Taking a break from holidays on the west coast of Scotland, we decided to have a family holiday with my parents in the Scottish Borders this time. I gave my son the choice of whether we stayed in a house on a farm or in lighthouse cottages. Thankfully he gave the right answer and so St Abbs it was.
A few hours after arriving on Friday evening, there was a beautiful sunset, which surprised me as I’d not quite got my bearings and it appeared to me that the sun was setting in the north.
Of course I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see St Abbs Lighthouse flashing. The lens has now been covered by a big sheet here and the light source is now one of the LED “puddings”. So sadly no sweeping beam, but still a joy to see.
I took a closer look at the lighthouse and old foghorn yesterday in the glorious sunshine. The tiny tower was great to see close up and it’s always nice to see a foghorn still in situ. St Abbs has the benefit of being relatively close to Edinburgh, where the Northern Lighthouse Board has their head office, and this proximity without the need for a boat means the station has often been used in the past for testing new practices and technology.
What really makes St Abbs so special is the incredible coastline. I remembered it very fondly from my first visit back in 2012 when it was the first Scottish lighthouse I visited on my tour. That day was also particularly sunny and the tall cliffs were certainly a good introduction to Scotland’s coastal scenery.
I was also delighted to find yesterday morning that Barns Ness Lighthouse is visible from St Abbs too and out of the cottage window last night I spotted the flashing of the lighthouse on the Isle of May. The light from the wonderful tower on the Isle of May is very powerful and I enjoyed seeing just how bright it was from Arbroath in recent years. Seeing it from so far south though was excellent. Bass Rock is visible from here too, but the light is perhaps not strong enough to reach St Abbs.
This afternoon I’ve done plenty more exploring around the area. The aim was to check out the old jetty at Pettico Wick Harbour just down the road, which was reportedly built for landing supplies for the lighthouse. However, the coastal paths were a bit distracting. There’s only one way to describe the views and that is in pictures so here are a few.
Returning to the road, the view across Mire Loch, which I remembered so well from the first visit, was stunning. The loch is manmade, created around 1900 for leisure purposes.
There was a surprisingly good little path down to the old jetty. It quickly deteriorated though after rock falls in the area and you can clearly see that rocks underneath the jetty have been washed away. We passed a few warning signs on the way there. It’s a great little cove and the rock formations on the east side were very impressive.
Lured by the loch I decided we should take the loch side route back. This was an interesting little path, overgrown in some places and open in others, and even a small tree-lined stretch at one point.
At the end of the loch the path meets the main walking route to the lighthouse. Following this track, we took one last detour for a closer look at the old walled garden used by the lighthouse keepers and their families. It is all very overgrown now, but it’s a huge area in a sheltered spot.
I’m looking forward to seeing what the coming days bring here and whether it does actually ever rain at St Abbs! 🙂
The Calf of Man boat trip was always going to be the only ‘Will we? Won’t we?’ part of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers’ Isle of Man event. Almost as expected, the schedule for the trip needed to be changed just a couple of days before it started to allow the boat trip to take place on the calmest of the four days, which looked to be the Tuesday. It actually turned out rather well though and the saying ‘save the best ‘til last’ was very apt here.
Before we set off on the boat though there was a little time to pay Port Erin a visit. Every harbour village or town on the Isle of Man has its own charm and the pairings of lighthouses only adds to this. In Port Erin though it’s really extra special in my mind with two very unique lighthouses.
The Raglan Pier light is what I often refer to as ‘a lantern on legs’ but this one has plenty more character than your average one of this type.
Funnily enough my ‘group hug a lighthouse’ really seemed to have taken off by this point and Stephen from Bidston instigated this one, which worked really rather well with the legs and being able to see people on the other side too.
If this little one wasn’t quirky enough, someone noticed a couple of drawings on the lighthouse. Now, I’m not a supporter of graffiti in general but with Mr Bump on one of the River Avon lights the other day I do sometimes quite like a little drawing. This one had a little smiley face on it with the word ‘smile’ underneath. What was even better though was the snail, which was rather nicely drawn just underneath some text which read ‘Follow the snail too happiness’. I’ll ignore the rogue ‘o’ on ‘to’ here because it was a sweet little thing.
I should say though that drawing on lighthouses isn’t advisable. They do belong to someone, whether it’s the Northern Lighthouse Board or Trinity House, or a port authority, council or even a private home, so they are best left alone.
We had a little while then to walk to the front light on the beach (the rear of this pair is a light on a stick). I chose the beach walk option rather than walking along the promenade.
I really like all of the little Manx lighthouses, but this one is definitely my favourite. I worry about it though as it’s on a west-facing beach so the crazy storms will cause some big old waves in the area.
This one had to have a group hug too, of course. It was actually getting to the point now where I didn’t even need to encourage people, someone else would quite often mention it.
We had a little spare time before we needed to be in Port St Mary for the boat trip so we headed along through Cregneash – spotting the old radio signal station which was used, in part, for signalling with Chicken Rock Lighthouse and later housed some of its keepers.
At the end of this road is what they call The Parade where you look across the Sound to the Calf of Man. We’d been blessed with amazing weather and great visibility so the views from there were fabulous. There were lots of seals around and birds which the others loved seeing. There’s a great cafe here too, which I recalled having great soup served in a crusty roll at when we’d been to the island a few years ago.
It was time for the excitement to begin. We met Steve and Rob in Port St Mary and set off on their boat (Port St Mary Calf of Man Boat). Their boat is the tender for the island and has been for many years, previously being run by Steve’s father Juan.
It was a beautiful ride along the coast to reach the Calf with an incredible stack and caves. The bird watchers among the group were amazed by the number of razorbills both on the rocks and in the air. In fact, we all were.
Passing around Thousla Rock with its beacon, we arrived at Cow Harbour on the Calf of Man. This is when it became very obvious that the boat fits perfectly in the harbour here and we were soon on the slipway and heading up to meet the wardens.
The Calf of Man is looked after during the Spring, Summer and Autumn by a number of wardens and we were guided across the island with them. The weather was still fantastic and the views across the island and around the coast were idyllic.
There is almost a little community at the island’s bird observatory with a few buildings that the wardens stay in during their time on the island.
Not too far after the Bird Observatory we began seeing the top of one of the old lighthouses and then suddenly there was the view that makes the Calf of Man such a special place for those of us with an interest in lighthouses.
With three lighthouses so close together plus a rock lighthouse visible not far offshore, the question as to why there are so many of them is a valid one. Well, it all came about due to the hazard Chicken Rock presented to shipping. The two oldest towers on the island first shone in 1819 and aimed, by working as leading lights flashing in unison, to guide vessels clear of the rock. They are stunning buildings and clearly incredibly well-built, it’s just a great shame they are no longer being maintained.
As is so often the case though, with older towers at higher elevations, they are routinely obscured by fog and in bad weather. This is the case in a number of other locations, St Catherine’s Oratory on the Isle of Wight and the original tower on Little Cumbrae immediately come to mind as two other examples. The solution to this, as decided by the Northern Lighthouse Board, was to build a tower on Chicken Rock itself. By that point they would have had both Bell Rock and Skerryvore lighthouses under their belts so the prospect may not have been quite so terrifying to them.
Chicken Rock Lighthouse was completed in 1875 and operated successfully until 1960 when it was damaged by fire. At this point the decision was taken to automate Chicken Rock Lighthouse and also to build a more powerful lighthouse on the Calf of Man – hence the third tower.
This light was first exhibited in 1968 as the very last of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s manned stations to be built. A 2005 review of aids to navigation concluded that this modern light should be discontinued and Chicken Rock Lighthouse upgraded. The lighthouse was decommissioned two years later.
It was this 1960s lighthouse that I had managed to arrange access to for this trip. Sadly, for health and safety reasons, we weren’t able to go up into the light tower, but we could still have a wander around the hallways, peering into the old bedrooms, kitchen and the engine room. The accommodation here is still used at times. When we visited a team of people fixing the dry stone walls on the island were staying there.
Some of the old foghorn equipment can still be seen close to the old low lighthouse as well and the views from this area were just stunning. We – or the boatman, in fact – couldn’t have chosen a better day.
The buildings attached to the old high lighthouse is sadly not looking as well as its low counterpart, but the tower itself is still just as wonderful nonetheless.
Then there was THE view!
There wasn’t much time to hang around as there was the highlight of the day (or so we hoped) still to visit and another group were waiting back in Port St Mary for their turn. The walk back to The Cow landing was just amazing and the view of Calf Sound as you head down the final stretch towards the landing is just beautiful. I could easily look at that view for hours.
With a quick swap over, we were off again with all our fingers crossed that we would make it out to see the wonderful Chicken Rock Lighthouse close up. One of the boatman had said they’d been out in that area that morning and it had been pretty choppy so it was definitely a case of being on tenterhooks. As we rounded the corner below the lighthouses on the Calf though, we spotted Chicken Rock Lighthouse in a lovely gap between the island and a stack.
From that point we only got closer and closer and closer. I’m fact, I was very very pleasantly surprised to find just how close Steve was able to take the boat to the tower.
It must have been a lower tide as the rock was visible and the landing steps were just there, begging to be landed on. Though this visit was never going to be for landing, but we got as close as we could have done without landing.
We did two laps of the lighthouse, both close in and further out, with the latter round giving some incredible views of the four lighthouses in the reverse view of what I had been taking a picture of less than an hour before.
It was such a pleasure to see Chicken Rock Lighthouse so close and on a really nice day too when the sun was shining on the tower. I always find with these unpainted granite towers, like Skerryvore and Ardnamurchan, you really need to see them with the sun on them to really appreciate just how beautiful they are. It’s silhouette wasn’t too shabby either!
Once we were all satisfied that we’d got exactly what we wanted from the visit – and then some – we started our journey back to Port St Mary. There was even more glorious rock formations to be seen on the coast of the Calf of Man as we sailed by.
Disembarking at Port St Mary, I had a chance to properly visit the Isle of Man’s newest little lighthouse. The small tower at the end of Alfred Pier, or the Outer Breakwater, was installed in 2018. Its predecessor was washed away and it had temporarily been replaced by a light on a stick. Interestingly, although the tower is built to the shape of a traditional lighthouse, it appears that the light itself is just a modern LED with solar panels mounted on top of what would be the lantern.
The second light at Port St Mary also needed a revisit so I headed to that one too before retiring to the pub for a much-needed drink. This one had, rather unfortunately, been branded ‘the silo’ by one of the other group members.
Finishing up the day a couple of hours later, waiting on the shoreline for the second group to arrive back was a really great end to the official Association of Lighthouse Keepers event, which saw us visit (or at least see) every Manx lighthouse. It was an excellent adventure with a really great bunch of people whose company I enjoyed immensely.
The event may have been over, but I still had one more objective before I could even think about leaving Manx soil! More on that coming very soon… 🙂
Monday was a busy day on the Isle of Man for day three of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers event. We started off at Langness Lighthouse with visits inside the tower, courtesy of the Northern Lighthouse Board and their Retained Lighthouse Keeper for the island. I’ve always liked Langness and it’s really been the landscape that surrounds it tied in with the lighthouse that makes it so special. Seeing these places when the sea is relatively calm and there’s no strong wind really gives you the feeling that it must be wonderful there all the time, and of course that’s not the case. Storms at Langness, which is a relatively narrow peninsula, must make it a particularly unpleasant place to be. The access road to the lighthouse sustained some damage over the winter and it’s easy to see why as the sea isn’t so far away on either side of the road.
The lighthouse though looks fantastic and its location enabled us to see Chicken Rock Lighthouse in the distance sticking out of the sea to the west. There is a lot of sea around Langness and there are some beautiful geos in the area with clear evidence of the sea’s wild ways. It would be a great place to wander around and the former lighthouse cottages are now available as holiday lets so would make an excellent base for doing some exploring of the area.
The lighthouse was quite surprising, with a lot more ladders to the top than I’d expected. It was particularly interesting looking around with Stephen from Bidston Lighthouse as this lighthouse was built just seven years after his own lighthouse. There were some great discussions at the top of the tower about many aspects of the building, including the acoustics in the lantern room which are really noticeable in some towers. I always remember spending quite a bit of time at the top of Bressay Lighthouse in Shetland being fascinated by how the acoustics changed if you took a small step back or forwards.
The views from the top of the tower were, as expected, stunning. Sea for miles, but also the view back inland was wonderful with plenty of green fields, the golf course and the Herring Tower. The sun was thinking about coming out at that point too which always helps.
Before leaving Langness I took a wander over to the old foghorn. It looks like a new bridge to the foghorn has been installed since I was last there in 2015. It’s always great to see foghorns still in situ even if they are now silent.
From here I stopped briefly at the Herring Tower before returning to the minibus. The Herring Tower is great. The entrance is still there and an internal spiral staircase leading up the inside of the walls is still visible.
Before heading to Castletown we paid a brief visit to Derbyhaven to get some long-distance views of the little lighthouse on the end of Derbyhaven breakwater, which can only be accessed at low tide. That is my one remaining Isle of Man light left to get close to. Watch this space!
Castletown was our lunch stop for the day and, of course, we had to walk to the two harbour lighthouses here. The New Pier lighthouse, the most southerly of the two, was much bigger than I remembered it being, but it’s actually quite a unique shape compared to many of the others on the island.
The smaller Irish Quay light is much more like we’d been getting used to and as I was approaching the pier I passed my lighthouse pal John who said, ‘Now that is definitely a Sarah-sized lighthouse’.
I sat in the town square to eat lunch with another ALK member, Ed, who has cycled around the coastline of England and Wales, including some islands, visiting lighthouses to raise funds for a MS charity. His website The Beacon Bike is well worth checking out. We chatted in the sunshine before it was time to go back to the minibus. We then had a quick visit to the large item store belonging to the Manx Museum. We were met by Nicola who was so welcoming and showed us into the store. The main reason for this visit was to see the former Chicken Rock lens which we very quickly spotted when we went in. It was quite a bit smaller than many of us had expected, being what a few in the group felt was a fourth order lens.
There was also a lot of the lighting mechanism and the lens from Douglas Head Lighthouse too! In fact there was a lot there. Nicola explained they have been trying only to take ownership of items or photos from only the Isle of Man and that space really prohibits them from displaying more in the museum itself. However, they are keen for the store to be available for the public to see and so they are happy to show people around upon request, just as they did for us. There is a real variety in there, from chairs and grandfather clocks, to old motorbikes, musical instruments, old fire engines and even an old night soil cart, which actually I never even knew existed until yesterday.
We could easily have spent hours at the large item store, but our final lighthouse of the day was calling, Douglas Head. We were dropped off at the top of Douglas Head and made our way down to the lighthouse. Unlike all of the other major lighthouses on the main island, there is no road access to Douglas Head, but although both options for walking to the lighthouse involve going down (and, more importantly, coming back up a series of steps it is not a long walk.
When you reach Douglas Head you can tell this would have been a station that keepers and their families probably enjoyed living at. There’s this wonderfully sheltered courtyard with all the buildings contained within it. They probably had a fantastic little community here and with its close proximity to Douglas itself and the wonderful rocks and tiny stoney beaches nearby it would have been a real hit for everyone I should imagine. Our coach driver showed me an old picture in which you could see a swimming pool area and I imagine this was heaven for the kids based at the lighthouse as it was for him.
The cottages here are now available as holiday lets and we were fortunate that the cottages weren’t occupied at that point so we had a good wander around outside the buildings. Between monitoring the groups going up the lighthouse in small numbers, I took a quick walk down to the old boat landing area. It may seem surprising that a lighthouse so close to a major town has a boat landing area, but the lack of road access would have meant that any large deliveries of items needed to be brought in by boat. This may in fact still be the case as there is no helipad here either. The landing area certainly doesn’t look in such a bad state compared to many of the others I have encountered, although there was a particularly dodgy-looking ladder there.
Finally it was my turn to explore inside the tower. The only problem with being the responsible adult on these trips is that you need to make sure everyone else gets a chance to go up and no random member of the public just turns up and climbs the tower. Then again, being in the last group to go up there are usually only a few left at that point so it’s easier to avoid getting people in your pictures when you don’t want them to be there.
The tower is so well kept, both inside and outside. In fact the inside of all four of the main Manx lighthouses we’d visited were really well looked after by Fred, who I saw when I got to the top of the tower. The light here has been modernised with four of the “pudding” LED lights now installed. I also pointed out the dark filter used across the panes of glass on the landward side of the lantern. Fred wasn’t entirely sure, but suspected that when the character of the light had changed at some point, which meant it flashed more often, someone complained about the light shining across to Douglas more than it previously had, so this measure was to address that.
I always have, and probably always will, harp on about the views from the top of lighthouses, and Douglas Head Lighthouse is another one I will happily harp on about. Normally it’s the sea, the rocks or the coastline that I enjoy seeing and I did again. However, in this instance, the views back across towards Douglas were also very impressive and made a nice change.
It was time to say goodbye to Fred and thank him for bearing with us, our questions and our general desire to hang about at the top of a lighthouse. From here we wandered back towards Douglas, hoping to get a closer look at the Battery Pier Lighthouse for some members of the group. Sadly the pier was closed off because a fuel boat was in refilling. It was still a nice walk back though as it got into early evening 🙂
Two years ago I was due to go on an event to the Isle of Man organised by the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (which sort of means me as I’m their Events Coordinator). Then the pandemic began and it was put on hold. Another year went by without being able to hold the trip and so I was delighted to finally be able to go ahead with it this year alongside 21 other lighthouse fans.
Today we set off for Point of Ayre, the most northerly tip of the island. We’d prearranged to meet the Northern Lighthouse Board’s Retained Lighthouse Keeper, Fred Fox, here and after the safety briefing off we went with little groups heading up while others explored the surrounding area. There is plenty to see here with not only wonderful views of the main lighthouse, but also the old foghorn tower and little Winkie on the shingle. The geology of the island is worrying, but also fascinating. A lot of the coastline is being eroded and much of this eroded material is being washed up the island and gathering at Point of Ayre, meaning both lights here sit further inland now than they previously did.
Then it was my turn to go up the tower! Point of Ayre was a fairly brutal lighthouse to kick off with as it has a lot of steps to get to the top, but when you get there you are greeted by stunning views from every single angle. There is sea in almost every direction you look and where there isn’t sea it’s just land that stretches for miles and miles. The Isle of Man has a remarkably small population when you compare it to the much smaller Isle of Wight, and our coach driver explained that this is due to the Manx Government’s restrictions on building on a lot of the land there. As a result it has a much more vast and open feel about it.
The lens in Point of Ayre Lighthouse is wonderful and I was so pleased to hear that the Northern Lighthouse Board plan to retain it. In recent years they have been replacing the lenses with smaller, more energy efficient lights (more on that later) so hearing that this one is due to be kept in action was very welcome news.
After finishing up in the tower I took a quick stroll down to see the Winkie lighthouse and old foghorn tower.
As always my zany ways always kick in somehow during a lighthouse visit. This time I was speaking to our coach driver whose wife is related to John Kermode, a former NLB lighthouse keeper. I recalled him being in the picture at Sule Skerry holding a small wind measuring device and was trying to find the picture online. Strangely a Google image search brought up a picture of a group of us from the West Coast Adventure in 2019 with our arms around Rona Lighthouse. I showed this to a few of the others and Stephen from Bidston Lighthouse suggested we should do the same at Point of Ayre Lighthouse. By the time I got back down the tower there weren’t so many people left as they’d headed back to the coach, but there were thankfully enough for me to recreate the Rona moment there. Many thanks to Christa, Joanna, Dave, Katka, Margaret, Kristy, Debbie and Paul for humouring me with this!
Back on the coach it was time for some lunch in Ramsey. Well, for me that meant eating lunch whilst walking to the two small harbour lighthouses. I started this trip with five lighthouses left to visit on the island and the two in Ramsay were on that list so I was adamant I had to do them first before anything else. It was a windy old walk up the south pier, but with good company you can make light of these things and there was the usual jovial moans about people getting in each other’s pictures.
The light on the end of the north breakwater is only a short distance from the south pier as the crow flies, but it’s not quite as quick as it sounds getting between the two. It is necessary to head back inland and then cross the river over the swing bridge before heading back towards the harbour entrance.
It was a really nice walk though and we’d been joking on the way about who was going to touch the lighthouse first, my lighthouse pal John or me. We had a bit of a race, which he won, but he did wait for me so we could touch it at the same time, so I couldn’t complain really.
The view from the north breakwater light is actually even better as you have the south pier in the foreground backed by Ramsey and then beyond a great hilly landscape.
After a cup of tea we were back on the coach and headed for the most surprising part of the day. It wasn’t surprising in that it didn’t go as expected, more that I’d never given Maughold Head Lighthouse much credit. It’s not so easy to see, although there are fantastic views of it just before you enter Maughold village, and to spot the tower there is really only one space you can see it much closer and then is just off the approach road to the lighthouse. As it sits right on the edge of the cliff I wasn’t expecting there to be much there beyond a staircase going down to it and then just a lighthouse tower. On the face of it, that’s what it was, but it was also such an incredible place and one of those where everything just works so well together. The beautifully simple tower, that first glimpse of it as you start down the steps, the incredible cliffs around it and just the general feel of the place. It was glorious and I think we were all quite amazed by it and really just keen to spend as much time there as we could. Even standing in the base of the tower chatting to the other members was just really enjoyable and relaxed. There is definitely something about Maughold Head.
I mentioned previously that many of the lighthouse lenses across the UK are now being replaced by modern lights and Maughold is one of these. Around 2017 a new pair of modern LED lights were installed and the massive lens was covered with cloth, which it still is to this day. I’m going to assume that this may be because it would be incredibly difficult to remove the lens from the site with the staircase leading up outside, but I bet it’s a stunning lens. It was very warm in the lamp room today and after I pointed this out Fred recalled how it often felt like a sauna in summer when he used to be up there cleaning the lens, which must have been unbearable I should think.
I eventually managed to drag myself away from the lighthouse and marvelled at it one more time from a nice little area near the top of the steps. It’s a place that I could quite happily waste hours just enjoying, but it was time to start heading back to the coach.
Once back in Douglas and with a full stomach I decided to take a stroll towards the town’s two lighthouses, namely Battery Pier and Douglas Head. Both had been beckoning me since my arrival on the island and although the whole group will be visiting on Monday it seemed like a nice time to see them as the sun was getting low in the sky. It was a nice walk and I strolled along Battery Pier first to get a good look at it bathed in the beautiful yellow light of the setting sun. It’s such a great spot with a wonderful little platform behind it which gives you some excellent views out to sea and also across to Douglas.
I’d already decided not to walk all the way to Douglas Head, but thought I’d just take a quick look from a slight distance. What I hadn’t expected was the stunning view of it I got. All I can do to describe it really is just to share the picture.
It was just glorious and a really perfect way to finish a truly excellent day out with friends 🙂
There are the odd occasions when you spend some time in a place and plans just don’t work out as you’d hoped. Usually, in the case of visiting island lighthouses, this is due to the weather. This was certainly the case over the past week which we spent in South Uist.
The Western Isles islands of Lewis and Harris hold a special place in my heart, but the shores of the chain of islands comprising of North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay plus a multitude of smaller islands around them, were fairly unexplored. The area doesn’t boast the volume of lighthouses that the islands to the north do and most that can be found there I had visited last year, including Ushenish, Weavers Point and Gasay. There was one that remained though, Calvay. I’d seen it from the ferry last year as we left Lochboisdale, but seeing it from the ferry just wasn’t close enough and so it was part of the agenda for the week just gone.
As the week approached it was clear that the weather wasn’t got to play ball. With strong winds and wet weather forecast, it looked like we’d be lucky to get out on a boat trip at all. I was in regular contact with David from Uist Sea Tours and it only took a couple of days to realise that Friday was really going to be the only day a trip would be possible. It was no big problem as we occupied ourselves as tourists on the islands with the kids and met up with friends who had joined us for the week.
As Friday approached we got the final confirmation from David that we were good to go. The plan was to stick to Lochboisdale area and then creep up the east coast a little way and, if conditions allowed, to sail down to the island of Gighay to the south west of Eriskay. With the kids in tow it was decided that I would join for the beginning of the trip only, taking the kids along for a short ride out to Calvay and back.
There was still some swell about, remnants of a few days of strong winds, and so landing on the north side of the island looked like it might be a bit tricky. Although it would land us further from the lighthouse, we headed around to the south side where it seemed nice and calm. For this first venture onto the island (the others returned later) it was just my lighthouse pal John and I.
Landing on seaweed is never the nicest way to set a first foot on an island, but we managed it with some assistance from David. There aren’t many occasions when you hear someone say ‘Grab any part of me you need to’! Then it was making our way across the wet and dry rocks before we hit the heather. There are good things about heather, it’s really grippy underfoot, but it’s also very hard work to walk through. You can never really see where you are stepping and on occasionally there will be a hole hidden underneath and I ended up with a foot in a hole a few times, which would end with me having a ‘quick sit down’ two or three times.
John did a great job of navigating, heading off ahead and then advised as to whether we should continue on that route or head for a slightly easier looking track. We find a nice grassy route at one point, but then lost the benefit of the ground being fairly dry underfoot. The distance from the landing point to the lighthouse was relatively short, but it wasn’t easy going. We arrived to some lovely views across the entrance to Lochboisdale waters. The island is really best known for its castle (which is on a different tidal section of the island) and was one of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hiding places. The full story of his escapes on and around Calvay can be found here.
The existing lighthouse here was installed in 1985 and, along with its twin light on Gasay, was the first of the second generation of this type (a friend of mine who was on the trip refers to them as Stefansons – a combination of a link to the Stevenson lighthouse engineers, and the flat-pack style of the towers. The original ‘Stefanson’ was on Eilean nan Gabhar near Jura, but it has since been replaced making these two the oldest still in existence.
The structure is the Northern Lighthouse Board’s standard framework tower with white cladding – known as SPLATS (solar powered lattice aluminium tower). It is slightly different though in that it has no cladding on the ground level and a section on the first floor that is also unclad, on the landward side. These white cladding panels work wonders as daymarks and have certainly helped me to spot many a flat-pack lighthouse in the past.
The first lighthouse on Calvay was built in 1891 to a design of David A Stevenson with the assistance of his brother Charles. The light was installed following a request from the West Highland Commission that more aids to navigation be built to support trade in the area. The purpose of the lighthouse on Calvay specifically was to mark the entrance to Lochboisdale. Nothing there at present resembles the style of lighthouse he often designed, although he didn’t stick to the a standard design with examples of more unusual styles being Dunollie and Kyle Rhea lighthouses.
While there we noticed an old concrete pillar laying on its side on the ground in front of the light. I have since asked the boatman what purpose this served and whether it was somehow related to the stone platform just to the west of the light (which is shown as a shed here). It may well be that this pillar was part of the former lighthouse. He is going to look into it, but if any readers have further information about this then do get in touch here.
Keen not to hold everyone up for too long at the start of the day, we began the slow walk back to the pick-up point, which was easier than the drop-off, but still seaweed-covered. I think that was unavoidable really and John was a big help in getting me safely across the seaweed without slipping.
Just this evening, while looking back through some of the drone images we spotted a little jetty not far at all from the lighthouse. It’s quite tucked away, understandably given that its primary purpose is probably to allow vessels to land to maintain the lighthouse. The walk from it wouldn’t have been half as fun though!
Back on the main boat it was time for the kids and I to head back to dry land. We had some lovely reflection views of the light on Gasay en route back to the marina, which incidentally is where the starting point is for the short walk to Gasay lighthouse – made accessible without a boat since the new marina was built.
It may only have been a single lighthouse on this trip, but actually that was really the only one on the original itinerary that I’d not managed to get close to before so I’m happy. 🙂
It’s been the final full day in Shetland today, ending a 10-day period of absolute perfection in terms of achieving everything I wanted to. With only three days of no boat trips, plus an extra day for me to spend with the family, there was just enough time to get to the land-based lights I had left to visit.
After the visit to Peerie Bard, home to Mousa Lighthouse, yesterday I have now visited all of the modern flat-pack (SPLAT) lighthouses in Scotland. There are a few I’ve not been close enough to touch yet, but have seen at very close range.
There was one, however, that had been mentioned to me and I’d not included on my list: Head of Mula. This one was built of the same aluminium framework as the flat-packs, but if didn’t have the white cladding on it, which to me is an open structure and therefore not meeting the criteria for inclusion on my list.
I mentioned Head of Mula to my lighthouse pal John and he was keen to see it. I thought it was definitely worth going along to check it out too, given that I am such a fan of the flat-pack type. It looked to be only a short walk from the ferry terminal on Unst. I wasn’t wrong. It is very easily accessed by following the main road north of the terminal for a short distance and then taking a right turn at a track heading uphill.
The track was great and after just a few minutes we spotted the top of the light just above an old wall ahead.
Beyond the lighthouse there were the remains of abandoned houses and it was really quite strange to be seeing such old buildings against the backdrop of a relatively new light structure.
The tower was exactly as had been described to me. This was where it got tricky though as the debate was then on as to whether or not it did qualify for my list. Is it possibly for someone to be enclosed within it? Not really. Someone could certainly step inside the frame, but they would still be completely exposed to the elements and visible to anyone on the outside. Therefore it doesn’t meet the criteria, but here is where the challenge has always been for me in preparing a definitive list of lighthouses.
I always wanted my list to be objective and based entirely on what did or didn’t meet the criteria. I am well aware that one lighthouse may mean a lot to one person and very little to another. I’ve seen plenty of subjective lighthouse lists for Scotland out there and they usually feature the biggest and most impressive of the Stevenson lighthouses, often leaving out the smaller lights that (in my option) are just as enjoyable to visit – if not more so in some cases – as the large ones.
For me one of the big appeals of the flat-pack lighthouses has always been the beautiful places they take you to. Often places rarely explored by the masses and this too is the case at Head of Mula. The views here are fantastic, particular looking south/south east towards the Loch of Heogland and Holm of Heogland close in and then beyond to Fetlar.
Looking west over Bluemull Sound was also excellent and the ferry moving back and forth between Yell and Unst was a regular reminder that civilisation was just down the track.
The light at Head of Mula has everything going for it that most flat-pack lighthouses have, except the white cladding. We jokingly referred to it all day as the ‘naked flat-pack’ due to its lack of white cladding “clothes”.
Thinking about my list, there are some lighthouses on there that I would be more than happy not to visit again, usually due to their location, but I’d happily stroll back up to Head of Mula again. This is where I feel a little envious of those who have their own personal list and can add/take away anything they please. From the point of view of The British Lighthouse Trail though, I need to be less subjective and not adjust it to become a list of lighthouses I personally think people should visit – although I do think that would make an excellent list.
The final decision on Head of Mula then? I’m going to have to say that the jury is still out. In terms of meeting the definition it’s a no. But if I think it’s important that people get to hear about it and visit it then absolutely yes. If any readers have any thoughts on this then do feel free to share these below in the comments.
Back to Shetland though and, as mentioned in yesterday’s post, the past 10 days have really been made so successful by the crew on the two boats we have used. Kevin, Michael and Alan on Lysander and the wonderful aluminium tender were exceptional. Magnie and John on the Papa Stour and Ve Skerries trip were more than happy to get us wherever we wanted to go too. It makes such a difference to have boat crew who enjoy their time out with the baggers. It was a real pleasure to spend time with them all.
That’s it for another trip. I’m not sure where the next one will be yet, but I shall be sure to take my followers on here along wherever it is and report back. 🙂
It’s been another day onboard Lysander in Shetland today and it’s really starting to feel like home now. With Michael the fantastically knowledgeable and friendly skipper, and the equally knowledgeable and skilled tender skipper Alan, we have been in very good hands.
My first lighthouse stop of the day was Wether Holm. We were informed by Alan that ‘wether holm’ is the name given to islands where the sea gets shallower and breaks on the island. There are plenty of Wether Holms about in Shetland, but only one of them has a lighthouse. This is a flat-pack lighthouse and after we were dropped off it was just a quick stroll up to it. There were nice views across to Whalsay from the lighthouse including Suther Ness Lighthouse just across the water.
After we left the island Joe the Drone went for a fly and got some great aerial shots of the island and surrounding area.
Next we landed on Inner Holm of Skaw. There’s no lighthouse here, but we were told that there were stories suggesting there was a human skull to be found near the cairn on the island. This intrigued us all so we took the opportunity to have a hunt for it, and with success too. Lying under a flat round rock close to the cairn were indeed bones. There was part of a skull, a jawbone still with some teeth in it and a few other bones too. It was very strange. Bob pointed out that there was a chapel marked on the map and when we looked back towards the cairn there was evidence of rows of stones that could well have been the walls of the old chapel. Our skipper looked into it a bit more and was informed that the remains are actually believed to be of the monk who built the chapel there.
Onto my second new lighthouse of the day, Muckle Skerry. We’d considered landing on this one two years ago, but it had been raining and – given my experience of it today – I’m glad we didn’t. It’s a skerry so it’s rock really and although it looks from a distance like it has some nice grass on top it’s really just flora and fauna that thrives in wet environments combined with an occasional hard bit of soil and then random rocks in and around it all.
It took us a little while to pick where we would land. The side of the island looked like any landing there would involve a scramble up rocks that looked green and potentially very slippery. We made our way around the island on the tender coming across another potential landing area where there turned out to be too many rocks just under the water. We then found a deeper section which got us onto some barnacle-covered rocks followed by a short section of slippy rock and then it was rock hopping all the way up to the mixed terrain described above.
Muckle Skerry Lighthouse is another flat-pack and this time without a fence around it. There are great views all around which always make the less straightforward landings more worthwhile. It’s certainly somewhere you would struggle to land without the near perfect conditions we had today. We were very fortunate with sea conditions today.
Joe was launched from the boat and caught some pictures which hopefully illustrate the tricky terrain of this one.
We were bound for Out Skerries next. There are so many islands within this group that it wasn’t surprising that to save time we all dispersed a bit. Skipper Michael and I were dropped off on Bound Skerry, home to Out Skerries Lighthouse. Michael had never landed on the island before so we left the big boat moored up on the main island and Alan took us across.
Although I’d been to Out Skerries Lighthouse before it was really nice to visit it with someone who was really looking forward to getting there. We had the island to ourselves for some time before the others arrived and we took a stroll around the rocks, getting as far to the east as possible so Michael could reach the most easterly he’s ever been in Shetland. One particular view from the highest point of the island was excellent with the lighthouse in the foreground and the shore station on neighbouring Grunay beyond.
On a calm day it’s very hard to imagine how wild it must get there. Today is just seemed so tranquil and serene. For a while I sat at the base of the lighthouse and just enjoyed being there – that was until Bob came and asked me to move so I didn’t get in Joe the Drone’s pictures! However, I can’t complain as he did get some superb images. The blue sky appeared too!
A few hours – and a number of islands – later we arrived at Hoo Stack. John as well as Alan the boatman were keen to land here and I went ashore too, but stayed down on the rocks. I’d already been to this lighthouse back in 2019 and with the swell picking up I didn’t want to slow anyone down. The swell had picked up a fair amount by this point so landing wasn’t so easy, but we all did it and stayed dry, and John and Alan were happy.
It’s been a long day, but another successful one. Mervyn has now set foot in one way or another on over 100 islands so far and I just have one lighthouse left to achieve my personal goal for this trip. That one is lined up for tomorrow. All fingers are crossed 🙂
It’s been some day today and certainly varied, taking in two very different lighthouses in extremely different settings. It is the day I have been waiting for, to make it to the remote and challenging Ve Skerries Lighthouse.
Leaving from Aith this morning, we set off for Papa Stour with our skipper Magnus Scott and John Anderson from Simmer Dim Charters. All four of us baggers on board had something of interest on this island that’s not so easy to get to, with one ferry a day in each direction only three days a week. For me, or course, it was a lighthouse – or, as I call it, a lightbox.
Upon arrival at the island Bob and John set off for the island high point and trig pillar while Mervyn and I took a stroll along the road, discovering quite a lot about the island community. For a start they have a great ferry terminal with tea and coffee making facilities, a book swap, a nice seating area and toilets.
There aren’t many houses on the island and those that are there are scattered alongside the road that runs from the pier to the airport landing strip. There’s a Primary School which has been closed now for around 8 years and the population of the island is just 6. A small community, but a really wonderful one which embraces its island and its history. This is very clear to see throughout Papa Stour.
There is a wonderful ‘stofa’, an old Norwegian-style house made from carved wood. This was built in the place of a former stofa, but part of the build project was to allow younger people to learn the traditional skills of Norwegian building. It is really quite beautiful to see how well-constructed it is.
We also took a look inside the Kirk, which is perfect for a small community. The building features a stained glass window that was designed and made by the locals to commemorate the lives of the four men from Papa who lost their lives during the Great War. It also contains a prayer tree which people can hang messages on explaining who they are praying for. There is also a small room with local history information and some locally made products for sale.
From the Kirk we walked around to East Biggings and then began the attempt to reach the lighthouse. It had been visible nearly all the way around the road, but we’d not spotted a clear way to reach it. On our return journey we found a gate and followed the edge of a field down towards Housa Voe. Through one more gate and another field and we were there.
I would never say that these little lightboxes are anywhere near the most impressive, but they certainly do the job. The one here at Housa Voe is a similar type of structure to the two at West Burrafirth. It’s essentially a small square dry dashed building with a door at the back and a directional sector light shining out the front. There’s little more to it than that, but you can see when you step into the path of the light that it does it’s job very effectively. I had some fun for a few minutes walking back and forth in front of it and watching the red light change to white and then to green. This light is owned by Shetland Islands Council, which sort of explains its appearance. Clearly its purpose is to guide vessels safely into Housa Voe.
It was nice to introduce Mervyn to this type as well as they are very rarely visited. I’m not sure he was particularly impressed, but he pretended to be which was good of him. This is one of the delights of lighthouse bagging, discovering new places above and beyond just looking at the lighthouse.
We left the lightbox behind and headed for the ferry terminal for a nice cup of tea. Even the waiting room is a trove of historical treasures relating to Papa Stour.
Once we were all back we set off to a few islands off of Papa Stour before we began to head north west towards a little collection of rocks called Ve Skerries. I’m not sure how well known Ve Skerries is in lighthouse circles. When you are as into lighthouses as I am you sort of lose any sense of what others do or don’t know. Anyway, for those who don’t know, Ve Skerries is a collection of very small islands/large rocks off the west coast of Mainland Shetland. They mark the most south westerly point of St Magnus Bay. On a clear day you can just make out the lighthouse in the distance from Eshaness. It is renowned for being a very dangerous area for ships with numerous wrecks occurring there. The most recent of which was the Corelleira in 2019 though thankfully there has been no loss of life there since the Ben Doran wrecked in 1930.
The sail out to Ve Skerries was actually not too bad at all and it was very encouraging to see hardly any swell around the islands. A fairly rare occurrence I think. I climbed into the tender with Bob and John and we set off to land on Ormal, the lighthouse island. We found somewhere to land and getting out of the boat was easy enough, but then the challenge began. Although the Ve Skerries are low-lying that doesn’t mean they are flat. The island is made up of tidal sections of rock and near enough all of these rocks seem to be jagged with no flat, horizontal edges. While some were covered in barnacles there was plenty of seaweed and slimy stuff about. Bob lent me his micro spikes which certainly made moving over the rocks much easier. It was a long section of rocks to cross though before we got to the helipad. Now whenever I think about Ve Skerries I remember those rocks and just have to laugh. It was quite an experience.
Relief set in when I finally got to the helipad which has a nice walkway across to the base of the lighthouse. There was a little stoney area down some steps from the helipad and John Anderson said it’s possible to find bits of ballast from the ships wrecked on the Skerries sometimes. I did have a look around, but couldn’t see anything.
Of course, we couldn’t have gone to Ve Skerries on a calm day without Joe the Drone coming along.
The lighthouse on Ve Skerries was first lit in 1979, built mainly to aid the large vessels moving around the area going to and from Sullom Voe. The wrecking of the Elinor Viking in December 1977 was also a deciding factor for the lighthouse which was already being spoken of at that point. After the lighthouse was built it received an award for its design and construction, and has very recently been granted listed status. It is a very unique structure, a real modern day rock lighthouse.
Getting back to the boat was slightly easier than the way we’d gone onto the island. However when I got towards the boat one of my feet slipped on some seaweed and my right foot ended up in the sea. Fortunately it was just my foot and I was able to get back into the boat safely before we had a quick stop in the very sheltered little harbour on North Isle, which was a great spot for watching the seals flopping on the rocks and swimming around.
Reaching Ve Skerries Lighthouse felt like a great achievement. It is not frequently visited and probably for good reason.
Today was a great reminder to me of why I love doing this so much. That combination of straightforward, understated lighthouse trips and heading out into the wild extremes and creeping about over slippery rocks. Lighthouse bagging like this isn’t for everyone, but it certainly is for me – even if I do get a wet foot every now and then! 🙂
Contrary to what yesterday’s post suggested, today didn’t turn out to be as exciting as I’d mentioned (that’s now planned for tomorrow – fingers crossed). However, it did feature some success: the completion of the ‘walkable from the main islands of Shetland lighthouses’. This doesn’t actually sound like much of an achievement, but given that they aren’t necessarily the easiest or shortest of walks (see the recent Bagi Stack post for the most extreme example) it’s quite a good milestone. This completion took place at ‘the light with many names’, also known as Vaila Sound, Ram’s Head or Whites Ness Lighthouse – whichever takes your fancy. To be a bit more specific, the lighthouse is officially known as Vaila Sound Lighthouse by the Northern Lighthouse Board. It is located on Ram’s Head which is a part of the Whites Ness circular walk. Hence how it ends up with so many names.
Vaila Sound Lighthouse very much reminds me of this wonderful post I saw last year, which includes a beautiful sketch of the lighthouse – not a style that is very often sketched I’m sure! This is one of the Solar Powered Lattice Aluminium Towers and they grow on me more and more every time I see a new one. This is particularly the case when they involve a great and not too challenging walk. A couple I know through the Association of Lighthouse Keepers moved to Shetland last year and they have visited Vaila Sound Lighthouse a couple of times so we enlisted one of them, who I named Tour Guide Andrew, to lead the way.
There’s a great area for parking just up the hill from the start of the walk at Whiteness and then it’s following a farm track signposted ‘Coastal walk’ for the first part. This track felt like luxury after some of the recent walks.
After passing a couple of buildings it’s not long before you get some stunning views of Vaila Sound and the island of Linga.
Beyond the mast the track continues and you begin to get views of the island of Vaila itself, which I have very fond memories of visiting a couple of years ago. It’s a beautiful island with a really interesting little garden to explore.
The track then ends at a farm gate and we walked through the field a short way, ending up closer to the coastline. The views looking back towards Walls from here with the yellow flowers in the foreground were excellent.
We then arrived at an area of old ruined houses near the shoreline. One of them didn’t look as old as the rest and I thought ‘what an amazing location to live’, but of course it’s relative remoteness would have its drawbacks.
From here we then took a short walk along the small, pebbly beach and took a look at the little stone jetty beyond it.
From here the terrain gets a bit more undulating and after a stile, there is some uphill followed by downhill, but the uphills are so worth it for the views from the top.
A little more up and down later and the lighthouse suddenly comes into sight – and what a sight it is.
Bob set about preparing Joe the Drone while Andrew, John and I made our way towards the lighthouse.
Unlike Hillswick and Bagi Stack lighthouses, this one is set fairly low down near the water and so it was possible to stand on the rocks behind it and get a great view of it against the serene waters of the Sound.
While we were gazing at the lighthouse a little fishing catamaran sailed past and honked its horn at us. It’s not often you get an opportunity to see a boat moving near one of these little lights so it was a perfect picture opportunity.
The rocky terrain in front of the lighthouse is lovely and the jagged rocks compared to the calm waters in the area were a striking, but great contrast. I imagine it’s not always so calm!
It was possible to see the old boat landing area nearby and it looks like a little leap may be required to get from the flat landing area to the surrounding rocks to avoid wet feet!
Joe the drone, as ever, got some super scenic shots from above, including this one, which I absolutely love. Little did I realise at that point what was around the corner!
Sometimes you come across a view that just makes you say ‘wow’ (or in my case ‘wowzers!’) and the fabulous promontory of Green Head was a perfect example of that – and yes, I did indeed say ‘wowzers’ out loud when I first saw it.
As you walk further around the coast you see more and more of the promontory and realise it’s actually joined to the Whites Ness peninsula by a narrow section of land.
From here we headed inland across a slightly boggy section of land before returning to the field we passed through and then onto the track.
This felt like a stroll in the park in comparison to some of the other recent walks to see lights. If there is anyone who happens to be in the Shetland area who isn’t sure about whether or not to visit a flat-pack lighthouse then this one is a great one to start with. It has many of the benefits of a flat-pack lighthouse – with the main one being that it’s in a stunning location – but without the tough walk. Just brilliant, and a really enjoyable way to get those ‘walkable lights’ done.
I should also mention here that I went on a short trip to Sumburgh Head Lighthouse this morning with my kids. They were delighted to see the Light the North Shetland map lighthouse on display here and, of course, had a wonderful time pressing the button in the museum that blasts out a foghorn’s bellow. I’m not sure the museum staff were so delighted!
Another great day in Shetland, but what will tomorrow bring…! 🙂
The wind had dropped for us in Shetland overnight and, although we knew it may be a while before the sea recovered from 48 hours of strong wind, we decided to head out on Lysander again today and see what we could achieve.
Today’s trip started off at Ulsta on Yell and the agenda featured a number of islands including Lunna Holm which I’d been keen to get to for a while.
A few islands were visited and we got a closer look at the light on Rumble too. The tide in the area made it a very rocky little detour.
A little while later we arrived at Lunna Holm. There was still plenty of movement in the water, but it didn’t prevent us landing thankfully. It‘s a nice little island and we wandered up towards the high point and then cut across in the direction of the lighthouse.
The lighthouse on Lunna Holm dates back to 1985 and it was introduced to mark the south eastern approaches to Sullom Voe during the hours of darkness. The foundations were prepared in the first half of 1985 and by the end of that year the structure was complete and the light operational.
The lighthouse, which is still the original 1985 tower, and it’s surrounding fence look like they could do with some attention so I was pleased to find that, in June this year, the Northern Lighthouse Board put out a tender for full refurbishment of the lighthouse. This is due to include not only a refurb of the tower and concrete base, but also replacement of the lighting system and the fence that surrounds the structure.
One of the crew on board informed us that a former inter-island ferries, The Earls, ran aground on Lunna Holm back in the 1980s, which may well have occurred before the lighthouse was installed.
The island reminded me a lot of Cava in Scapa Flow, Orkney. The lighthouse is the same type, the island has a similar sort of layout (for want of a better word), and the grassy terrain was the same. I always see Shetland and Orkney as being completely different, but there are definitely some similarities in certain areas, which geographically makes sense due to their relatively close proximity.
Joe the Drone went for a spin while we were there too.
It was just the single lighthouse for me today, but I was happy. After a couple of busy walking days I was more than willing to spend a day on the boat and I even managed to fit in a nap, lying on the comfy seat, while the others ticked off another 6 islands in one go.
Tomorrow has the potential to be a very exciting day and I cannot wait! 🙂