Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: an introduction to the islands

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.

Holy Isle Outer, or Pillar Rock, lighthouse on the small island of Holy Isle just off Arran

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.

On my first visit to Loch Eriboll lighthouse in 2012

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.

The lighthouse on the stunning tidal island of Davaar

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.

Lundy North lighthouse, one of three on the idyllic Lundy Island

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.

Sorry about the wonky picture – it was taken from a boat and, I think, adds character. This was my first encounter with both Bell Rock lighthouse and the Northern Lighthouse Board’s maintenance vessel Pharos

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.

Europa Point lighthouse in Gibraltar

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.

My first Northern Irish light, Donaghadee

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… 🙂

A change of plan in Dundee

This is not the blog I was expecting, or hoping, to be writing today, but it is a blog post which means lighthouses have been visited, so never a bad thing.

We’d planned to travel down to Dundee and head over to the Isle of May today to take advantage of the Doors Open Days, which would allow us to get into two of the three lighthouses there.

Book release
Collecting my book from Whittles Publishing

Before I begin on that though, I should say that I received a message from the publisher of my book, The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide, to say that my advance copies were now in their office. Of course, that meant that I had to head over to see them after work before we began our journey south.

What a delight that was to be handed a copy of my own book! It’s taken me years to develop and I have been looking back at the process recently in preparation for a presentation I am due to give in a couple of weeks. It really has been a labour of love. To get my hands on the result is so rewarding and entirely wiped out the frustrations and stress I went through in order to get it to where it is. Such a fantastic feeling!

Right, back to our weekend. The visit to the Isle of May was not to be as I discovered by email this morning. We needed a back-up plan and this came in the form of Dundee Science Centre to entertain the kids in wet and windy weather.

Stopping here also gave the perfect opportunity to catch up with my lighthouse friend Laura who had also travelled to the area for the Isle of May. It was great to see her and nice to test out a copy of the book on exactly the type of person it is aimed at. Laura went away with a few lighthouses to do today that she’d missed the first time around and I hope she got on well with them.

We spent considerably longer at the Science Centre than anticipated, but when we did drag ourselves away we decided to take a drive up to Montrose as the kids needed a sleep and I was keen to get closer to the rear of the two range lights in Montrose harbour.

On the way to Montrose we passed the old Whitehill (or Vatsetter) light on the approach to Arbroath. I’ve seen this one a few times, but having recently been to the modern light at Vatsetter in Shetland where this one was previously located, I now have an extra level of enjoyment of it.

Montrose
Montrose Harbour Rear lighthouse

A little while later we arrived in Montrose and thanks to my book, which had the street names, we easily found the lighthouse. It’s an interesting one. It’s quite tall, but fairly slim with a fairly small, red section at the top which contains the light. I wandered around in the dunes next to it grabbing pictures from different angles. I was surprised to see dunes there to be honest. It’s a very industrial area and the lighthouse is just next to a massive warehouse. When we spotted the sign saying “Beach access” close to the lighthouse I was intrigued. I’ve since found some old pictures of the tower when it was white at the top rather than red and it certainly looks like there was much more of a beach next to the lighthouse then with no sign of the dunes. Presumably the river is shifting the sand banks over the years.

The river runs next to the lighthouse and there were a number of birds floating around on the water until a massive boat turned up and they drifted slowly towards the side of the river. It was brilliant to see Scurdie Ness in the distance too. It was great to get closer to this one after seeing from the south side of the river a couple of times.

 

Montrose and Scurdie Ness
Montrose Harbour Rear light with Scurdie Ness in the distance

The kids were both wide awake by the time we were passing back through Arbroath so we decided to stop at the Signal Tower Museum for a quick look around before it closed. It has been six years since I was last there. Life was very different then. Bob and I weren’t married and had no children, but also it was still very early in my lighthouse days. I wrote about it in my post at the time of my first visit. I had forgotten that it was as big as it is, and that they had the film depicting the building of the Bell Rock on a loop in one room. I caught the end of it and was reminded of just how incredible a feat it would have been to build a lighthouse on the Bell Rock. The film shows the Robert Stevenson, or at least the actor who played him, getting emotional when the light was first lit. It made me wonder how much of that was artistic licence (I suspect there was). It must have felt like a great achievement, but I wonder whether the Stevenson’s dealt with their successes by celebrating or whether they just moved on to the next task.

 

Signal Tower
Arbroath Signal Tower Museum

Anyway, I digress, the museum is still just as great as it was before. In fact it is better as, since 2017, they have held the old mechanism from the Bell Rock lighthouse (not the original, although they do have small parts of that too). It’s in a side room with a light inside and the mechanism is still in good working order, so it was lovely to see that in action.

I have heard that they are hoping to temporarily open the tower itself up to the public soon. It has been closed for health and safety reasons, but they are hoping to allow people to get up there a bit more in the future.

Signal Tower internal
Looking up the beautiful Signal Tower staircase

We stopped off at The Bell Rock Restaurant opposite the Signal Tower where we enjoyed smokies – we were in Arbroath after all. When we left the restaurant we spotted the Bell Rock tower in the distance with the sun shining off of it. I’d love to get back out there again some day to appreciate it all over again, and possibly even more so this time.

Although today turned out differently to how we had hoped it would, it’s still been a very good day with some lighthouses crammed in too. 🙂