid-2014 when I began to visit places I never imagined I would get to.
When I first planned this Reflections series, I’d not considered this rather important couple of years as separate from the years that followed, but it very much is. As a result, this will now become a five-part series.
As mentioned at the end of my previous post, I returned from my lighthouse tour with no plans for future lighthouse visits. That changed completely with the introduction of Bob. Many of my longer-term followers, friends and family will know the story of how we met, but for those who don’t, the best way to catch up on that is by reading this post. It’s quite an interesting one to read back for myself. It reminds me that 9 years ago I was filled with excitement and enthusiasm for visiting these places; the kind of feelings you get when you have discovered a new pastime that you enjoy so much. That’s not to say, of course, that I no longer have the same feelings, but it was a more innocent, carefree enjoyment then. I will say more on how that has changed in the final post of this series.
Those two years were a time of massive change – the biggest of my life so far. Within that period I’d gone from living in London and having no plans at all to settle down, to then moving to the north coast of Scotland, getting married and getting pregnant. Looking back now it was a whirlwind and I don’t think I even had time to take it in as it was happening. During the first year I would work full time during the week and spend weekends away visiting amazing places. While Bob was away for over two months for his attempt to climb Everest from March to May 2013, I filled my spare time with wedding planning and packing ready for my move. Once I’d moved it was only two months until we were married and then another couple of months before I fell pregnant. Life then was very much ‘don’t think, just do’ and I enjoyed the ride as all of these life-changing events were taking place.
There were two very important changes that happened during this time in relation to my appreciation of lighthouses. Firstly, lighthouses on islands suddenly went from being in the ‘not likely to ever reach’ domain to ‘I could actually go there’. I’d recognised the need for more time and money being required for visiting islands, both of which were not something I had been able to afford previously, hence my focus on the mainland with the original tour. However, when you have a successful first date on Arran, as described in the post linked to above, you know islands are likely to become a more regular occurrence.
Secondly, I gained access to a range of new resources that gave me a much clearer picture of where lighthouses were. It was from looking at mapping software that I became aware of many more lights that I wasn’t aware of. One of these was Loch Eriboll lighthouse, which I wrote about recently after a revisit. Since discovering this one I’ve grown more and more fond of these very modern structures. A short time after visiting the first at Loch Eriboll I encountered the second at Hoxa Head in Orkney, which is the same standard flat-pack type tower. Even in those early days I recognised the glorious surroundings you witnessed when visiting these small, and often overlooked, towers as well as the more challenging off piste walking required to reach them. The discovery of these was the start of being propelled onto a new level of fanaticism. It turned out I wasn’t just your average lighthouse bagger (if there is such a thing) who is only interested in a tall tower with a lantern, gallery and coloured bands as a bonus. My lighthouse adventures started to become more about going to new places and not solely about just getting to see the lights.
It was sometime during the second half of 2012 that I came across the book The Relative Hills of Britain by Alan Dawson. Bob’s well-thumbed copy had set up home in his car’s passenger side pocket so it was only natural that I would take a closer look at some point. I was fascinated by it as only a list person could be. It featured, among other chapters, maps of the U.K. split into sections followed by a listing of all hills with a prominence of at least 150 metres within that section. I knew my lighthouse list at that time was not comprehensive and I longed for a lighthouse equivalent list of Alan Dawson’s hill listing. Bob, the bright spark, suggested I should do it myself and this was the first ever mention of the idea behind my book The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide. Rather optimistically Bob’s suggestion was to get it published in my maiden name before we got married. That turned out to be an unrealistic timescale as it rather quickly became apparent that there would be more to it than just scouring maps and making a list. Key to the development of a list was having a definition and it took me quite some time to finalise that, based on what I already knew of the lighthouses I’d visited and those I had yet to see. It turned out I needed a few more years’ bagging experience before I felt able to establish a definition I was happy with.
In the meantime there were plenty of trips to be had. While I was still in London many long weekends were spent away in such places as Cornwall, Gibraltar (for the romantics among you who don’t know this bit, here’s the post from that trip), Orkney, South Wales, Davaar and the Mull of Kintyre, North Wales, the Isle of May and Bell Rock lighthouse. After moving north there were further destinations across the country including Pentland Skerries, Northern Ireland (another link for those romantically-inclined) and Colonsay. There are so many memories packed into those sentences and looking back now it feels like it all happened a long time ago. I very quickly went from doing a lot of my adventures alone to sharing the experience with someone else and along with that came more challenging walks to lighthouses, more access issues, and more pushing the boundaries in order to reach a goal. I suppose to summarise the change that occurred in my outlook during that period was the development of the bagging mentality – and it turned out I was going to need that very thing in the coming years.
Up until this point any boat trips to islands or offshore lights were undertaken using scheduled ferries or on routine tourist boat trips – but boy, was that about to change… 🙂
In my last post I looked at the early years of my fanaticism. This second instalment of my reflections covers a much shorter period, just over a couple of years from 2010 to 2012. Much of it has already been documented on this site so there will be some parts I won’t go into great detail about, but others that haven’t been included or have only had a passing mention. I have included some pictures throughout this post, many of which I won’t have shared before.
I’ve called this instalment ‘the touring years’ as it was when I first had the notion to visit more than one lighthouse at a time. This all began in early 2010 when I came across a series of books by Tony Denton and Nicholas Leach. These books included Lighthouses of Wales, and four or five others covering England. These books give a history of lighthouses large and small as well as brief details of how to reach them. Suddenly an idea came to me and that idea was the planting of the seed for my 2012 lighthouse tour, travelling around the coast of mainland UK visiting as many lighthouses as I could along the way.
It was not so long after the idea was planted that a friend and my sister organised a mini lighthouse tour in 2010. I wrote about this in one of my more recent posts.
Another chance discussion around April 2010 with a couple of friends led me to the realisation that the idea could actually become a reality, but it was going to take some work. At that point I was in my late twenties and had never learned to drive. I’d never seen the need or had the desire, and the fact that I was based in London gave me even more reason not to bother. But the idea of the lighthouse tour changed that. Suddenly I found that a friend was learning to become a driving instructor and I knew that, with a full time job and very little free time outside of that, I was going to need a car to be able to achieve what I wanted to do.
Time was a big concern and I wasn’t satisfied to do a weekend here and there to reach a few lighthouses in one go, or just a week filled with lighthouses. I was desperate to get out there and a key part of that was getting to Scotland, which is such a vast land and needs plenty of time to be enjoyed.
Just over a year after starting to learn to drive with Dave, who now runs EVO Driver Training on the Isle of Wight, I passed my driving test (thanks Dave!) and found myself a little blue Suzuki Wagon-R.
There was just one thing left to do to allow the trip to happen. I don’t recall the conversation I had with my boss when I asked to have a month off work to be able to do the trip. Thinking back it was a pretty cheeky thing to ask for, but as I mentioned in my last post my love of lighthouses has shown how determined I can be. I get tunnel vision and, at times, can lose sight of the impact of my plans on others (perhaps my dad was right in calling my determination ‘grim’ after all). However, my boss agreed to it. He knew I had been going through a tough time of late and I was in a difficult relationship that was getting progressively worse. This had caused me to question whether or not I was in the right place (that grim determination also meant I wouldn’t easily give up on relationships either). I suppose he thought, “If I don’t let her go for a month I may lose her for good”. Whatever he thought doesn’t really matter now. The most important thing was that the answer was yes and my colleagues were happy for me too, even if it did mean extra work for them while I was away (sorry and thanks, Jane and Michael!).
With plans beginning to come together and recovering from the eventual breakup, about which I felt sad and relieved in equal measure, I threw myself at the idea and must have been a very boring flatmate to my friend Liz during much of 2011. I spent every evening planning my trip: working out where I needed to go; looking at access to the lighthouses; researching campsites; and even working out where I could park for each lighthouse (yes, I really was that organised). At the weekends I would catch the train down to the Isle of Wight for driving lessons as I didn’t fancy learning to drive in London. Outside of work my life became, near enough, all about the trip.
The trip itself is very well documented in my earliest posts, and I did a couple of reflective posts afterwards about the people I’d met along the way, stats relating to the tour, and some of the best campsites I’d stayed at. I was absolutely astounded by the weather and looking back at my pictures from that month I am still amazed that it was so good for such a large part of the trip – almost right up until I was blown out of Wales! The freedom I had during that month took a bit of getting used to, but after a few days I was past that and also past worrying about the fact that the engine warning light on the car came on just a couple of days in!
One aspect of the trip that I’ve not considered on here before is what I would do differently if I had the chance to go back and do that trip again. Given that these are reflective posts, I think now is a great time to consider that.
There are a few things I could have done differently with the benefit of hindsight, but when I consider each one, I can usually think of at least one good reason why I’m glad I didn’t do things differently. For example, I could have done better research on Scottish lighthouses, particularly some of the smaller ones. Then again, if I had done I would have spent a lot longer in each area of Scotland and not reached South Wales. Also, it’s been great to discover the smaller lighthouses and grow fond of them rather than visiting them early in the journey and disregarding them (as many do) as not being a “proper” lighthouse . I now have a far deeper appreciation of lighthouses of all shapes and sizes than I did then.
I could have been braver with driving and tried to park as close to the lighthouses as I could. On the other hand, some of the walks I did as a result of parking further away were fantastic.
I could have been less anxious about getting to campsites and just parked up in lay-bys in Scotland to get some sleep in the car or tent. However, I was very aware that I was a lone female travelling around and so staying at a campsite felt safer (with the exception being the strange men at the campsite in Peterhead!).
I suppose the one thing I do sometimes regret is how lazy I was in the early days. I didn’t explore lighthouses then in the way I do now. These days I much prefer to see them from a range of angles and just generally wander about the area a bit if I can. Back then I wouldn’t put in that sort of effort.
After the tour I returned home to London. I had no plans at that point of what I would do next. To go from that level of freedom for a month to being back to the daily grind could have really got me down. It turned out I didn’t need plans though. There wasn’t time for that before the next chapter began…. More on that soon 🙂
With the second Scottish lockdown in full swing and no chance of visiting any new places or lighthouses in the immediate future, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on the development and progression of my lighthouse fanaticism over the years, from the very beginning to where I am now. My lighthouse journey has really been life-changing and, equally importantly, has taught me a lot about who I am.
This is the first of four parts as there have been fairly clear turning points along the way which have seen me move on to a higher level of fanaticism. In this first reflective piece I will go right back to the beginning and aim to address the commonly asked question: what got you into lighthouses?
When I was doing promotion work for my book this question came up many times and I dreaded being asked it as my answer always sounds really flaky. It’s never been a question I’ve found easy to answer. Many of my friends with various interests can name a specific lighthouse, hill etc. that kicked off their passion. This was not the case for me.
Looking back, I remember feeling the draw of lighthouses in the early 2000s, but it was a passion that already had some sort of foundation at that point. During my childhood in the ’90s we’d been on a number of family holidays in Suffolk including Southwold, where the lighthouse has a very prominent position in the middle of the town, but the lighthouse didn’t really feature much in those.
In the last few months I spent living on the Isle of Wight before I left to go to university in 2002, I spent a lot of time outdoors exploring the island like I never had before. This ignited a passion in me for being outside, particularly by the coast, and this passion has never gone away. Although visiting the island’s lighthouses doesn’t feature in my memories of this period I knew I loved them, and when I moved to live in Weymouth later that year I always enjoyed going to Portland Bill and it was top of my to do list when I first visited the area.
In 2004 I visited Cromer Lighthouse in Norfolk where my grandparents were staying in one of the keepers’ cottages and I was really looking forward to seeing it. I made a point of taking some photos as I was so close.
I also finally got around to taking some pictures of Southwold Lighthouse on that trip too.
By 2008 I was well on my way towards lighthouse fanaticism. Living in London at the time I paid a visit to Trinity Buoy Wharf to see the old Trinity House training lighthouse.
I also dressed up as a lighthouse at a friend’s nautical-themed party on board a ferry that sailed around Plymouth Sound (excuse the picture, which was taken towards the end of the night, but it’s the closest I have of a full-body shot)!
These memories do little to answer the question, of course. To make it even more complex, I don’t know that I ever went to the effort of visiting The Needles or St Catherine’s lighthouses (the Isle of Wight’s two main lighthouses) prior to these memories. I was however more than aware of the Needles Lighthouse being one of the main attractions on the island and often encountered references to it and tourist paraphernalia featuring it as I was growing up.
It has been suggested to me that perhaps my love of lighthouses actually has always been there on a subconscious level, in large part due to the presence of the Isle of Wight’s lighthouses. In the same way that children who grow up by the sea find it so normal that they don’t even realise how much they love the coast until they move away from it. Perhaps the love was always there, it just took some time for me to realise it. I can quite believe that this is the case.
With hindsight I can now see that my increasing enjoyment of visiting lighthouses has very much run in parallel with my experience of growing up and discovering who I am. When I was young all I was sure of was that away from home and my family I was shy, quiet, prone to crying if I felt out of my comfort zone, and at times quite difficult to manage as a result. Home was where I felt secure and safe.
As I broadened my horizons by leaving the island and going to university, and then moving to London, I began to seek lighthouses further and further afield. My comfort zone expanded and my confidence grew. I no longer sought the security and safety of home, I wanted to explore – and it was lighthouses I wanted to see in those explorations. The more I saw the more I wanted to see, and this has continued to this day.
My increasing fascination with lighthouses has helped to shape me as a person and, even up until very recently, it has taught me a lot about myself over the years. It’s shown me how determined I am (my dad once referred to it as grim determination), how fixated I can become on something, and that I am really a ‘list person’ at heart. I am frequently reminded that the best people are.
I hope that gives some sort of background and ending here sets the scene nicely for what is to follow in the next post 🙂