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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 🙂
Back in July 2015 I spent a few hours on the island of Stroma in the Pentland Firth. The blog post written about it was titled ‘Alone on an abandoned island’ as I joined the trip alongside a number of photographers whose target on the island was clearly very different to mine. This time I have called this post ‘Stroma with friends’ as I was most definitely in good company second time around. A number of my lighthouse friends were around this week for the fantastic Sule Skerry trip and they had all expressed an interest in getting across to Stroma if they possibly could. A few of them had tried to make it before on Association of Lighthouse Keepers trips to the North Coast, but had not managed for various reasons. After our trip to Sule Skerry on Tuesday the weather began to deteriorate and I spoke to the owner of the island that evening to find out what the likelihood of being able to get over there was. He asked if we minded a bit of rain and I, of course, said no. You can’t let rain stop you on these endeavours. He asked me to call back the following morning for a final decision. I must admit I wasn’t hopeful, but was pleasantly surprised when he asked us to be there for 10am on Wednesday morning.
We all gathered and hopped on board the Boy James at Gills Bay. It is only a short trip across to Stroma, but the Pentland Firth can be lethal. I’ve heard it said by too many boatman that it is very dangerous and you can certainly see, when crossing it, that it is a very disturbed stretch of water. Stroma, apparently, translates as ‘island in the stream’, which is something of an understatement when you discover that strength of the tidal races that run through the Pentland Firth, some of which are believed to have been running at up to 30km an hour. One of these tidal races is The Swilkie off of the northern point of Stroma, which gives the name of the point on which the lighthouse sits the name ‘Swilkie Point’. It seems that ‘Swilkie’ translated into Old Norse means ‘Swallower’, which is probably more representative of the hazardous tidal situation there.
Fortunately we made it safely over to the island, thanks to the great experience of the boatman who is also the island’s owner. He farms sheep on the island and has recently stayed over there for a month during lambing. I was interested to discover that he still has some lambs yet to be born, which I thought was quite late. It turns out that the reason they lamb so late (with pre-planning of course) is because it takes longer for the nice green grass to grow on Stroma and, as a result, the good quality milk produced by the ewes doesn’t come in until later than in many other places.
Once we were on the island we had just over 3 and a half hours to explore. Of course the priority was the lighthouse so we set off, deciding that we would do anything else we wanted to see on the way back. I recalled it well from my first visit, not that it is a particularly difficult place to navigate around, but it was all very memorable to me, which can’t be said for all of the islands I have been to.
On the way to the lighthouse we could see the two towers on the island of Muckle Skerry, the largest of the Pentland Skerries, basking in sunlight as well as Cantick Head on Orkney and the beacon on the neighbouring island of Swona. Watching those lights come on at night must be wonderful to see from Stroma.
It didn’t take us long to arrive at the lighthouse. From a distance the lighthouse looks very similar to many others, but there are a number of small features that stand out. I was surprised by just how many gates they had going into the main compound and there were some small decorative touches that are often a good indication of a Stevenson-designed lighthouse. The presence of the old foghorn building as well as another oddly-shaped tower adds even more interest to the area. It is reported that the old 4th Order lens from Sule Skerry (not the original hyper-radial lens) was transferred to Stroma for use as the lighthouse was undergoing automation in 1996. The current tower on Stroma is actually believed to have replaced an earlier, non Northern Lighthouse Board, lighthouse of which there are no remains. Clearly attempts were made to address the hazards of Swilkie Point before it was brought up on a national level.
The hazards in the area had not been limited to the sea though as a plaque on the side of the lighthouse honours the memory of John Calder an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper who fell to his death from the tower on 22nd April 1910. The plaque was placed on the tower by his family in 2010, 100 years after his death.
After we felt satisfied that we’d spent enough time at the lighthouse, we walked back up the path. We’d all spotted a building on the east coast of the island on the way to the lighthouse, which had drawn our attention due to the Northern Lighthouse Board colours, white and bamboo/biscuit/buff (apparently all the same colour, but it depends which supplier you get it from). We took a stroll down there. There was not a lot to see in the building itself, but just to the south of the building was an old pier and slipway with a rather rusty boat looking ready to be lowered into the sea at the top of the slipway. While I say the pier was old, it is in very good condition and the plaque part way along explains that it was build by the local community. It reads “1900. The foundation stone of this pier was laid by Mrs Carrow on 4th August” and lists members of the local pier committee. Clearly not much happens here these days with the fantastic harbour arrangement at the south of the island now, but it’s a great area to explore.
We passed the War Memorial on the way back, which is a beautiful piece of art made up of stones of various shapes and sizes. Considering Stroma is only a small island, the memorial features a lot of names. Both wars must have been a real blow to the community on the island. It is yet another reminder of how close the community must have been before the last residents left in 1962.
Stroma does feel remote, although you are not far from mainland Caithness. There is a similar feel on a number of abandoned islands. Aside from St Kilda, a lot of these places weren’t so far away, but still have a sense of isolation, but certainly not a bad one.
The weather had been kind to us until we were making our way back to the harbour and by that time the wind and rain was on our backs. We arrived back at the harbour just before the owner did and we all hopped on board the boat back to the mainland, waving a fond farewell to the island.
Last time I had been over I was not aware of having sailed close to the beacon off of the south coast of the island, but we certainly did on the way back this time. I imagine it was to enable us to work best with the current. It was nice to see the beacon from a lot closer, although I discovered later that evening when I got back home and showed my picture to Bob that the beacon must have changed since 2015. Below are two pictures, before and after, to illustrate the change.
Another fantastic day on Stroma and one that has actually made me even more desperate to visit again to explore even more of the island. A really wonderful place 🙂