Western Isles: the final light

It’s been just over seven years since I visited my first lighthouse in the Western Isles and it’s taken six week-long trips there to have got as close as I possibly could to all 23 of the lights. The map below from my book shows where they all are. I’ve physically touched 20 of them and have been close to three others. Those are Milaid Point, Gasker and, today’s light Calvay.

Lighthouses of the Western Isles

This morning it was time to leave the Western Isles. We’d previously booked the ferry from Lochmaddy on North Uist to Uig on Skye. Once we became aware that we couldn’t get out on a chartered boat though, I suggested we change the booking to go out from Lochboisdale instead so we could at least pass Calvay and it’s little light as we left. With the booking changed, we poised ourselves on the outside deck of the ferry for departure.

The view from the ferry towards Gasay island

While we waited we could see the lights on both Gasay, which we visited on Sunday, and Calvay. By the time we set off the lights had gone out for the day. It was good to pass by Gasay having been there a few days ago and to see some of the rocks we had wandered about on submerged.

Gasay lighthouse

A little further on was Calvay. The light on Calvay is a twin of the one on Gasay and has the important role of guiding vessels safely into and out of Lochboisdale.

Calvay and its lighthouse with South Uist behind

Calvay is a relatively small island, but it has some history. In the 13th century a castle was built on a tidal section of the island and later Bonnie Prince Charlie used the castle, now in ruins, to hide.

A Wikipedia entry for Calvay castle states that the island also has a lighthouse built by David Alan Stevenson in 1891, which is very clearly no longer the case. That does, however, suggest that it was the small white towers, like Sgeir Ghlas which I visited on Saturday, that stood here previously. I notice there is no mention of Gasay lighthouse on the Northern Lighthouse Board’s Stevenson’s engineers list, which suggests that the light on Gasay came later.

Calvay lighthouse

It may have just been a fleeting glance at Calvay’s little light, but hopefully at some point I will get to take a closer look.

So that’s me having visited all of the lighthouses in this area. I’ve had to try harder and been more persistent here than I have in any other region of the UK. I’ve had some fantastic days out with highlights being: visiting the unnerving Sula Sgeir and the beautiful North Rona on my very first visit to the Western Isles; walking up to Barra Head lighthouse and the incredible views from that most southerly point of the Outer Hebrides; two stunning days in a row wearing short sleeves in the sunshine when visiting the Flannans Isles and the Monach Islands followed by Haskeir lighthouse; to this trip where I reached some of the most remote lights.

Me at North Rona, 6 months pregnant, in 2014

I know I have three left I can improve upon and hopefully the opportunity will arise one day. I now feel more confident about landing on Gasker having had my little scrambling episode to get to Rubh Uisenis. I’d like to land at Milaid Point when conditions allow and visit Calvay when boats are back up and running again. Until then I will enjoy my wonderful memories of this stunning part of the country.

At Barra Head lighthouse in 2018

Before I finish this post I wanted to return to the topic of COVID-19 as mentioned in yesterday’s post. The pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on the trips we have managed this year. While we have enjoyed the trips, they are not the same as they were pre-COVID.

In terms of visiting lighthouses using chartered boats we are now going alone or with one or two friends rather than with 10 or more others as we have done in the past. This, of course, increases the cost significantly.

In addition, we always book self-catering accommodation where we know we’ll not be mixing with others. Our choice in accommodation is also dictated by the cancellation policies as we realise that short notice cancellations may be required to ensure we comply with the government’s regulations. We don’t eat out, instead cooking dinner for ourselves at the accommodation or getting a takeaway. This trip has been the first where we have used public transport (the ferry) and we sat outside for the crossing with face masks on, and fortunately today’s crossing was very quiet so we sat indoors away from others with our face masks on for the entirety of the journey. Some of these things aren’t enjoyable, but the opportunity to visit these lighthouses, get outdoors and have a change of scene more than makes up for it. 🙂

Bagging all the way to Barra Head

Last week we dragged the kids and my mother-in-law over to the island of Barra in the Western Isles with one specific target in mind: to get me to the island of Berneray to see Barra Head lighthouse. Bob had visited the island and lighthouse back in July 2014 when I had been 7 months pregnant – we thought not the best time for long and multiple boat trips with potentially risky landings! He had always promised that he’d get me there some time to make up for my missing out then.

The journey to Barra became a bit of a lighthouse tour in itself, beginning with a quick stop at Cromarty. As we were heading south on the A9 we decided to try something different and take the 2-car ferry across the Cromarty Firth from Nigg. It’s a really fun little ferry with just enough space for the two cars. The crossing also gave us a new vantage point for the lighthouse at Cromarty and, after the crossing, we wandered around the building. This was my second time at the lighthouse, my first being during my original tour back in 2012.

On the drive to Oban, we glimpsed Corran lighthouse and, once on the ferry, there was plenty of lighthouse fare on offer. We spotted Dunollie (north of Oban), Lismore, Ardnamurchan, as well as Duart Point, Rubha nan Gall and Ardmore Point (all three of which are on Mull), and a few of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s modern “flat-pack” lighthouses.

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Berneray with Barra Head lighthouse, as seen from the sea

The week started well when our skipper, Francis (owner of the Boy James who routinely runs trips to Berneray’s neighbouring island of Mingulay) announced on the Monday morning that we would be heading down to Berneray first that day. A great start to the week, and exactly what I wanted to hear! We travelled down the east side of the islands of Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay on our way there. The majority of the time we were sheltered from the westerly wind by the islands, with occasional relatively rougher (or should that be “wetter”?!) sections in the more exposed areas.

The landing on Berneray was very easy, although we were surprised not to have landed on the island’s pier. Instead we arrived on the rocks on the north east of the island, just to the east of the pier. Thanks to both the Boy James and its tender being well set-up for moving onto and off of, getting onto the island was easy enough.

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Barra Head lighthouse surrounded by cloud

There is a clear track up from the pier to the lighthouse and we joined this track near an old shed close to the pier. It’s a fair wander up to the lighthouse, but there are points of interest scattered along the way with old houses in various states of disrepair, the helipad presumably used by the Northern Lighthouse Board, and what appeared to be a well with a pump. As we walked up the hill to the lighthouse the cloud was coming and going, at one point entirely obscuring the lighthouse. The light in Barra Head lighthouse sits higher above sea level than any other in the UK. While the lighthouse is only 58 feet (just over 17.5 metres), the huge cliffs on which it is located mean the light operates from a height of 693 feet (slightly over 211 metres). It is incredible to see. As you walk the track, the lighthouse gets bigger and bigger, but once you reach the start of the lighthouse wall and look over the edge you see the true extent of the cliffs, which dwarf the lighthouse.

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The lighthouse with the old keepers’ cottages in the foreground

The buildings, which I assume were the keepers’ cottages, in front of the lighthouse on the landward side are looking worse for wear, not surprising really given that the station was automated in October 1980 and the wild weather that hits the island on a regular basis. We were surprised to hear that the skipper of the Boy James had lost 19 working days in the month of July this year. This says a lot about the sea conditions and weather in the area; the sun may be shining and conditions can seem calm, but the extreme exposure changes everything.

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The view east from the lighthouse compound

Often we have visited islands with lighthouses on calm days and you can’t imagine how wild it can get. Barra Head is different though. The dramatic scenery of the cliffs and the slippery courtyard outside the lighthouse hint at just how bad it can be. Some of the aerial images I have seen since on the Canmore website of the cliffs on which the lighthouse perches give me the chills. You then get a better grasp on just how close we were to the edge of two cliffs at exactly the same time when we walked to the highest point on the island, which is just next to the lighthouse. The lighthouse sits right at the top of an extremely tall gully in the cliffs, and I imagine this gully sends up some pretty huge waves at times. I mentioned the word “dramatic” before and I think that is the best word to describe it in any conditions.

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The three graves inside the keepers’ graveyard

The lighthouse itself was built by Robert Stevenson and completed in 1833. While the island may seem like an almost impossible place to live compared to today’s standards, it was home to a small number of people in the past. The last remaining residents though were the lighthouse keepers who lived in the cottages there until the station was automated. The keepers, interestingly, have their own walled graveyard on the island not too far from the lighthouse. Within the walls are three graves, including those belonging to two of the keepers’ children who died at particularly young ages. The keepers’ cottages, which I referred to above, appear to have an interesting history since the keepers left. There is a fascinating summary of the plans for the buildings at buildingsatrisk.org.uk since automation. I really hope someone manages to find a use for it before too much more damage is done.

Berneray is a very special place and I feel privileged to have been able to make it there. If I were given another chance to visit then I wouldn’t hesitate to take it. If you are ever thinking of heading that way then I would definitely recommend getting there on the Boy James. A fantastic trip and a great day, and the kids were in bed when we arrived back at our accommodation too! 🙂