uklighthousetour

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

A Shetland Adventure – part 8 (the best day)

I’m not even sure how to begin this post really, so I’m just going to dive straight in there and say it. Today was the day we landed on Muckle Flugga!

I’m sure many of you will know it already, but if not then Muckle Flugga is the most northerly lighthouse in the British Isles. It is perched beautifully on top of a big rock a short distance off of the north of Unst in Shetland. Interestingly the lighthouse did, in its early days, used to be known as North Unst. It is renowned for being difficult to land on and fairly wild in terms of sea state and weather.

Last week we took a drive up to Saxa Vord with the kids and my parents to see if we could spot the lighthouse. After the fun we had with trying to do that last November I thought it might be difficult to see again, but fortunately the cloud was high and the sun was out. We joined a number of others in looking across at it. My dad had taken his telescope so I was able to get a closer view without actually being closer. That afternoon we went to Unst Heritage Centre, which has a small but incredibly interesting exhibition space dedicated to Muckle Flugga lighthouse. There’s obviously a lot of local knowledge, experience and information there and it gives a great picture of the human side of the lighthouse with the keepers and boatmen. It’s well worth a visit for anyone interested in the lighthouse.

MF through telescope

Muckle Flugga lighthouse through a telescope

I should point out before I get too carried away with today’s trip that the Northern Lighthouse Board do not advise anyone lands on the island and we approached it fully accepting that we were doing it at our own risk.

Back to today’s trip, we had known since early last year that an attempt to land on Muckle Flugga was on the agenda for this two-week stint in Shetland. While I thought that two weeks in June would maximise our chances as much as we possibly could, I never really believed we would manage it. The boatman was hesitant to take us there for a start. He obviously knows the area well and understands that landing there is a rare occurrence. We went out with him on a trip last week and through conversations I had with him it seemed unlikely that we would even attempt it. One thing that did work in our favour though was that the skipper got a chance last week to see just how capable the group are of carrying out tricky landings. I’m not necessarily talking about myself. In fact, not at all, I tend to be helped a lot by my very able companions.

A few days later, yesterday in fact, we received a message from Alan who is organising the trips to say that the first Muckle Flugga group (which included us) would be going today and the forecast was also looking good. It was all sounding positive, but I wasn’t going to get my hopes up to much, just in case.

It was a fairly calm journey up the west coast of Unst, which was encouraging, but of course we had the shelter of the island on our side. The wind had moved around to the south east and the skipper had said last week that any wind/swell from the north would make it impossible to land – another thing in our favour.

 

MF from sea2

The view from the sea

Around 50 minutes into the trip the lighthouse came into view. The sea still didn’t seem to be too bad and I did think that perhaps we may well be able to do it. This was confirmed about 10 minutes later when we arrived near the landing and the skipper gave a positive indication that we would give it a go. There was still movement in the sea so we moved to the slightly sheltered north west side of the island to unload into the tender. Bob hopped into the tender along with Brian who has experience of landing there. I asked if I should go in the first run too and in I hopped, well slid really as it was a bit of a drop from the main boat into the tender (as I was to find when getting back into the main boat afterwards)! It was a bit splashy on the way to the island and I tried not to laugh too much as the others got splashed full in the face.

MF distance

The view from the sheltered side

Arriving at the landing place we knew we would need to go up the old steps as the new steps have been removed in places. Bob leapt off of the boat with his micro-spikes on to pull the boat in. The landing on a flat piece of rock was fairly straightforward, but it immediately got slippery for those of us not wearing micro-spikes. There were plenty of steps ahead of us (246 in total I was informed), but we took it slowly and a short time later we were there at the top with the lighthouse in front of us.

MF front

Muckle Flugga lighthouse

It’s astounding to think how the lighthouse and all of the associated buildings came to be here. It’s not even a particularly basic layout for a lighthouse complex. There are more buildings than there are at some other, much less remote lighthouses. How you would look at a big rock like that and think “I need to build a lighthouse there” without also thinking “Where on Earth do I even start?” I don’t know.

MF sector

The old sector light building

In the main courtyard there is the tower and attached buildings along with an old store room as well as a small square building that once housed an old sector light pointing eastwards. This sector light operated until it was replaced by a new light on Holm of Skaw, further around the coast to the south east. On the far side of the tower, just outside the compound, was the helipad and beyond this you could wander downhill slightly to another very small building. Apparently this was used at one point for keeping the Muckle Flugga resident chickens in! Just down the steps from the helipad was a great place to see the local puffins and fulmars from.

MF and helipad

The lighthouse and helipad

The views from the top of the rock are stunning. The low cloud was still rising in the distance when we were first there so there were the tops of a number of the nearby stacks with their heads in the cloud. We could also clearly see across to Out Stack, the most northerly piece of land in the UK, or as the promotional leaflets will tell you ‘The full stop at the end of the British Isles’! Standing on Muckle Flugga feels like a real achievement. The height of the island, the location and everything else bundled together is extraordinary. I found myself singing a lot while we were there, which is a sure sign of excitement.

We’d been brought across in three loads (I think, although I wasn’t paying too much attention to the others at that point) and the final group had a little more trouble with landing. It was becoming clear that we couldn’t spend much longer there without the swell picking up too much, so we began to make our way back down. I may have enjoyed the steps slightly more if they hadn’t been so slippery with some half covered in grassy tufts which seemed to be growing out of the stone! Getting back into the tender was fine, but the journey back was a little wet. The tide was changing and going against the wind, which was making things a bit more interesting. As previously mentioned, I just about managed to clamber back up into the main boat and enjoy the feeling of having been to such a challenging and inaccessible lighthouse.

MF steps

Some of the 246 slippery steps

Bob and a couple of the others were keen to land on Out Stack while we were there. If I was more able to bound about onto and off of rocks then I would have gone too just to be able to say that I’d been to the top of Britain. The skipper was concerned that there was only a short window of opportunity left to get them on the stack before the swell got too big. After a while looking for the best place to land the three of them got onto the stack and successfully reached the top. Getting them back onto the tender was a bit more interesting as they leapt in. At one point I think we all thought one of the guys had gone into the sea, but he emerged out of the boat. Bob was the final one off and leapt like a gazelle onto the tender, as he does!

The others landed on a couple of other islands/big rocks in the area so we were able to gaze lovingly at Muckle Flugga and its lighthouse for quite some time. One of these islands (just south of Muckle Flugga) was Cliff Skerry from which Bob took the most amazing picture looking across to the lighthouse.

MF from Cliff Skerry

Muckle Flugga from Cliff Skerry

What a fantastic place. I feel the same as I did with Sule Skerry and the Flannans, which is something along the lines of “was I really there?”, but I most definitely was and it may sink in at some point. What a place. 🙂

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The mad plan: Shetland – part two

A second day of lighthouse bagging in Shetland today, but how could we really have followed the success of yesterday? Well, the truth is we probably couldn’t, but that wasn’t going to stop us, so we ventured out into the wind and rain this morning to meet Brian not far from the ferry to Yell. Today has felt a bit like the grand tour of Shetland, although this morning’s weather was really not in our favour when it came to spotting lighthouses on the numerous small islands that surround Mainland, Yell and Unst. Our ultimate aim today was to reach the very top of Unst for a glimpse of the lighthouse that seems to magically sit on the rock that is Muckle Flugga, making it the most northerly of all British lighthouses.

With a little while to wait until the ferry to Yell, we drove into Mossbank and had a brief look at Firths Voe lighthouse from the end of the road. We’d seen it flashing (or occulting really) as we’d driven up the main road to the south west. We didn’t have time this morning to walk to it, but we will return at some point as it’s an easy one to get to.

Uyeasound

Uyeasound lighthouse

Once on Yell and driving north along the road that follows the west coast, Brian was informing us of all of the lights we would be able to see in Yell Sound if there wasn’t so much mist about. It was one of those mornings where you know it’s no use looking for something that’s any distance away. We were just hopeful that it might clear at some point. On the road north we saw the Ness of Sound lighthouse, which looks fantastic. A great little walk to do some day soon, but we were keen to get to Unst so continued the journey.

Arriving just in time for the ferry, we made the short crossing and decided to take a break from the car at Uyeasound to see the lighthouse there. Brian, having been to the lighthouse numerous times and not fancying the short walk in the wind and rain, very sensibly decided to watch us from the car. Uyeasound lighthouse isn’t your usual style of lighthouse, which is interesting for me! There are a few of this type dotted around Shetland and they are more substantial than they look when you are close up. It’s a really easy walk to the lighthouse and on a nice day it could be part of a really pleasant stroll along the beach.

Flugga shore station

Muckle Flugga shore station

Continuing our journey to the very north we were very much still in the mist. Brian wasn’t convinced we would see Muckle Flugga, but we didn’t want to miss the opportunity if the weather cleared a bit as the forecast was predicting. As we neared Burrafirth there was no sign of improvement so Brian suggested we stop by the old shore station for Muckle Flugga. The shore station itself is in a great location with wonderful views of the coastal landscape of the area. The old boat shed is still very much there and it gave a really good idea of how the boats were launched and where the keepers began the final leg of the journey to “The Flugga”. Part of the cottages has been converted into the Hermaness Visitors Centre, although that is closed at this time of year. Another of the cottages is self-catering accommodation. Just beyond the main building is the helipad. It would be a wonderful place to depart from for getting to the lighthouse, although Brian’s undertaking of that journey on so many occasions in the past has considerably dampened his enjoyment of it.

So, it was time to see if we were going to have any luck seeing the lighthouse itself from beyond Saxa Vord. Once we were up there it became clear very quickly that the low cloud simply wasn’t going to allow it. We decided to stay in the area though and try again in a little while – we weren’t so easily discouraged.

Brian suggested heading out to Holm of Skaw to see the most northerly house and I, of course, quickly pointed out that I recalled there being a lighthouse (the flat-pack IKEA type) out that way, which Brian confirmed was correct. On the approach to the most northerly house we could see the lighthouse in the distance. Interestingly, we learned from Brian that the dangers around the Holm of Skaw were originally covered by a red sector light within the Muckle Flugga lighthouse compound. The small building that housed this light is still there today, but the light was discontinued when Holm of Skaw lighthouse was introduced. Brian also informed us that Muckle Flugga was originally known as North Unst lighthouse.

After another quick and unsuccessful attempt at seeing The Flugga we decided to give the weather a little longer to sort itself out while we went for lunch. It was one of the most productive lunches I’ve ever experienced while we quizzed Brian, with mapping set up, for details of access to the lighthouses and the best viewpoints to see them from if they were a little more tricky to get to. Invaluable stuff, this. He really does know everything there is to know about Shetland and its lighthouses!

Flugga

Our view of Muckle Flugga lighthouse

Now, it was obvious that the sky had cleared by the time we left the very nice Final Checkout Cafe, so we went for a third and final attempt on The Flugga. As we got closer we were all feeling a lot more confident – I may have clapped with excitement at one point, something I do very rarely! Then when I spotted her (sorry, the lighthouse) as we came over the rise I might have squealed “There she is!” – something I do slightly more often, but not frequently! It was still a little misty, but the lighthouse was very definitely there between the two rising slopes. It wasn’t a view for getting stunning or detailed pictures, but I had seen it – or as Brian so eloquently put it, “eyeballed” The Flugga! I was, of course, very happy about this, particularly as we had tried and failed the first two times. You always appreciate things much more when you don’t succeed straight away, as was very much the case with the Flannans and the Monachs (I was getting quite used to our annual holidays to the Western Isles while we waited for the perfect conditions to get to them).

Satisfied, we began our journey back down the islands. On the way, and as a result of improved visibility, we were able to see the Balta Sound lighthouse, the light on Little Holm, Mio Ness lighthouse and The Rumble light beacon. A much more interesting return journey.

Eshaness2

Eshaness lighthouse this evening

We travelled straight back in order to see the final lighthouse that Brian had offered to show us: Eshaness. It’s a fair old drive out to Eshaness, but we were rewarded towards the end of the journey by views of the light flashing away, inviting us to continue on over and pay a visit. Brian informed us that once the light was on there would be no access to the lamp room. I was fine with that. With regularly visiting lighthouses, so often you are there during the day and don’t get to witness the light in action, so it was a great opportunity to do just that.

We sat with Brian for a while as he showed us pictures he has of Muckle Flugga, Ve Skerries (which you can often see at Eshaness flashing at night, but not today unfortunately), Out Skerries, Sule Skerry, Cape Wrath and the Flannans, among others. The pictures are fascinating and some have great stories to accompany them. While we were there a couple who run a lighthouse museum on Lake Erie in the USA joined us for a little while. After that we spent a while taking pictures of the lighthouse from outside before saying a very fond farewell to Eshaness. It was a wonderful end to another lighthouse-filled day. We have more time here tomorrow before our flight leaves so you can expect one more Shetland post coming very soon.

me and brian

Me with Brian

Leaving Eshaness also meant that it was time to say goodbye to Brian who had proven to be the most valuable of lighthouse tour guides there could possibly be. His experience and knowledge combined took his “tour” far beyond your average look around a place. He knows these lighthouses inside out and clearly has a real enjoyment of and enthusiasm for them. He’s also incredibly modest: I told him earlier that he was so helpful and great company too and his response was “I’m just me”. I will definitely be maintaining regular contact with Brian in the future. We’ve got a good new friend there! 🙂

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