The big lights of the Western Isles

I’ve spent many a day out getting to the lighthouses on small islands off the coast of the Western Isles, but this means that I’ve somewhat abandoned the lights on the main islands of Lewis and Harris. With the exception of Butt of Lewis I’d not visited them since my first trip to the Western Isles in 2014. It felt like a good time to rectify that.

Having seen Tiumpan Head flashing last night I was keen to get a bit closer to it again. We set off and as we headed out of Stornoway I spotted a ship with a particularly recognisable shape just off the coast. I’ve seen the Northern Lighthouse Board’s maintenance vessel Pharos on many of my trips out and about, and was fortunate enough to have a look around her in Oban last year. The first time I saw her was at Bell Rock back in 2012, which was actually one of my first lighthouse boat trips.

I obviously wanted to get a closer view today if I could. Looking at the map I thought we’d be able to get the best view from Swordale. Luckily there was a nice gate with a “no dogs” sign on it leading to a field where we could get some nice views across to it. A bit of a bonus, although I did get wet feet as I walked across a rather boggy part of the field. No pain, no gain!

The Northern Lighthouse Board’s vessel Pharos

A short time later we arrived at Tiumpan Head. Last time we were there it was misty and overcast and the one lasting memory was of dogs barking and barking the whole time. This time the dog barks were still there, but the weather was much better, albeit quite windy.

Tiumpan Head lighthouse

As well as the improved conditions my appreciation of the lighthouse was greater this time around. Much of the last few years of lighthouse visits has been spent dashing around like a headless chicken trying to do as much as possible in the limited time available. Now I find myself more and more spending longer at these places and enjoying them more, discovering more and letting them grow on me. In a message to a friend earlier I likened the lighthouses to people and how the more you see them and get to know them the more fond of them you become. Of course there are always exceptions!

The lighthouse tower at Tiumpan Head

The tower, which is maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board is looking great, but it was sad to see that part of the outer wall of the complex has fallen away. It made me think of the builders all those years ago when the lighthouse was built making these wonderful solid structures. It is rare, in my experience, to see the walls falling down.

Tiumpan Head lighthouse was the damaged section of wall

After I’d finished wandering around and taking some pictures, we drove west and discovered what looked remarkably like an old lighthouse building alongside a little slipway at Portnaguran. I got in touch with a friend who is knowledgeable on the history of the Northern Lighthouse Board and he agreed that it most likely was related to the lighthouse and used as an equipment or materials store coming in from, or going out by, boat from the slipway. I also checked with my friend and he confirmed that the grey colour of the quoins were what the Northern Lighthouse Board used before they introduced the yellow/beige colour, which goes by many names. These discoveries teach you that you really do need to keep your eyes open as you never know what you might discover.

The old Tiumpan Head store and slipway in Portnaguran

On the way to our next destination, we stopped by to check access to Arnish Point lighthouse for a friend of mine who plans to visit it next year. We found the road that we’d driven up 6 years ago and decided against going up there this time due to the large puddles/potholes on it. Thankfully it looked like access would still be fine, but we decided against the 1km walk to the lighthouse today as we had somewhere else to be. We did find a nice vantage point on the way out of the industrial estate though that offered wonderful views of the lighthouse and all the way over to where the Pharos was anchored.

Arnish Point lighthouse and the Pharos in the distance

Our final destination of the day, and by chance we arrived there later than planned, was Eilean Glas on Scalpay. This one is so often photographed and you can really see why. For a start everyone loves a red and white lighthouse, and when it is located here with panoramic vistas in every direction what is not to like?

I had read a few days earlier that the improvement works to the cottages at Eilean Glas were now forging ahead and that a new guidebook about the lighthouse had just been published. The sign near the parking area also mentioned tea and coffee being available – there aren’t many lighthouses where you can get that!

The track out to the lighthouse is fantastic. Last time we visited we didn’t realise there was a track and so took the coastal route, which was nice but a bit more challenging – especially at 6 months pregnant! There’s obviously a considerable amount of work gone into the track and signposting. It certainly makes it a much more accessible place than it probably was previously.

The track that leads to the lighthouse

With the sun going down we had that wonderful warm glow on the lighthouse and we are both now converted to the idea of visiting lighthouses at sunset. Fortunately we weren’t there too late to see the lady who is coordinating the effort to renovate the cottages. Once we’d bought a copy of the guidebook and a cup of tea we got chatting to her about the work going on there. The work actually began in 1983 so the effort is as old as I am, but it’s been a little stop/start since then. The current push is sounding positive though and let’s hope it continues.

There’s a lot to see there and, as always, this is best shown in picture form, so here are a few from today.

Eilean Glas lighthouse
The old Eilean Glas lighthouse – one of the oldest in Scotland
Some of the more recently installed windows

Bob had taken Joe the Drone along with us, although we weren’t sure if it would be too windy to use it. He decided to give it a go anyway and Joe seemed to cope fine with any gusts. He had to come back down briefly as it began to rain, but the shower didn’t last long and he was back up again in no time. Often when you are taking pictures of something you can see if it’s going to make for a particularly good image. It’s slightly different with the drone though as you really just put it up, fly around and see what looks good once you are up there.

At first the drone was struggling with automatically flying in a circle around the lighthouse as the brightness of the white bands were causing the drone to lose its focus. After trying a few different angles, Bob flew it around the seaward side on the south east, looking back towards the lighthouse. Looking at the picture on the screen we knew that this was the angle it had to be taken from with the mountains of Harris in the background. Here are a few of Joe’s pictures.

My favourite picture of the day

I heard earlier today that a friend had shared some of Joe’s pictures from the Butt of Lewis yesterday with one of his friends. One of the comments that came back was that it was interesting how the lighthouse dominates when seen from the ground, but some of the drone images make it look so small in comparison to the landscape surrounding it. It is so true and one of the joys of the drone images is that it reminds you that no matter how big or tall manmade structures are, nature will always dwarf them. I think that’s a nice note to end on today. More to come tomorrow… 🙂

Western Isles – part 2

While the first half of our trip to the Western Isles hadn’t involved much exploring of the Western Isles themselves, the second half of the week was dedicated to just that.

butty bus
The Butty Bus in Leverburgh

We kicked off the Wednesday with a visit to the Butty Bus in Leverburgh, which is a converted coach serving tea, coffee and hot filled rolls at breakfast time. They have some seats inside so we sat watching the general goings-on at the harbour while we had breakfast. A great little place!

While we waited for the Seallam! museum to open we stopped off at a local craft shop, upstairs from the local convenience store. Our main reason for wanting to visit the museum was to see the exhibition on St Kilda and the evacuation in 1930. We’d been really intrigued by the whole story during our visit to St Kilda the previous day. The museum had a really interesting display of old photographs as well as some more general exhibitions about Lewis and Harris (and a small café area serving hot chocolate too!)

Eilean Glas lighthouse
Eilean Glas lighthouse

From the museum we headed toward Tarbert and then took the turning towards Scalpay to begin our walk to Eilean Glas lighthouse. We parked up near one end of the Heritage Trail and set off. Based on the mapping we’d used, we expected a fairly well-marked path to the lighthouse, but it wasn’t to be. Strangely enough there were some coloured posts along the way, but there was very little consistency with these and we ended up making it up as we went along! Once we’d spotted the lighthouse from a distance though we decided to abandon the post idea completely as we had very little confidence in them. There were some fantastic views of the red and white striped lighthouse on the approach with the Shiant Islands in the background. The lighthouse sits on a small peninsula and as we approached we could see there was a sense that there was a real disparity between the condition of the buildings there. While the stripes of the lighthouse were all perfectly maintained, the surrounding buildings were falling into disrepair, although it looked like efforts had begun to make improvements. There was a sign on the door of the old lighthouse keepers cottages saying that ‘Friends of Eilean Glas’ had been set up to improve the buildings following damage from vandals. It said that more information was available at the Scalpay Post Office, so we made a mental note to stop off there after our visit. Part of the building that made up the old lighthouse is still present at the site and a plaque is on display explaining that it was one of the first four lighthouses to be built in Scotland and was first lit in 1789.

Gob Rubha Uisinis lighthouse from a distance
Gob Rubha Uisinis lighthouse from a distance

The return journey from the lighthouse was a lot more straightforward. Bob was keen to reach the high point of Scalpay and we followed a path that seemed to go in the right direction. The path looked fairly new, which explained why it hadn’t appeared on our map and happened to run right back to where we had parked and alongside the island high point. It also gave us a distance view of Gob Rubha Uisinis lighthouse, which sits further up the coast of Lewis. Based on the maps I’ve seen, this lighthouse looks to be the most remote in the UK in terms of access, with a lot of rough terrain covered in small lochs to cross. We were also able to see the northern tip of Skye as we walked back.

Relaxing at Huisinis beach
Relaxing at Huisinis beach

As mentioned above we planned to stop off at the local Post Office to ask about the Friends of Eilean Glas plans. Having found the shop we asked the lady for more information and we were informed that there were currently no plans underway as the individual who had set up the trust was serving a prison sentence for fraud. It’s such a shame that everything has come to a standstill and hopefully someone with a genuine interest in making the necessary improvements steps in at some point. We grabbed an ice cream from the shop and Bob then drove us back to Lewis and to our campsite location for the night, Huisinis beach. The local residents run a small bathroom block, which we took advantage of and Bob pitched the tent just above the beach with the doors facing the sea. We had our own little barbeque and then spent the rest of the evening enjoying the beautiful views of the beach.

More to follow shortly 🙂