Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: an introduction to the islands

In this third part of my series of posts about my lighthouse journey I will be covering the period from mid-2012 to mid-2014 when I began to visit places I never imagined I would get to.

When I first planned this Reflections series, I’d not considered this rather important couple of years as separate from the years that followed, but it very much is. As a result, this will now become a five-part series.

Holy Isle Outer, or Pillar Rock, lighthouse on the small island of Holy Isle just off Arran

As mentioned at the end of my previous post, I returned from my lighthouse tour with no plans for future lighthouse visits. That changed completely with the introduction of Bob. Many of my longer-term followers, friends and family will know the story of how we met, but for those who don’t, the best way to catch up on that is by reading this post. It’s quite an interesting one to read back for myself. It reminds me that 9 years ago I was filled with excitement and enthusiasm for visiting these places; the kind of feelings you get when you have discovered a new pastime that you enjoy so much. That’s not to say, of course, that I no longer have the same feelings, but it was a more innocent, carefree enjoyment then. I will say more on how that has changed in the final post of this series.

On my first visit to Loch Eriboll lighthouse in 2012

Those two years were a time of massive change – the biggest of my life so far. Within that period I’d gone from living in London and having no plans at all to settle down, to then moving to the north coast of Scotland, getting married and getting pregnant. Looking back now it was a whirlwind and I don’t think I even had time to take it in as it was happening. During the first year I would work full time during the week and spend weekends away visiting amazing places. While Bob was away for over two months for his attempt to climb Everest from March to May 2013, I filled my spare time with wedding planning and packing ready for my move. Once I’d moved it was only two months until we were married and then another couple of months before I fell pregnant. Life then was very much ‘don’t think, just do’ and I enjoyed the ride as all of these life-changing events were taking place.

The lighthouse on the stunning tidal island of Davaar

There were two very important changes that happened during this time in relation to my appreciation of lighthouses. Firstly, lighthouses on islands suddenly went from being in the ‘not likely to ever reach’ domain to ‘I could actually go there’. I’d recognised the need for more time and money being required for visiting islands, both of which were not something I had been able to afford previously, hence my focus on the mainland with the original tour. However, when you have a successful first date on Arran, as described in the post linked to above, you know islands are likely to become a more regular occurrence.

Lundy North lighthouse, one of three on the idyllic Lundy Island

Secondly, I gained access to a range of new resources that gave me a much clearer picture of where lighthouses were. It was from looking at mapping software that I became aware of many more lights that I wasn’t aware of. One of these was Loch Eriboll lighthouse, which I wrote about recently after a revisit. Since discovering this one I’ve grown more and more fond of these very modern structures. A short time after visiting the first at Loch Eriboll I encountered the second at Hoxa Head in Orkney, which is the same standard flat-pack type tower. Even in those early days I recognised the glorious surroundings you witnessed when visiting these small, and often overlooked, towers as well as the more challenging off piste walking required to reach them. The discovery of these was the start of being propelled onto a new level of fanaticism. It turned out I wasn’t just your average lighthouse bagger (if there is such a thing) who is only interested in a tall tower with a lantern, gallery and coloured bands as a bonus. My lighthouse adventures started to become more about going to new places and not solely about just getting to see the lights.

Sorry about the wonky picture – it was taken from a boat and, I think, adds character. This was my first encounter with both Bell Rock lighthouse and the Northern Lighthouse Board’s maintenance vessel Pharos

It was sometime during the second half of 2012 that I came across the book The Relative Hills of Britain by Alan Dawson. Bob’s well-thumbed copy had set up home in his car’s passenger side pocket so it was only natural that I would take a closer look at some point. I was fascinated by it as only a list person could be. It featured, among other chapters, maps of the U.K. split into sections followed by a listing of all hills with a prominence of at least 150 metres within that section. I knew my lighthouse list at that time was not comprehensive and I longed for a lighthouse equivalent list of Alan Dawson’s hill listing. Bob, the bright spark, suggested I should do it myself and this was the first ever mention of the idea behind my book The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide. Rather optimistically Bob’s suggestion was to get it published in my maiden name before we got married. That turned out to be an unrealistic timescale as it rather quickly became apparent that there would be more to it than just scouring maps and making a list. Key to the development of a list was having a definition and it took me quite some time to finalise that, based on what I already knew of the lighthouses I’d visited and those I had yet to see. It turned out I needed a few more years’ bagging experience before I felt able to establish a definition I was happy with.

Europa Point lighthouse in Gibraltar

In the meantime there were plenty of trips to be had. While I was still in London many long weekends were spent away in such places as Cornwall, Gibraltar (for the romantics among you who don’t know this bit, here’s the post from that trip), Orkney, South Wales, Davaar and the Mull of Kintyre, North Wales, the Isle of May and Bell Rock lighthouse. After moving north there were further destinations across the country including Pentland Skerries, Northern Ireland (another link for those romantically-inclined) and Colonsay. There are so many memories packed into those sentences and looking back now it feels like it all happened a long time ago. I very quickly went from doing a lot of my adventures alone to sharing the experience with someone else and along with that came more challenging walks to lighthouses, more access issues, and more pushing the boundaries in order to reach a goal. I suppose to summarise the change that occurred in my outlook during that period was the development of the bagging mentality – and it turned out I was going to need that very thing in the coming years.

My first Northern Irish light, Donaghadee

Up until this point any boat trips to islands or offshore lights were undertaken using scheduled ferries or on routine tourist boat trips – but boy, was that about to change… 🙂

Loch Eriboll in winter

In these times of lockdown I am grateful for the vast landscape and small numbers of people we have living up on the north coast. Today was an opportunity to embrace that and go off piste for a winter return to Loch Eriboll lighthouse.

With the prediction of sunshine and very little wind, it was time for Joe the Drone to dust himself off and head out for a flight. Thankfully Bob’s mum has been staying with us in our bubble for a few weeks now and was happy to manhandle the children again so we could head out.

Loch Eriboll was the first of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s flat-pack lighthouses I had visited. That was back in 2012 and I walked along to it again in 2019 with my pal John. Each visit so far has been different and today was really no exception. The frozen bog actually made it far more pleasant and less wet than it was on my first visit.

This lighthouse, and Loch Eriboll in general, holds a special place in my heart. I can’t pinpoint exactly why that is, but I am fascinated by it. I suppose it’s a combination of it’s beauty, it’s geography and geology, and the part it naturally plays in maritime safety – being the last safe haven before Cape Wrath for ships heading west and the first point of safety for vessels after rounding the Cape. Some places you just feel a connection to and this is certainly one of mine.

The start of the walk is very much focussed on walking along the east side of Loch Ach’an Lochaidh with it’s lovely little islands. On a day like today it’s hard to imagine it being anything other than serene.

The tranquil Loch Ach-an Lochaidh

Once past the loch it’s a matter of heading in the right direction which takes you up and down, left and right as you avoid boggy sections and steep slopes. Thankfully much of the vegetation has died back which made it a lot easier to navigate.

This picture gives an idea of the terrain
Near enough all the water in this burn was frozen over
Loch Eriboll lighthouse with the entrance to the loch in the distance

Once close to the lighthouse Bob sent Joe up and I explored a little bit. I took a stroll along to a sheltered beach area to the south of the lighthouse. Sadly a lot of rubbish has been gathering here.

I then took the opportunity to sit down and enjoying the panoramic views to the north, west and south – with the occasional glance back at the lighthouse of course.

The view of Loch Eriboll during my rest
The view to the west
The view of the lighthouse to the north

Joe captured some really excellent shots. I have always been fascinated by the white marks down the rock in front of the lighthouse, which presumably is where some sort of acid was thrown down it before the structure was changed to a flat-pack.

Joe the Drone’s shot of Loch Ach-an Lochaidh
A bird’s eye view from the north east
Loch Eriboll lighthouse from the south west

A further short stroll took me closer to the lighthouse where there were some good views to be had from it too. I suppose the modern structure can’t really be compared to the natural beauty of Loch Eriboll and the snow-capped hills on west side of the loch, but if I’d not been out there to see the lighthouse I’d never have seen the natural beauties on show there.

Loch Eriboll lighthouse gets some incredible views

The walk back was just as enjoyable. The remains of the little house not too far from the lighthouse always amazes me. What an equally beautiful and challenging place to live. There’s a lovely little burn running alongside the house though and I really like the patch of trees close by.

The ruin with the lighthouse and entrance to the loch beyond
There aren’t so many trees in the area so it was nice to see these
Lovely reflections on the way back
The burn you need to cross not far from the parking area

A really enjoyable relatively short walk today, made better by doing it in such frozen conditions. I’ll get back to my reflections posts shortly. 🙂

A Western Isles adventure begins

Today was the first day of a new adventure in the Western Isles. With our son now at school, we called upon Bob’s mum to take the childcare wheel while Bob and I have a week away exploring even more of the lighthouses and islands in the area. This will be our sixth week-long break over here and I’ve grown very fond on the Western Isles since I first visited in 2014. Many a day has been spent on the water here and there is no place like it.

This morning we set off early and quickly realised how cold it was. The sky had obviously been beautifully clear overnight leading to layers of frost on the trees. Very unexpected for September.

A chilly start

The first lighthouse we spotted today was Loch Eriboll. This little flat-pack lighthouse may not be much to look at, but I think it’s quite special and I’ve enjoyed a couple of great walks out there. As it was still early the light was on and I was pleasantly surprised to see it’s flash was a lovely warm white light rather than the harsh LEDs so often used these days. I am always intrigued by Loch Eriboll lighthouse as it seems like such an unlikely location for a light, bit I suppose if you consider that the loch is the only large safe haven to the west of Scrabster for ships passing along the north coast then it makes a lot of sense. 

Loch Eriboll lighthouse

With a little time to spare before we needed to be in Ullapool for the ferry we swung into Rhue, just to get a view of the lighthouse there, which always looks good against the surrounding landscape.

Rhue lighthouse from land

We were grateful that the weather was calm and dry today as it meant our crossing on the ferry was much more enjoyable. We’d chosen to sit outside to avoid the extra risk that comes with being around people indoors these days. It was lovely to pass Rhue lighthouse again and then Cailleach Head lighthouse too and remember our walk out to that one last year in glorious weather. I’d been reliably informed that the Northern Lighthouse Board’s technicians had been out at the lighthouse just yesterday to fix a fence that had been damaged by livestock. What a varied job they must have!

Rhue lighthouse from the sea

After catching a glimpse of Tiumpan Head as we approached the Western Isles we were greeted, as always, by the small but perfectly formed Arnish Point lighthouse. It always reminds me that I am arriving at a place which I have so many wonderful memories of. Lots of laughs, friendships made and masses of fresh air.

Arnish Point lighthouse

As soon as we arrived we checked into our self-catering cottage. By this time I had already started to wonder whether or not it would be possible to see Tiumpan Head lighthouse flashing from the house and it didn’t take me long to discover that I had a problem with seeing it, if indeed I could, from the upstairs windows due to them being so high. Ever the resourceful one, Bob grabbed a chair for me to stand on and I discovered that, yes, peering out to the left you could make out the lighthouse tower in the distance. That was an added bonus I’d not expected, as were the freshly-baked scones the owner’s wife had made for us and the range of local goodies in the fridge too!

After Bob had popped up a hill (spotting the Flannans Islands in the distance from the top) we headed north in time to see the sun going down at Butt of Lewis. I’ve been to the Butt of Lewis a number of times, probably every time I’ve been to the Western Isles, but it’s always been a bit windy, wild and sometimes wet so we’ve never spent very long there. On previous trips the good weather days have been reserved for boat trips to exciting offshore islands and lighthouses. So in today’s calm conditions it was lovely to wander around a bit more and enjoy spending the extra time there. The parking area next to the lighthouse has clearly had some work done to it recently with new kerbs and some picnic benches. The setting sun always casts such wonderful colours over everything and it was no exception here. As with all lighthouses it is always best shown in pictures so here are a few.

Butt of Lewis lighthouse

The latest addition to the family, Joe the Drone, has also made the effort to join us and with there being barely any wind it wasn’t long before he was up and away capturing some fantastic images. I should thank Bob for his very important role in getting them. Here are a few of Joe’s pictures.

It was beginning to get cold as the sun was making its final descent below the horizon so I hopped into the car and waited for the light to come on. Sometimes the sun seems to set so quickly, but it all took a little longer at Butt of Lewis. I was a little disappointed to find that it’s just the back-up lights in operation at the moment as they don’t give the same effect, but it was still good to see it working.

The back-up light in action at Butt of Lewis

As we drove along the road away from the Butt of Lewis I kept my eyes on the horizon to the north east as we had been able to see the hills around Cape Wrath on the way out to the lighthouse. I thought I caught a glimpse of what could have been Cape Wrath lighthouse flashing. I mentioned it to Bob and he pulled over and confirmed that there definitely was a flashing light over that way. That was good to see.

On the way back to the cottage this evening I spotted Tiumpan Head flashing with it’s modern bright white on/off light and I wondered if I would be able to see it from the window at the cottage after all. I am delighted to confirm that I can. 🙂

Success at Loch Eriboll

Loch Eriboll is not so far from where I live – relatively – and I have seen the little lighthouse numerous times from the other side of the loch, but only walked to it once. My first visit was back in 2012 (the very early days) alongside Bob who was navigator and, at one point, also gave me a piggy back to get across a particularly wet bit. I’ve mentioned my friend John, my new “flat-pack” partner in crime, in a few posts recently and in general conversation he mentioned that he would like to walk out to the lighthouse on Loch Eriboll. Often he is content just to see these ones from a distance, but he felt the need to reach this one and asked if I would be happy to help him get there.

While this was a simple request which I happily agreed to, it was also going to be the first time since I met Bob that I would be responsible for walking anywhere “off piste” and  guiding someone else on such terrain. I could tell Bob wasn’t entirely convinced that we wouldn’t end up in the middle of a bog or getting completely lost and abandoning the attempt. I saw it as a challenge and a way to prove that I could do it.

Fortunately, Bob lent me his GPS device and John appeared to trust me to get him there and back, so that was a good start. It’s not a particularly difficult walk with numerous obstacles, it’s really just making sure you go the right way around lochs and small hills. The ground underfoot is considerably easier than it was on some of the islands we walked on during the recent West Coast Adventure.

loch eriboll walk
The view from the start of the walk

I found the parking area we had used previously and off we went. Immediately you are surrounded by some great scenery with a small loch and the slight hilly terrain beyond. Crossing a small stream was made much easier by John throwing a big stone into the middle of it to use as a stepping stone – this became known as ‘Sarah’s Bridge’. A short distance into the walk I perfectly demonstrated how “good” I am at judging land height from the GPS device by suggesting we walk uphill to the highest point we could see, on the basis that we would probably see the lighthouse from there. It didn’t quite work out as a little further on was another, higher hill. Fortunately, between us, we chose the best way to go around the next hill and it wasn’t long until we then spotted the top of the tower and knew that we were on the right track.

loch eriboll
A view of Loch Eriboll

Not so long before we reached the lighthouse we passed the remains of an old stone house with a few trees nearby. It must have been a wonderful place to live, although not so easy to access – and fairly small inside once you saw the thickness of the stone walls. Although it wasn’t the clearest day with rain threatening to start at any moment, there were still some great views of the loch.

Success arrived in the form of a flat-pack lighthouse. I was pleased that we had made it and John was delighted to be there. It felt like a long time ago that I’d last been so close to it and it made me think about just how much I had achieved in lighthouse terms since my first visit. The Loch Eriboll light was actually my first flat-pack lighthouse so I am rather fond of it.

loch eriboll lh1
On the approach to the lighthouse

We wandered around the lighthouse for a while, both wondering how it was serviced as there appeared to be no obvious landing point for a boat nearby and no area of ground flat and big enough to land a helicopter. There were a number of metal rings in rocks close to the lighthouse, but they didn’t seem to serve a boat-related purpose. I recalled when we were there before that Bob had gone down onto some rocks, but the drop down was a little steep and the land was wet from a couple of days of rain so we didn’t venture down there.

loch eriboll rocks
Looking down at the rocks close to the lighthouse

I’d not appreciated until recently how fascinating the coastline is in that area. I’ve recently watched an old STV series called Scotland: The Edge of the Land which features aerial footage of the coastline around Scotland and the land on the east coast of Loch Eriboll is stunning. I paid more attention to it, or what I could see if it, this time. One of the most distinguishing features of this lighthouse when you see it from the other side of the loch is the white stain on the rock below the lighthouse, which almost appears bigger than the light itself from a distance. Presumably this is from some form of lighthouse-related acid being poured over the cliff there. The lighthouse that previously stood in this location was one of the cast-iron structures (similar to those I’ve recently seen in Scoraig village and Glenelg), which would have required much more routine maintenance. John was keen to see this white staining while we were there, if it was possible to get a view of it. Light rain had started so we decided to head back, but I thought we’d check from one more angle to see if the mark would be visible and thankfully it was!

loch eriboll lh4
The angle from which you can see the staining on the rocks

I often wonder how there came to be a lighthouse on Loch Eriboll. To me it didn’t seem like a natural place for the Northern Lighthouse Board, a national organisation, to put one as so many of their lights are in locations that guide ships through seas, into large river mouths or through frequently used channels. I’d looked into it a bit more recently as it really was intriguing me. The original lighthouse was built in 1937 and was designed by David A Stevenson, the last in line of the “lighthouse Stevensons”. I found out that the loch, being the only deep water sea loch, was (and still is) used as a place of refuge for any ship looking for calmer water to retreat to in difficult conditions to the east of Cape Wrath.

loch eriboll2
The view of Loch Eriboll looking south from the lighthouse

I also discovered that it was used by submarines during this Second World War, but it was built 2 years before the War began so that didn’t really explain the reasoning behind it. The only evidence I have found, through a brief search, of any disaster occurring in Loch Eriboll was the collision between the HMS Vulture II trawler and the minesweeper ST Phrontis FD142 on 16th March 1918. HMS Vulture now lies at the bottom of the loch, though thankfully there was no loss of life during the incident. I have found through recent research that often the loss of military vessels has led to the introduction of a lighthouse in certain areas. Whether this was the case here is unclear, particularly as it was almost 20 years between the collision and the building of the lighthouse. I think my research must certainly continue.

Although the walk out to the lighthouse wasn’t difficult, it was much easier on the way back and we were able to follow the same route by using some key “landmarks”. We made it back to the car in good time and I must admit I was pretty pleased with myself for my tour guide efforts, and of course John was too. I’m not sure how we would have got on without Bob’s GPS device though! A great couple of hours and well worth another revisit some time 🙂