uklighthousetour

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

A Shetland Adventure – part 10

This post is somewhat delayed due to other tasks taking priority (namely, the book and a presentation related to it – more on that soon!), but it marks the final of my Shetland Adventure series. Reaching double figures is fairly impressive and what a fantastic two weeks it was. The final bagging day was certainly a good end to a thoroughly enjoyable holiday. So, here is what occurred on the final Shetland boat trip…

Aside from the two lighthouses on Fair Isle, I only had one more of the big lighthouses left in Shetland to visit, and that was Out Skerries. I’d been informed by my good friend Brian that landing on Bound Skerry, the lighthouse island within the Out Skerries group, was straightforward and was only difficult on a few days each year. So I was fairly confident about it.

We went out with Seabirds and Seals from Lerwick and I think everyone was a little worried initially about how we might combine. They, of course, are far more used to taking the average tourists about on their lovely, comfy boat to see seabirds and seals, as their name suggests. We, on the other hand, are much more focussed on getting off of the boat and onto islands numerous times a day. It took us a little while to get used to each other, but it turned into a fairly efficient process once we were all settled in. One thing I particularly enjoyed was the number of cups of tea and biscuits we were offered on the boat. It’s a great little set-up they have – and clearly one of the benefits you get from going with a tourist-orientated crew. Earlier in the week I did manage to wangle a flask of tea from Kevin from Compass Rose Charters, the operator who landed us on Muckle Flugga, though while the others were busy doing their island bagging business.

So, back to Out Skerries. The journey out there was easy enough. I’m not used to being on catamarans, clearly, as it felt different. Not so bumpy, a bit more rocky, but it was fine. Unfortunately it was a bit of an overcast day with plenty of rain, but we were informed that it should clear up by the afternoon.

Out Skerries distance

Out Skerries lighthouse awaits

After dropping a few of the group on one of the two main islands, we headed around to Bound Skerry. We’d seen the lighthouse for some time before we arrived there and it was nice to finally be approaching the island. There were only 5 of us going onto the island so we did two runs across in the tender, landing onto slippery platforms and then walking up slippery paths to get to the lighthouse. That’s the problem with rain it automatically makes rock more difficult to walk on, but we arrived at the lighthouse without incident.

Out Skerries path

Looking up the path from the landing area

It felt different there than I thought it would. For some reason I expected there to be more life about in the Out Skerries in general, of course not on the lighthouse island, but there appeared to be no one about – although I must admit that I didn’t land on the main island of Bruray. It all felt a little deserted, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think some of the most fantastic places I have been to are those where people once lived, but no longer do. It is certainly the case with a number of lighthouse islands, but there are others too.

Out Skerries and shore station

The lighthouse with the shore station in the background

The lighthouse is beautiful, and perhaps more so from a distance. It is wonderful to see it close up of course, but when you see it from further away (particularly from the neighbouring island of Grunay) it looks like it is nestled so nicely on the island, almost like it has always been there, as nature intended it to be. There is very little space on the island once you look beyond the lighthouse and helipad. You can see why they built the shore station for the keepers’ families on Grunay instead, although I have just discovered that Grunay was the location of the temporary lighthouse built in 1854 before the current tower was built on Bound Skerry in 1858. You feel very abandoned there, or maybe that was just because our boat went off to drop someone on Bruray and took longer to get back than we had thought! It was a great experience being there though and it’s definitely one of those inspiring places that, if I had the time, I might write some sort of story about. A very interesting visit.

I appeared to be the only one present to have known that Grunay, the next door neighbour island, was home to a little Shetland Islands Council lighthouse. As we approached it I was looking around towards the landing steps and knew exactly the view I was looking for, but just couldn’t see the lighthouse. It turns out that Grunay has a “dog leg” (I’m not sure that’s the right term, but I’m sticking with it). The small islet at the end of this dog leg is what I was looking for. It is separated from the main island by large boulders, which are tricky to navigate your way across – or at least that’s what I found. Whether or not the islet is tidal I’m not sure. I imagine that if it isn’t then in stormy weather the waves would crash over the boulders. Thankfully that day the sea was nice and calm.

Grunay

The lighthouse on Grunay

The little lighthouse on Grunay is similar to those at West Burrafirth, only it is round rather than square. It does have a Council look about it and it’s just tall enough to feature a door. We wandered around it in the long grass for a while before crossing back through boulder city. We knew we didn’t have a lot of time, but wanted to get to the old Out Skerries shore station. By this point I was pretty hot and I’d not had any lunch, so I wasn’t at my best, but as soon as I spotted the lighthouse peering up over the island I felt a bit better.

Out Skerries shore station

Out Skerries shore station (you can just spot the top of lighthouse above the roof)

The shore station, while still standing, has seen far better days. The windows and doors are all gone and nature has been left to do what it will to the buildings. I didn’t want to go far into the building as you never know what condition they might be in structurally, but I saw enough to feel a little sad about it. When you are seeing furniture in rooms where people once lived looking in such a bad way it does make you think. Ailsa Craig was the first one I saw,  but at least that one was being used (or should I say abused) occasionally by bird watchers. Here there has been no one since the keepers left the tower in 1972, when it became one of those in the first round of lights to be automated. Forty seven years without maintenance certainly takes its toll.

Out Skerries shore station internal

Inside one of the rooms at the Out Skerries shore station

The rain arrived just as we were walking back to the boat. Once we were back on board and attempting to dry out we went to collect the others who had been sheltering in the public toilets. Due to there still being a number of islands left to pick off on the way back to Lerwick, we only sailed past Muckle Skerry with no attempt to land. Muckle Skerry lighthouse is a flat-pack, and from the distance we saw it at and the conditions at the time it was considerably less inspiring than Out Skerries had been, but still a nice one to see.

Muckle Skerry

Our distant view of Muckle Skerry lighthouse

Our final lighthouse stop of the day was Hoo Stack. I had been informed the night before that: “Hoo Stack is called a stack, but it is anything but”, which I was pleased to hear. Landing on the island was fine, but it was then a bit of a clamber up among rocks and I was very kindly led by Alan while Bob helped with the landings. Alan had also led me up Gruney a couple of days before, so I am grateful to him (not that he will see this as he is a self-confessed techno-phobe). Once we were off of the rocks it was just a short walk up to the lighthouse.

Hoo Stack distance.jpg

Hoo Stack (or is it an island?!)

The lighthouse on Hoo Stack is another flat-pack, but quite an interesting one as it has three levels to it and the bottom level is missing the white cladding, which was very exciting as it meant I could physically get inside it. I’d been wanting to experience that for some time and managing it on the final one of my lighthouse islands of the trip was great. The sun had come out by this point too, which also increases your enjoyment of a place. Of course the others joined me inside the lighthouse too. I think they are really getting into this lighthouse bagging malarkey.

Hoo Stack

Hoo Stack lighthouse in the sunshine

A truly brilliant way to end the two weeks in Shetland. Reflecting back on it now, it seems almost like a dream, as if it never really happened, but it certainly did. The highlight though had to be Muckle Flugga, of course. After that I can’t even begin to pick out the best bits – there were far too many of them. 🙂

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A Shetland Adventure – part 9

Every now and then I have a day involving lots of little lights and today was certainly one of them. We spent the day on a boat with Compass Rose Charters (who landed us on Muckle Flugga the other day) in Yell Sound, Shetland. I’d been looking forward to this one as there are plenty of small lighthouses on the approach to Sullom Voe. Some are Northern Lighthouse Board while others were installed by the council.

Our departure point was Toft on Mainland Shetland. First we headed out to the islands of Linga and Samphrey, which gave us a nice view of Firth’s Voe, which we’d walked to the other day.

Firths Voe

Firths Voe from a distance

From Samphrey we set off for the Sound and immediately you begin to spot little white towers around. The rest of the group wanted to get onto a couple of the islands on the east side of Yell Sound, which gave us an opportunity to see the Ness of Sound lighthouse, another one we had walked to during this trip.

Heading towards Brother Isle we could see Mio Ness, which is on the Mainland to the north east of Sullom Voe. Brother Isle was our next stop. By this time the sun had come out. Although the light on Brother Isle has no possible internal access to the tower itself I was still interested in seeing it as we were going there anyway. It’s a fairly interesting structure with a few little additional boxes around it. I’m glad I went to see it anyway.

Brother Isle

The light on Brother Isle

We sailed close to the light on Tinga Skerry. This one appears to be typical council style with the circular white tower made up of panels. The sun began to shin on it just as we were passing, which always has a way of making any structure look better than it otherwise would.

Tinga Skerry

Tinga Skerry lighthouse

Lamba was our next stop and this was a very interesting one. Not like any I had seen before. Next to the tower was what looked like three little gun barrels lined up. I’m pretty sure they are actually some sort of sector lights, so not quite so dramatic. It was a bit of an uphill walk to get to, but the blue sky in the background was great and it was nice to see something a bit different. It was a bit of a scramble on the rocks to get up, but not too bad.

Lamba

Lamba lighthouse

Little Holm was next on my hit list. It’s a tiny island really, but very beautiful. It is covered in patches of thrift and is also relatively low lying so no hills, no bonxies, just a lovely little place. It’s a Northern Lighthouse Board flat-pack but, as with so many of these, it’s the surroundings that make it so enjoyable and that was definitely the case here.

Little Holm

Little Holm lighthouse

It’s neighbour to the north, Muckle Holm, was steeper, but most of the height gain was done before we even left the rocks. This one has a far more dramatic coastline with a couple of big geos to look down into as you walk to the lighthouse. Again it’s a standard flat-pack.

Muckle Holm

Muckle Holm lighthouse

As we continued north we began to see the Point of Fethaland lighthouse, yet another we had paid a visit to on this holiday. It looks very small up on the high cliffs. I think I preferred seeing it from the land!

Our destination was the island of Gruney, which sits off of the coast of Point of Fethaland. We had seen the lighthouse on our visit to the Fethaland light, but now it was time to get onto the island and see it close up. This was where it got a bit interesting. All day we’d had flat calm landings on to dry rocks. Due to the direction of the wind and swell we needed to land on the east of the island. There was a relatively sheltered area, but the only problem was that we would be landing on a sloping slab of rock covered in seaweed with no easy place to go to avoid it. We were also struggling a little with the swell, which was moving the boat a bit as people got off. Fortunately Bob and a couple of others had micro spikes with them so Bob was able to land and stomp up the slab to hold the rope. When one of the group slipped on the seaweed I thought “I’m not sure I want to do this”, but a couple of them told me it would be ok so I got off of the boat and clung on to the rope while I shuffled my way up. Once we were past the worst of it one of the other group members helped to guide me up the rest of the rocks. You might think that I would have been relieved to have reached the top, but I was already worrying about how I was going to get back on the boat. I was, however, rewarded with some incredible views in various directions. Firstly the lighthouse was another interesting type. I was surprised to see a Northern Lighthouse Board plate on it as I’ve not seen any of their structures looking like this before. It made me question whether the Lamba light was also something to do with them, although it didn’t have a plate. The views across to Point of Fethaland were great, but the most impressive view was towards the array of sea stacks and a natural arch to the north. It made the effort to get there worthwhile. Getting back onto the boat wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Bob leant me his micro spikes and the combination of those and holding the rope again made me feel much safer. I was still glad to get back onto the boat though!

Gruney

Gruney lighthouse with Point of Fethaland in the distance

On our journey today we spotted a small white and orange tower on the island of Little Roe. It looked similar to the front light of the nearby Skaw Taing range so we felt it was important to get a closer view in order to judge whether or not it was the type that had internal access. On our way back down to Toft the skipper agreed to travel via Little Roe to give us a closer view. Looking through the zoom lens on the camera it was clear that it was the twin structure to the Skaw Taing Front range light. This was one I had not previously had on my list so I’m glad I found it today. As I said towards the beginning of this post, Yell Sound has plenty of lights.

Little Roe.JPG

Little Roe lighthouse

A really enjoyable day and a very successful one for getting to some of the lights I would otherwise only have seen from a distance. 🙂

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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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A Shetland Adventure – part 5

Today’s instalment of the Shetland Adventure took us over to the west coast of Shetland Mainland, and the island of Muckle Roe. Muckle Roe is attached to the mainland by a bridge, which is helpful for achieving a visit to the lighthouse there.

We parked at the “car park”, a little lay-by at the side of the road and set off. I was delighted to see a signpost saying “Lighthouse 2km”, mainly because I knew it was a flat-pack lighthouse and I’ve never seen a signpost specifically guiding you to a flat-pack before!

Muckle Roe sign

The flat-pack lighthouse sign

Those 2km were a beautiful walk. We went a little awry initially on the walk and ended up losing the path, but we quickly found it again. The path near enough followed the coast along, with plenty of lovely views, particularly the one in the picture below. I thought that one of the rocks jutting out into the sea here looked like an alligator.

Muckle Roe coastline

One of the incredible views – can you spot the alligator rock?

There were lots of ups and downs and this way and that way as we went. At one point we came to a loch with a lovely little stream leading into the sea. It was a really interesting walk. After a while, when it looked like we still may have had miles and miles still to go, the lighthouse came into view, tucked down at the coast. It looked like we were nearly there until I got a bit closer and discovered that we still had to go a bit further inland to get out to the lighthouse. It wasn’t so far though and the old handrail posts reassuringly led us in the right direction.

The lighthouse is surrounded by an array of rocky outcrops and the cliffs in front of the tower are amazing. As my regular readers will know, I am rather partial to a flat-pack lighthouse and this was a standard one. As with so many of them though it is in part the location that makes them so worth visiting. Would I have wanted to miss out on seeing the great views I got on Muckle Roe this morning? No, I wouldn’t, and if it hadn’t have been for the lighthouse I would have been very unlikely to have gone there. This is what it’s really all about – well, that and the lighthouses too of course.

Muckle Roe from landward

Muckle Roe lighthouse

Knowing that a old lighthouse on Muckle Roe is now next to the car park at Sumburgh Head, I wish I had been able to see it in its original home. People talk a lot about the full-time lighthouse keepers – and very rightly so – but what a wonderful job the person responsible for looking after the old lighthouse here would have had. Take a flask of tea along and sit outside the tower, which was built as an automatic station, on a nice day (I have a wonderful imagination, can you tell?) and enjoy the beauty of it all. A wonderful thought.

Muckle Roe from coast

Looking up at the lighthouse

With the jagged coastline and land around it there are plenty of angles to see the lighthouse from. There was also an interesting little stone hut – or the remains of one – not far from the lighthouse. Not sure what that would have been for, but again a fantastic place to have a hut. Eventually it was time to head off and the walk back was straight forward with no wrong turns taken. The rain started just as we arrived back at the car so our visit was perfectly timed.

This afternoon we finally made it to the Shetland Museum & Archives, which we’d unsuccessfully attempted to visit in November. I knew that it contained the old light mechanism from Bressay lighthouse, which is exactly where I went as soon as I arrived. It is a catoptric mechanism, using mirrors to reflect light rather than glass, which was installed in the Bressay tower in 1940. When the light was automated in 1989 the mechanism was removed and, of course, it is now on display for all to see, which is wonderful. What is most wonderful though is that they have set it up so you can press a big yellow button and it turns as it would have done in the lighthouse.

Bressay mechanism

The old light mechanism from Bressay lighthouse

It was great to see this sort of light mechanism in action and because of the mirrors you also get to see yourself upside down as it spins! It’s fantastic what they have done with it. A real centrepiece to the Museum – or at least that’s what I think anyway. 🙂

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A Shetland Adventure – part 4

Well, what can I say about today except that it has involved possibly the best lighthouse-related walk I have ever done. We decided that today, when the wind was strong from the north, to walk to the most northerly point of Mainland Shetland, the Point of Fethaland. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? In fact it was incredible.

I was joined by Bob, my dad and our friend Mervyn, an island bagger. I was a little confused as to why Mervyn was interested in going to the Point of Fethaland as I just expected it to be a headland with no associated islands, but I was to find out exactly why Mervyn wanted to go there.

We parked up near the farm at Isbister and off we set. Once through the gate we had a choice of turning left or right. It turned out that a left turn would have taken us along a track all of the way, but we spotted cows up that way so turned right. Turning right meant we were taking the “off piste” route and we were wandering across fields and weaving our way over and around the wetter sections of grass before we rejoined the main track, which was basically a road. We spotted the island of Muckle Holm and its lighthouse off to the east on the way. The road petered out into more of a land rover track as we headed downhill and began to get the first views of the lighthouse and passed the old houses.

First view of PoF

The first view of Point of Fethaland

I was surprised at the number of houses, but it turns out the area was once a busy area with a deep-sea fishing station. Sixty boats operated here in the late 19th and early 20th century. These boats were manned by seasonal workers who shared the lodges of which there are believed to have been up to 36. It’s hard to imagine now that it was once the busiest deep-sea fishing station in Shetland. We didn’t see another soul on our whole journey.

Old houses

Some of the ruins of old houses in the area

As we approached Fethaland it became clear why Mervyn was interested. Fethaland itself is an island, albeit only at certain tides or in particularly wild sea conditions. As we walked across the rock and stones that divide the mainland from Fethaland it was fascinating to see the huge rocks to the west with waves crashing while to our right was a pebble beach with calm water in the sheltered natural harbour. Once we crossed the rocks it was a fairly steep walk up the island. At one point we ended up walking along a sheep track which ran along the side of a steep hill. Due to the wind I found myself stopping every couple of minutes until the strongest gusts passed before continuing on. Otherwise I could imagine myself tumbling sideways down the slope. One final push up the hill took us to the lighthouse and an absolutely stunning landscape opened up before us. As we went up, Bob had been to the high point of the island and I saw him climbing rather precariously up onto some rocks – not ideal in strong wind, but when he showed me the resulting picture I understood why he’d been up there.

PoF3

Bob’s view from the precarious rocks

The lighthouse is fascinating. I’ve not seen one like it before. It has a concrete base with a GRP section, containing the lens, on top. The lens was spinning away in the lantern. The black panels on the outside of the tower make it look much more modern than it actually is – it was first lit in 1977. Mervyn was delighted to have made it to the lighthouse too and said that it was his favourite and was beautifully engineered. As a former professor of engineering that is quite a powerful statement. I was pleased to have been there with him and that he is very swiftly coming around to this lighthouse bagging concept.

PoF1

The unique Point of Fethaland lighthouse

From Point of Fethaland we could also see the island of Gruney to the north, which boasts a small lighthouse. With the wild winds the sea was looking pretty choppy, which added to the awe-inspiring atmosphere of the place. It’s truly beautiful and in a really special place.

PoF and Gruney

The lighthouse overlooks the island of Gruney

After we’d spent a reasonable length of time there we started our journey back. It was all going so well until Bob (our guide) decided to climb up a nearby hill and we ended up missing a gate and needing to climb over a fence. All was fine though and we all made it back safe and happy to have been to such a wonderful place. This was certainly one of those days when you are glad to be a lighthouse bagger. 🙂

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A Shetland Adventure – part 2

It’s been a great day in Shetland in terms of lighthouses. While the boat trip I was due to go on this morning to see Hoo Stack was cancelled it certainly hasn’t had any impact on the success of my day. Having plenty of the little lights in Shetland still to do we’d already decided that our contingency plan would be to walk to the Point of the Pund light, which we had looked into on our last visit, but not had enough time to fit in. My dad came along too and it was a really pleasant walk, probably in part because a lot of it is on tarmac road and then a land rover track. The little peninsula that the light sits on the end of is very picturesque and you can also see the Fugla Ness light (one of my favourites of its kind) from here. The Point of the Pund light was still on when we got there so we were able to see the red, white and green sectors in action. The tower is not like others I’ve seen before. It is really very basic, but something a bit different is always nice to see. It’s a tranquil location, or at least it was today.

Pund

Point of the Pund lighthouse

From here we decided to take a look at access to the Rova Head lighthouse. I was aware that getting out onto the peninsula was tricky with tall fences cutting it off. We were intrigued though to see whether it was possible to get around the fences where they met the coastline. As it turned out it was. I’m not going to say I enjoyed the walk to Rova Head. It involved a lot of things I’m not keen on, such as slippery rocks, angry birds (arctic terns in this case), long spongy grass where you can’t tell where you are putting your feet, etc. We made it to the lighthouse though and were lucky that we were there a few hours before high tide. Although it was a calm day today I can imagine it gets quite interesting there in rough conditions. Just before you get to the lighthouse there is a very narrow channel that runs through the rocks and you can hear the sea gushing about down there as you step over it. The lighthouse itself is an Ikea box, and a fairly standard one. While this one doesn’t look a significant structure it is, in fact, considered to be a major light due to its positioning and the important navigation role is plays. If the walk there had been slightly more enjoyable I may have appreciated it a little more. Definitely not one I will be rushing back to!

Rova Head

Rova Head lighthouse

After stopping off for lunch in Lerwick with the kids and my parents, we were off again. This time on a boat trip to the islands of Linga and Vaila off of Walls. While neither island is home to a lighthouse, there was the nearby Vaila Sound/Rams Head light that I had not seen before. I was hopeful that speaking nicely to the skipper would get us a chance to sail around to see it quickly. Before we even left Bob had spoken to them and they were more than happy to get us around there. But first there were islands! On these trips my priority is usually lighthouses, or islands with lighthouses, so I tend to miss out on quite a few – often due to rather awkward looking landings. The two today though had perfect landing points, a pontoon on Linga and a pier on Vaila, so it would have been rude not to. Linga is a small island, but there is evidence that people did live there once with a couple of houses in various states of ruin and a newer building which suggests that not so long ago (and maybe even still) someone went or goes there.

Linga

Remains of an old house on Linga

Moving on to Vaila, a significantly bigger island. What can I say about it apart from that it is fascinating. We weren’t there long enough for me to explore the island fully, I imagine that would take at least a day. I stayed around the harbour area while the others went to the island high point and some other hill and a trig point. There is a beautiful little bridge crossing a narrow little river that obviously comes down from higher ground on the island. When you think of Shetland you imagine wild, remote terrain with any evidence of delicate flora and fauna long since blown away. This part of Vaila though is evidence that the small, delicate and beautiful can live and thrive here. On the small banks of the little river were some small yellow flowers, not the type of harsh plant you would expect, but one so small and dainty. If I were a flower person I might be able to tell you what they were, but unfortunately I am not. I’d happened to be in contact with a friend of mine who lives in Shetland while I was there and he gave me a call while I wandered around and he explained that when he was a child he used to live on the island while his father was a boatman for the estate. He clearly has a real fondness for the place and I can quite imagine what a wonderful place it would be to live as a child.

Vaila

A beautiful scene on Vaila

Just a short distance back towards the pier I noticed a gate with a sign saying ‘Ham Garden Centenary 1913-2013’. I’d heard mention of there being a graveyard on the island  so I made my way in. What I found there was completely unexpected with well-maintained grassy paths leading in various directions through this garden. Since I was young I have always loved the story ‘The Secret Garden’ and it is the garden in the story that I love most about it. In this garden on Vaila I imagined that I was in the secret garden. I made it to the real ‘secret garden’ section and just after entering the tree lined paths I spotted two stones on the ground with the names Effie and Olga on them. Just next to these stones was a stone pug with wings. It turns out that someone who used to live on the island owned two pugs and she buried them there when they died. Hence the stone pug. Further on there were more gravestones, for people this time. Passing beyond these there was a dark section of the path covered by overhanging trees which even I had to bend down to walk through. Beyond that was an old gate and as I headed back towards the harbour through the final part of the garden I’d not been through I spotted a variety of plants you wouldn’t expect to find there. It was a fascinating place. Needless to say, I was glad I’d spent some time there.

Vaila garden

Ham Garden on Vaila

Once we were all back on the boat we headed straight for the lighthouse. The Vaila Sound lighthouse (also known as White Ness or Ram’s Head) was looking good from the sea today. Apparently the walk out to it isn’t too bad, so perhaps I will attempt that at some point for a closer look. It’s another flat-pack structure and when you see it from the sea it looks fairly majestic sitting up on the rocks. As with a lot of these locations that used to have the white cast iron towers, there is evidence of some form of liquid, possibly acid, being thrown down the rocks. This was the case here too. I was pleased that a few of the others on the boat took an interest as well, even though lighthouses aren’t their primary (or even secondary) focus. I was reminded by one of the members of the group that he referred to the flat-pack towers as “Steffanson” lighthouses, partly due to the Swedish link with them looking like some sort of Ikea invention, but also referencing the Stevenson link with most of the larger Scottish lighthouses.

Vaila Sound

Vaila Sound lighthouse

It was a good, fun day and hopefully there is plenty more of that to come! 🙂

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A Shetland Adventure – part 1

I have added “part 1” to the title of this post with a fairly high level of confidence. We are in Shetland for two weeks with various chartered boat trips organised to take us to some of the more difficult to reach islands and, most importantly for me, lighthouses. It is Shetland though and in Shetland the weather dictates most things – particularly boats, although many of the scheduled ferries (and their crew) are pretty hardy. So, I am hopeful that by being here for two weeks I will manage to achieve at least a few new lighthouses.

Now, back to the beginning. Last night we set off from Aberdeen on board the MV Hrossey. I wolfed down my dinner a little too fast in order to be able to head outside as soon as we set off. My aim was to get a closer view of the lighthouse on the end of the north pier. The pier is closed to the public so the best views I’d managed to get of it in the past were from the other side of the harbour and from the beach to the north of the pier. This was a much more successful attempt though and while I was still taking pictures of the lighthouse when some dolphins appeared. My dad, who was standing next to me at the time, later asked me if I had taken any pictures of the dolphins. I, of course, hadn’t as I was too busy concentrating on the lighthouse and only caught a brief glimpse of the dolphins before they disappeared.

Aberdeen North Pier

Aberdeen North Pier lighthouse

Happy with the views of the north pier light, I then thought I’d take a wander to the back of the boat to see how the south breakwater light was looking. Getting to the bottom of the steps I realised that at the point we were probably as close as we were going to get to it. Dashing across to the other side of the boat I caught a few pictures just in time. It was interesting to see it from that angle as it features a set of four lights all in the line. As if it didn’t look odd enough from the land, it looked even more strange from the sea. Well worth the dash to get closer to it though. I always thought Girdle Ness was fairly close to the south breakwater, but the tower seemed fairly distant from the ferry, so certainly not the best view of that one.

Aberdeen South Breakwater

Aberdeen South Breakwater lighthouse

If I hadn’t been quite so tired last night then I may have been tempted to get up early to see what lights I could spot as we travelled up towards Lerwick, but it was just not going to happen. I enjoy my sleep too much and dealing with young children on little sleep never makes for a pleasant day. So I woke in Lerwick like most normal people would.

When I visited Shetland for a couple of days last November our first stop was Sumburgh Head. There’s something about that place that seems to draw me in every time I arrive. Of course that was where we went as soon as we left the ferry. I spotted the beautiful Bressay tower across the water as we headed south (more on that one later) and also the flat-pack Mousa light. It was great to see how much the kids enjoyed wandering about at Sumburgh Head, even starting from the car park where the old Muckle Roe tower is now located.

Muckle Roe old

The old Muckle Roe light with Sumburgh Head in the background

Strangely enough the weather was very different for us today (a chilly wind and plenty of cloud about) than it was in November last year when the sun was rising wonderfully. I strolled around the outside of the buildings looking for any new angles to take pictures from. After that I joined the rest of my family in the exhibition room and gift shop. I was pleased to see that my son was thoroughly enjoying repeatedly pressing the button that set off a recording of the foghorn. Apparently most children who visit are petrified of it. Sumburgh has a nice feel about it and its location always draws you to it as it’s so easy to get to from the airport or ferry (if you have a car of course).

Sumburgh Head

Sumburgh Head lighthouse

Returning to Lerwick for the afternoon we had a quick lunch before we were due to re-board the MV Hrossey. Our arrival nicely coincided with the Lerwick RNLI Harbour Day and Northlink Ferries had organised a cruise around the islands of Bressay and Noss. Weather permitting the ferry was due to be joined by the Lifeboat, which I knew my little boy would love. Of course, I also had in the back of my mind that it would mean passing fairly close to Bressay lighthouse so I booked us all tickets to go on the cruise.

For some reason I’d expected us to set off heading south east and catching the Bressay lighthouse within the first 20 minutes or so. When the captain announced over the tannoy system that we would be heading north first it took a while for my brain to catch up and I suddenly realised that we may be sailing quite close to the Rova Head lighthouse very early in the trip. By the time I realised this, I dashed (again) to a window just in time to see the lighthouse, a flat-pack type, right outside. As the view through the window wasn’t very clear I knew I needed to go outside so I did a bit more dashing. My dashing came to a halt before I’d made it to the door though. You know how there are those scenes in cartoons where characters get stuck behind people or a person and just cannot get past, well that is exactly what happened here. I got stuck behind a very slow-moving person and then went to take a short cut only to get stuck behind a couple of people who had just come in from outside and were standing aside to let the slow person past. I eventually made it out just in time to see Rova Head getting smaller and smaller. I did get some pictures of it in the distance, but I’d not even had time to grab the camera and the zoom lens. Some of the pictures were nice though as the Lifeboat was passing between our boat and Rova Head. So I can’t really complain too much.

Rova Head and Lifeboat

The Lifeboat passing Rova Head

We arranged to go up to the bridge where the kids showed no interest in the captain’s chair or anything like that. They just wanted to enjoy the uninterrupted views of the Lifeboat bouncing about from the panoramic windows.

As the ferry began to follow the south coast of Bressay I went outside with the camera poised ready to see the lighthouse. I’m quite fond of this one having enjoyed spending time inside it last year. It’s a lovely little tower. It slowly came into view after some frankly astonishing coastal scenery. While everyone else was busy taking pictures of the Lifeboat running very close alongside us, I had my camera trained on the lighthouse. There were a few opportunities to get pictures of both the lighthouse and Lifeboat at the same time, which was nice, but the highlight was being able to see the lighthouse from this angle. As we turned the corner the natural arch very close to the tower came into view. It’s such an impressive section of the coast. It’s a shame the tower no longer contains an operational light as we may well have been able to see it from our accommodation, which looks down over Lerwick. The boat trip around Bressay was a fairly last minute addition to our schedule, but I’m pleased we did it. I’m just kicking myself a bit for not thinking of Rova Head sooner.

Bressay lighthouse

Bressay lighthouse and the natural arch

So, a positive start to the trip and let’s hope it continues in that way. We have already begun discussing back up plans to get to some of the smaller lighthouses on the mainland if boat trips aren’t running. Being on holiday with my parents, who have been looking forward to seeing the kids for months, we are lucky to be able to have a little bit of free time to go off and enjoy walks and trips that we couldn’t do very easily at all with the kids.

Hopefully more to come tomorrow! 🙂

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Success at Loch Eriboll

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

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

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

loch eriboll walk

The view from the start of the walk

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

loch eriboll

A view of Loch Eriboll

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

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

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On the approach to the lighthouse

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

loch eriboll rocks

Looking down at the rocks close to the lighthouse

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

loch eriboll lh4

The angle from which you can see the staining on the rocks

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

loch eriboll2

The view of Loch Eriboll looking south from the lighthouse

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

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

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Stroma with friends

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.

Stroma lh2

On the approach to Stroma lighthouse

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.

Stroma lh and towers

Stroma lighthouse with the old foghorn tower

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.

Stroma old boat

The old boat at the top of the slipway

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 wm

Stroma’s War Memorial

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.

Stroma beacon old

The beacon in 2015

Stroma beacon

The beacon as it is today

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 🙂

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Sule Skerry: a birthday location

Living on the north coast of Scotland there is one lighthouse that, relatively, seems so close and yet so far away. For years I have been aware of Sule Skerry, which lies around 35+ miles north of the north coast and 40 miles west of Orkney. It is the most remote (formerly) manned lighthouse in Britain and has proven to be extremely difficult to get to. The only people I had known who had been there were Northern Lighthouse Board employees or guests – as well as my doctor who has previously been out with a bird-ringing group. Getting there was becoming a bit of a problem.

During a drive through Kylesku in August last year, Bob noticed a trailer advertising trips to North Rona and Sula Sgeir run by a company called North Coast Sea Tours. Those who regularly read my blog posts will know that we recently travelled north from Ballycastle in Northern Ireland to Kylesku in the north west Highlands of Scotland with North Coast Sea Tours. That trip was a result of our discussion with the skipper, Derek, about possibly getting out to Sule Skerry. Derek was happy to take us out there, weather permitting, and has since proven that there is very little he says ‘no’ to!

So, that was how we came to organise a week’s charter of the North Coast Sea Tours covered RIB in an attempt to get two groups (island-baggers and lighthouse-baggers) out to Sule Skerry. We chose the week of 20th May as it’s normally a fairly settled time of year, the tides times were right and my birthday fell on the Tuesday. Then we just had to hope for the best. The best clearly came on Monday when the island-baggers set off and arrived safely there within a couple of hours, travelling at a good speed most of the way. Bob was part of that group and when he got home that night and showed me the pictures my spirits rose at the thought that we may actually manage to land on the island too the following day.

Looking out of the window on Tuesday, which was incidentally my birthday, I saw there was significantly more wind than there had been the previous day and my spirits dropped a little. As we set off in the boat it soon became apparent that our good sea conditions luck was running out. It was an uncomfortable ride and about 30/45 minutes into the trip the skipper stopped and asked if we were willing to proceed, reassuring us that we would definitely be able to get out there, but that landing was very unlikely. I was disappointed, but we collectively agreed that we wanted to continue and if we had to settle for seeing it from the sea then we would do that. It was a long three-hour journey out there, but some of us settled into it after a while and there was great excitement as we approached the island and saw the tower. As we neared the island it became apparent that actually the landing areas were fairly sheltered. Derek asked for a few of us to go over to check out the landing area to see if getting onto the island was possible. I jumped at the chance to be in the first shuttle.

ss from sea

Sule Skerry lighthouse

We found a perfectly flat platform to land on and I gave a little shout “yes” once I was on the island. It was a pretty slippery landing area and the stone around the old tracks leading up the path were also slippery with some sections of the path broken over time. We made it to the lighthouse though, which was incredible. We had puffins just a short distance away to the left and, beyond the puffins, were a number of gannets. It is believed that these gannets have recently starting nesting on Sule Skerry after moving on from the nearby Sule Stack. We also spotted some bonxies as we reached the highest point of the island.

ss landing

Looking back towards the landing area

The lighthouse, although looking a little worse for wear in places, is beautiful. The look of the tower is very similar to the Flannan Isles lighthouse with the “oversized” lantern. While the lantern now only contains a very small light, when built in 1895 it had to accommodate a huge hyper-radial lens, hence the need for such a huge lantern. While these two towers (Sule Skerry and Flannans) don’t have the more elegant look of some of the others, I am a big fan of them. I think it helps that they are in very remote and beautiful places.

ss2

Sule Skerry’s oversized lantern

The shape of the buildings around the tower is really interesting. The tower rises up out of the middle of an octagonal building, which presumably was where the keepers’ accommodation would have been. In this way it is similar to some of the rock lighthouses, except the lower level of the tower is much wider. It’s certainly very compact. The tower itself also appears to have old bands on it. Whether this is related to the stone used to build it or a previous paint job I’m not sure (note: see explanation in comments below from Ian Cowe). There is also what looks like a large curved indentation across one side of the tower. Who knows what caused that, but this tower clearly receives more than its fair share of brutal weather. It’s very much still standing though!

tower

Looking up the tower, you can see the bands as well as the damage

We didn’t have long on the island as the conditions were fine for landing in a sheltered spot, but we didn’t know whether the swell situation would deteriorate any further. We wandered around the lighthouse, taking in the nearby helipad and very interestingly shaped weather station. We also went to the highest point of the island (it’s fairly flat really) and sheltered behind a little black hut, and both of these locations were good angles for taking pictures of the lighthouse. It was raining, which always poses a few problems when using cameras, and the wind was strong in places so not quite ideal conditions, but that didn’t really matter.

helipad

Looking towards the helipad and weather station

I was pleased to be accompanied by my friend John while looking around. John completely understood the significance of reaching Sule Skerry and what a rare opportunity it was. He was also just as excited as I was about being there. However, he was much more negative about the possibility of getting there during the bumpy ride out to the island, while I tried to remain positive. I am glad I was right, but I should say that I am grateful to John for his assistance with getting up the worst of the slippery slope on the island.

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Sule Skerry lighthouse with its numerous solar panels

Getting back down to the dinghy involved sitting down and shuffling slowly down the slippery rocks with the support of a rope Derek had tied on to ensure that if we did slip then we wouldn’t go far/end up in the sea. We returned to the boat feeling elated at what we had achieved, but at the same time with a sense of “did that really just happen?”. It certainly did happen and every minute of the rough crossing was worth it. The return journey, via the very impressive Sule Stack, was much easier and quicker as we were going with the swell. As I said on the boat, it really felt like we were just riding the waves as a surfer would. Great fun.

Sule Skerry lighthouse, in my opinion, rarely gets the recognition it deserves. People talk a lot about the rock lighthouses, the Flannans lighthouse and many others, but in my experience it is rare to hear people speak about this one. Whether it is because people cannot see it unless they are out on the Atlantic in that particular area, or it is deemed too remote to be achievable I don’t know. I know that I will be speaking about it for many years to come though. A trip that I will remember very fondly 🙂

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