uklighthousetour

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

5 days in Orkney – day 3

Our third day in Orkney has been just as enjoyable as the first two were. We changed boat operator today. Going out of St Margaret’s Hope, we spent the day on Scapa Flow with Gareth and Liam from Orkney Marine Charters on board the Mary Ann. They are a new company, and the only small boat operator on Scapa Flow to offer charters in the area.

We set off from St Margaret’s Hope and, on the way out, spotted Barrel of Butter in the distance and then Hoxa Head a little later. As the view really opened up on our way to Swona we could then see Cantick Head, then Pentland Skerries and Stroma. When we’d established the islands we wanted to visit in preparation for the trip I hadn’t really considered just how many others we would see on the way.

Hoxa Head

Hoxa Head lighthouse and old wartime defences

We arrived at Swona a little while later and managed to land successfully. We have been blessed with some particularly calm days this weekend, which is great, it makes trips so much more enjoyable. While the island baggers went off to the high point, I joined John in walking around to (what I would call) the beacon on the north of the island. There are a number of derelict houses on the island in various states of disrepair. Along with the houses there are a number of other objects that have seen much better days, such as an old tractor and a boat that has either been wrecked on the island or is just falling to pieces from lack of use. It certainly feels abandoned, much like it’s neighbour Stroma. Continuing around the coast it wasn’t too far to get to the beacon. There’s not a lot to the light here, just a little cabinet, a post with a light on top and then some solar panels on a frame. It was still good to see though and we also spotted the south light from here. As we walked back we noticed a post sticking up with a few holes in it. If you looked through the holes you were looking straight at the two towers on the Pentland Skerries. We jokingly referred to the post as the Pentland Skerries signal tower.

 

Swona north

The beacon at the north end of Swona

Due to time limitations and risks from getting too close to the island’s resident cattle, we decided that we would just sail around the south of the island instead. There are some stunning cliffs around the east side of Swona and we were pleased when the top of the light on the south appeared over the rocks. We took some pictures and Bob suddenly appeared carrying a a lifejacket and put it on John. He’d managed to arrange for the tender to the taken into the rocks so we could get a closer look at that light too.

We soon found ourselves back on the island and we could see the cattle high up in the distance so weren’t concerned about them at all. The sun had come out too and we managed to get up to the light. While my priority is always about lights with internal access, which this one doesn’t have, it was still a good one to visit. Something a bit different. Along with the light on the north end of the island and others I’ve seen recently such as Brother Isle, it’s quite interesting to see the range of layouts the Northern Lighthouse Board use for these types of structure. They all appear to be slightly different in layout and component parts. There was a cleit close to the lighthouse as well as the remains of an old building that may well have been used for storage for the lighthouse. It used to be a proper little white tower in the location of the current tower and it is likely that more storage was needed for that one. This light was well worth a visit.

Swona

Swona lighthouse (or beacon)

Heading north towards some of the islands within Scapa Flow, we passed close by Cantick Head and stopped for a while to enjoy the views of it from the bottom of the cliffs. It’s a lovely lighthouse and the whole complex is very well looked after. It’s always nice to see lighthouses from the sea as they very often look entirely different – and, of course, that is the angle they are supposed to be seen from. Leaving Cantick Head we passed the Ruff Reef beacon sitting off of the coast just off of Cantick Head. John had previously walked out to this one, but with the tide higher when we were there today there would have been no chance of that. It’s very similar to how the beacon off of Stroma looks. It was great to look back and get views of both Cantick Head and Ruff Reef together. It presented a nice picture of the various structures that light the coastline and rocks.

Cantick Head

Cantick Head from the sea

It was the turn of the island baggers to get a bit more done so I chilled out on the boat for a while. A few islands later we reached Cava. After dropping the lads off at the bottom end of the island to walk over the high point and meet us at the top, John and I had a lovely beach landing just to the south of the lighthouse. This visit was a good one as it marked John’s final lighthouse on Orkney. He’d seen it from the ferry, but it was the only one he’d not got close to. Once we reached the highest point on what is referred to as the Calf of Cava (the little bit at the top of the island that is joined to the main island by a narrow strip of beach and grass), the view really opened up and we could see the lighthouse with the coastline of Mainland Orkney in the background. A fantastic view to approach the lighthouse. Once we were at the lighthouse John did a celebratory star jump and we wandered around the lighthouse to get views from all angles. It’s a wonderful little spot. The rest of the group joined us a little while later and it was then time to make our way back to the boat.

Cava

Cava lighthouse

We had one final stop before we headed back to St Margaret’s Hope. We’d requested a sail past of Barrel of Butter in the original communication with Gareth, not realising that there would be an option to land there. As we approached it was looking like landing would actually be possible so we hopped into the tender and set off with waves splashing in our faces on the way to the rocks on which the light sits. It was fairly shallow on the final stretch and Liam and Bob climbed out and dragged the tender closer to the exposed rocks/seaweed where Charlie and I then jumped out and slowly made our way across the deep seaweed to the dry rocks. Thankfully it has been dry for a while as I imagine it would be a much bigger challenge to walk on the rocks if they were wet. We made it safely to the light and had a quick check to make sure that it definitely didn’t have any internal access – it didn’t. That means it doesn’t make it onto my list, but I’m so pleased we stopped there. It was a real treat to have landed there. It seems there are a couple of stories about where it got its name from. One theory is that its central location to so many of the islands and land in and around Scapa Flow meant it would be the perfect place for a market for residents to go and get their “barrel of butter”. Another story says that the name originates from a time when residents in Orphir wished to hunt seals on the rocks there (and there are still seals there to this day, I can confirm) and paid an annual rent of a barrel of butter in order to be allowed to do so. Whatever the origins, it’s a good name and a fantastic place to visit. I imagine it’s rarely landed on so that always gives it a special edge too.

Barrel of Butter

Barrel of Butter

Thinking that was us done for the day, Gareth said he would sail close to the Nevi Skerry light, which was good to see. Again, something a bit different. This one is owned by Orkney Islands Council, which would explain why it looks so different to the rest. It was nice to see this one up close as it’s been flashing away out there at night and very much visible from our B&B, Ayre of Cara. It had been bothering me that I couldn’t work out which light it was I could see, but now I know!

Nevi Skerry

Nevi Skerry with a seal!

That was it for our three-day island bagging extravaganza. We had a fantastic time out on the boats. We now have just under two days left to fit in a few more adventures on dry land or using scheduled ferries. Orkney really is a very special place. 🙂

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Stroma with friends

Back in July 2015 I spent a few hours on the island of Stroma in the Pentland Firth. The blog post written about it was titled ‘Alone on an abandoned island’ as I joined the trip alongside a number of photographers whose target on the island was clearly very different to mine. This time I have called this post ‘Stroma with friends’ as I was most definitely in good company second time around. A number of my lighthouse friends were around this week for the fantastic Sule Skerry trip and they had all expressed an interest in getting across to Stroma if they possibly could. A few of them had tried to make it before on Association of Lighthouse Keepers trips to the North Coast, but had not managed for various reasons. After our trip to Sule Skerry on Tuesday the weather began to deteriorate and I spoke to the owner of the island that evening to find out what the likelihood of being able to get over there was. He asked if we minded a bit of rain and I, of course, said no. You can’t let rain stop you on these endeavours. He asked me to call back the following morning for a final decision. I must admit I wasn’t hopeful, but was pleasantly surprised when he asked us to be there for 10am on Wednesday morning.

We all gathered and hopped on board the Boy James at Gills Bay. It is only a short trip across to Stroma, but the Pentland Firth can be lethal. I’ve heard it said by too many boatman that it is very dangerous and you can certainly see, when crossing it, that it is a very disturbed stretch of water. Stroma, apparently, translates as ‘island in the stream’, which is something of an understatement when you discover that strength of the tidal races that run through the Pentland Firth, some of which are believed to have been running at up to 30km an hour. One of these tidal races is The Swilkie off of the northern point of Stroma, which gives the name of the point on which the lighthouse sits the name ‘Swilkie Point’. It seems that ‘Swilkie’ translated into Old Norse means ‘Swallower’, which is probably more representative of the hazardous tidal situation there.

Fortunately we made it safely over to the island, thanks to the great experience of the boatman who is also the island’s owner. He farms sheep on the island and has recently stayed over there for a month during lambing. I was interested to discover that he still has some lambs yet to be born, which I thought was quite late. It turns out that the reason they lamb so late (with pre-planning of course) is because it takes longer for the nice green grass to grow on Stroma and, as a result, the good quality milk produced by the ewes doesn’t come in until later than in many other places.

Stroma lh2

On the approach to Stroma lighthouse

Once we were on the island we had just over 3 and a half hours to explore. Of course the priority was the lighthouse so we set off, deciding that we would do anything else we wanted to see on the way back. I recalled it well from my first visit, not that it is a particularly difficult place to navigate around, but it was all very memorable to me, which can’t be said for all of the islands I have been to.

On the way to the lighthouse we could see the two towers on the island of Muckle Skerry, the largest of the Pentland Skerries, basking in sunlight as well as Cantick Head on Orkney and the beacon on the neighbouring island of Swona. Watching those lights come on at night must be wonderful to see from Stroma.

It didn’t take us long to arrive at the lighthouse. From a distance the lighthouse looks very similar to many others, but there are a number of small features that stand out. I was surprised by just how many gates they had going into the main compound and there were some small decorative touches that are often a good indication of a Stevenson-designed lighthouse. The presence of the old foghorn building as well as another oddly-shaped tower adds even more interest to the area. It is reported that the old 4th Order lens from Sule Skerry (not the original hyper-radial lens) was transferred to Stroma for use as the lighthouse was undergoing automation in 1996. The current tower on Stroma is actually believed to have replaced an earlier, non Northern Lighthouse Board, lighthouse of which there are no remains. Clearly attempts were made to address the hazards of Swilkie Point before it was brought up on a national level.

Stroma lh and towers

Stroma lighthouse with the old foghorn tower

The hazards in the area had not been limited to the sea though as a plaque on the side of the lighthouse honours the memory of John Calder an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper who fell to his death from the tower on 22nd April 1910. The plaque was placed on the tower by his family in 2010, 100 years after his death.

After we felt satisfied that we’d spent enough time at the lighthouse, we walked back up the path. We’d all spotted a building on the east coast of the island on the way to the lighthouse, which had drawn our attention due to the Northern Lighthouse Board colours, white and bamboo/biscuit/buff (apparently all the same colour, but it depends which supplier you get it from). We took a stroll down there. There was not a lot to see in the building itself, but just to the south of the building was an old pier and slipway with a rather rusty boat looking ready to be lowered into the sea at the top of the slipway. While I say the pier was old, it is in very good condition and the plaque part way along explains that it was build by the local community. It reads “1900. The foundation stone of this pier was laid by Mrs Carrow on 4th August” and lists members of the local pier committee. Clearly not much happens here these days with the fantastic harbour arrangement at the south of the island now, but it’s a great area to explore.

Stroma old boat

The old boat at the top of the slipway

We passed the War Memorial on the way back, which is a beautiful piece of art made up of stones of various shapes and sizes. Considering Stroma is only a small island, the memorial features a lot of names. Both wars must have been a real blow to the community on the island. It is yet another reminder of how close the community must have been before the last residents left in 1962.

Stroma wm

Stroma’s War Memorial

Stroma does feel remote, although you are not far from mainland Caithness. There is a similar feel on a number of abandoned islands. Aside from St Kilda, a lot of these places weren’t so far away, but still have a sense of isolation, but certainly not a bad one.

The weather had been kind to us until we were making our way back to the harbour and by that time the wind and rain was on our backs. We arrived back at the harbour just before the owner did and we all hopped on board the boat back to the mainland, waving a fond farewell to the island.

Last time I had been over I was not aware of having sailed close to the beacon off of the south coast of the island, but we certainly did on the way back this time. I imagine it was to enable us to work best with the current. It was nice to see the beacon from a lot closer, although I discovered later that evening when I got back home and showed my picture to Bob that the beacon must have changed since 2015. Below are two pictures, before and after, to illustrate the change.

Stroma beacon old

The beacon in 2015

Stroma beacon

The beacon as it is today

Another fantastic day on Stroma and one that has actually made me even more desperate to visit again to explore even more of the island. A really wonderful place 🙂

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