uklighthousetour

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

A cup of tea in Glenelg!

If you were based on the north coast and travelling home from Fort William which way would you go? Probably the A82 and then the A9 I would imagine. We’ve done that route many times and there’s nothing wrong with it at all, it’s quite beautiful in places, although it can get quite busy in the summer months. There may be other slightly more convoluted routes available, but one you’d possibly not choose to take would be via Skye.

Anyone who knows Bob will know that he rarely takes the path of least resistance, and today was a perfect example of that. But it was all fine because the reason for going that way was to pay a visit to the old Sandaig lighthouse, which is now located near the Glenelg-Kylerhea ferry. The lighthouse is really quite easy to access, you can either drive right up to it or take the ferry across from Kylerhea to see it. I had done neither and had just seen it from the other side of the water at Kylerhea a couple of times.

Setting off from Fort William, the first leg of the trip involved getting across to Mallaig for the ferry to Armadale. I booked it on the way there to avoid getting all of the way there to find it was fully booked. The joy of technology! We managed to get on an earlier ferry and in just over half an hour we were on Skye.

I think Skye is a wonderful place, but it is vast. While many might think that it’s just an island it can’t take that long to visit everything, I have found that no matter how many times I’ve been, there is still something left to see ‘next time’. It really is a massive island. Today though, we were just spending a short time on it, but fortunately that short time involved passing by the village of Isleornsay. Anyone who has spent any length of time visiting Scottish lighthouses will know the lighthouse on (and this is where it gets complicated) the islet of Eilean Sionnach, a tidal island off of the island of Ornsay which itself is a tidal island off of Isleornsay. Now, whoever decided to put a lighthouse in that particular location – I’m going for David and/or Thomas Stevenson – must have known that they were about to create what is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful views in Scotland. Some might say they wouldn’t have thought of that, but I think they must have done. Or even if they hadn’t they would have stood back at the end and said to each other “Well that was definitely worth the effort”!

Ornsay

Ornsay lighthouse

Continuing back up the main road we spotted the Ornsay East Rock light, which I hope to get a closer view of later this month – a very exciting trip coming up so look out for reports of that in a few weeks’ time!

A while later we arrived at the ferry at Kylerhea. From here it is possible to see the Kylerhea light to the north and the object of my attention today, the old Sandaig light, just across the water. The Glenelg ferry, a turntable ferry, is fascinating to watch, such a clever invention and not one I’d seen in action before. The ferry only started running for the season yesterday so that was lucky!

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The turntable Glenelg-Kylerhea ferry

As we approached Glenelg on the ferry I got particularly excited as the lighthouse doors were open. I’d heard that it was possible to go inside and I’d had my fingers crossed that it was still the case, which it certainly is.

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The old Sandaig lighthouse, now at Glenelg ferry

Now for the history bit and how the lighthouse came to be in it’s new home. The cast iron tower, designed by David A Stevenson, was constructed on one of the islands off of Sandaig around 5 miles to the south west of Glenelg in 1909. As is often the way, as technology progresses organisations are always looking at ways to reduce costs and replacing these structures was one of the ways the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) did this. The tower was replaced in 2004 and this is where the local community stepped in and said they wanted to keep the lighthouse and move it to is current location. The NLB were very helpful, firstly giving some money towards the project along with a number of other funders, and then supporting the relocation itself. After the light had been dismantled it was taken by the NLB to it’s Oban depot to be renovated before being delivered to Glenelg.

Inside Glenelg

Inside the lighthouse

The lighthouse now contains the details of this process as well as information about the local area, including the turntable ferry. Various items are for sale there too, but of equal importance is the fact that you can get a cup of tea or coffee! It all works on an honesty box system. What a great place and a wonderful community effort.

Above Glenelg

The old Sandaig lighthouse with the turntable ferry in action

It is another picturesque location and the place has a good feel about it. Unfortunately not quite accessible enough to stop by for a cup of tea in passing regularly, but definitely somewhere I’d like to return to. Needless to say, I was very glad of our detour today 🙂

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The long road to Ardnamurchan

The Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) Oban-based event continued today (see yesterday’s post for adventures on Lismore and the in Northern Lighthouse Board’s Oban Depot). While yesterday involved very little travel time, today was a different matter – as it always the way when you attempt to get all the way to the most westerly point of the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

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Corran Point lighthouse seen from the other side of Loch Linnhe

I met the rest of the group at the Corran ferry and had a little while to wander around taking in the views of the Corran Point lighthouse on the other side of the narrow stretch of Loch Linnhe. It was a dull morning with drizzly rain and overcast skies. I knew this would be the case as I have a theory that there are never blue skies at Ardnamurchan lighthouse, which is a shame as the beautiful Alan Stevenson granite tower would look much more wondrous with a bit of sunshine on it. Anyway, the group arrived on the minibus and I joined them before crossing over on the ferry. The plan had originally been to stop for a look around Corran lighthouse before heading along the peninsula, but with the weather as it was and the conditions looking better for the afternoon we decided to stop at that one on the way back.

You forget just how long a road it is out to the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan. There is no doubt it is picturesque, but there are some pretty scary moments when you are on a small coach, passing other vehicles on single-track roads or on particularly narrow stretches with a fairly sheer drop on one side. We stopped briefly at the distillery for a break before continuing the journey. We finally got there and the group showed their true commitment to lighthouse bagging by heading straight to the cafe!

After a cup of tea we set off to the lighthouse. I can’t recall a lighthouse with a more beautiful welcoming design inside the door. I could describe it, but instead I shall just include a picture as it really does speak for itself (see below). Ardnamurchan lighthouse has some very subtle design features which take some time to notice. The walk (or should I call it a hike) to the top of the tower is fairly exhausting and there is very little to see on the way up – in fact there is nothing except the stairs, blue walls and the occasional window.

Ardnamurchan entrance

Welcome to Ardnamurchan lighthouse

Near the top of the tower we met Stevie. He had a tough job today with all of us turning up in groups of 2 or 3 at a time and often overlapping. We did chat to him for a while though and he explained the concerns they have over the new LED arrangement they have very recently had installed in the tower. He, quite understandably, misses the rotating beam and is hopeful that at some point they may bring it back in some way. He used to enjoy seeing the sweeping beam across the beach near his home.

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The current lights at the top of Ardnamurchan lighthouse

I went for a somewhat bracing stroll around outside at the top of the tower, looking down on the old fog horn and as far as I could see in all other directions. Neil Wright from the Northern Lighthouse Board, who also joined us on the trip, said that on a clear day you could see all the way out to the incredible Hyskeir from the top of Ardnamurchan lighthouse. It certainly wasn’t that clear today.

At the top of the tower Neil had turned the new LED light on. We were warned not to look directly at it due to the power of the light. As I mentioned before, the detail at the lighthouse is subtle. There are small lion heads within the metal frames around the windows which would very easily escape your attention. As I have tended to do at the top of all of these towers over the past couple of days, I was chatting to Neil about all things Northern Lighthouse Board. He said that when they do any work at Ardnamurchan they most often travel by road, which takes around 2.5 hours from Oban, but they sometimes arrive by boat, which knocks about half an hour off of the journey time. It really is quite remote. Stevie explained to us what life is still like out there and how you are fairly self-sufficient due to not being able to just pop to the shop! It’s refreshing to hear when so many people’s lives these days are all about convenience and spending money.

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An example of the decoration inside the tower at Ardnamurchan

 

I had a wander around the buildings there before we left. They have the original lens from the tower on display in the exhibition room and you can also see the old compressors for the fog horn. I had a quick look down towards where Neil said the NLB boat arrives when they do travel there by sea. There are even picnic benches down that way. I was surprised to learn that the lighthouse still attracts visitors in the winter months, which often causes problems for the NLB guys when they are trying to work.

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The lighthouse and fog horn at Ardnamurchan

Once we had all gathered back on the coach we set off on the long return journey. The sky had cleared a little by that point, although there was still some low cloud hanging around the hills, which was very atmospheric.

We made it back to Corran lighthouse and spent a while in the chilly breeze on the beach in front of the tower. From here it was possible to see across to the Corran Narrows light on the opposite site of the loch. I recalled from our visit to Islay in January that the Loch Indaal lighthouse seemed to very closely resemble the Corran lighthouse, and this was confirmed by Neil. Not only are they similar towers, but they both benefit from having a mountainous backdrop. They also, apparently, feature the same type of LED light, although the Loch Indaal light still holds a lens rather than the two lights we saw inside Corran today.

Corran Point

Corran Point lighthouse

It’s a tiny tower in comparison to Ardnamurchan and features three sets of very steep ladders. There’s not a lot to it, but the sector light panels at the top make for a very colourful picture. The light had been turned on again so we could get the full experience. Although there is no longer a lens filling the lantern it was a wonderful place to be and we did need to be kicked out in the end as we’d been up there too long! I could happily have stayed there for longer.

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Inside the lantern at Corran

Once we’d left the lighthouse we returned on the ferry and that was where I left the group. What a fantastic couple of days it has been, meeting new people, getting to know others I’d met before a bit better and seeing some great places I would never have otherwise been able to see. The highlights for me: Lismore, the tour of Pharos (the Northern Lighthouse Board’s vessel) and probably getting inside the tower at Corran. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to more adventures with my new-found lighthouse friends 🙂

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Day one of some Oban escapades

As mentioned in previous posts, about six months ago I took on the role of Events Coordinator alongside two others for the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK). Although I had attended their AGM in South Wales last year, it was only a matter of time before a trip coordinated by the new team would take place. Today the time finally arrived in the form of a two-day event based in Oban.

The blue sky made an early appearance today, just in time for our journey over to Lismore lighthouse on the small island of Eilean Musdile, not (as the name suggests) on the island of Lismore itself. I’d previously landed on Eilean Musdile and seen the lighthouse at close range in 2015, but this time we were going to get inside the tower as well as meeting the couple who now own the cottages. Lismore is one of those lighthouses that you can’t go past on a ferry without noticing. The lady who now owns the cottages on the island said that you can almost see the ferry tilting over as people rush to take pictures of the lighthouse before it then starts to tip the other way as they get closer to Mull and Duart Castle.

Lismore from below

The boat ride over to the lighthouse with Coastal Connections, who also took us over last time, was good and it was nice to catch up with Struan, today’s skipper, and chat to my ALK friends. Landing on the island is a fairly dignified affair and as soon as you are there you are captivated by just how beautiful the place is. The owners of the cottages clearly do a fantastic job of keeping the island from getting overgrown and too wild, while also maintaining its natural beauty. When the owners first arrived, they knew there must have been a path there somewhere that joined the top end of the island (where the stone for the lighthouse arrived), across the beautifully constructed bridge, past the slipway and to the tower. The owner described how he spent a good few years (they are usually on the island for around 10 weeks every year) finding the path again and one of his jobs each year is to maintain the path. Another reason for doing this was so that nesting birds on the island could remain undisturbed in the longer undergrowth. They have also installed a small wind turbine to provide electricity to the cottages as well as pumping the fresh water from the well on the island to their houses.

Lismore entrance

The path that takes you to the lighthouse is a perfect match for the stunning white tower at the end of it. Before we got carried away with wandering up the tower we decided to walk down beyond the tower to get some pictures of it standing tall. There really is no angle that Lismore lighthouse doesn’t look awe-inspiring from. An incredible piece of architecture from Alan Stevenson and his attention to detail is evident at the top of the tower. With perfectly carved features inside the lantern room as well as even more impressive additions when you step outside the door at the top, you realise the thought that must have gone into so many elements of this amazing structure. I got chatting to Neil Wright, one of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s technicians who has recently been to and worked at the Flannans, Sanda, Skervuile and the Bell Rock. Neil posts some fantastic pictures on Twitter of parts of these lights that the general public would never be able to see. Needless to say we chatted for a while about his work with the NLB, where it has taken him and he also showed us how the remote monitoring of the lighthouses works. It is incredible to see just what they can find out about a lighthouse from just a laptop.

Lismore lens

Neil also pointed out how the lighthouse differs from many others as it has rectangular window panes rather than triangular, which is related to the characteristic of the light. The little lens in there is small but perfectly formed allowing for plenty of space to wander around. The lighthouse has not been upgraded to an LED light…which means it still has a number of buttons and panels inside. Neil told us that he was, sadly, responsible for the change of the light at Noss Head from a rotating lens to an on/off LED. They have recently upgraded Duncansby Head, but fortunately have decided to retain the rotating lens and just replace the lamp with an LED. We were informed that this will also be the case at Dunnet Head in the coming months. I am pleased to learn that the light will still work with a rotating lens, but I will miss the warm colour of the light as it is at the moment.

Back down at the bottom of the tower we stopped off to have a cup of tea with the couple who own the lighthouse. The cottage is very spacious with large rooms, a wide corridor and windows that allow plenty of natural light in. You can tell that they have maintained some of the original style of the cottages while also adding their own personal touches here and there. They are a really lovely couple and were incredibly welcoming considering they had 20 lighthouse enthusiasts wandering about.

Lismore bridge

Before heading back to the slipway, we took a short walk to the top of the island where you can look across the short stretch of water to Lismore itself and the snow-capped hills beyond. It felt a little bit like heaven, and I found that the longer you stayed there the more you wanted to stay. But leave we had to unfortunately. It was a very enjoyable and memorable morning at a wonderful place which I would return to in a heartbeat.

Back in Oban we had lunch before the second instalment of the day: a tour of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s Oban Depot and Buoy Yard. I always get excited when I see the Northern Lighthouse Board logo and it can be seen everywhere here! We were shown around by the Depot Manager initially who gave us a tour of the storage facility. When you first walk in all you see is large shelves filled with wooden boxes that appear at first glance to be of little interest. It’s only when you take a closer look that you notice that each box has the name of a lighthouse on it and, in some cases, the boxes contain the old lenses from the towers. Among the names written on the boxes were Calf of Man, Strathy Point, Sule Skerry, Barra Head, Stoer Head, Chicken Rock, Ruvaal and Rona. It was clear that there is a big plan for upgrading Eilean Glas lighthouse as we saw its new kitchen, tins of paint and various other items all destined for that beautiful place.

Storage Sule Skerry

The Buoy Yard gives you some idea of the scale and amount of work that takes place there. Every eight years the buoys are brought in and cleaned and then go through various other stages before being re-painted ready to go back out. It was really interesting to see the range in types of buoy and how big they actually are. In comparison to most things you see at sea buoys always look so small, but they aren’t small at all. I was particularly interested to see an example of the buoys used to mark wrecks.

Buoy yard

The next part of the tour involved Neil showing us the variety of LED lights that the Northern Lighthouse Board currently use. From his talk it became very clear just how quickly technology is progressing and as Neil said himself it will be interesting to see the types of lights they have lined up there in 5 years’ time. They also have some of the old lamps in storage in this area, including those from Cailleach Head and Lady Isle. It is clear that the shelves here are already becoming full and, over time, there will only be more and more coming in. Eventually another long-term solution for their storage/use will need to be found and I really hope there is something that can be done with them. While they aren’t as impressive as the Fresnel lens, for example, they are a big part of lighthouse heritage.

Lights

It was very obvious before we even arrived at the Depot that the Northern Lighthouse Board’s maintenance vessel, Pharos, was there. I recall the first time I saw Pharos and that was at the Bell Rock. Every time I’ve seen it since it’s been from a distance and you don’t realise just how big it is until you are standing right next to it! We were on our way towards the exit when we were delighted to hear that the captain of Pharos was happy to give us a tour. I’m not going to lie, I dashed back down the gangway before they changed their mind! Getting on board Pharos was a real treat for me. It was certainly not somewhere I ever thought I would get a chance to look around and here we were being offered the chance to do just that. First we set off for the helideck – what a place that must be when the helicopter comes into land. I’ve obviously stood on a number of helipads at some of the more remote lighthouses on Scottish islands, but this was somehow different.

Pharos

We were also shown the deck above where the crew communicate with the helicopter crew as they are coming in to land. We then looked down over the winch area at the back of the boat. The winch is huge, but then it would need to be with so much weight to be lifted in those buoys. Last, but by no means least, we were shown around the bridge where the magic happens. And when I say “magic” it really is magic. Thanks to advances in GPS, weather and sea monitoring the boat can near enough sail itself these days. The paper maps and amount of buttons and levers in the bridge though are a reminder that, if things do go wrong, the manual back up of a person is still very much a requirement. We finished off our incredible tour of this vessel with a group picture alongside the Northern Lighthouse Board’s longest-serving captain. What a special opportunity that was and, as much as I enjoyed seeing the maintenance vessels before, I appreciate them on a whole new level now.

Pharos bridge

More adventures to come tomorrow! 🙂

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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!

reisa an t-sruith

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.

McArthur's Head

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.

Carraig Mhor

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!

Twageos

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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