A cloudy day on Mull

Contrary to what the title of this post suggests, we actually started yesterday in Oban with a short visit to Dunollie lighthouse. This little lighthouse, made up of a stone tower and lantern with gallery placed on top of it, is quite understated and that’s one of the things I like about it. I also like the fact that it’s still standing as actually, close up, it looks like it’s just made of a big pile of rocks – the sort of thing my 6-year-old might make, just on a larger scale. But standing it is and it has been for over 100 years.

Dunollie lighthouse

Joe the Drone had a little flight around the area.

Dunollie lighthouse from the seaward side

Meanwhile I spent a while at the nearby War Memorial to mark an early 2-minute silence for Remembrance Sunday.

War Memorial at Dunollie

We had a little time before we had to be at the ferry and I mentioned the old Northern Lighthouse Board houses on Pulpit Hill so we took a drive up to find them. I took a guess at which they were and the series of 5 large buildings with four front doors each seemed most likely. This has since been confirmed by my former keeper friend Ian. He actually stayed in one of them while off duty during his time serving on Skerryvore.

The old Northern Lighthouse Board buildings on Pulpit Hill

The houses were built to house the families of those keepers (and the keepers themselves when off duty) while they were based at some of the major rock stations off the west coast.

After taking a look at the buildings I contacted Ian again as I wasn’t sure how it had worked with the families. I knew the families of the keepers on Skerryvore, Dubh Artach, Barra Head and Hyskeir lived there, but I wasn’t sure if there were any others. Ian explained that initially each block was for each lighthouse, so Dubh Artach, Skerryvore, Ushenish, Barra Head and Lismore. The families of the Hyskeir keepers stayed in a separate house (Glenmore House) which is still on the other side of Pulpit Hill.

It changed when Lismore was automated in 1965 though and the Hyskeir families moved to the blocks. He added though that, as time passed and more of the lights were automated, the blocks began to house families and keepers from other lighthouses. Ian himself stayed in one of them while off duty from Pladda, for example. It was good to see these buildings and Ian has said before that it was quite a community up there with, I imagine, anything up to 20 families there at any one time.

It was time to hop on the ferry to Mull, which was thankfully very quiet. The sailing to Mull (or in fact a lot of sailings out of Oban) are always enjoyable as you pass a number of lights including Dunollie followed by Lismore and Lady Rock. It was good to see Lismore with the main island in the background thinking “I was there yesterday” and then looking over to Lady Rock thinking “I landed there last year”!

Lismore lighthouse with the island of Lismore to the right
Lismore lighthouse
Lady Rock lighthouse

Almost immediately Duart Point was next to us and to this one I thought “I’ll be there shortly – hopefully”. We weren’t sure how easy it would be to get to as we knew there was a big craggy Rock behind it and it wasn’t clear how easily we would get around that. There was only one way to find out.

We headed straight for Duart Castle, which is currently closed, but the car park is a good starting point for the walk to the Point. Bob had managed to find some directions on his GPS device for reaching a geocache very close to the lighthouse and this was a great help. I will try to include them as best I can here for anyone wanting to walk out to it.

The view from the approach road to Duart Castle

Walking back along the road we found the gate on the left just after a row of trees. Once through the gate (remembering to leave it as we found it, of course) I spotted another gate on the skyline at the top of the field as the instructions suggested.

Setting off for Duart Point
This gate marks the starting point from the road
Looking back at the second gate

Passing through that gate we turned left immediately and followed the fence and wall along. There are rough paths through the vegetation and I would actually recommend this time of year to visit if you can as the ferns have all died back exposing the grassy paths. I imagine they would be harder to see in Spring/Summer.

The landscape begins to open up – you want to head just to the right of the tree and then onwards between the two raised sections of ground

Where the wall ends the landscape opens up and we headed “straight on to the left” as Bob calls it (which basically means somewhere between straight on and left!) This route zigzags as you go downhill and once you are on a flatter section you have two options, you can either stay up high and view the tower from above first or continue around and down to the right. The tower is tucked away just to the left of the trees at the coast. As you go down you should then spot the tower as you follow the grassy track down.

Looking back up at the zig zag section
The final approach to the lighthouse

It was raining today so it was quite wet underfoot and a lot of the ground was covered in leaves, understandable as Autumn draws to a close. It was great to spot the tower through the threes and craggy rocks though. It’s a beautiful tower, originally built as a memorial of the Scottish author William Black who died in 1898 and always enjoyed Duart Point. The cost of the tower was partially covered by Black’s family and friends and there is a lovely plaque above the door explaining this.

Duart Point lighthouse

The only real indications of this being a lighthouse are the Northern Lighthouse Board plaque on the door and the modern little light and solar panel on top of the tower. There is a little platform nearby that looked like it may once have accommodated some sort of derrick.

The platform in front of the tower

The tower has enough variety in its shape to make pictures from every angle look quite different. My favourite view was of the lighthouse in the foreground with the big rock behind it.

A picturesque angle on Duart Point lighthouse

Another great angle was from the fence around the trees. This angle gave you a view of the Duart Point tower with Lismore to its left and Lady Rock to its right. It’s not often you get that kind of view.

A view of three lighthouses: Lismore in the distance, Duart Point and Lady Rock

Joe the Drone had come along and, although it was slightly wet, Bob thought he’d give him a fly anyway and he got a few great shots.

Duart Point from above
One of Joe’s great shots of Duart Point

Following the path back up we then wandered along to the top of the craggy rock to look down on the tower. This is an excellent angle on it, particularly if you want to get a better view of the lighting equipment. The viewpoint allowed us to get some Joe-type images without needing to use Joe. I would highly recommend including a stop here in your walk if you go (just be careful near the edge).

Duart Point lighthouse as seen from the top of the craggy rock
The lighting equipment on top of the William Black memorial

Annoyingly the weather started to clear up as we walked back, but we’d still enjoyed the visit to the light and the nice walk to get to it.

With no ferry leaving the island until after 4pm we had a few hours to kill. Unfortunately we didn’t have long enough for Bob to do a hill or for the walk out to Rubha nan Gall so we went for a drive. Mull seemed very unfamiliar to me, particularly the southern part, and it’s no surprise really as I worked out I’d only been once before (if you exclude the quick stop off at Ardmore Point from a chartered boat last year). It was beautiful to see it though, especially with the clearing skies and the sun eventually deciding to make an appearance.

A lone sheep on the banks of Loch na Keal on the west coast of Mull
The change on weather conditions was evident at a number of points
Looking back at Loch na Keal

After a fair wait at the terminal at Fishnish we boarded the ferry for the short crossing to Lochaline. By this point it was beginning to get dark and so I enjoyed the outline of the landscape as Bob drove us along to Corran. I always find Corran lighthouse just seems to suddenly appear when you aren’t expecting it and that was exactly what happened yesterday evening as we arrived suddenly at the Corran ferry at Ardgour. The joy of seeing lighthouses at night is, of course, seeing them in action. Corran is a good one as it has the red and green sectors which make for a more colourful view. This was another one I could look at and think “I was at the top of that tower last year”.

Corran lighthouse

Across the water I could also see the little Corran Narrows light flashing away and I remembered the unnecessarily tricky walk down to that one!

After crossing the channel on the Corran ferry we began the journey northwards and home. It had been great to get another weekend away this year, while we could. Who knows what the coming weeks and months will bring. Stay safe everyone and, if I don’t manage another post then have a restful Christmas time. Let’s hope 2021 can be an improvement upon this year. 🙂

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! 🙂