uklighthousetour

One crazy lady and a bizarre obsession = an ongoing tour of the best lighthouses the UK has to offer

A Shetland Adventure – part 1

I have added “part 1” to the title of this post with a fairly high level of confidence. We are in Shetland for two weeks with various chartered boat trips organised to take us to some of the more difficult to reach islands and, most importantly for me, lighthouses. It is Shetland though and in Shetland the weather dictates most things – particularly boats, although many of the scheduled ferries (and their crew) are pretty hardy. So, I am hopeful that by being here for two weeks I will manage to achieve at least a few new lighthouses.

Now, back to the beginning. Last night we set off from Aberdeen on board the MV Hrossey. I wolfed down my dinner a little too fast in order to be able to head outside as soon as we set off. My aim was to get a closer view of the lighthouse on the end of the north pier. The pier is closed to the public so the best views I’d managed to get of it in the past were from the other side of the harbour and from the beach to the north of the pier. This was a much more successful attempt though and while I was still taking pictures of the lighthouse when some dolphins appeared. My dad, who was standing next to me at the time, later asked me if I had taken any pictures of the dolphins. I, of course, hadn’t as I was too busy concentrating on the lighthouse and only caught a brief glimpse of the dolphins before they disappeared.

Aberdeen North Pier

Aberdeen North Pier lighthouse

Happy with the views of the north pier light, I then thought I’d take a wander to the back of the boat to see how the south breakwater light was looking. Getting to the bottom of the steps I realised that at the point we were probably as close as we were going to get to it. Dashing across to the other side of the boat I caught a few pictures just in time. It was interesting to see it from that angle as it features a set of four lights all in the line. As if it didn’t look odd enough from the land, it looked even more strange from the sea. Well worth the dash to get closer to it though. I always thought Girdle Ness was fairly close to the south breakwater, but the tower seemed fairly distant from the ferry, so certainly not the best view of that one.

Aberdeen South Breakwater

Aberdeen South Breakwater lighthouse

If I hadn’t been quite so tired last night then I may have been tempted to get up early to see what lights I could spot as we travelled up towards Lerwick, but it was just not going to happen. I enjoy my sleep too much and dealing with young children on little sleep never makes for a pleasant day. So I woke in Lerwick like most normal people would.

When I visited Shetland for a couple of days last November our first stop was Sumburgh Head. There’s something about that place that seems to draw me in every time I arrive. Of course that was where we went as soon as we left the ferry. I spotted the beautiful Bressay tower across the water as we headed south (more on that one later) and also the flat-pack Mousa light. It was great to see how much the kids enjoyed wandering about at Sumburgh Head, even starting from the car park where the old Muckle Roe tower is now located.

Muckle Roe old

The old Muckle Roe light with Sumburgh Head in the background

Strangely enough the weather was very different for us today (a chilly wind and plenty of cloud about) than it was in November last year when the sun was rising wonderfully. I strolled around the outside of the buildings looking for any new angles to take pictures from. After that I joined the rest of my family in the exhibition room and gift shop. I was pleased to see that my son was thoroughly enjoying repeatedly pressing the button that set off a recording of the foghorn. Apparently most children who visit are petrified of it. Sumburgh has a nice feel about it and its location always draws you to it as it’s so easy to get to from the airport or ferry (if you have a car of course).

Sumburgh Head

Sumburgh Head lighthouse

Returning to Lerwick for the afternoon we had a quick lunch before we were due to re-board the MV Hrossey. Our arrival nicely coincided with the Lerwick RNLI Harbour Day and Northlink Ferries had organised a cruise around the islands of Bressay and Noss. Weather permitting the ferry was due to be joined by the Lifeboat, which I knew my little boy would love. Of course, I also had in the back of my mind that it would mean passing fairly close to Bressay lighthouse so I booked us all tickets to go on the cruise.

For some reason I’d expected us to set off heading south east and catching the Bressay lighthouse within the first 20 minutes or so. When the captain announced over the tannoy system that we would be heading north first it took a while for my brain to catch up and I suddenly realised that we may be sailing quite close to the Rova Head lighthouse very early in the trip. By the time I realised this, I dashed (again) to a window just in time to see the lighthouse, a flat-pack type, right outside. As the view through the window wasn’t very clear I knew I needed to go outside so I did a bit more dashing. My dashing came to a halt before I’d made it to the door though. You know how there are those scenes in cartoons where characters get stuck behind people or a person and just cannot get past, well that is exactly what happened here. I got stuck behind a very slow-moving person and then went to take a short cut only to get stuck behind a couple of people who had just come in from outside and were standing aside to let the slow person past. I eventually made it out just in time to see Rova Head getting smaller and smaller. I did get some pictures of it in the distance, but I’d not even had time to grab the camera and the zoom lens. Some of the pictures were nice though as the Lifeboat was passing between our boat and Rova Head. So I can’t really complain too much.

Rova Head and Lifeboat

The Lifeboat passing Rova Head

We arranged to go up to the bridge where the kids showed no interest in the captain’s chair or anything like that. They just wanted to enjoy the uninterrupted views of the Lifeboat bouncing about from the panoramic windows.

As the ferry began to follow the south coast of Bressay I went outside with the camera poised ready to see the lighthouse. I’m quite fond of this one having enjoyed spending time inside it last year. It’s a lovely little tower. It slowly came into view after some frankly astonishing coastal scenery. While everyone else was busy taking pictures of the Lifeboat running very close alongside us, I had my camera trained on the lighthouse. There were a few opportunities to get pictures of both the lighthouse and Lifeboat at the same time, which was nice, but the highlight was being able to see the lighthouse from this angle. As we turned the corner the natural arch very close to the tower came into view. It’s such an impressive section of the coast. It’s a shame the tower no longer contains an operational light as we may well have been able to see it from our accommodation, which looks down over Lerwick. The boat trip around Bressay was a fairly last minute addition to our schedule, but I’m pleased we did it. I’m just kicking myself a bit for not thinking of Rova Head sooner.

Bressay lighthouse

Bressay lighthouse and the natural arch

So, a positive start to the trip and let’s hope it continues in that way. We have already begun discussing back up plans to get to some of the smaller lighthouses on the mainland if boat trips aren’t running. Being on holiday with my parents, who have been looking forward to seeing the kids for months, we are lucky to be able to have a little bit of free time to go off and enjoy walks and trips that we couldn’t do very easily at all with the kids.

Hopefully more to come tomorrow! 🙂

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The mad plan: Shetland – part one

The mad plan for this week was introduced in my post from Sunday. We successfully completed the Jersey part of the week, and today the second half began: Shetland!

I’ve struggled a little with Shetland recently. Having never been there I was getting to the point with my lighthouse list where it felt like everything was miles apart with massively long walks to each of them. The reason for coming to Shetland for three days was to take pictures of some of its lighthouses, but after the first day it has already become one of my most exciting trips to date.

After just a couple of hours sleep last night and an early flight from Aberdeen to Sumburgh, I wasn’t quite bouncing off of the walls with excitement. That soon changed though as we spotted the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head flashing away as we came in to land. The start of our time here was also enhanced by meeting up with Brian who, in his “retirement”, carries out maintenance work on 37 lighthouses across Shetland. I had come into contact with Brian through my membership of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers and Ian Duff who joined us for the Skerryvore trip earier this year. Brian and Ian have known each other for many years and worked together in a number of lighthouses. Brian had very kindly offered to act as our tour guide for seeing some of the major lights, and he suggested heading straight to Sumburgh Head. I was, of course, delighted with this suggestion.

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Sumburgh Head lighthouse

Brian made arrangements with the Northern Lighthouse Board for us to go up the tower. The day was just getting better and better already! Throwing into the mix the fact that the sun was just rising made it even more amazing! The tower at Sumburgh Head is fairly short – one of the benefits of sitting on top of high cliffs, I suppose. This made it particularly pleasant to climb up. The optic and light must be turned off before anyone goes up there. It is a massive optic and, partnered with the views from the tower, made for a really special experience. He also showed us how the foghorn equipment worked and we got to witness him starting the engines, which he routinely does just to keep them up and running.

It didn’t take us long to realise that Brian is an absolutely master of his trade. He knows everything about Shetland’s lighthouses as well as so many others. There are only a few he hasn’t been too, and by all accounts it sounds like he was often specifically chosen to address problems with the lights across Scotland. He’s served in some of the most impressive including Sule Skerry, Skerryvore, Chicken Rock and Ardnamurchan and has stories to tell about them all. Watching him doing anything within the lighthouse at Sumburgh as well as the foghorn was fascinating. His attention to detail and his knowledge are outstanding. Definitely the right person to have around if anything goes wrong!

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The old Muckle Roe lighthouse with Sumburgh Head in the background

From Sumburgh we headed back down the road and stopped at the old Muckle Roe light which welcomes visitors to Sumburgh Head at the main parking area. Brian had already informed me that he and a colleague had re-built the tower in its current location – no mean feat considering most of the detail necessary to assist with building it had long gone. As if the day wasn’t exciting enough, we were able to get inside this little tower and climb to the top where we saw the small optic, more great views and got to spend some time in one of these lovely structures that I’d never had the opportunity to get inside before. I felt very privileged, especially as Brian had taken the time to show just the two of us around.

After lunch we hopped over on the very short ferry crossing to Bressay. As well as continuing to work for the Northern Lighthouse Board, Brian also does some work for the Shetland Amenities Trust who own both the old Muckle Roe light at Sumburgh and the old lighthouse at Bressay as well as the associated buildings. As soon as you arrive at Bressay lighthouse you know you are somewhere very special. I don’t even know where to begin in describing the coastline around it, and then with the lighthouse standing tall above it… There are really no words. If the geo and surrounding rocks next to the lighthouse weren’t enough, the tower itself stands not far away at all from a natural arch (known as the “Giant’s Knee” by the keepers). It’s places like Bressay that remind me of why I enjoy lighthouses so much. To actually explain why I enjoy them is tough – just go to Bressay and you will find out for yourself!

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Bressay lighthouse

Brian had warned us that the lamp room was now completely empty (the old optic can be seen in the Shetland Museum and Archives) and I was expecting to feel sad about it once we reached the top, but I felt anything but. Firstly, they’ve raised the floor level slightly making it exactly the perfect size of room for someone of my short stature. The views from every single angle are awe-inspiring and the acoustics inside are fascinating!

Standing around in the lamp room at Bressay was a brilliant opportunity to hear lots more of Brian’s stories from his days travelling the lights of Scotland. One question I asked which prompted numerous stories was “what do you think really happened to the keepers who missing from the Flannans?” He said that there is something very strange about the Flannans lighthouse and recalled various occurrences of things happening that made no sense. Some of the stories he told were particularly creepy, such as one of the keepers seeing a man in a storeroom and when he returned to Brian was clearly frightened. When they went back to the room there was no one there and the keeper pointed to the spot he’d seen this man and it was within a small area that always felt considerably colder than the rest of the room. Brian also felt like he was being watched sometimes when no one else was around. By this point I definitely wasn’t smiling anymore! There was one really funny story though when one of the keepers was outside the lighthouse on a very misty day and saw three man emerging from the mist and he thought it was the missing men. It turned out to be three fishermen from the Channel Islands who had landed on the island and wandered up to the lighthouse. We laughed about it, but it would have been pretty scary for him!

Anyway, I digress (very easy to do with Brian’s stories). We eventually pulled ourselves away from the lighthouse and took a drive up to the island high point in the hire car, as you do! It was quite bumpy and the road wasn’t really suitable for a Micra, but it’s still intact.

Before we left Brian for the day he had a look through my list and shared his knowledge of the best way(s) to access the lighthouses he regularly visits. There is no end to his knowledge!

Twageos

Twageos Point lighthouse

We decided to finish the day with a couple of stops off at some of the smaller lighthouses. Being in the Lerwick area anyway, the structure at Twageos Point was just begging us to visit. It turned out to be a very simple visit – the lighthouse basically has its own gate and a well-trodden path leading to it. In comparison with the lights we’d already seen that day it wasn’t the most amazing, but it has its own charm and was obviously built to be functional above anything else.

With just a short time left before the sun was due to go down, we obviously felt the need to cram in another lighthouse.

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Fugla Ness lighthouse

We opted for Fugla Ness based on it being fairly easy to access and not too far from where we were. The walk out there was a combination of easy grassy sections and big old boulders. Bob rushed off ahead with all of the abilities of a mountain goat to then have to wait for me to catch him up (or came back and accompany me along). As soon as I saw this one from the road I knew I loved it! The surrounding scenery probably helps, but it really is a beauty, sitting there on its own little grass and rock peninsula. I think I might just take that one home. I will let the picture speak for itself.

On top of the lighthouses we’ve visited, we also had distance glimpses of a number of other lights today, including Mousa, Hoo Stack and Moul of Eswick. We’ve seen the islands of Foula and Fair Isle too. So many islands still to do here…

I am hoping this post goes some way in conveying just how much I have enjoyed today. All of the smiling and fun of the day (and probably the lack of sleep last night) is catching up with me! We have another day lined up with Brian tomorrow. More on that tomorrow evening! 🙂

I should also note that, in my last blog post, I mentioned that we would be going on a RIB ride along the Clyde to catch a few of the lights there. For technical reasons relating to the boat we weren’t able to do this on Wednesday. It has instead been postponed until Monday.

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