uklighthousetour

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

Fraserburgh: where the lights are kept alive

This afternoon a slight detour on the way home took us to Fraserburgh for another trip to the fantastic Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. I first visited the museum on my original tour in 2012 and then again in January 2014. Five years and countless new lighthouses later I knew it was time for a return and that I would appreciate it so much more than I ever had before. Hence why it is getting its own blog post this time.

For anyone into lighthouses it’s a gem of a place. Not only is it home to the old Kinnaird Head lighthouse (the first to be built and lit by the Commissioners of Northern Lights (now the Northern Lighthouse Board), but its modern replacement as well as the former towers from Suther Ness in Shetland and Hoxa Head in Orkney.

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The old Suther Ness lighthouse from Shetland

As soon as you step inside the door you know you’re in a very special place. The staff, for a start are so welcoming, and as soon as you enter the exhibition you are greeted by the most beautiful display of lighthouses lenses. The first room is home to 10 stunning pieces originally from the likes of Dunnet Head, Turnberry, Fair Isle South and Neist Point.

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The wonderful display of lighthouse lenses. Pictures here are those from Fair Isle South, Chanonry, Dunnet Head, Neist Point and Turnberry

We didn’t have time to catch the film this time, but we enjoyed the other exhibition rooms, including one I couldn’t recall seeing before, oddly. That’s the one featuring the old Hoxa Head lighthouse. You can walk inside and read the information on display – or just treat it like a fun little house to walk into and out of repeatedly as the kids did. There are far too many artefacts in the room, and all of the rooms for that matter, to even consider mentioning them all. Definitely worthy of mention though is the lantern and lens from the former Roseness lighthouse in Orkney as well as the lenses and light mechanisms from both Ailsa Craig and Langness. The award for most impressive lens and mechanism combination goes to Sanda though, which is so huge it needs two storeys to show off its full glory. The mechanism itself is visible at the entrance to the exhibition while the optic appears on the upper floor. Truly amazing.

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The old Sanda lens

It was approaching 3pm and we set off back down to the museum entrance for the guided tour. I’d been in contact with Michael Strachan, Collections Manager at the museum, prior to this visit in relation to a couple of questions I had for my book. Fortunately, it was Michael who was our tour guide today, which was a good opportunity to put a face to a name and thank him for his help.

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The modern and old lighthouses at Kinnaird Head

Due to the chilly breeze at Kinnaird Head, which Michael informed us is always windy, we went straight to the old foghorn engine room to start the tour. I imagine that even hundreds of years down the line, the smell of these rooms will not have changed. As if they were only used yesterday. Every time I am in one now I will remember watching Brian at Sumburgh Head starting the machines up with such meticulousness.

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The foghorn engine room at Kinnaird Head

From here we went to the old castle through which the lighthouse was built. There is nothing now to indicate how the building was used before the lighthouse was constructed. The tower is still as it was when the lighthouse was manned though. The wonderful paraffin smell is very much present and I always enjoy seeing an old television with buttons on it such as the one in the old occasional lighthouse keeper’s room. There is a distinct lack of buttons these days!

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At the top of the tower

The original lens still sits proudly in position at the top of the tower. Always a great room to spend some time and then we had a brief wander around on the balcony. After leaving the tower, we had a chance to quickly look around the Principle Keepers’ accommodation, which is full of information about the life of lighthouse keepers.

Back in the shop, the kids received their certificates for climbing the tower, although now I think of it, I don’t know that I have one myself yet!

Michael has very kindly provided me with information about the lenses the museum own as well as others he is aware of. I spoke to him about the old lens from Sule Skerry, which I’d attempted to visit yesterday at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. He’d had the same experience recently and had found out through social media just yesterday that it is indeed in storage there. Let’s hope it becomes more visible to the public soon. It’s a shame to let these things sit in storage with no one able to enjoy them. I’m obviously biased though and think that every museum should have at least one lighthouse exhibition!

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The old Hoxa Head lighthouse from Orkney

I thoroughly enjoyed returning to the museum again and will make more of an effort to ensure it’s not another 5 years before I am back there again. It sounds like there are exciting plans for introducing the old Fair Isle North lens, among others, to the collection. Something to look forward to seeing next time hopefully! 🙂

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Back to the Bass!

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

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

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

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“The view” of Bass Rock

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

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

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The view from the landing area

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

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The approach to the lighthouse

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

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Bass Rock lighthouse

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

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The view from above the buildings

 

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

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

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Bass Rock foghorn

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

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

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

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

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The old optic and mechanism from Inchkeith

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

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Minor lights of major importance

After such a fantastic couple of lighthouse days – or do I mean weeks, or maybe even months?! – I needed to gently be brought back down to normality. Today has been the day for that with a short boat trip to see a couple of minor lighthouses at the north end of the Sound of Jura.

Craignish Cruises were the boat operator of choice for today’s trip from Ardfern. Originally it was just going to be me on the boat while Bob manhandled the kids. Having seen details of the boat (a heated cabin!) online last night we asked Lindsay, who owns the boat, if he would be happy for the kids to go too. He was fine with that, so off we set.

It’s not quite so easy bagging with young children and the constant demands, but it helps towards my plot to turn them into the next generation of lighthouse baggers. The bagging is definitely strong in the eldest. The younger one still needs some work!

The tide was against us on the way out, but it wasn’t too long until we arrived at the tiny island of Ruadh Sgeir. It was interesting hearing the opinions of both Lindsay and Don who was helping him out on the trip. Lindsay has always thought the light was quite sweet (he seems quite fond of lighthouses, even the small ones, from the point of view of someone who uses them for their intended purpose – aiding navigation). Don, on the other hand, said he thought it was just a light on a rock. I think it deserves more credit and, I’m sure, by the end of the trip he was beginning to see the beauty of lighthouses, even the small ones. It’s quite common for boatmen to say that they have travelled along a stretch of coastline frequently and never noticed the lighthouse. They just need to be enlightened (no pun intended), that’s all.

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Read Sgeir lighthouse

I really like the Ruadh Sgeir light. I’m a fan of this type, and I always think there is a lot more to them, in terms of design, than they get credit for. It’s not just a small white tower that’s been dropped on a rock.

Our second stop was Reisa an t-Sruith. Lindsay told me this translates as ‘island in the strong tidal current’. There is certainly a lot of movement in the area, in terms of tides. It looked a lot choppier than it felt. Like Ruadh Sgeir, Reisa an t-Sruith is just a small island, a slightly bigger small island than Ruadh Sgeir. The lighthouse is a standard Northern Lighthouse Board flat-pack. Not much more to say about it other than that. It replaced a light designed by David A and Charles Stevenson. The island itself is home to some goats who watched us from afar, probably wondering what on earth we were up to. I’m assuming they don’t think much of the lighthouse!

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Reisa an t-Sruith

As well as the goats, our wildlife tally increased again today with a brief appearance of a pod of 4 to 6 bottlenose dolphins.

A short, but important trip. It marks a first round completion of the wonderful lights of the Islay and Jura area. In such a short space of time, it’s been quite full-on, but not rushed. I definitely want a closer look at the Rinns of Islay at some point, but for now I’m satisfied – and of equal importance, I got those much-needed pictures for my book.

This afternoon we paid an enjoyable visit to Ian who served on Skerryvore lighthouse and who visited that very lighthouse with us last year (see this post for more on Ian). He and Doreen are wonderful hosts and it was lovely to catch up with them.

Now back to reality. I always put a smiley face at the end of these posts and I’m going to do the same for this one as it’s been a good day and I’m hopeful that it won’t be long until my next post. There certainly is plenty of lighthouse fun lined up for the year 🙂

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The incredible lights of Islay and Jura

What a day! In this lighthouse bagging game you experience some days where, at the end, all you can do is throw yourself onto the sofa and say “wow, did that really happen?”. Today was definitely one of those days.

It’s our final day on Islay and Bob had been in touch with Gus and Rebecca from Islay Sea Adventures in the lead up to our visit to Islay to sort out a trip taking in some of the lighthouses in the Sounds of Jura and Islay. Gus had said that Friday looked to be the best day for it, so this morning we arrived at Port Ellen and spent a while throwing on even more layers in preparation for a RIB trip in January (mental!). You can’t imagine my delight at seeing a beautiful covered RIB gliding into port. Covered RIBs are my favourite!

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Port Ellen/Carraig Fhada lighthouse

Before we’d even got on the boat, Gus offered us a cup of tea and we chatted to Gregor who was helping him out on the boat while Gus went for the hot drinks. A short time later, and with tea firmly in hand, we set off and Gus offered to sail around the Carraig Fhada/Port Ellen lighthouse on the way out. It was great to see a bit more detail from the sides you can’t see from the land. We asked Gus if the walkway is covered at high tide and he said that it can be, and that a man and his son were washed away trying to reach the lighthouse about 100 years ago. Regardless of that, it really is a lovely tower, and the sentiment behind its history is wonderful (more details of this can be found on the Canmore website). I would be quite happy to have a lighthouse built for me (preferably while I’m still alive). With the cost of the recent trips though, I don’t think Bob would be very willing to oblige!

Back on the waves, or lack of I should say, off we went again. A short time later we passed a few small islands and spotted a couple of sea eagles closer than I’ve ever seen them before. They are very impressive, but I wouldn’t want to be get too close!

Eilean a Chuirn was destination number 1. I really like this kind of lighthouse, although I’m not entirely sure why it needs so many doors – perhaps so they can access it in high winds and which door they use depends on the wind direction. That sounds like the only plausible reasoning and would be my guess anyway. It’s a lot like the Waternish light on Skye. Gus explained that the large concrete block next to the lighthouse was part of the pulley system used for moving supplies from the landing point to the lighthouse.

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Eilean a Chuirn lighthouse

After a quick wave to McArthur’s Head, more on that one to follow, we went onwards to Na Cuiltean, which I’d seen from a distance from the ferry on Wednesday. It’s basically a solid platform with one level of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s flat pack arrangement on top. The base of the structure clearly takes a bit of a battering at times. One side of the base is almost completely covered in a layer of green algae and birds are obviously very fond of the rock it sits on!

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Na Cuiltean lighthouse

I was very excited about the next one. Skervuile isn’t really that far from land, but the land it is close to is very remote and fairly inaccessible, which makes seeing this one a bit of a challenge. I’d seen it as a small white pencil of a thing in the distance from the ferry. As we approached it was getting bigger and bigger and yet there still seemed to be some distance to go. It reminded me of a term I’d heard from Christian Nock who walked around the coastline of mainland UK: “lighthouse syndrome”. Anyone who has ever walked any distance to a lighthouse will know the feeling. You see the lighthouse and think “Great, I’m nearly there” and an hour later you are still walking towards it. Well, the approach to Skervuile was a little like that, except it wasn’t an hour. We did eventually get there though and I was very surprised to see the rock below it exposed. All of the pictures I’d remembered of it were at high tide where the sea completely surrounds the base of the tower. With the tide fairly low, the small landing platforms were also exposed. As with all rock lighthouses, I stood staring at it thinking “wow, I have no idea how they built that, but I’m so glad they did”!

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Skervuile lighthouse

Eilean nan Gabhar was next on the agenda as we sailed back down the Sound of Jura. This one is a fairly standard flat pack, except it’s a flat pack with those Paps in the background from certain angles! I’ve become a little obsessed with getting pictures of lighthouses with the Paps of Jura in the background. The joy of it being that it is very easily done in the Islay/Jura area. I believe the term “commanding the landscape” is very apt as that is exactly what the Paps do – well, until you stick a lighthouse in front of them, of course!

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Eilean nan Gabhar lighthouse

Another wave to McArthur’s Head as we entered the Sound of Islay. The ferry had given us a very good view of Carraig Mhor, to the south of Port Askaig, on Wednesday, but this was an opportunity to get even closer. Not landing close (although that would have been possible, but was not a priority for today). With the reduced elevation compared to the ferry, and the calm sea conditions it was also a good chance to catch some nice reflection shots. Love a reflection! It still looked from our closer angle like it would be quite difficult to access by land.

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Carraig Mhor lighthouse

From the ferry on Wednesday, I’d quickly caught the little lighthouse, Carragh an t-Sruith on the west coast of Jura. Very similar in appearance to Eilean a Chuirn, this one looks to be a nice little walk from the landing point for the ferry across the short stretch from Islay. Must put that on my “to do” list.

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Carragh an t-Sruith lighthouse

Ruvaal hadn’t been part of the original plan, but I asked Bob this morning if we would be going that far. I think he sensed from my tone that I wanted to go there. We asked Gus nicely and he was more than happy to add it on. On the way there he told us about the couple who own the lighthouse and how they manage being such a long way from a road. The majority of their journeys to Port Askaig are done by small boat. They do have a quad bike to drive across the difficult terrain, but Gus explained that the land they cross is mostly mud. He had once driven up there on the quad once with a passenger and saw a big puddle, which he thought he could get through. As it turned out, a pole had blown down in the wind and had been removed along with its base, leaving a gaping chasm (my words, not his). So, Gus ended up stuck in this gaping chasm with water almost up the seating level in the quad. Fortunately he was able to get them out and back on the track. The challenges they must face seem endless to me and it would take a certain type of person to be able to live (or enjoy life) there. As much as I love lighthouses, I would need to draw the line when it comes to choosing which one to live in, and Ruvaal falls below this line! Having said that, the lighthouse is beautiful. Incredibly slender! If I were a lighthouse, I would want to look like Ruvaal. It was lovely to sail around it and see the side with the windows too. Maybe I could live there – perhaps – just for a few days.

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Ruvaal lighthouse

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McArthur’s Head lighthouse

We had purposely saved McArthur’s Head for the way back. We’d rather cheekily asked Gus if he thought it might be possible for us to go ashore there and climb those glorious steps. He explained that it is not possible to land at low tide, he’d once been stranded in a nearby cave due to the tide going down. To maximise our chances of landing, he suggested saving it until the end of our trip when the tide would be in. He wasn’t wrong and I may have squealed a little (just a little) when he said that he’d get us in! We hopped ashore and made for the steps. I approached the steps thinking that there weren’t that many and it would be easy enough. About 10 or so steps from the top I changed my mind. It’s a long way up! But it was so worth it. The lighthouse, while not unlike a number of others in the area, was stunning and the extra effort you put into getting to it adds to the enjoyment. My favourite views though were from the end of the path beyond the lighthouse looking back at it with Jura in the background. Just beautiful. Gus told us that the lighthouse was painted last year and they flew in 2.5 tonnes of paint for the job. I imagine at least half of this paint was used on the wall rather than the tower itself. The wall is so long that I didn’t even realise we were inside it! McArthur’s Head now holds the record for the most number of hugs it has had from me (3). I even enjoyed walking back down the steps. I can’t decide though whether the lighthouse looks better from the land or from the sea. It is just an all-round wonderful lighthouse and I want to go back already!

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McArthur’s Head from the sea

Heading back to Port Ellen, the sea eagles were out in force again, being wound up by some gulls. Gus had told us about a group of stags he’d seen swimming between islands near Eilean a Chuirn the other day. By some wonderful chance, we spotted one in the water as we passed. Gus did a very quick and very sharp turn in the RIB to enable us to see the deer swimming at close range. After it arrived on the island it looked back at us briefly before wandering off onto the island.

A wonderful and very successful day. Certainly one never to be forgotten. 🙂

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 🙂

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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! 🙂

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The mad plan: Shetland – part one

The mad plan for this week was introduced in my post from Sunday. We successfully completed the Jersey part of the week, and today the second half began: Shetland!

I’ve struggled a little with Shetland recently. Having never been there I was getting to the point with my lighthouse list where it felt like everything was miles apart with massively long walks to each of them. The reason for coming to Shetland for three days was to take pictures of some of its lighthouses, but after the first day it has already become one of my most exciting trips to date.

After just a couple of hours sleep last night and an early flight from Aberdeen to Sumburgh, I wasn’t quite bouncing off of the walls with excitement. That soon changed though as we spotted the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head flashing away as we came in to land. The start of our time here was also enhanced by meeting up with Brian who, in his “retirement”, carries out maintenance work on 37 lighthouses across Shetland. I had come into contact with Brian through my membership of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers and Ian Duff who joined us for the Skerryvore trip earier this year. Brian and Ian have known each other for many years and worked together in a number of lighthouses. Brian had very kindly offered to act as our tour guide for seeing some of the major lights, and he suggested heading straight to Sumburgh Head. I was, of course, delighted with this suggestion.

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Sumburgh Head lighthouse

Brian made arrangements with the Northern Lighthouse Board for us to go up the tower. The day was just getting better and better already! Throwing into the mix the fact that the sun was just rising made it even more amazing! The tower at Sumburgh Head is fairly short – one of the benefits of sitting on top of high cliffs, I suppose. This made it particularly pleasant to climb up. The optic and light must be turned off before anyone goes up there. It is a massive optic and, partnered with the views from the tower, made for a really special experience. He also showed us how the foghorn equipment worked and we got to witness him starting the engines, which he routinely does just to keep them up and running.

It didn’t take us long to realise that Brian is an absolutely master of his trade. He knows everything about Shetland’s lighthouses as well as so many others. There are only a few he hasn’t been too, and by all accounts it sounds like he was often specifically chosen to address problems with the lights across Scotland. He’s served in some of the most impressive including Sule Skerry, Skerryvore, Chicken Rock and Ardnamurchan and has stories to tell about them all. Watching him doing anything within the lighthouse at Sumburgh as well as the foghorn was fascinating. His attention to detail and his knowledge are outstanding. Definitely the right person to have around if anything goes wrong!

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The old Muckle Roe lighthouse with Sumburgh Head in the background

From Sumburgh we headed back down the road and stopped at the old Muckle Roe light which welcomes visitors to Sumburgh Head at the main parking area. Brian had already informed me that he and a colleague had re-built the tower in its current location – no mean feat considering most of the detail necessary to assist with building it had long gone. As if the day wasn’t exciting enough, we were able to get inside this little tower and climb to the top where we saw the small optic, more great views and got to spend some time in one of these lovely structures that I’d never had the opportunity to get inside before. I felt very privileged, especially as Brian had taken the time to show just the two of us around.

After lunch we hopped over on the very short ferry crossing to Bressay. As well as continuing to work for the Northern Lighthouse Board, Brian also does some work for the Shetland Amenities Trust who own both the old Muckle Roe light at Sumburgh and the old lighthouse at Bressay as well as the associated buildings. As soon as you arrive at Bressay lighthouse you know you are somewhere very special. I don’t even know where to begin in describing the coastline around it, and then with the lighthouse standing tall above it… There are really no words. If the geo and surrounding rocks next to the lighthouse weren’t enough, the tower itself stands not far away at all from a natural arch (known as the “Giant’s Knee” by the keepers). It’s places like Bressay that remind me of why I enjoy lighthouses so much. To actually explain why I enjoy them is tough – just go to Bressay and you will find out for yourself!

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Bressay lighthouse

Brian had warned us that the lamp room was now completely empty (the old optic can be seen in the Shetland Museum and Archives) and I was expecting to feel sad about it once we reached the top, but I felt anything but. Firstly, they’ve raised the floor level slightly making it exactly the perfect size of room for someone of my short stature. The views from every single angle are awe-inspiring and the acoustics inside are fascinating!

Standing around in the lamp room at Bressay was a brilliant opportunity to hear lots more of Brian’s stories from his days travelling the lights of Scotland. One question I asked which prompted numerous stories was “what do you think really happened to the keepers who missing from the Flannans?” He said that there is something very strange about the Flannans lighthouse and recalled various occurrences of things happening that made no sense. Some of the stories he told were particularly creepy, such as one of the keepers seeing a man in a storeroom and when he returned to Brian was clearly frightened. When they went back to the room there was no one there and the keeper pointed to the spot he’d seen this man and it was within a small area that always felt considerably colder than the rest of the room. Brian also felt like he was being watched sometimes when no one else was around. By this point I definitely wasn’t smiling anymore! There was one really funny story though when one of the keepers was outside the lighthouse on a very misty day and saw three man emerging from the mist and he thought it was the missing men. It turned out to be three fishermen from the Channel Islands who had landed on the island and wandered up to the lighthouse. We laughed about it, but it would have been pretty scary for him!

Anyway, I digress (very easy to do with Brian’s stories). We eventually pulled ourselves away from the lighthouse and took a drive up to the island high point in the hire car, as you do! It was quite bumpy and the road wasn’t really suitable for a Micra, but it’s still intact.

Before we left Brian for the day he had a look through my list and shared his knowledge of the best way(s) to access the lighthouses he regularly visits. There is no end to his knowledge!

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Twageos Point lighthouse

We decided to finish the day with a couple of stops off at some of the smaller lighthouses. Being in the Lerwick area anyway, the structure at Twageos Point was just begging us to visit. It turned out to be a very simple visit – the lighthouse basically has its own gate and a well-trodden path leading to it. In comparison with the lights we’d already seen that day it wasn’t the most amazing, but it has its own charm and was obviously built to be functional above anything else.

With just a short time left before the sun was due to go down, we obviously felt the need to cram in another lighthouse.

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Fugla Ness lighthouse

We opted for Fugla Ness based on it being fairly easy to access and not too far from where we were. The walk out there was a combination of easy grassy sections and big old boulders. Bob rushed off ahead with all of the abilities of a mountain goat to then have to wait for me to catch him up (or came back and accompany me along). As soon as I saw this one from the road I knew I loved it! The surrounding scenery probably helps, but it really is a beauty, sitting there on its own little grass and rock peninsula. I think I might just take that one home. I will let the picture speak for itself.

On top of the lighthouses we’ve visited, we also had distance glimpses of a number of other lights today, including Mousa, Hoo Stack and Moul of Eswick. We’ve seen the islands of Foula and Fair Isle too. So many islands still to do here…

I am hoping this post goes some way in conveying just how much I have enjoyed today. All of the smiling and fun of the day (and probably the lack of sleep last night) is catching up with me! We have another day lined up with Brian tomorrow. More on that tomorrow evening! 🙂

I should also note that, in my last blog post, I mentioned that we would be going on a RIB ride along the Clyde to catch a few of the lights there. For technical reasons relating to the boat we weren’t able to do this on Wednesday. It has instead been postponed until Monday.

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A well-timed return to Dunnet Head

As you can imagine, we have a few lighthouse-related items around our house and so it was no surprise really that our 4-year-old son requested a visit to a lighthouse yesterday. With pretty strong wind about, we realised that there’s really no such thing as a sheltered lighthouse, so we decided to go all-out and head to Dunnet Head. Dunnet Head is probably our most visited lighthouse, partly because it’s one of the closest (after Strathy Point and Holburn Head) and also because it’s a great place to take visitors.

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Inside the lighthouse compound

I had been in contact with the man who now owns the buildings within the compound (excluding the lighthouse, of course) about visiting, but our timing had never been quite right. So we were nicely surprised to see the “Gallery Open” sign on the gate when we got there. I was mostly pleased to have the opportunity to get closer to the lighthouse, which we headed straight for.

After we’d touched (bagged) the lighthouse we popped into the art gallery, which is within the old engine room. There are some beautiful pictures in there, clearly very much inspired by the local landscapes. A number of local artists have paintings on display there, and it’s really interesting to see their different styles and takes on local views. While we were in there, we were accompanied by a friendly dog – clearly the compound tour guide as he was also wandering around the paths outside when we left. There are a number of artistic features around the compound too.

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Dunnet Head lighthouse, the view from the fog horn

After we’d been to the art gallery we briefly went through the gate towards the old fog horn. There is a sign next to the gate warning visitors of the high winds and that dogs and children are not allowed beyond that point. So, clinging on to our son’s hand, we went through. The wind direction meant that it was actually a little sheltered once we were down the steps. It was good to be able to see the lighthouse from the seaward side for a change.

It’s really good to see something being done with the lighthouse buildings that allows the public access. The man behind what happens there has set up a website which contains contact details if you are ever looking to visit 🙂

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The beautiful island of Fidra

As mentioned in my previous post, we were informed of a fairly last minute boat trip that was headed for Fidra on Wednesday. Fidra is one of those islands that, although it is fairly close to the mainland, isn’t so easy to get to. During bird nesting season landing on the island isn’t really allowed, meaning boat operators just won’t take you there. It is the same for Bass Rock, which is even more of a challenge to land on. Obviously as soon as the nesting season is over the weather starts to turn, so you just need to hope for a good weather window in autumn or winter in order to get to these places.

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Bass Rock from North Berwick

When we arrived at North Berwick and managed to jump into a newly vacated parking space on the sea front, we had wonderful views over to Bass Rock with its immediately identifiable shape and lighthouse. The sky was blue, but there was a fair wind coming from the west, which we thought wouldn’t have much of an impact on the Firth of Forth, but it certainly does!

We found our fellow passengers and the boat, Braveheart, where the skipper informed us we would need our waterproofs for the crossing. Always nice to hear! He was definitely not wrong though. While it wasn’t a particularly bad ride it was bumpy at times with a lot of splashing. Two of our party had taken up the most unfortunate positions at the back of the boat. You may recall in older television comedies where it was clear that buckets of water were being thrown at people to resemble being in a boat on choppy seas. Well that was what it was like. It was good fun though.

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The natural arch

As we approached the island the conditions became much calmer and by the time we pulled in alongside the jetty it was positively calm. Landing on the jetty was easy, much easier than many other landings. A couple of members of the group wandered off over to the tidal section of the island (the South Dog) while the rest of us followed the route of the old tracks leading up to the lighthouse, passing the ruins of the old 12th/13th century chapel. There is a wonderful natural arch in the rock to the right as you walk up. It’s not a big island, but it’s stunning. I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful, possibly because it isn’t particularly remote. I always felt that islands that took a long time to get to were often the most beautif

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Fidra lighthouse and the old cable drum

As the highest point of the island is to the east of the lighthouse, once you’ve landed on the island it’s not possible to see the lighthouse. It was only after a few minutes of walking up the old tracks that it came into view. Just after passing through the wall that surrounds the compound, we saw the old cable drum that was used to haul the carts up from the jetty to the lighthouse. We also spotted one of the wheels from a cart on our way back down too.

The different land levels around the lighthouse give a variety of perspectives on it. The large rock to the south of island, as one of the other group members said, almost seems as if it was placed there just for people to get a good view/take pictures of the lighthouse from. So often it’s the surroundings of the lighthouse that add to its appeal and that’s definitely the case with Fidra.

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Fidra lighthouse from higher ground

The lighthouse here was designed and built under the leadership of Thomas and David A Stevenson. The light was established in 1885 and was automated in 1970. In 2009, along with lighthouse on Inchkeith and Elie Ness lighthouse, ownership of the light was transferred to Forth Ports.

After we left the lighthouse, we had a stroll around the old lighthouse garden, which is a fair size. It is covered with old puffin burrows so we had to tread carefully.

Fidra is a stunning island and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit. A little gem in the Firth of Forth! 🙂

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To Skerryvore or not to Skerryvore? That was the question!

Back in June an island-bagging friend of ours started plans for a trip to Tiree in August, taking a boat out to a number of islands, but more importantly to Skerryvore lighthouse. Now, anyone who knows anything about lighthouses will understand the delight I felt on hearing of such a trip. We’d previously been out to Dubh Artach with Coastal Connection based in Oban. They had said they would be willing to take us out to Skerryvore, but this trip would take us out from Tiree, which would give us the opportunity to see the shore station, signal tower and museum at Hynish. Another boat trip for the same weekend would be heading north to Coll, taking in the Cairns of Coll including the lighthouse on Suil Ghorm.

We were short on a few people to get a boat-load and I had recently been in contact with the Secretary of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, of which I am a member, so I asked him if he knew of anyone else interested in joining us. Due to the short notice of the trip there were a number of people interested, but had other plans. However, one particular person was able to make it – a former keeper on Skerryvore!

We set off ridiculously early to catch the ferry from Oban to Tiree and were informed on the ferry that, although the trip to Skerryvore was originally planned for that afternoon, it might happen the following day. While the sea seemed calm at Oban, once we were past Mull we could see a change in conditions. On the boat we met up with Ian Duff, the former keeper at Skerryvore who was joining us. He had served there for 4 years of his career with the Northern Lighthouse Board, as well as Duncansby Head, Fladda and Sanda. If there’s one way to pass time quickly on the ferry journey from Oban to Tiree it’s listening to a string of fascinating stories from a former lighthouse keeper! We were to hear a lot of stories over the weekend, leading me to wish I had been recording everything Ian had said while we were there!

Once we had arrived, the organiser spoke to the boatman from Tiree Sea Tours, who were taking us out on the trips in their RIB. Tiree Sea Tours have only started running trips from the island this year and, over the summer have regularly organised trips out to Skerryvore when the weather has allowed. For us, we were hoping to get onto the rocks surrounding the lighthouse, which the boat company will only allow on a private charter, so that was the plan. The boatman said that they would meet us that afternoon to discuss the plan, with a view to running both of the proposed trips in one day as the swell was due to go down the following day. It was clear from the sea conditions that going out that afternoon would have achieved nothing, so we headed off to Hynish with Ian and Brian (the organiser of the trip).

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The signal tower at Hynish

The key buildings and features at Hynish are the shore station for Skerryvore, including the accommodation for the keepers’ families, the signal tower to/from which semaphore signals were sent to communicate with the keepers at the lighthouse, workshops and a man-made dock. As with Skerryvore itself, the shore station building and dock were designed by Alan Stevenson, who also oversaw the building work. Hynish was also the location from which the stone for the lighthouse was dispatched after being quarried on Mull and then transported by tender to Tiree. The shore station and signal tower at Hynish have not been used since 1892 when it was moved to Erraid, which was already the location of the shore station for Dubh Artach. Ian pointed out that Hynish was a better location for the shore station due to its proximity to Skerryvore lighthouse, whereas it was often not possible to see the lighthouse from Erraid. By the time Ian was a keeper on Skerryvore the shore stations for Skerryvore, Dubh Artach, Barra Head and a couple of others in the area were all located next door to each other on a single street in Oban – I imagine there must have been good community spirit there!

The museum at Hynish is wonderful and it was great to be able to visit it with Ian, who was able to point out that the old telescope on display was definitely from Skerryvore, but the clock wasn’t! We took a stroll up to the signal tower, which unfortunately was closed, and then we had a look around the dock that was built for use during the construction and servicing of the lighthouse. To visit a place that would have been so busy back in the late 19th century and which is now so quiet is fascinating. The world has changed so much and Hynish is a good example of how advances in communication and transport technology have led to the abandonment of places. Luckily, The Hebridean Trust have stepped in and have done some wonderful work there, of which there are details on their website. It is great to see everything that was built there either being maintained or used for another purpose.

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Scarinish lighthouse

That afternoon we met up with Fraser and Kris from Tiree Sea Tours at the Scarinish Hotel, which confirmed that we would be hoping to get both trips done in the one day on the Saturday. It also gave us a chance to wander across from the hotel to Scarinish lighthouse, which used to be a more substantial structure (similar to Sgeir Bhuidhe at Port Appin, but hexagonal in shape). Now it is a much less interesting structure (for me anyway), but it wasn’t a lot of effort to get to so I couldn’t complain! A little later we went for a drive around the island and the air must have cleared a little as we got our first glimpse of Skerryvore from Tiree. Would we get there? – only time would tell.

Overnight I was hopeful that the wind would drop and we’d wake up to calmer seas and blazing sunshine in the morning. I was a little disappointed that this wasn’t the case, with the sea calmer but not flat and lots of cloud and light rain. We all got onboard the boat and off we went. It was bumpy from very early on as we began our journey out to Skerryvore, with there being little in the way of shelter on the pier. Not long after we set off the skipper decided to abandon the attempt and head north that morning, with the aim of returning to try Skerryvore that afternoon. My heart sank a little, but all was not lost as the Cairns of Coll beckoned.

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Cairns of Coll lighthouse on Suil Ghorm

After a stop off on Coll to pick up a man who had done extensive work in surveying the Cairns of Coll, we continued north. As we sailed through the many islands in the area it took a while before Suil Ghorm and its lighthouse emerged. It’s a wonderfully-shaped island, almost like the top half of a whale sticking up out of the sea – with a lighthouse on its head! The lighthouse was built in 1909 by David A and Charles Stevenson, who were responsible for a significant number of the smaller lighthouses, including the former light at Scarinish as mentioned above – particularly those that, in more recent years, have been replaced with the “flat pack” type. They were also the creators of some of the larger lighthouses too. We had planned to land on Suil Ghorm and there had been no indication that getting onto the island would be a problem. However, when we got there, the tide was fairly high with rocks just under the surface of the water all around the island. This meant we couldn’t get in close enough to be able to get onto the land without damaging the boat. I was happy to see it from the sea though.

That afternoon came the chance to try again for Skerryvore. The sea seemed to have calmed down a little and the skipper sounded slightly more optimistic that he’d be able to get us out there, but pessimistic about us getting off of the boat and onto the rocks. I was satisfied with that, as long as I could see it close up I was happy – besides, getting good pictures of lighthouses when you are sharing a rock with them can be really tricky. Ian had told us that, if he had been making the final decision as the whether or not it would be possible for a NLB boat or helicopter to land that day he would have said “no”, and he knows those rocks better than most.

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Skerryvore lighthouse

We had a bumpy old ride out to Skerryvore, but as soon as I saw her pointing up ahead of us it all felt like it was worth it – and I knew that the return journey would be an easier ride. It is fairly widely reported that Skerryvore is often considered the most “graceful” lighthouse and there would be no argument from me on that. The Trinity House habit of replacing the top of rock lighthouse lanterns with helipads hasn’t done most of their wave-washed structures any favours, which automatically gives its Northern Lighthouse Board counterparts an advantage. In comparison to the Bell Rock or Dubh Artach lighthouses, which are both painted, Skerryvore’s untainted granite tower has more of a natural-ness to it.

While the sea to the east of the lighthouse (the side we were on) was relatively calm, you could see how rough things were to the west with waves breaking over the reef running north. Ian told us about a time that the Principal Keeper at Skerryvore had given the helicopter the go-ahead to land on the helipad (which sits on the rock next to the lighthouse), but after it had landed a wave broke over the top of the helicopter and damaged the blades. At the same time one of the other keepers was washed off of the rock and dislocated their shoulder. The coastguard helicopter needed to come and rescue both the NLB helicopter and the keeper. A pretty dramatic day!

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Skerryvore’s helipad is located on the flat section in the centre of this picture

Another, more amusing, story he told was of a video he had made while serving on Skerryvore that he had shown to his mother. The video was of the other two keepers walking in circles around the outside of the helipad. His mother, understandably, asked what they were doing and Ian responded that they were getting some exercise and seeing how many laps they would have to do of the helipad to walk a mile.

Visiting Skerryvore was very special for me. It’s a real pinnacle lighthouse and takes me one step closer to visiting some of the more harder to reach lighthouses. This year has been a great year for that, what with the Flannans, the Monachs, Barra Head and now Skerryvore – it’s turned out to be a pretty successful year, probably thanks to the good weather we have had. The visit to Skerryvore, though, was made just that little bit more special by visiting it with Ian.

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With Ian Duff at his former “home”, Skerryvore

Ian spoke very fondly of his time as a keeper and the range of characters he encountered at the various locations. He described how Duncansby Head lighthouse was a big part of the local community while he was there, and that it marked the first time his wife had moved away from her hometown of Oban. It was also interesting to hear that he wasn’t too keen on the lighthouses on Oigh Sgeir and Sanda, which I think are wonderful. A particular point he made, which I’d never thought of before, was that he needed to climb three towers at Sanda in order to get to the lamp! Very true – I still think it looks amazing though!

For Ian, working for the Northern Lighthouse Board was more than just a job, it was (and still is) a hobby too. We had the pleasure of being invited to visit his house after arriving back in Oban and it is clear before you even step foot inside the door that he has a great appreciation for lighthouses (as I believe everyone should). While we were there I was amazed by his extensive collection of lighthouse books and we got to see the Skerryvore model that he had built during his time living in the lighthouse itself.

So, there we were – we made it to Skerryvore! A fantastic weekend 🙂

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