The Duncansby foghorn returns

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.

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Dunnet Head lighthouse at 10am – with the light still on


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.

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The oil painting of Bressay lighthouse

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.

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Duncansby Head lighthouse

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.

pharos and pentland skerries
Not the greatest picture by any means, but good enough to make out the Pharos and the two towers on Muckle Skerry – hopefully

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.

The old Duncansby Head foghorn

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.

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Looking inside the foghorn

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!

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The foghorn’s current home

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. 🙂

A very special day on the north coast

Wow! It’s been another fantastic day on the north coast. After the excitement of yesterday’s visit to Noss Head as part of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers event, it was going to be a tough day to follow, but it’s done far more than that.

I have gazed at the light from Dunnet Head from the back of my house for years now and visited it numerous times. It’s one of my favourites, but until last year I never thought I would have the privilege of being able to get inside. Today was the day though. We had arranged access with the Northern Lighthouse Board and were met by their Retained Lighthouse Keeper again. He’d opened up the bothy too and the owner of some of the cottages had also opened the art gallery he has created in the old engine room. The weather, once again, was fantastic with blue skies and very little wind in comparison to the Dunnet Head I am used to. It was incredible really.

Dunnet Head lighthouse

It’s not the tallest of towers so wasn’t too tough getting to the ladders. Once up the first ladder I was able to step out onto the balcony and see the wonderful views. Orkney, particularly Hoy, was so clear and the sunshine was casting a wonderful shadow of the tower on the ground below. The light setup they’ve got in there is nowhere near as inspiring as the old lens from Noss Head, which we saw yesterday, and not even really as likeable as the new “pudding” (as one of my lighthouse friends calls them) LEDs like those I had seen in Noss Head and Ardnamurchan recently. It’s difficult to explain so I will just include a picture below. The black panels rotate to give the sweeping beam effect. That is one of the benefits of this sort of arrangements, that the sweeping beam is still there whereas it wouldn’t be at Noss. I enjoy seeing the light coming and going from the back of the house.

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The lighting system in Dunnet Head

It was such a great experience to get inside Dunnet Head and I will always see its light flashing in a different way now.

We spent a while at John O’Groats for lunch before heading onwards to Duncansby Head.  We’d already seen how amazingly clear the view was across to the Pentland Skerries towers today while we were at John O’Groats, but it was even better from Duncansby. The best thing about visiting Duncansby Head lighthouse today though was being there with former Northern Lighthouse Board keeper Ian Duff who had served there and has some incredibly fond memories of the place. One of the other group members referred to me as being “star-struck” while we were there as I was following Ian around taking lots of pictures of him – sort of like I had on the Skerryvore trip last year. It was brilliant though as it’s like he suddenly became so excited and was reeling off so many stories.

Duncansby Head lighthouse

I was very keen to get up the tower to the lantern to see the new light apparatus. It’s brilliant what they have done there. They have kept hold of the lens, but replaced the light in the middle with an LED, so you still get the sweeping beam and the look of the lovely lens, but the LED makes it more cost-efficient. There were also great views outside the lantern from the balcony, from all angles in fact. In one direction there was the Pentland Skerries, then the Duncansby stacks and then fantastic views to the west along the coast. After I’d made it back down the three steep ladders I followed Ian around a bit more, listening to all of his stories about what they got up to during their time there. It sounds like great fun, but I can imagine there were some challenges too. He certainly seems to recall the good times much more than the bad times so he must have enjoyed it there. It was a really lovely moment to experience, especially as Ian hadn’t been inside the building and tower there since he left.

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The new light apparatus in Duncansby Head

We had planned at some point to head out to Dunnet Head to see the lights as the sun went down. Tonight was chosen as the best option so ten of us set off. Dunnet Head was the only one on when we arrived, but a short time later we spotted Tor Ness on Hoy, Orkney flashing away. The next one we saw was Noss Head and Duncansby Head a short time later. Pentland Skerries and Stroma were next, followed by the beacon on Swona. We’d waited a while to see Cantick Head come on, and we were wondering whether to call the Northern Lighthouse Board headquarters to let them know it wasn’t working when the flash began to appear around the same time as the flat-pack lighthouse at Hoxa Head. So that was nine lights in total that we were able to see from standing above Dunnet Head lighthouse. I’d been meaning to head out to Dunnet Head to see it flashing at close range at some point, but never made it out there. It was great to do that this evening and there was plenty of laughter and smiles which always adds to the memories of these visits.

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Dunnet Head lighthouse by night

It’s been a fantastic day and I have returned home keen to write this post while I am still excited about it all. A real treat of a day. That’s not the end though. Two more days to come 🙂

A well-timed return to Dunnet Head

As you can imagine, we have a few lighthouse-related items around our house and so it was no surprise really that our 4-year-old son requested a visit to a lighthouse yesterday. With pretty strong wind about, we realised that there’s really no such thing as a sheltered lighthouse, so we decided to go all-out and head to Dunnet Head. Dunnet Head is probably our most visited lighthouse, partly because it’s one of the closest (after Strathy Point and Holburn Head) and also because it’s a great place to take visitors.

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Inside the lighthouse compound

I had been in contact with the man who now owns the buildings within the compound (excluding the lighthouse, of course) about visiting, but our timing had never been quite right. So we were nicely surprised to see the “Gallery Open” sign on the gate when we got there. I was mostly pleased to have the opportunity to get closer to the lighthouse, which we headed straight for.

After we’d touched (bagged) the lighthouse we popped into the art gallery, which is within the old engine room. There are some beautiful pictures in there, clearly very much inspired by the local landscapes. A number of local artists have paintings on display there, and it’s really interesting to see their different styles and takes on local views. While we were in there, we were accompanied by a friendly dog – clearly the compound tour guide as he was also wandering around the paths outside when we left. There are a number of artistic features around the compound too.

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Dunnet Head lighthouse, the view from the fog horn

After we’d been to the art gallery we briefly went through the gate towards the old fog horn. There is a sign next to the gate warning visitors of the high winds and that dogs and children are not allowed beyond that point. So, clinging on to our son’s hand, we went through. The wind direction meant that it was actually a little sheltered once we were down the steps. It was good to be able to see the lighthouse from the seaward side for a change.

It’s really good to see something being done with the lighthouse buildings that allows the public access. The man behind what happens there has set up a website which contains contact details if you are ever looking to visit 🙂