Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: the bagging years

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.

The beautiful Barra Head lighthouse

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.

One of my favourite non-lighthouse islands, Scarp just off the west coast of Lewis. What remains of the old schoolhouse on the island can be seen here.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

The view looking towards the north coast of Scotland from the beach that separates the two Rabbit Islands at high tide

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.

North Rona with its lighthouse near the highest point of the island

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.

Hyskeir lighthouse on the island of Oigh Sgeir

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!

Dubh Artach lighthouse

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.

At Smalls lighthouse

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.

Little Cumbrae

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.

On board our little chariot in the Isles of Scilly

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.

On Lady Isle with its very distinctive lighthouse

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.

The two lighthouses on Shillay, one of the Monach Islands

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.

The beautiful beach on Pabbay

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. 🙂