Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: the bagging years

I write this post after thinking over it for a few days, I can honestly say that the thing I miss most, aside from seeing family and close friends, at these times are the times I spent out on chartered boats, setting off for the relatively unexplored islands around the UK, particularly those in Scotland. These “bagging” years, as I call them, ran from around mid-2014 to mid-2019, although this post will only cover up until Summer 2018 for reasons that will be made clear in the next and final post. I have thought about those times a lot over the past year and not only because I’ve not been able to do them as I used to, but because I don’t imagine they will feature in my life in the same way going forward.

This is a fairly long post this time as there is a lot to say. I did consider splitting it over two, but I didn’t want readers to lose the essence of it in the transition between posts. I have included pictures from the bagging years throughout to make it slightly easier on the eye.

The beautiful Barra Head lighthouse

To clarify what the bagging years were here is a bit of background. As explained in my previous post, I’d met and married Bob. For those who don’t know Bob, two of his favourite pastimes are hill-bagging (reaching the summit of hills – mostly in the UK now, but he has also completed 6 of the 7 summits – or 6.9 as he says after his Everest attempt in 2013) and island-bagging (reaching the high point of an island). Both of these are guided by lists. Of course I like lists too, more specifically lighthouse lists. Bob was, back in 2014, a member of a group of like-minded people called the Relative Hills of Britain (now the Relative Hills Society) with islands naturally falling under that as they also contain hills, although members are also interested in various Ordnance Survey-related points such as trig pillars and benchmarks. Members of RHB organised group trips to islands not covered by schedule or routine ferries and boats. With Bob going off on these adventures it was only a matter of time before I was invited along too.

One of my favourite non-lighthouse islands, Scarp just off the west coast of Lewis. What remains of the old schoolhouse on the island can be seen here.

The term “bagging” and the idea of ticking things like islands off a list seems to divide opinion. Those against its use see it as simply a ticking exercise with no time spent enjoying or experiencing these places. There are three reasons I fully support what they (and I, in fact) do:

  1. It is not necessarily the case that baggers do nothing in these places to enhance their experience of it. On some of the very small islands there is little else to do than walk around a bit and then leave. On the larger islands they often do spend more time there, checking out old buildings, walking the beaches or looking at other points of interest.
  2. When they get to these islands they do what they love, walking up hills, visiting a lighthouse or getting to trig points. If others with different interests went to these places they may choose to sit on the beach and sunbathe, for example.
  3. Finally, but most importantly in my opinion, when you have been out on any of the trips with the baggers, you will end up in places that you can never imagine, that most people don’t even know exist. If they weren’t into lists then they would never see these magnificent places.

From those I’ve met most are happy to be called “baggers” and to do what they are doing. In the process they aren’t harming anyone and that, to me, is the most important thing.

My introduction to these trips came in May 2014 with a trip organised by Alan who has done so much towards getting me and others to places we had only dreamed of. We went out from Skerray harbour on the north coast of Scotland to the Rabbit Islands, which had looked so alluring from a distance for some time. It was rather an embarrassing start actually as when I went to get off the boat onto the island I was completely in control of what I was doing and going at my own speed, but Bob obviously thought otherwise and went to haul me onto the island faster than I was planning to go. The result of this being me ending up lying on top of Bob. It gave everyone a laugh and all of those on the trip went on to become friends who I always looked forward to seeing in one place or another, just like many of the others I was yet to meet.

The view looking towards the north coast of Scotland from the beach that separates the two Rabbit Islands at high tide

A month later, at 6 months pregnant, we spent a week over in the Outer Hebrides, camping at various stunning locations and heading out on a couple of boat trips, including my next island bagging adventure. This one was to the tiny island of Sula Sgeir followed by nearby North Rona, both to the north of the main Outer Hebrides. This was another trip organised by Alan. If I was ever going to wonder what I’d let myself in for and say “never again” it would have been then. Thankfully, whatever stressors I had to deal with at Sula Sgeir were all forgotten upon arrival at North Rona. North Rona was bliss, with the exception of a few bonxies hanging around ready to swoop on any unsuspecting bagger. While there the group wandered in groups or alone in various directions, chatting and laughing – just really enjoying their time on the island. The atmosphere was wonderful and from that point I was a little bit hooked.

North Rona with its lighthouse near the highest point of the island

Over the few years that followed our annual holiday would always tie in with the hill/island bagger events. One of my most memorable days spent out on boats was in 2015 on another Alan trip from Oban with Coastal Connection when we visited the island of Oigh Sgeir and its lighthouse, more commonly known as Hyskeir lighthouse. During that visit I grew so fond of the place, and I recall the enjoyment I hit from wandering along the bridges, checking out the basalt columns, spotting minke whales in the distance – in fact everything about the place was stunning. We also visited Eigg lighthouse on the little island Eilean Chathastail afterwards which I enjoyed so much for the peaceful surroundings. I remember staying at the lighthouse enjoying the sounds and views while the others went to the high point. Later that day a couple of us waited on the boat while the rest of the group disembarked for a trek across Muck. Heading around to the pier the rest of us then enjoyed sitting in the sunshine outside the little cafe where we had lunch, ready to welcome the others back with big smiles.

Hyskeir lighthouse on the island of Oigh Sgeir

The bagging years have taken me completely out of my comfort zone on numerous occasions. In fact most island landings without a nice pier, jetty or steps get me a little nervous. Thankfully I’ve not had any major incidents so far and hopefully it stays that way, but I think that is down to the other baggers and the boatmen always being willing to help me out if I end up struggling at all. I am always amazed at the baggers who will sit on the boat, fall asleep, wake up when we get to the next island and just go without giving any thought to checking out where the landing might be. One landing attempt stands out far above the others though for being really frightening and it was actually at Dubh Artach lighthouse, which we attempted to land at the day after the perfect Oigh Sgeir day mentioned above. A group of us were in the tender edging closer to the rock and Bob was just about to attempt to step out onto the rock. He got his foot onto a bit of metal grate just as the swell came in and as it was going back out we weren’t going with it. A result of this could well have been that we’d be tipped out of the boat, but thankfully the skipper handled it superbly. I was pretty glad to be back on the main boat that day!

Dubh Artach lighthouse

Later in 2015 and then into 2016 there were some Welsh visits organised by Adrian. We visited the Skerries, a truly beautiful island off the Anglesey coast, and Tudwal East in South Wales to get a closer look at the Tudwal West lighthouse, as well as landing at both Smalls and South Bishop lighthouses off the west coast. One of my most amusing memories was on The Smalls. There were numerous seals hanging around on the rock as we approached and they went off for a swim and kept a close eye on us as their heads bobbed up and down in the water. Seals, like most animals, leave a lot of mess and I recall making my way over a section of rock that was pretty slippy with their waste. I remember seeing a slightly craggier bit and thought “oh, I might get better grip on those rocks” and a few seconds later I was stranded on said rocks knowing that wherever I stepped I was going to slip. Thankfully Bob came to the rescue and escorted me to safety.

At Smalls lighthouse

Later on in 2016 Rick organised a trip out to Little Cumbrae. This was an excellent island to explore and a real treat to be able to get inside the old lighthouse for a look around. One of my favourite parts though had to be standing around for about 20 minutes at or near the island high point while a few members of the group debated which point out of two was actually the highest. I have some amazing pictures of the group standing around with some scrutinising their GPS devices while others gaze at a bit of rock looking a little bemused by the whole situation. Before the boat came to pick us up we had a little time to spare back at the jetty on the east side of the island and so we decided to make the most of the falling tide and visit the tidal Castle Island. The tide wasn’t low enough to get across without getting wet feet initially, but Bob went wading on through boots and all anyway. Others removed their boots and paddled through. I joined the final lot who waited patiently until the tide had dropped enough to allow for a dry crossing.

Little Cumbrae

Building on an already successful year, Alan’s annual trip for 2016 saw us all travelling to the Isles of Scilly. We were so lucky with the weather that week and managed to achieve near enough everything we wanted to. Lighthouses were visited, island high points were bagged and on one particular day I ended up staying in the small tender with another of the ladies on the trip as the side of the main boat was so high I knew I would struggle to get back into it from the tender. The skipper said that Gladys and I could stay in the tender and be dragged along until we reached an island where he could get the main boat in to pick us up. It was such a fun ride along. There was minor panic (probably more major panic in the main boat though) when a wave caught the boat and sent Gladys falling backwards into the middle of the tender. She was absolutely fine and we had a good laugh about it.

On board our little chariot in the Isles of Scilly

2017 didn’t start so well with an awful bout of morning sickness, but by April I was ready to head out on a Douglas-organised trip and this time to Lady Isle. It was so good to be out in the real fresh air again and going to a lighthouse that was so unique too. We were accompanied on the boat by the skipper’s lively spaniel who wasted no time in jumping into the tender for a big old run around on Horse Island, which the group visited after Lady Isle. It was a really enjoyable day and the time spent on Lady Isle itself was really pleasant.

On Lady Isle with its very distinctive lighthouse

Then came the big bagging year: 2018. For three years between 2014 and 2017 we’d been to the Outer Hebrides, shipping in grandparents for childcare duties once the kids had come along. The big aim was always to get out to the Flannans Isles and the Monach Islands, but we’d just never had good enough sea conditions to be able to do it. Then 2018 came around and our first two bagging days offered calm seas, calm enough to allow us to reach both of these places, the Flannans on the Monday and Monachs on the Tuesday. Those were both such special trips and to have waited for so long to get there made me appreciate them all the more. I was also delighted to land at Haskeir after the Monachs which allowed me to see the little light there too.

The two lighthouses on Shillay, one of the Monach Islands

Later that year Mervyn planned a trip to Barra with a number of boat trips organised including one to Berneray, home to Barra Head lighthouse. That was a superb day and not only for the lighthouse. Some of the highlights of trips I have been on have actually been on islands with no lighthouse in sight. On this particular trip one such moment was on a beach on Pabbay where I walked along the beach and at one point spent about 10 minutes watching a ball of foam spinning around in one of the little streams leading down the sea.

The beautiful beach on Pabbay

During these few years there were many other lighthouse adventures with Bob, and then with our son, and from 2017 our daughter too – all of which have been included in posts on this site. I am delighted to report that the kids are well and truly into this lighthouse bagging malarkey, and can even be encouraged to do a small hill here and there if there is the promise of Smarties at the top. The little one even demands to be let into every lighthouse we see. She will go far, that one!

I am super grateful to all of those who organised the trips mentioned here as well as the other adventures not included in this write-up. I am also hugely thankful to the baggers who really supported my book and bought their own copies – to Douglas who suggested the inclusion of the listing on haroldstreet.org.uk and then to Alex and Rob who supported the case for it to be added to the site which usually only features hill lists and walking routes. Charlie and Mervyn were among the handful of people I knew at the launch of my book at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh in September 2019, and the Relative Hills Society were keen to feature my book in their regular newsletter as a members’ publication.

I have a lot to thank so many of the baggers for. Although my interests didn’t start out being the same as theirs (and they really are “collectors of all things” as a skipper once described it) they welcomed me, helped me and – probably because they love a good list anyway – embraced the opportunity to visit lighthouses too, even enjoying bagging the flat-pack types more than most other lighthouse enthusiasts I know. I have a real fondness for them and what they do. They are amazing to watch when you’re out and about with them, they just seem to keep going and going. They will be out on a boat doing island after island and it gets to the afternoon lull period at 2.30/3pm and they are still going and you know it’s because it is what they love to do, and for some it is even more than that – it is what they live to do. 🙂

A cloudy day on Mull

Contrary to what the title of this post suggests, we actually started yesterday in Oban with a short visit to Dunollie lighthouse. This little lighthouse, made up of a stone tower and lantern with gallery placed on top of it, is quite understated and that’s one of the things I like about it. I also like the fact that it’s still standing as actually, close up, it looks like it’s just made of a big pile of rocks – the sort of thing my 6-year-old might make, just on a larger scale. But standing it is and it has been for over 100 years.

Dunollie lighthouse

Joe the Drone had a little flight around the area.

Dunollie lighthouse from the seaward side

Meanwhile I spent a while at the nearby War Memorial to mark an early 2-minute silence for Remembrance Sunday.

War Memorial at Dunollie

We had a little time before we had to be at the ferry and I mentioned the old Northern Lighthouse Board houses on Pulpit Hill so we took a drive up to find them. I took a guess at which they were and the series of 5 large buildings with four front doors each seemed most likely. This has since been confirmed by my former keeper friend Ian. He actually stayed in one of them while off duty during his time serving on Skerryvore.

The old Northern Lighthouse Board buildings on Pulpit Hill

The houses were built to house the families of those keepers (and the keepers themselves when off duty) while they were based at some of the major rock stations off the west coast.

After taking a look at the buildings I contacted Ian again as I wasn’t sure how it had worked with the families. I knew the families of the keepers on Skerryvore, Dubh Artach, Barra Head and Hyskeir lived there, but I wasn’t sure if there were any others. Ian explained that initially each block was for each lighthouse, so Dubh Artach, Skerryvore, Ushenish, Barra Head and Lismore. The families of the Hyskeir keepers stayed in a separate house (Glenmore House) which is still on the other side of Pulpit Hill.

It changed when Lismore was automated in 1965 though and the Hyskeir families moved to the blocks. He added though that, as time passed and more of the lights were automated, the blocks began to house families and keepers from other lighthouses. Ian himself stayed in one of them while off duty from Pladda, for example. It was good to see these buildings and Ian has said before that it was quite a community up there with, I imagine, anything up to 20 families there at any one time.

It was time to hop on the ferry to Mull, which was thankfully very quiet. The sailing to Mull (or in fact a lot of sailings out of Oban) are always enjoyable as you pass a number of lights including Dunollie followed by Lismore and Lady Rock. It was good to see Lismore with the main island in the background thinking “I was there yesterday” and then looking over to Lady Rock thinking “I landed there last year”!

Lismore lighthouse with the island of Lismore to the right
Lismore lighthouse
Lady Rock lighthouse

Almost immediately Duart Point was next to us and to this one I thought “I’ll be there shortly – hopefully”. We weren’t sure how easy it would be to get to as we knew there was a big craggy Rock behind it and it wasn’t clear how easily we would get around that. There was only one way to find out.

We headed straight for Duart Castle, which is currently closed, but the car park is a good starting point for the walk to the Point. Bob had managed to find some directions on his GPS device for reaching a geocache very close to the lighthouse and this was a great help. I will try to include them as best I can here for anyone wanting to walk out to it.

The view from the approach road to Duart Castle

Walking back along the road we found the gate on the left just after a row of trees. Once through the gate (remembering to leave it as we found it, of course) I spotted another gate on the skyline at the top of the field as the instructions suggested.

Setting off for Duart Point
This gate marks the starting point from the road
Looking back at the second gate

Passing through that gate we turned left immediately and followed the fence and wall along. There are rough paths through the vegetation and I would actually recommend this time of year to visit if you can as the ferns have all died back exposing the grassy paths. I imagine they would be harder to see in Spring/Summer.

The landscape begins to open up – you want to head just to the right of the tree and then onwards between the two raised sections of ground

Where the wall ends the landscape opens up and we headed “straight on to the left” as Bob calls it (which basically means somewhere between straight on and left!) This route zigzags as you go downhill and once you are on a flatter section you have two options, you can either stay up high and view the tower from above first or continue around and down to the right. The tower is tucked away just to the left of the trees at the coast. As you go down you should then spot the tower as you follow the grassy track down.

Looking back up at the zig zag section
The final approach to the lighthouse

It was raining today so it was quite wet underfoot and a lot of the ground was covered in leaves, understandable as Autumn draws to a close. It was great to spot the tower through the threes and craggy rocks though. It’s a beautiful tower, originally built as a memorial of the Scottish author William Black who died in 1898 and always enjoyed Duart Point. The cost of the tower was partially covered by Black’s family and friends and there is a lovely plaque above the door explaining this.

Duart Point lighthouse

The only real indications of this being a lighthouse are the Northern Lighthouse Board plaque on the door and the modern little light and solar panel on top of the tower. There is a little platform nearby that looked like it may once have accommodated some sort of derrick.

The platform in front of the tower

The tower has enough variety in its shape to make pictures from every angle look quite different. My favourite view was of the lighthouse in the foreground with the big rock behind it.

A picturesque angle on Duart Point lighthouse

Another great angle was from the fence around the trees. This angle gave you a view of the Duart Point tower with Lismore to its left and Lady Rock to its right. It’s not often you get that kind of view.

A view of three lighthouses: Lismore in the distance, Duart Point and Lady Rock

Joe the Drone had come along and, although it was slightly wet, Bob thought he’d give him a fly anyway and he got a few great shots.

Duart Point from above
One of Joe’s great shots of Duart Point

Following the path back up we then wandered along to the top of the craggy rock to look down on the tower. This is an excellent angle on it, particularly if you want to get a better view of the lighting equipment. The viewpoint allowed us to get some Joe-type images without needing to use Joe. I would highly recommend including a stop here in your walk if you go (just be careful near the edge).

Duart Point lighthouse as seen from the top of the craggy rock
The lighting equipment on top of the William Black memorial

Annoyingly the weather started to clear up as we walked back, but we’d still enjoyed the visit to the light and the nice walk to get to it.

With no ferry leaving the island until after 4pm we had a few hours to kill. Unfortunately we didn’t have long enough for Bob to do a hill or for the walk out to Rubha nan Gall so we went for a drive. Mull seemed very unfamiliar to me, particularly the southern part, and it’s no surprise really as I worked out I’d only been once before (if you exclude the quick stop off at Ardmore Point from a chartered boat last year). It was beautiful to see it though, especially with the clearing skies and the sun eventually deciding to make an appearance.

A lone sheep on the banks of Loch na Keal on the west coast of Mull
The change on weather conditions was evident at a number of points
Looking back at Loch na Keal

After a fair wait at the terminal at Fishnish we boarded the ferry for the short crossing to Lochaline. By this point it was beginning to get dark and so I enjoyed the outline of the landscape as Bob drove us along to Corran. I always find Corran lighthouse just seems to suddenly appear when you aren’t expecting it and that was exactly what happened yesterday evening as we arrived suddenly at the Corran ferry at Ardgour. The joy of seeing lighthouses at night is, of course, seeing them in action. Corran is a good one as it has the red and green sectors which make for a more colourful view. This was another one I could look at and think “I was at the top of that tower last year”.

Corran lighthouse

Across the water I could also see the little Corran Narrows light flashing away and I remembered the unnecessarily tricky walk down to that one!

After crossing the channel on the Corran ferry we began the journey northwards and home. It had been great to get another weekend away this year, while we could. Who knows what the coming weeks and months will bring. Stay safe everyone and, if I don’t manage another post then have a restful Christmas time. Let’s hope 2021 can be an improvement upon this year. 🙂

Sunshine and calm seas in Argyll

Argyll is a beautiful part of Scotland, that’s for sure, and never moreso than in Autumn when it’s beautiful tree-lined roads and coastline completely change the colour of the landscape. It also helps when the sun is shining as it very much was yesterday.

We were due to visit Lismore and had a little time to kill so a stop off at Port Appin to see Sgeir Bhuidhe lighthouse seemed appropriate. It was high tide too, which would give a bit of a different perspective from the last time we were there when we walked out to the light at low tide. It’s very easy to fall in love with this area and the little lighthouse is an important part of the local landscape.

Sgeir Bhuidhe from the approach road to Port Appin

Die hard lighthouse fans will have heard of its rather amusing history, when it was painted to look like Mr Blobby as a protest by a member of the local community during the period when the Northern Lighthouse Board were looking to replace it with one of the IKEA flat-pack lights. I do love a flat-pack lighthouse, but even I would have been devastated by the loss of a lovely little tower if I’d lived in Port Appin at the time.

Thankfully a compromise was reached and a replacement modern round tower was installed, and it’s one of my favourite type too. There is so much to love about this one, including the fact that ‘Sgeir Bhuidhe’ translates as ‘Yellow Rocks’ due to the lichen growing on the rocks, which is evident in these pictures that Joe took. Yellow also happens to be my favourite colour.

Sgeir Bhuidhe lighthouse on the ‘yellow rocks’

Bob wandered off to find a point that would allow him to fly Joe without breaking any of the rules that apply to the use of drones. I knew he would get some excellent shots because it was a wonderful location anyway, but with the calm water and bright skies it seemed perfect.

Sunlight on the water at Sgeir Bhuidhe
Sgeir Bhuide from the south
Sgeir Bhuidhe lighthouse from above
Port Appin

Meanwhile I took a different route. Firstly I stopped off to revisit the old lighthouse lantern. Another arrangement made between the local community and Northern Lighthouse Board was that the lantern from the old tower could stay in the area and the community have installed some information boards inside it. These boards cover local history, biodiversity and the island of Lismore, which can be seen just across the water. More importantly though it has a panel about the lighthouse and it’s history. It’s really quite clever how they have done it.

The lantern from the previous Sgeir Bhuidhe lighthouse
The lighthouse exhibition in the old lantern

From here I took a walk along the road until I reached the pebble beach where I cut down to the sea. It was so incredibly calm with just the sound of the little waves lapping at the shoreline and the small birds singing from somewhere nearby. It’s such a calming place and somewhere that nature takes over and you can’t fail to be affected by it. I could have spent so much longer there and hope to sometime.

This time though there was a ferry to catch. I’d gazed across the water at Lismore and now it was time to go there. Lismore could be quite deceptive for any new lighthouse bagger. Lismore lighthouse must surely be on Lismore you might think, but in fact it’s on a smaller island, Eilean Musdile, just to the south west of Lismore itself. However, we still hoped we would find something of interest relating to the lighthouse at the Gaelic Heritage Centre.

Lismore was a new island for both of us and after the fairly short ferry crossing we headed towards the southern end of the island. After finding a suitable place to stop the car Bob set off to reach the island high point, which he managed to reach after negotiating the river, walls, fences and a row of cows just before the high point. Once he was back we set off to find the Heritage Centre. It’s a great building. Very modern and a nice contrast to the little blackhouse (if they call them that in these parts too) next door. The blackhouse is an exhibit now, kitted out as it would have been many years ago.

The blackhouse on Lismore

The Centre itself has a lot going for it. It contains a big room with the exhibition panels as well as a shop and a cafe. The exhibition gives a fascinating insight into the island, its history and many other aspects. I found the information about the flora and fauna quite interesting. Lismore is known as The Great Garden, which is how its Gaelic name Lios Mor translates. It is home to 200 species of wildflower and 18 species of butterfly, so it certainly lives up to its name.

Lismore Gaelic Heritage Centre

Further around the exhibition we spotted some information about Lismore lighthouse and, interestingly, the old telescope from the lighthouse, which is engraved with ‘Lismore Lighthouse (Signalmen)’. A special little artefact. There was also a lovely lighthouse design by the local children on one of the windows.

The children’s lighthouse design on the window

Standing outside on the balcony in the sunshine, we ate lunch before continuing to explore a bit more of the island. Heading up to the arrival point for those travelling on the foot passenger only ferry from Port Appin, we were able to get more views of Sgeir Bhuidhe lighthouse. Before concluding our visit to the island and heading back to the ferry, we even managed to buy a Danish pastry from the little phone box!

The view from Lismore towards Port Appin

The phone box with with cake

It had been a fantastic day, very much helped by the weather. It’s good to be out and enjoy the outdoors while we can as we don’t know when that might need to stop again. One more post for this weekend to come 🙂

West Coast Adventure: day five

The final day of our West Coast Adventure with North Coast Seatours arrived on Monday. If we hadn’t have had such a fun-packed day lined up then it may have felt a little sad. There was no time to be sad though as some north west lighthouses awaited.

While the majority of our trip had taken us further and further north, our first lighthouse stop after setting off from Gairloch was the island of Eilean Trodday off of the northern tip of Skye. This was perhaps a bit of a detour, but an important one as it was on the “to do” list for a number of members of the group. Again we were greeted with sunshine and calm seas –  we really were so lucky with the weather. Briefly pausing to look at a sea stack off of the coast of Eilean Trodday we then made our way around the coast looking for a section that would not involve a climb up sheer cliffs. I’d not expected the cliffs to be so high on the island. Luckily there was a more accessible landing area and we all made it safely onto the island. Once again we were faced with the joys of vegetation and not knowing where to put your feet. Being so slow with my short legs, I was in a fortunate position to take pictures of the two group members who fell over, which amused me no end. Reaching the lighthouse was tough going at times, but we got there even though I complained a couple of times, asking “why does everyone else seem to find it so easy?”, referring to the difficult terrain. The Northern Lighthouse Board have certainly stocked up at Eilean Trodday. There are solar panels galore (14 to be precise) and even separate white cabinets outside the tower as there is no room for them inside. Maybe it’s an island they don’t want to have to visit too often! The views from the lighthouse, which I should say is a standard size flat-pack, are fantastic. It was a clear day and we could see the Western Isles and Shiant Islands to the north west. A lovely spot and the return journey wasn’t quite so bad with Bob leading me around the most difficult bits.

Eilean Trodday
Eilean Trodday lighthouse

Onwards we went, this time to the north east, passing Rubha Reidh lighthouse. I’d not been to Rubha Reidh since my original tour and I know that there are now some access issues, which makes it a bit more challenging. It’s always fascinating to see these lights from the sea. Straightforward access to almost all of the mainland lighthouses means that, unless you are on a ferry heading somewhere and happen to pass the lighthouse, you don’t really get to see them from that perspective. Rubha Reidh is a fairly low-lying lighthouse with no high cliffs. It looks beautiful though, even if the scenery lacks the drama of some west coast locations.

Rubha Reidh
Rubha Reidh lighthouse

You may have noticed that I mentioned in the last paragraph that almost all of the lighthouses on mainland UK are straightforward to reach. Well, this can certainly not be said for the next two lights on the trip. I’d been desperate to get to the very remote village of Scoraig for some time. This was, of course, mainly due to its lighthouses, but also because there is something very intriguing about a village that has no mains electricity and no connections to the rest of the country’s road network. The only ways of getting to Scoraig (unless you have a boat in the area like we did) is by walking along a 5-mile path or by trying to organise hopping on a local boat across Little Loch Broom from Badluachrach. There is a great quote from a local man Hugh Piggott on the We The Uncivilised website: ‘Scoraig is not an “intentional community” but a collection of individuals who feel connected by our common location with its peculiarities.’ When you visit the village it is clear that it is not a standard community. The houses aren’t all huddled together in one area, they stretch across quite a large area. There are bikes near the entrance to a lot of the properties and you can see the appeal of getting about on wheels rather than on foot.

From the jetty we set off towards the school to see the old lighthouse that formerly sat at the end of the Scoraig peninsula at Cailleach Head. In the same way that the community in Glenelg rescued the old Sandaig Island lighthouse, the community here campaigned to keep their lighthouse – and it still has its lens too! It’s amazing what they have done with it. It now features in bold black letters ‘The Lighthouse’ above the door and it houses a range of information about what life is like for those who live in Scoraig. The lighthouse is always open for visitors. It’s a very calm location for it and close to the tower is a low, C-shaped stone wall featuring lighthouse drawings from local children and a series of carved messages and quotes. One example read: “On and on the lights will flash and those lost ships will crash on the craggy rocks of Scoraig”. Such a lovely thing to do and with that sort of personal touch it says so much more about the community than most other redundant lighthouses ever could. A really interesting place, and somewhere I would certainly not mind visiting again in the future.

Scoraig2
The old Cailleach Head lighthouse, now in Scoraig village

Time was not on our side with Scoraig as we still had one more lighthouse to see: the flat-pack light that had replaced the tower in the village. This wasn’t going to be the easiest to visit, but I was hopeful that it would be worth it. Initially I thought we would need to head all the way back down through the village and then up again onto the headland. Fortunately, Bob had thought it through and decided that the best approach to take would be to continue gaining more height by heading north east and then cutting across once we were at the highest point on the path or before we started going too far to the east. This worked well and, due to the lack of rain in the area in recent weeks, the ground was very dry, meaning there was little in the way of tough vegetation. The views as we gained height really opened up and were pretty spectacular, especially towards the south east with the hill straight ahead, Loch Broom to the left and Little Loch Broom to the right. Blue skies always help with that sort of view too. It wasn’t a quick walk by any stretch of the imagination and in order to save time we had arranged for the skipper, Derek, to pick us up from the rocks to the east of the lighthouse two hours after we arrived at the jetty. Bob, John and I made fairly good time on our walk to the end of the headland, meeting up with a couple of the other group members on the way to the lighthouse. The headland felt like it went on forever until eventually the lighthouse appeared. I was delighted when the other four formed an arch made up of three walking poles and one rucksack for me to walk through. The reason for this was that Cailleach Head marked my final lighthouse in the Northern Scotland region. It was a fantastic place to celebrate. A really lovely, isolated place alongside friends, what could be better? With only 20 minutes to spare before the boat was due to pick us up we followed a clearer path down to the rocks. There was a little more swell by this point, but we all made it into the tender and then back to the boat safely.

Cailleach Head
The modern lighthouse at Cailleach Head

Basking in the wonderful feeling that comes with visiting a unique place we had one more point of interest before we arrived at Kylesku, our final destination. Passing Stoer Head was wonderful. While Rubha Reidh from the sea lacks drama, Stoer Head certainly doesn’t. Having visited it by land and remembering the uphill section that takes you the last little distance to the lighthouse, I’d never considered what the shape of the coastline would be there. It is only when you see it from the north that you realise the lighthouse sits on a raised section of rock that is surrounded by relatively lower land. It’s a stunning angle on the lighthouse and I’m so glad I’ve been able to see it from the sea in order to appreciate it fully. Once beyond the lighthouse the land rises up again as you head further north where The Old Man of Stoer is on display. The Old Man is impressive, there is no denying that. While some members of the group were talking about climbing it sometime – and one already has – I was more than happy to just enjoy the view, safe in the knowledge that I will never even attempt to do such a thing.

Stoer Head
Stoer Head lighthouse

As we arrived in Kylesku I expected to feel sad, but instead I was elated. We’d had the most wonderful week. With the exception of the Cairns of Coll everything had gone perfectly. The group had really bonded, everyone felt that they had achieved something and I felt so lucky to have been on the trip. We made a lot of memories over those five days (as well as Rathlin for four of us) and I was certain that everyone would leave Kylesku the following day feeling like they’d made new friends and been part of a unique experience. I mentioned above that we all felt that we had achieved something. Well, the boat was full of “baggers” or, as the skipper so eloquently put it, “collectors of all things”. Here are some statistics that give an idea of what we achieved. We travelled 349.7Nm taking in 37 lighthouses (for me this was 18 new and 19 revisits), 36 Mervlets (islands on a list devised by our good friend Mervyn), 18 Significant Islands of Britain (SIBs), 16 TuMPs (hills with 30 metres of prominence), 1HuMP (hills with 100 metres of prominence), 3 Ordnance Survey trig points, 1 Ordnance Survey bolt, 55 bird species and 4 marine mammal species. All in all very impressive.

Not wanting the trip to be over, the following we day we stopped off at Rhue for a wander down to Rubha Cadail lighthouse. Yet again it’s a tower in an awe-inspiring location and for one final time the sun was shining down on us. It was a perfect day for reflections and I was glad to see a couple of little pools of water close to the lighthouse to get some nice pictures of these reflections. A really great end to a trip that will never be forgotten.

Rubha Cadail
Rubha Cadail lighthouse

These adventures sure do make you glad to be a lighthouse bagger 🙂

West Coast Adventure: day four

Our West Coast Adventure continued on Sunday, starting out from Glenelg. Having only been to Glenelg twice, with both times being in the last couple of months, I’ve only just discovered what a beautiful place it is. Near enough all sections of the West Coast are impressive, but that area has a different kind of beauty about it. There are trees, for a start, which I’m not used to! The sea was flat calm with perfect reflections – always a good sign when you’ve got some lighthouses coming up.

Our first lighthouse viewing of the day was the old Sandaig tower, which is near the ferry crossing to Kylerhea. Having seen the modern tower that replaced it the day before, it gives a better idea of how it must have looked in its former location. What a wonderful scene that would have been. Then again, it was wonderful to see the modern light there too, and on our last visit to Glenelg, to get inside the old tower, which we wouldn’t have been able to do if the light had not been replaced.

Glenelg2
The former Sandaig Island lighthouse, now at Glenelg ferry

Of course, the Kylerhea light was only a little further north on the opposite side of the Kyle. As mentioned above, conditions were perfect for reflections and Kylerhea was a great place to witness this. As one of the other group members said “We get two lighthouses for the price of one”. Surrounded by trees and green brown foliage the bright white lighthouse stands out perfectly. It’s not a big tower, but it’s definitely well-located both for navigation purposes and aesthetic value.

Kylerhea
Kylerhea lighthouse

On the approach to Kyle of Lochalsh we sailed close to Eilean Dubha East with its flat-pack lighthouse. I’d seen this one before, but only from Kyle of Lochalsh or Kyleakin. From a distance these structures are really just a white rectangle, so it is always well worth seeing them closer in my opinion – not only to appreciate the lighthouse, but also the islands that they sit on.  This one had a couple of wind-swept trees next to the lighthouse, which actually made it a more interesting view (I realise that sounds strange, but it’s true). On the neighbouring island was another, more unique structure bearing a light, apparently called Eight Metre Rock lighthouse. It’s a little too small to interest me much, but it looked a bit like a little robot with two solar panel eyes.

Eilean Dubha
The lighthouse on Eilean Dubha East

Of course Kyleakin was next up, after a brief stop to pick up some lunch at Kyle of Lochalsh. I’m not sure why, but I always struggle to get a good picture of this one. It’s quite nice to get pictures of it with the bridge, but it never seems to impress as much as others do. Perhaps it is the presence of the bridge, dwarfing it, that takes away the lovely views. I’m not sure. It’s still a great place though and I recall fondly when we stayed in the cottage there a few years ago and had a tour of the lighthouse. There’s a lot of history associated with the lighthouse and the island, Eilean Ban. Gavin Maxwell appears to be the one to thank for the appeal of it and it was nice to see another area he became known for when we were on one of the Sandaig Islands the day before. I can see why he was so attached to this area.

Kyleakin
Kyleakin lighthouse on Eilean Ban with the bridge to Skye

Up until this point, our lighthouse adventure for the day had been limited to just sailing past them. However, that changed in the afternoon. Our next lighthouse was the Crowlin Islands flat-pack. The Crowlin Islands are made up of three islands and the lighthouse is located on the smallest of the three. As we were there with a few island-baggers, in the interests of time we separated into a few different groups. My group was, of course, the lighthouse-baggers. Well, it wasn’t so much a group as it was just John and I. While landing on the island was fine, the walk across to the lighthouse was tougher than the others we’d done. In most places you couldn’t see where you were putting your feet and every step you just hoped for the best and that you wouldn’t fall into a massive hole. Thankfully there hasn’t been any significant amount of rain recently so the island was very dry, which helped. On the other hand, it was a warm day which contributed a little to the effort of getting there. We reached the lighthouse eventually though and enjoyed the blue sky views. On the previous day, at Ornsay if I recall correctly, it had been rather jokingly suggested that we should try to work out how many people it takes to hug a lighthouse. Well, I suggested that we should attempt to find out how many people it takes to hug a flat-pack lighthouse and Crowlin lighthouse seemed like the perfect one to try it out on. It turns out that a standard sized flat-pack takes 3 Sarah’s and 2.25 John’s to fully embrace it – so 6 people is the answer. Just a fun little exercise.

Crowlin
Crowlin Islands lighthouse

We returned back to the landing point just as the boat was heading across from the last island. I think John was quite proud that he’d successfully managed to guide us to and from the lighthouse – even if it did mean having to stop every now and then to allow me to catch up. Well done John!

We had one final lighthouse stop for the day (there were non-lighthouse islands in between) and that was Rona – or South Rona as we call it in order to differentiate from North Rona, which also has a lighthouse. The skipper, Derek from North Coast Seatours, had phoned ahead to check with the military (who operate on the island) that it was ok for us to land there and walk up to the lighthouse. Due to technology problems he’d not been able to get a clear response, but we were all pleased to hear that the guys there were expecting us. We walked through a number of military buildings before the road became quite steep. It was quite a walk up to the lighthouse, but it’s always rewarding when you get there and are blessed with wonderful views of a great lighthouse and the surrounding scenery. By this point I knew that the rest of the group were hooked on lighthouses. There was really no denying it. One very obvious piece of evidence to support this was that I decided we should continue the “how many people does it take to hug a lighthouse” game, and all 9 people there got involved, which was lucky as it turned out that it takes exactly 9 people of varying sizes to hug Rona lighthouse! The views were brilliant and the lone tower next to the old cottages surprised me as it so often does when you see these towers from afar and they look like they are attached to other buildings. We all hung around for a while at the lighthouse and then on the helipad before, rather unwillingly, heading back to the boat.

Rona 2
Rona lighthouse

Getting back to the boat was important though as we had to reach our final destination for the night, which was Gairloch. On this occasion we weren’t able to visit the new Gairloch Heritage Museum, partly because it’s not yet open, but also because of our late arrival and early start. I look forward to going sometime after June though as it looks like the old Rubha Reidh lens is to be more of a centre-piece in the Museum. It was really nicely located before in the circular conservatory-type building, so it will be interesting to see what they have done with it.

That was the end of yet another amazing day. By that point I was already feeling a little sad that there was only one day left of the trip, but what a day it was to be – more on that soon! 🙂

West Coast Adventure: day three

I have got a little behind with these posts due to having too much fun on the West Coast Adventure. On Saturday, day three of the adventure, we had another lighthouse and island-filled time. Setting off from Kilchoan it was only a short journey to our first stop, Ardmore Point on the north coast of Mull. The sun was already shining bright and the sea was fairly calm, which made landing on the rocks below the lighthouse straightforward. The lighthouse sits a little way up from the sea so we needed to find an appropriate route up, which was a bit of a struggle for me – although Bob was leading the way so I really just needed to follow him. John joined us too and it was only after we’d spent a while clambering up onto the rough grass that we spotted the skipper hopping across the rocks and taking what looked like a much more direct route. I didn’t enjoy the walk to the lighthouse, but as usual the lighthouse managed to cheer me up. Although the tower itself is a standard flat-pack (with multitudes of solar panels), it differs from most others in that it is accompanied by an extra little building.

Ardmore Point
Ardmore Point lighthouse

Returning to the ‘mothership’ we set off again. We’d planned to head out to the Cairns of Coll, but a storm was forecast for the afternoon so we weren’t sure if it would be worthwhile. As it turned out the storm never reached us (or passed over the night before), so we decided to attempt it. Waving to Ardnamurchan on the way, we began the journey out to the north end of Coll. On our trip last year, we had been to the Cairns of Coll, but had not been able to land on the lighthouse island, Suil Ghorm, from the RIB we had been on due to the shallowness of the water. As we arrived at the island group it became fairly clear that we would be unsuccessful again. A couple of members of the group attempted a landing on a neighbouring island, which didn’t go particularly well so the decision was taken to abandon any attempt to land. Skipper Derek from North Coast Seatours did sail as far around the lighthouse as he was able to though so we could get some good pictures. It was nice to see it again even if it wasn’t as closely as we’d hoped.

Cairns of Coll
Cairns of Coll lighthouse

The Small Isles were our next destination. I was looking forward to this as it included a stop at Eilean Chathastail, home to Eigg lighthouse. I’d been here with Bob and a group of island baggers back in 2015 and absolutely loved it. It’s the type of lighthouse I am very fond of and the opportunity to revisit was one I jumped at the chance of. It was also one that John had been wanting to visit too as he’d previously only seen it from the sea. With the storm nowhere to be seen and  the sea calm, there was no problem at all with landing on the north west of the island. This was a little different to last time when we landed on the east coast of the island, closer to the lighthouse. This did mean we’d need to walk a bit further and I was glad that Bob had offered the use of his GPS device as it kept us on track for getting to the lighthouse. As it is set down a little from the highest ground on the island it is difficult to see from the north of the island until you are almost at it. The walk wasn’t too bad and we were rewarded with some fantastic views when we got to the lighthouse. We could see across to the pencil-looking Ardnamurchan lighthouse, this time to the south west, standing tall. I was reminded again of how calm the place feels and I enjoyed the visit as much, if not more, than the first one.

Eigg.JPG
Eigg lighthouse

After lunch at the cafe on Eigg, we continued our journey north. We were soon approaching Skye and we sailed close to the flat-pack lighthouse at the Point of Sleat. It’s quite a walk to the lighthouse, but an interesting one as explained in my post from 2016. Certainly much easier to visit/see from the sea!

Point of Sleat2
Point of Sleat lighthouse

 

I’d been looking forward to our next stop and I felt a little bit like a child in the back of a car as we sailed up the east coast of Skye. I had to stop myself a few times from asking “Are we nearly there yet?” On my original tour I’d seen Ornsay lighthouse from the village of Isleornsay when the tide had been in. On the second visit, Bob and I had walked out to it at low tide, and a last visit a few weeks ago was again just a quick stop looking across the water to the island of Ornsay and it’s tiny neighbour Eilean Sionnach, the island with the lighthouse. I wrote a fair amount about the beauty of the lighthouse in a recent post so I won’t go into too much detail in that respect this time. However, I was intrigued to see whether the lighthouse would lose any of its beauty for other angles. With the mountains as the backdrop from the general viewing area, I was concerned that it was just that view that made it so stunning. I am happy to confirm that there was no need for concern. I’m not sure what it is about the lighthouse, but it is amazing whichever side you see it from. Of course, with conditions being so calm, we had to land on the island for another opportunity to see it close up. While the sky at Ornsay lighthouse always seems to have been blue when I have visited, it was bluer than ever this time with a few clouds for added effect. I could have happily stayed there for hours and if the cottages ever come up for sale, well… I think the picture below says it all really.

Ornsay2
Ornsay lighthouse

I’ve got a bit carried away and not yet mentioned the Ornsay Beacon Lighthouse, which we actually visit in the small tender before landing at the big lighthouse. Although, from a distance, it doesn’t look like there is much to this one, when you see it close up it’s far more substantial. It is a solid round stone tower topped with one level of the flat-pack arrangement. Of particular note though is that, everywhere else, the flat-pack has a square footprint, but this one has rounded edges. It’s a good structure and really nice to get a chance to see it at close range. This is why I enjoy getting closer to this type as it is difficult to appreciate them from a distance when they all look pretty much the same. You also don’t get a true feel for the location unless you are on the island they sit on or very close to it. This one was great to see.

Ornsay Beacon
Ornsay Beacon lighthouse

Once the island baggers had bashed their way to the high points of a number of islands as we moved further north, we arrived at the Sandaig Islands. The Sandaig lighthouse is on Eilean Mor which, unlike most of the other islands within the group, is not accessible from the mainland at low tide. As the group were all looking to achieve different things on these islands, only a few of us were dropped off on Eilean Mor. With Bob joining us a little later, John took on the role of lead navigator, establishing whether attempting to walk along the rocks or across the island was the better route. Opting for the more foliage-filled option it wasn’t too long before John spotted a series of wooden posts sticking out of the ground that seemed to lead in the direction of the lighthouse. The path that these posts followed was quite good in places and a little rougher in others, but we were definitely glad to have found it. As we approached the lighthouse John joked that Bob was likely to just turn up around the corner at any moment and then, as if by magic, he appeared strolling across the rocks. I’ve taken to referring to Bob fondly as ‘Goat Legs’ on these trips due to his ability to make any walk across any terrain like like a stroll in the park. This is another brilliant island and so it was a pleasure to visit the flat-pack structure. I must admit though that it would have been nice to have seen the old lighthouse (now located at Glenelg pier – see my earlier post for more information on that one) in place, but still a great place to visit. Once we’d finished at the lighthouse we followed the posts across the island and to a little sheltered rocky bay. The three of us sat, chatting in the sunshine surrounded by beautiful views, while we waited to be collected.

Sandaig
Sandaig Island lighthouse

That was the end of our lighthouse adventures for the day. Glenelg was where we based ourselves that night. What a wonderful day we all had. While a large percentage of the UK was experiencing the wrath of Storm Hannah, we had avoided it entirely. What a lucky bunch we were 🙂

West Coast Adventure: day two

If I had started this series of posts with more imaginative titles I would have probably called this one “a day of little lights” or something similar. I think that describes it quite well really.

We started the day slightly earlier than the rest of the group and took the tender out from Craighouse on Jura across to land on Eilean Nan Gabhar, which is home to one of the “flat-pack” lighthouses – the one we had seen flashing while we ate dinner the night before. While the crossing was a little rocky, landing was absolutely fine and it was really just a hop across the rocks (I never enjoy that sort of thing very much though, but will do it if there’s a lighthouse at the end) to reach the lighthouse. This one is a fairly standard flat-pack so there’s not a great deal to say about it. It is always nice to see these ones close up though and, I believe, this is the first one I visited with my friend John who also has a rather rare appreciation of these structures.

Eilean Nan Gabhar lighthouse in the Sound of Jura

Once we’re returned to the “mothership” as our North Coast Seatours skipper Derek so nicely refers to it, we joined the rest of the group and set off northbound again. It wasn’t too long until we reached the great lighthouse that is Skervuile. While we did see this one earlier in the year, the tide was out then and this time it was higher so we got to see Skervuile in its full rock lighthouse glory with the waves lapping at its base. It’s a very interesting tower and considerably smaller than any others sitting on rocks often submerged by the sea. This was our closest view that day of one of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s larger lights and those on the boat couldn’t fail to be impressed.

Skervuile lighthouse

Continuing north we landed briefly on Ruadh Sgeir for a visit to the lighthouse. This was another one we had seen in January, but not landed on then. I am very fond of this type and it’s always nice to have a chance to see one close up. They strike a nice balance between the modern and the traditional. Although they don’t have the majesty of the old stone towers they have more substance to them than the flat-packs.

Ruadh Sgeir lighthouse

We sailed past Reisa an t-Sruith, another one we’d seen earlier in the year. In the interests of time we passed on landing at this one as lunch beckoned! The sea conditions in the area reminded me of the boat trip we did in January where the skipper informed us of the translation of the islands name, which was something along the lines of “the island in the rushing currents”. How very true that is.

A short distance on we sailed past both Fladda and Dubh Sgeir, almost at the same time, which always make it difficult to know which side of the boat to stand on. Do I look at the more beautiful one that I’ve landed at previously or the smaller, less impressive one that I’ve not seen close up before? I like to think I managed to get a bit of both in.

Fladda lighthouse

Not that it mattered too much as our lunch stop was on Luing from where Fladda lighthouse becomes the centrepiece of an incredible view. We were booked in for lunch at the Atlantic Centre, which I was particularly pleased about as it is now home to the old Fladda lens and I caught sight of it as soon as we walked in the door. It is very nicely displayed, surrounded by information about the lens itself as well as the lighthouse and details of what life was like for the keepers and their families on the island. That wasn’t it though as, very excitingly, the Centre has a really interesting lighthouse exhibition upstairs. There is information about the Stevenson’s and their lighthouses as well as some fantastic old pictures. The most interesting, in my opinion, due to its relevance to that particular day was a 1947 picture of the old Reisa an t-Sruith lighthouse. Also, a couple of historical pictures of the Garvellachs light with one from the 1950s showing a few people posing on the gallery. A really interesting exhibition.

The old Fladda lens on display in the Atlantic Centre on Luing

After lunch we were off again and sailed past the lighthouse on Sgeirean Dubha. This is an interesting one and a little different from your average flat-pack as you can see from the picture.

Sgeirean Dubha lighthouse

A little while later we passed Oban and obviously saw Dunollie and Lismore lighthouses. We also sailed close to Lady’s Rock, a rock completely submerged by water at high tide, where a husband allegedly abandoned his wife only to then see her wander into the pub later that day after she was rescued by a passing fisherman. An interesting story, that one. Lady’s Rock now features a lighthouse. It’s a different one as the base is solid concrete while the top section is like a layer of the flat-pack design (like Sgeirean Dubha or Na Cuiltean), but the flat-pack section is clad in red rather than white panels.

Lady’s Rock lighthouse

A sail past of Duart Point on Mull was next on the agenda. Although we’ve been to Mull we’d not quite made it there and it will be nice to visit from the land at some point.

Duart Point

Further up was Glas Eileanan. As a structure in itself it’s a fairly standard flat-pack. The only difference really with this one is that it has a little stone hut – probably not associated with the lighthouse at all – fairly close by on the same small island.

Glas Eileanan lighthouse

Ardtornish was our penultimate stop of the day. Bob, John and I managed to land here at the little steps, presumably used by the Northern Lighthouse Board to access the tower. Once off of the rocks it was a really easy walk along the grass to reach the lighthouse. Again, there’s not much to be said about it, and the visit there was possibly not quite as fun as it would have been if it hadn’t been raining.

Ardtornish lighthouse

The final scheduled viewing of the day was Eileanan Glasa (not to be mistaken for Glas Eileanan!). Another flat-pack (I did say it was a day for the little lights, didn’t I?!)

Eileanan Glasa lighthouse

Before heading for our final stopping place for the night, Kilchoan on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, we popped to Tobermory on Mull. There was a music festival taking place and we bought fish and chips to eat on the pier before spending an hour or so in a one of the pubs listening to some local music. On our way back across the water to Kilchoan that evening we could see the flashing lights of both Rubha nan Gall and Ardmore Point. More on Ardmore to come tomorrow.

A really good day and great to have seen so many of those lights that many would just shrug their shoulders at. I think John and I may be converting some of those on the trip towards liking these structures though 🙂

West Coast Adventure: day one

As mentioned in my previous post, we had positioned ourselves in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland in preparation for a sail with North Coast Seatours up to Kylesku. Yesterday was the first day of the trip and what a day it was.

Heading out in considerably calmer conditions that we had expected, our first intended stop was to be possibly the highlight of the trip. Sanda, off of the Mull of Kintyre, has become a very difficult island to access for reasons I won’t go into. While it has never been easy to get to, it has become one of those places that those in both the lighthouse and island bagging communities alike dream of getting to. With the conditions as they were it was looking hopeful that our attempt would be a successful one.

On the approach to Sanda

I think we had all anticipated landing at the north of the island followed by a walk down to the lighthouse at the south end. As it turned out the conditions were perfect for landing right next to the lighthouse, which was fantastic as you immediately get the views before you even leave the boat. The jetty there was fine to land on and then the shortest of strolls took us to the base of the lowest tower. Sanda lighthouse is breathtaking. It really is unlike any other with the two brick towers containing the staircases that would take the keepers up to the third and final tower, one much more in-keeping with the standard Northern Lighthouse Board tower. When I saw the towers I was reminded of a friend of mine, a former keeper who served on Sanda, and how he said he never liked Sanda as you had to climb three towers to get to the top. I’d never thought of it like that and it makes sense, although I can certainly forgive Alan Stevenson for that as it is such an incredible structure.

The three towers of Sanda lighthouse

The natural landscape around the lighthouse is equally impressive with the elephant-shaped rock next to it, it’s trunk reaching out towards the lighthouse. The views of Sanda lighthouse are impressive from every conceivable angle. I particularly liked looking up from the base of the bottom tower where you could see all three towers looming large above you. The best view though is from the top of the hill on the opposite side of the little bay we landed at. This spot offers the ultimate view of both the lighthouse and the elephant rock. The best way to describe it really is to include a picture.

The best view of Sanda lighthouse

The old keepers building and store rooms are looking a little worse for wear now, but still make up an important part of the scene. We eventually dragged ourselves away and back into the boat.

Our journey is, in general, taking us north so we needed to sail around the Mull of Kintyre, which for a lighthouse bagger like me is never a problem. We caught sight of the more modern foghorn first, which I’d never realised was there. A short while later the Mull of Kintyre lighthouse came into view. The height of the cliffs there dwarfs the lighthouse, but it was fantastic to see from the sea. It’s not something I ever thought I would see. It takes some effort to get there by land, but is worth it.

Mull of Kintyre

Onwards we went. After some short visits to islands for others we arrived at our next stop: McArthur’s Head. In our Islay trip in January we’d landed at McArthur’s Head and walked up the amazing steps to the tower and fortunately the conditions allowed us to do exactly the same this time. It wasn’t as calm, but once we were in the tender approaching the little landing area we were fine to step off. Last time we had stunning views from above the lighthouse and again we were rewarded with a very picturesque landscape, albeit very different from the one we had last time. I imagine it is one of those places from which the views are constantly changing. It is a really enjoyable place to be and a good opportunity to show other non-lighthouse people how great it can be. After Sanda and McArthur’s Head I’m pretty certain that they are converted now.

McArthur’s Head lighthouse

Our destination was Jura, so of course we couldn’t possibly have arrived at Craighouse without passing by both Na Cuiltean and Eilean Nan Gabhar lighthouses (more on the latter tomorrow). As the sun was going down by this point it was nice to see these two in the yellowish light, which made a difference to last time.

Na Cuiltean lighthouse

We ended the day in the Jura Hotel having dinner while routinely gazing out of the window while waiting for Eilean Nan Gabhar’s light to come on – and come on it did and a short while later we also spotted the light of Skervuile flashing away in the distance.

A truly fantastic day and one I can guarantee I will never forget 🙂

Getting serious with some January bagging

Happy New Year to you! I’m not sure I’ve managed to say that in a blog post before with the key reason being that bagging season for me doesn’t usually start until at least March. Winter isn’t always conducive to enjoyable lighthouse visits, although last weekend’s trip to Northern Ireland is evidence that it’s not necessarily the case.

Feeling the need to continue the brilliance of last year, and fill some gaps in pictures required for my book (see this earlier post for details of this), a little time in the Islay and Jura area was required. It’s very much been uncharted territory for me so far.  It’s also not the easiest area for visiting lighthouses as some of the lights aren’t so easy to access, being either on rocks in the middle of the water or involving a long distance walk on very rough or boggy terrain.

Ardrishaig
Ardrishaig lighthouse

There is a plan to address this later in the week – more on that in a couple of days, all being well. Before that though, today has been a day of “glimpsing” the lights, almost in preparation.

Travelling from Ayrshire to Kennacraig to catch the ferry, we stopped on the west bank of Loch Fyne at Minard. From here the black and white Sgeir an Eirionnaich (or Paddy Rock) light can be spotted. From such a distance there’s not a lot to say about it, except that one day I hope to get a little closer! Continuing the journey south, we gave the lighthouse in Ardrishaig a quick wave as we passed.

McArthur's Head
McArthur’s Head lighthouse

We weren’t sure what it would be possible to see from the ferry between Kennacraig and Port Askaig, more specifically the section to the south of the Sound of Jura. I braved the elements and stepped outside with the zoom lens in tow. At first I spotted a white tower in the distance and, checking the map, established that it must have been Skervuile. I was actually on the look out for the Na Cuiltean light at the time, not expecting to see Skervuile, so that was a bonus. I’m really looking forward to seeing Skervuile close up (fingers crossed it will happen this week). Scanning the coast, I finally caught sight of the Na Cuiltean lighthouse, another one to get closer to. It’s not a huge tower anyway, but even if it had been it would have been dwarfed by the incredible Paps of Jura in the background. What an island Jura looks to be from the sea!

I’d had my eye on McArthur’s Head between views of the two lighthouses to the north. I had a few minutes to go back inside and warm up a bit, before it was time to head out again on the approach to the Sound of Islay. Although I’d never seen it in person before, the lighthouse and its surrounding wall at McArthur’s Head are very recognisable. It was wonderful to pass it and see it from a number of different angles with more detail of the landscape emerging with every moment.

Carraig Mhor
Carraig Mhor lighthouse

The final lighthouse of the journey was Carraig Mhor just to the south of Port Asking. There was no need for a zoom lens for this one. The small, but perfectly formed tower would not even be worth attempting to visit from the island itself, but the very surroundings that make it so inaccessible from land is exactly what makes it such a picturesque view from the sea. The lighthouse is nestled there quite happily with its own jetty.

I’d just started to make my way back inside again when I remembered there was one left to see – Carragh an t-Sruith on Jura. We weren’t particularly close to it, but it was visible and yet another one for later in the week – hopefully. As I said, it’s been a glimpsing day with hopefully better views and clearer pictures to come. 🙂

A closer look at Bass Rock

So, eagle-eyed followers of my blog will recall that my last post claimed to be the final one for the year. It turns out that wasn’t quite right, which I suspected at the time might be the case, such is the way when opportunities seem to arise out of the undergrowth, even at this time of year.

For a few years now we’ve had our names on a list to go on a winter trip to Bass Rock at the entrance to the Firth of Forth. Every winter the organiser, Alan, would be very helpfully communicating with the boatman and sending emails every couple of weeks with new potential dates and each time it would come back with the instruction “Stand down”. However, last year Bob got lucky and managed to be around for the trip out on the Braveheart from North Berwick. With a four-month-old baby at the time, I was the one who stayed at home, but with the promise that I would still get there, one day.

Fast forward a year and, again the emails were coming and then the disappointing messages would follow. A couple of weeks ago we were about to pack our bags when a second email confirmed that, contrary to the first message, the trip was in fact cancelled. When you do these things frequently you accept that sometimes conditions change. That’s just the way of it. You can’t control it, so you just go with it as and when you can.

Well, the email came through at the weekend to say that while Tuesday was not an option, Thursday might be. We had an “amber light” on Monday and then again on Tuesday. Final confirmation was to come at 6pm on Wednesday. Of course, living as far from North Berwick as we do, I needed time to get there. So, after work on Wednesday I continued down the road to Inverness and waited for news to come at 6pm, which it did and it was a green light! So, I hopped onto a train bound for Edinburgh.

It was an early start in Edinburgh for me this morning to make sure I arrived in time for the boat. I am not at my best in the mornings, but I ended up quite pleased to have arrived in North Berwick while it was still dark. Not only could I see the light on Bass Rock flashing away, but the light on Fidra too. Most impressive of all was the Isle of May though. While both the Bass Rock and Fidra lights have been replaced with LEDs, the Isle of May light is still something that slightly resembles a rotating optic and was fabulous to see flashing brightly in the dark. As soon as the first sign of daylight emerged though the flash was significantly less visible. I strolled out to the end of the harbour which is a particularly good vantage point for seeing the three lights already mentioned. I also spotted one across the Firth of Forth, which (based on its location) was most likely to be that lovely little Elie Ness light.

IMG_7159I met up with the rest of the group and we set off. I must admit I was fairly confident that we would get landed as the sea conditions were calmer than the day we went out to Fidra earlier in the year. Bass Rock is an amazing island, very imposing and you can sense that even from a distance away. I had seen “the Bass” a number of times from North Berwick in various conditions, from perfect sunny afternoons to gloomy days when it was shrouded in mist or low cloud. It’s got a similar feel to Ailsa Craig. The approach to the island is awe-inspiring. Seeing that recognisable shape close up is pretty special. We slowed and sat back for a while as the crew had a look at the landing area. There was more swell that we’d be expecting, with the occasional wave from the east skirting around the base of the island. As soon as the skipper, Dougie, started giving advice on exactly when we should go and that he would do two at a time before pulling back and going in again, I began to wonder if landing might not be as straightforward as I had hoped.

I got in the queue and watched as the others flung a leg over the handrail , got a foot on the island when the boat has momentarily stopped lurching up and down, and were then – in some cases – partially dragged onto the island by the crew member on the steps. Having seen the height of the handrail and the speed the others had needed to move I decided not to risk it. I went back down to the skipper and then saw the last guy get off in a slightly more controlled manner and thought “maybe I can do this”. Once I got back to the front of the boat again I changed my mind though. It just was not going to happen. Had it not been for having to climb over the handrail and if it’d had a gap in the middle that I could have walked through then I would have absolutely gone for it. I’ve since spoken to Bob about the landing conditions today and he informed me that “It would have been fine, you just need the confidence and experience”. I have neither, and I’m certain I made the right decision. The skipper himself said it was marginal for landing today, which made me feel a bit better about my choice!

IMG_7169Anyway, not having to endure the stress of landing and getting back on the boat, I chatted away to Dougie while watching the lighthouse and the changing colours as the sun continued to rise. He sailed around to the east of the island to show me the alternative landing “for a laugh”. It was a very uninviting landing today! After that we took a spin around to the west of the island where he pointed out the cave (see picture below) that goes through the entire length of the island and, at low tide, it is possible to wade through. Interestingly, the water to the west of the island is very shallow, at only about 7 metres, while the depth at the east is more like 40. The geology is truly incredible and this is further enhanced on the south by the remains of the various buildings that have called Bass Rock their home, including the castle, which once operated as a prison.

IMG_7192Dougie clearly knows the rock and its history particularly well. He recalls there once being sheep and grass there, which is difficult to imagine now, but the gannets who insist on making it their home each year have destroyed that, as well as seeing away the puffins who used to nest there. Aside from the boat operators at the Seabird Centre in North Berwick, Dougie in the only boatman who has permission to land on Bass Rock, which he has obviously done a number of times. He described the state of the old lighthouse buildings on a recent visit with the roof now threatening to fall in as a result of damp. There has also recently been a mudslide near the lighthouse, which has left a layer of deep mud across some of the path.

He has also dealt with Northern Lighthouse Board engineers a lot in the past. He recalled one time he took them out to the island in the morning to work on the light and returned at dusk to pick them up, but which time conditions had deteriorated considerably. Luckily they managed to get them off safely, but it sounded a bit hairy! He had also taken the engineers out to Inchkeith in 1986 when they were automating the lighthouse there and he spoke very fondly of his memories of looking around the keepers’ accommodation during those visits.

IMG_7241The topic of the yellow-ish paint that the Northern Lighthouse Board use on their lighthouses (I’ve heard recently that it is called “bamboo”) came up. He had a funny story about a local resident who was looking to paint the top of their wall, but didn’t have any paint for it. They had asked if anyone had any and a few massive cans of this bamboo paint appeared and shortly afterwards the wall may have every so slightly resembled a Northern Lighthouse Board shore station, or even lighthouse, wall. I imagine that happens fairly routinely where there is a lighthouse nearby.

By the time the others started heading back down to the landing point the blue sky had appeared and I was able to get some pictures of the lighthouse bathing in the golden sun with blue skies in the background. Sometimes these things happen and you think that maybe there is some force looking down on you thinking “Oh, let’s just send in some beautiful conditions, just for her, just for a few minutes.” It often happens when you don’t expect it, as was very much the case at Barra Head earlier this year.

IMG_7251You could tell Dougie wasn’t entirely looking forward to everyone getting back on the boat when he turned to me and said “This should be fun” as they were coming down the steps. Their return was thankfully straightforward with no men injured or overboard, and we set off back to North Berwick. I think we all appreciated the final close-up views of Bass Rock as we sailed away. It really is a magnificent island, even if the others were keen to clean their boots in puddles once we got back to the harbour! One of the guys told me he’d spotted some kind of liquid of various colours and he had no idea what it was. The island was also described as “aromatic” by another!

I may not have landed this time, but I’m not too disappointed. I had a fun morning and got to see the lighthouse much closer than I ever had before. Maybe I will need to join one of the tourist trips during the summer and just accept that I’m going to be surrounded by birds, as much as I dislike the thought. A good day today though, and definitely worth the effort, even if it was just to get a closer view.

I won’t say that this will be my last post for the year this time as it won’t be. Exciting plans lie ahead for one final bagging trip before 2018 is over. More to come on that in just over a week! 🙂