uklighthousetour

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

A grand day on Oxcars and Inchkeith

Inchkeith is one of those places I’d been desperate to reach for a long time. When you look across at it from Leith or even from higher points in Edinburgh it looks so close, but I’d not made it there. That was until the very end of last month! Bob had made contact with Forth Sea Safaris about attempting to go out and they had agreed to take us, weather permitting of course.

We arrived at Burntisland, our departure point, and I was extremely pleased to see the water so calm. The boatman, Stewart, had said that it was looking like it would be better than it had been for a long time. Sometimes you get very very lucky with these trips. Other times not so much. We met up with our island-bagging friend Charlie who had signed up to join us and quickly introduced him to the inner light in the harbour. It’s not changed much since we were last there, still rusty!

Burntisland Inner lighthouse

Burntisland East Pier Inner lighthouse

Stewart arrived and off we set, waving goodbye to the resident seal in the harbour (and her pup). We sailed nice and close to the lighthouse on the end of the west pier. This one is looking very good and Stewart informed us that this one has had some work done to it fairly recently, including modernisation of the light. It was great to be able to see this one as it’s visible from the harbour, but still just a little too far away to get a good picture of.

Burntisland West Pier lighthouse

Burntisland West Pier lighthouse

After leaving the harbour I mentioned the old lighthouse that used to live in Burntisland harbour and is now on display in Leith Docks to the others. Stewart said he recalled there being something on the end of an old breakwater. After a minute or two he realised that he’d actually walked right past the tower in Leith Docks just a few days before. Imagine walking past a lighthouse and not thinking anything of it!

Now, the main target for the day was Inchkeith, but seeing as we were in the area anyway and I’d not been very close to Oxcars lighthouse we went along to that one first. It was, in fact, the addition of Oxcars to the itinerary that meant such an early start that day as we wanted to catch it at low tide – for landing, of course! There was no doubting the water was calm enough for landing and the RIB had a nice little platform on the front, which was very helpful for getting onto and off of islands. We were stepping off onto seaweed unfortunately, but it wasn’t so bad and within a short time we were there at the bottom of that fascinating tower.

Oxcars approach

Oxcars lighthouse

It looks so different at low tide. I’d only seen it at high (or higher) tides before and never realised just how much rock was there. We were able to walk out onto the two little jetties and get some pretty good pictures.

Oxcars lighthouse

Oxcars lighthouse from the jetty

Stewart had told us that the ladder up to the base of the red and white banded section of the tower would be ok to climb up, but not to go any further as the ladder isn’t in a good way. That was fine with us (well me anyway). It was a similar experience to landing at the Barrel of Butter where you know you are somewhere that very few people go. Some people look at islands and think “I’d love to go there”, but they look at a bit of rock with a lighthouse on top and only the hardcore lighthouse and island “baggers” would really try to attempt it. What a wonderful lighthouse though and a real bonus for this trip. Just fantastic.

Oxcars from below

Looking up at Oxcars

Stewart took us around Oxcars so we could get some pictures of the lighthouse with the new Queensferry Crossing bridge in the background. A very picturesque view.

Oxcars and bridge

Oxcars lighthouse with the Forth Rail and Road bridges

Inchkeith beckoned and, as the tide was still dropping, we knew there would be a ladder to climb. When Bob had been to the island previously the ladder was loose at the top, but thankfully Stewart reassured us that it had been fixed. It was quite a long way up and I must have made the ladder on Oxcars look really difficult as Stewart very kindly offered me a rope. I politely refused – I must make it look harder than I actually find it!

The lighthouse was sitting up there looking all majestic as it does. I could tell immediately that this was a special place. For a start Inchkeith has a lot of history and there is evidence of that all around with the range of buildings in various states. One of my favourite tales from its history is the alleged research that was undertaken when a mute woman was put on the island with her two young children. I’m not sure how long they were said to have been there, but the aim was to see what language the children would speak. Again, I don’t know what the outcome was!

Inchkeith arrival

Arrival on Inchkeith

We walked up the path and wandered through a gate into a walled area containing what would have been the old keepers’ accommodation. Before we explored that we turned right towards a circular brick wall. It didn’t look like much, but it is the remains of an old experimental tower that was used for testing new light techniques. It was designed by Thomas Smith and built around 1785 and was used to test a new oil-burning reflector light system. The terracotta tiles on the floor are still there and the wall is still standing up to a point, so it is difficult to imagine what it previously looked like, but there is a picture showing it slightly more intact in the book At Scotland’s Edge by Keith Allerdyce.

Inchkeith experimental

The remains of the old lighthouse tower on Inchkeith

The nearby cottages are not in a good way, missing doors and windows and just how you would expect rooms to look if they are open to the wind and rain for years on end. I’ve said numerous times before that it’s a shame that a lot of the cottages have gone this way, but I suppose they have served their purpose now and it would be a very difficult place for somebody to live now, although not really that far from civilisation. Presevation of the buildings would be wonderful, of course, but if there is no one to preserve them for… (apart from the occasional lighthouse enthusiast).

Inchkeith old house

Inside one of the old houses on Inchkeith

We crossed an overgrown stretch of foliage and then arrived at the archway the marks the entrance to the active lighthouse. The old air tanks for the foghorn are still there and the area looks very abandoned. Stepping through the arch you are then greeted with the lighthouse, uniquely painted entirely in the Northern Lighthouse Board’s bamboo/buff/etc. paint. The lighthouse is no longer owned or maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board after it was passed over to Forth Ports in 2013.

Inchkeith lighthouse

Inchkeith lighthouse

There’s no doubting it’s a fantastic tower, a little castle-esque.

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The best angle on Inchkeith lighthouse

I suppose, though, you are always aware that it is surrounded by neglect. The old engine rooms across the courtyard are exposed to the elements too and in a sorry state.

Inchkeith engine room

Inside one of the old buildings close to the lighthouse

On the plus side, and a big plus side it is, the views of the lighthouse and across the Firth of Forth are simply wonderful from up there. I’ve spent a lot of time on islands off of the west coast of Scotland, but those on the east have a very different feel about them. They aren’t so remote for a start, but still feel away from it all. There’s also a lot more life there, we saw countless snails and even the resident chickens gave us a noisy welcome.

View from Inchkeith

The view from the top of Inchkeith

We decided to wander on over to where the old foghorn used to be. We’d recently seen the foghorn that was originally on the island at the National Museum of Scotland’s large item store in Granton. We had to navigate our way around some old wartime buildings to get there, but we made it to the old, and partially collapsed, lookout point. There were more wonderful views to be had from here.

Inchkeith foghorn

Looking down to where the foghorn would have been

Due to the tide being too low for us to get back off of the island for a while, we’d had plenty of time to explore and while the others went off for a more off-piste exploration of a different bit I was able to sit down, enjoy the views and soak in the loveliness of being in such a great place. It was sad to see so much neglect of buildings there, but it was also interesting to see how nature was taking control again as it does when there is no one there to stop it. A thoroughly enjoyable day and definitely well worth the wait. 🙂

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A lens special

Throughout my lighthouse “career” (if you can call it that), I’ve tended to stick to the towers. Not literally, of course, but I’ve not necessarily been distracted by the intricate details of the lights and how they all worked, the lighting sources, how the keepers lived – although I find it all very fascinating, and knowing some former lighthouse keepers now that area is of particular interest. In terms of visiting things though, it’s always been about the towers – until now!

I have a growing fascination with the optics, or lenses, that once projected the light out of the towers. Perhaps it’s because I’m seeing more of them or they are becoming less common with technological advances. Or maybe they are just incredibly beautiful. Whatever the reason is behind it, I am very much enjoying discovering lenses.

I had seen the former Inchkeith lens in one of the large halls at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh earlier in the year and a couple of weeks ago I got to see it again. Most people use the platform it sits on as a seat and probably pay it very little attention (and get in the way of my photos), but it really is beautiful. It is a first order dioptric lens designed by David A Stevenson and it served its purpose in Inchkeith lighthouse, in the Firth of Forth, for 96 years before it was replaced in 1985. It is accompanied by the mechanism that rotated the lens. I recently spoke to a lady who curates the lighthouse exhibits for the museum (more on that very kind lady in a bit) and she said that they did try getting the lens and mechanism up and running in the museum in the past, but there were a number of technical problems with it. They have a number of other lighthouse-related exhibits at the museum with a dedicated section including a couple of films related to the keepers and the trials and tribulations of lighting the Eddystone Rocks off of the South Devon coast.

Inchkeith lens

The Inchkeith lens

A few days later we found ourselves back in the centre of Edinburgh for a day. We were going to head towards the museum again, but our son decided that he wanted to walk up Carlton Hill to see the tower and buildings up there, so that was the decision made, up we went. We’d not necessarily planned to go into the Nelson Monument up there, but again the little man decided we would. As it was his birthday weekend and a bit of climbing up a tower is good exercise off we went. There are some great views from up there, including the island of Inchkeith where the lighthouse mentioned above can be found. It was back on the ground floor that we found an item of particular interest. Well, it was actually Bob who discovered it just as we were about to leave. It was the old lens from Rubha nan Gall lighthouse, just to the north of Tobermory on Mull. This one is a fixed Fresnel lens, named after physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel who invented this type. It was removed from Rubha nan Gall lighthouse in 2012. That was quite a good find as there is very little information available about this one being hidden here. I’m hoping that will change now though since I’ve seen it and am telling everyone!

Rubha nan Gall lens

The Rubha nan Gall lens

Now, this is where it gets really exciting. Back at the beginning of the year during a visit to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses I was talking to their Collections Manager, Michael Strachan, who is really into lenses and knows all of the different types, which I am still getting to grips with. His knowledge of lenses is extensive and he particularly likes the hyper-radial type (the biggest and most powerful of all, so it’s completely understandable). I can’t recall exactly how the subject came up, but I must have mentioned that I was planning on going to Sule Skerry this year and he informed me that the old hyper-radial lens from Sule Skerry is now in the possession of the National Museum of Scotland. A little while later I discovered that it was kept in storage at the museum’s facility in Granton. I was in contact with the curator at the museum, Julie, and we left it that I would contact her when I was next in the area to arrange a visit to see it.

Although I’d not forgotten about it, I did leave it too late on this occasion to contact Julie, but she did get in touch and managed to make it along to my talk at the National Library of Scotland last month. She quickly introduced herself after the talk and we agreed that I would let her know when I was next in the area. By this point I was becoming a bit obsessed with wanting to see the lens. To be honest I’ve been a little obsessed with Sule Skerry lighthouse in general since visiting it in May – or maybe the obsession began before that when I could only refer to Sule Skerry as “the place that cannot be named” due to getting over-excited every time I thought about it.

I did know that I would be passing Edinburgh at the end of last week on the way down to the Association of Lighthouse Keepers AGM in Hull. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to call upon Julie’s very kind offer to finally see the lens. Thankfully she was available and she also informed me that they are currently re-building the old Tod Head lens and mechanism next to the Sule Skerry lens – this was just getting better and better!

We turned up in Granton last Thursday and met Julie who took us straight to the large item store. There are certainly some large items in there. We skirted around the outside of them before arriving at the incredible lens that I had been so desperately waiting to see.  Needless to say it is huge and I would have quite liked to have tried to see how many people you can fit inside it, but there were only three of us there and I don’t think we would have been allowed inside it anyway. I’m guessing at least 8 people there. It’s just incredible and when you see the size of it and the profile of the tower it came from with its oversized lantern, I immediately wanted to invent time travel so I could go back and see it in action with its powerful beam sweeping around – probably as I get blown off of the island! I did try to recreate what it must have been like by walking around the outside of it whilst filming, but there’s no light in the middle anymore so it didn’t really work. The lens was built by Barbier and Benard and was first lit in 1885. It was removed from the tower on 23rd April 1977. I can’t seem to find any pictures of the tower with the lens inside, so I may need to do some asking around to uncover one. If anything the visit here has possibly made me even more obsessed. I think I’ll be ok though, but I’m now even more desperate to go back for a re-visit.

Sule Skerry and Tod Head lenses

The Sule Skerry lens with me to give an idea of its size. The Tod Head lens and mechanism can be seen in the background.

As expected, the Tod Head lens (another Fresnel) and mechanism were just next door to the Sule Skerry lens. This had actually been transferred here from the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. There’s still some work to be done on it, but it’s getting there and it was quite nice to see it partially constructed with some of the parts still left to go on stored close by. When you see the lenses fully constructed you don’t tend to think about how difficult they must be to build, but seeing them partially constructed gives a bit of an insight into how much of a puzzle it must be. Perhaps not so much in this case when everything is so clearly and helpfully labelled. What a job that must be to do though! It was great to see this one having recently been inside the tower at Tod Head. It’s nice to be able to link these lenses to their original homes.

Tod Head lens

The Tod Head lens (so far) and mechanism

Julie then showed us around some of the smaller lighthouse-related items they hold in storage, including a beautiful model of one of the old lights that was on the Eddystone (I think it may have been the Rudyerd tower judging by the shape of the tower. There was a 3kW bulb (or lamp) which was rather impressive, but the best bit (of the small items) had to be a small piece of lead. There is a story associated with this particular piece of lead and it relates to the Rudyerd tower built on the Eddystone Rocks, which was first lit in 1709. The story goes that in December 1755 the lantern caught fire at the top of the tower and the keeper on watch at the time, Henry Hall, attempted to put the fire out by throwing water upwards at it using a bucket. Molten lead was dripping down from the lantern and some of this lead dripped into Hall’s mouth and down his throat. Hall died 12 days later and the piece of lead extracted from his stomach is that very piece that we saw at the museum stores last week. It’s a very dramatic story and there is even more details about it and the lengths the doctor who extracted the lead went to following the incident on the Trinity House website.

Lead from stomach

The piece of lead found in Henry Halls’ stomach

Just before we left the stores Julie took us right to the back of the grounds where we found the old foghorn from Inchkeith, which she explained will be moved inside soon.

Inchkeith foghorn

The old foghorn from Inchkeith

What a fantastic time we spent with Julie. The stores are a treasure trove of various items and Julie is working her way through them, getting everything sorted out, dated, etc. It’s fascinating. As I said to Julie, when you go to a museum you have no idea that you are probably only seeing a relatively small percentage of what the museum actually owns or holds. This visit gave a great insight into exactly how it works.

For anyone who is interested in joining a tour of the stores then the museum do run monthly tours and you can find out more about them here. You can also organise a private visit like we did. It comes highly recommended. 🙂

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Back to the Bass!

My last post mentioned that I was banned from lighthouse trips and probably wouldn’t do another for at least six weeks or something. Well, as usual, I was wrong…

Last month I joined a chartered boat to take a trip out to Bass Rock with the intention of landing. You can read about it here but, put simply, I didn’t land and as a result it remained on the “to do” list.

The ever-persistent Alan, who has organised a number of boat trips including the Bass Rock trips, maintained his regular contact with Dougie who operates Braveheart out of North Berwick. He’d said that this weekend was the next potential date but being in January, which is often the stormiest month in Scotland, I wasn’t hopeful. However, I was very glad to be proven wrong when Alan got in touch on Thursday to say the trip may go ahead and then confirmed that it would later on that evening. This time Bob wanted to come too, to make sure I landed this time. There was also another trip straight afterwards to Craigleith, so he would have the opportunity for a new island too. My ever-willing mother-in-law came across to look after the kids, and didn’t seem to mind the short notice!

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“The view” of Bass Rock

We took the scenic route into North Berwick today, which meant we got “the view” of Bass Rock. In my opinion the best view you can get of it from the mainland is near Tantallon Castle. Being fairly early it was still flashing away at us, although not quite as magnificently as it would have been before the new light was installed. I’d planned to pay a visit to the Coastal Communities museum in North Berwick after the trip as the old optic is now on display there, but shortly after finding out that the optic was there, I discovered the museum doesn’t open until Easter. A reason to go back to North Berwick, which is never a bad thing.

Off we went on the boat and the sea seemed to be similar to last time, so I was prepared to be scared all over again. It was actually a lot better than before, really nothing to worry about. I didn’t even need that much help! I was absolutely delighted as soon as I set foot on the island. The lovely Jane, who was “catching” us as we landed, celebrated briefly with me. She understood my fear, even if she was quite comfortable getting onto and off of the boat herself. There I was, on the Bass!

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The view from the landing area

As soon as you arrive you have a wonderful view looking up at the lighthouse. In fact, you have amazing views all around. A fascinating island, with so many steps! Everything is covered in guano, but that pales into insignificance with the enjoyment of being on the island. Just above the landing area is the helipad for the lighthouse and slightly further up you can walk along to the alternative landing point (the skipper chose the best place to land us, for sure). The concrete path and steps take you past all of the highlights of the island. My priority was obviously the lighthouse, which is where I, Bob and our friend Adrian went first. As I told Bob on the way back, it was best to go there first to get pictures without lots of people there, and also if the trip had been cut short for whatever reason, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the lighthouse.

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The approach to the lighthouse

It was a really good feeling to finally reach the lighthouse I’d seen so close before. The island really does add to the beauty of the lighthouse. The giant cliffs that sit behind the tower and its associated buildings, while being the source of some of the major landslips (or mudslides) in the area are the perfect backdrop. When I’d been on the trip in December, Dougie had told the group to take care near the lighthouse as there was deep mud from a recent landslip, which resulted in a lot of mud gathering near the lighthouse. It is clear that this has fairly recently been shifted as the area surrounding the lighthouse is now clear and actually very tidy. There are warning signs on the approach to the lighthouse about mud, but it certainly wasn’t an issue today.

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Bass Rock lighthouse

What a place that must have been to serve as a keeper. So close to the mainland and yet so disconnected. It is a massive shame to see the state of the cottages, which have been long neglected since the light was automated. This became even more evident as we climbed higher and higher above the lighthouse on the main path. The light continued to flash away (or turn on and off as the modern LEDs do) as we continued on up the path. It’s not often you get higher than a lighthouse at such a close range.

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The view from above the buildings

 

There is evidence of mud sliding in other areas on the island. In some areas, the steps are buried, probably not helped by the number of birds that choose to reside there in the spring and summer. The presence of birds on the island cannot be forgotten when you visit. Every now and then, while on the path, you will spot the remains of a number of gannets in particular. There is a gannet who clearly met a very grisly end involving a metal stake in the old chapel. It is positioned almost halfway along, opposite the main entrance doorway and, as such, gives the impression of being almost a prized display. It was odd and obviously not a great way for the gannet to go (I don’t often sympathise with gannets).

Very handily, the path has a handrail all of the way long, and the path takes you to the north of the island where there is a little foghorn sitting, ironically, in perfect peace and quiet. The weather was by no means wild today, but the calmest place on the whole island seemed to be at exactly the point where the foghorn once operated. The old equipment, or at least some of it, is still inside the little building. The foghorn faces the Isle of May, which was visible today from the foghorn. The views, in general, are fantastic from Bass Rock. The further you move up the island, the more visible the coastline to the south becomes.

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Bass Rock foghorn

Bass Rock was an incredible place to visit. I am so glad I went back and finally got onto the island. For such a small space, there is something that would be of interest to anyone I should imagine. Our group consisted of those who wanted to get to the island high point, but also the lighthouse, the foghorn, to take pictures, or just generally to get to the island. It is one of those islands that seems so close and yet incredibly inaccessible. That certainly adds to its appeal.

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One of my favourite views on the island, of which there are plenty

Once back on dry land I began my journey to Edinburgh to meet the others while Bob continued his boat trip. My destination was the National Museum of Scotland. While being the place that I would meet up with the kids and Bob’s mum, it is also home to a small number of lighthouse-related exhibits. The key exhibit is definitely the old optic and mechanism from the Inchkeith lighthouse, which stands proudly in the Grand Gallery. Jane had described the old Bass Rock optic in the museum in North Berwick as almost a piece of art. Well, that’s what they are really. Absolutely beautiful, while also completely functional. Jane had said that the light from Bass Rock used to be visible for miles. I won’t say I got annoyed with people being in my pictures of the optic at the museum – although that would be a lie. I wouldn’t have minded so much if they were also appreciating it, but they just weren’t.

There was a small area in the museum dedicated to lighthouses, which featured a model of the Eddystone lighthouse, a modern LED light, a section of the old hyper-radiant lens from South Foreland lighthouse, a RACON (radar beacon), an electric arc lamp, an oil lamp and reflector, and an electric filament bulb as well as a Fresnel lens. Considering it is only small display it the museum, it’s quite a nice collection. The old Sule Skerry optic also now calls the museum its home, although I believe it is currently in storage. The old Eilean Glas optic, now on display in the Science Museum in London, is also officially owned by and on loan from the museum.

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The old optic and mechanism from Inchkeith

Overall, it’s been a great day. To have successfully landed and enjoyed Bass Rock was a big achievement for me. Maybe in summer it would have been easier to get onto the lighthouse, but there would have been birds to contend with. Today it felt like it was our place to enjoy and we just had to share it with each other. Luckily the others didn’t get in the way of my pictures! 🙂

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