Last weekend I had a phone call from a friend on the North Coast to say that he was at John O’Groats and a foghorn had just been delivered there. It seemed like a rather unusual event and yesterday he called again with more information. We had already planned to head over there today anyway, but this gave me a little more to work with during the visit.
En route we called in at Dunnet Head lighthouse. We arrived just after 10am and I was surprised to see the light still on, but I was glad it was. Although it no longer houses the original lens, I watched the lights rotating for a little longer than I normally would, knowing that at some point in the near future it will be replaced.
I also wanted to make the most of being in the lighthouse complex. It’s not open to the public so often and we have been speaking to the current owner on a number of occasions in recent months so we have been able to take a look around the cottages and other buildings too. He is selling the cottages and engine room and had offered me a lovely picture of Bressay lighthouse in Shetland, which I’d recognised and liked when we had first looked around. It’s a beautiful painting. He’d also thrown in a picture of some Norwegian lighthouses too.
Onwards we went to John O’Groats, but of course we couldn’t go there without a quick visit to Duncansby Head itself. It was cold and windy, as it always is there, but the beautiful views are always worth it.
This time it was even better as the two towers on Muckle Skerry, the largest of the Pentland Skerries, were visible and anchored just off of the island was the Northern Lighthouse Board’s maintenance vessel Pharos. Stroma lighthouse was also visible from here.
John O’Groats beckoned and, as expected, there was the foghorn under the arch next to the ice cream shop (which was closed). I’d expected it to be red like the others I’d seen, but it wasn’t. This was explained a little later on in the day. It looks like it needs a fair amount of work, and this is exactly what it is getting. We met the friend who told me about it in the local cafe and afterwards I stopped off at Seaview Hotel at John O’Groats to speak to the man behind the whole project.
So here is the story behind the foghorn since it was removed. Back in the early 2000s (if the man at the hotel remembers correctly), the Northern Lighthouse Board had the old keepers’ accommodation at the lighthouse demolished as well as the foghorn. Everything was destined for landfill, but members of the community clearly spoke nicely to the demolition guys and it was agreed that the foghorn itself would be left and has since been living on the land of one of the local residents. While it was there it was damaged by a digger and a slightly rough job was made of welding the pieces back on. What this meant was that when the work began on it recently to remove the paint and clean it up, these pieces fell off and can now be seen laying inside the horn. They will be welded back on properly in due course.
The foghorn has been placed in its current location to enable it to be re-painted without being too exposed if it rains. It was quite amusing to see the interest it generates. While we were there the children were enjoying booming into it with their best foghorn sounds. As we headed back to the car after lunch another family were doing the same – it was the dad who started it in their case too!
There are now big plans in John O’Groats, led by the John O’Groats Development Trust, to improve an area behind the First and Last House, which marks the beginning of a walk along the coast to Duncansby Head. The foghorn was included in the plans for this area along with a memorial to those who lost their lives in two shipping disasters in the area. The first is the trawler George Robb which was lost with all 12 of its crew in December 1959. Also lost during this incident was a land-based coastguard officer who died on the way to the scene. The second wreck to be remembered is the Cyprus-registered cargo ship, Cemfjord, which sank in the Pentland Firth in January 2015 with the loss of eight lives. The memorial will feature the names of all of those who lost their lives in these tragedies and their names will be displayed facing the direction in which the ships went down. It sounds like it will be a very touching way of remembering these 21 men who came to such a terrible end in the area.
There will be a memorial event for those lost on the George Robb on 6th December this year at Duncansby Head lighthouse, exactly 60 years to the day since the boat went down. I plan to go along to this event (which is at 2pm if anyone who is interested reads this) and will hopefully also meet up with Ian, my lighthouse keeper friend, who served at Duncansby back in the 80s. He and his family were very much a part of the community when they lived there and the man I spoke to this afternoon remembers him well. It will be nice to see Ian back with that community.
Once restored, the foghorn will be accompanied by an interpretive panel, which will explain where the foghorn came from, how it worked and its history. Interestingly, the father of the man I spoke to this afternoon has recordings of the foghorns at Duncansby, Stroma and Pentland Skerries and the idea of running some power to the area has been suggested so that buttons can be installed on the base of the foghorn to allow people to hear what the horns sounded like. It sounds like a wonderful idea to me and I hope it happens. They hope to have the area tidied up and the memorial and foghorn installed by Easter next year.
There is plenty more in the pipeline for John O’Groats too including: the improvement of the coastal path to Duncansby Head in general; the renovation of an old nearby mill to accommodate a hub for the local community to meet and socialise; a children’s play park; and, eventually, a golf course.
It’s all rather exciting and I look forward to seeing it all coming together. It’s fantastic to see a community really embracing and encouraging both their heritage and the number of tourists who visit the area. It’s very refreshing when so many people are keen to complain these days about increased tourism. 🙂