A week ago a brand new lighthouse trail was launched across Aberdeenshire, Moray, Orkney and Shetland. Light the North is a collection of 2.5 metre tall lighthouses designed/painted by artists, as well as a series of smaller lighthouses featuring designs from local schools.
Why is this happening, you may ask. Well it’s all for an excellent cause, Clan Cancer Support. Clan provides free support to those with cancer across the geographical area mentioned above. The outcome of the trail is that the lighthouses will be auctioned off in mid-November, raising funds for the charity.
The trail has an associated app, which features a map showing you where the lighthouses are, details about each lighthouse and also lets you collect the lighthouses by entering the individual code found on the plinth of each model. Trail maps with a suggested donation of £3 are available in various locations, or you can take a look at the website to find out more.
Anyone who knows me well will know that I can’t resist a list, especially when it is lighthouse-related. It worked out rather well us being in Shetland for the start as I was able to see those based there. Then travelling back via Aberdeen we followed the coast, picking off more as we went.
It’s great fun and I’m hoping to get a chance to see some more before the trail finishes at the end of October.
Here are some of the models I bagged over the past week. 🙂
For the last couple of months we’d had a lovely long weekend away to the Western Isles planned, including being on a chartered boat out to Sula Sgeir and North Rona, which I’d previously visited back in 2014. We had accommodation organised, ferries booked and had got the green light from the organiser of the trip. All was well, but actually it wasn’t, which I realised the day before we were due to leave when my good pal John called to check which ferry we were booked on as the time I’d told him didn’t tie in with any of the sailings. It was then that I discovered somehow we’d managed to book the ferries the wrong way around and we were due to sail from Stornoway to Ullapool instead of the other direction on Friday. We made a hasty call to Calmac having checked all sailings to the Western Isles to find nothing was available. The man on the other end of the phone confirmed this was the case and apologised, to which I reminded him it was our fault for getting the booking wrong in the first place so he had no need to apologise. With no way to get across there (due to COVID-19 related restrictions we couldn’t even hop into a friend’s car as they had no space even for extra foot passengers), the decision was made that we needed a backup plan.
I didn’t want to drive for hours as that’s an easy way to waste a weekend and so I began researching Orkney and, more specifically Westray for Noup Head Lighthouse. The ferry times didn’t tie in and, wanting to leave North Ronaldsay for another time, I took a look at Start Point Lighthouse on a tidal island off Sanday. The fact that the island is tidal has made it a really tricky one to get to and I’d previously resigned myself to the fact that we’d need to stay overnight on Sanday sometime to be able to do it. Thankfully, looking at the tide times for Sunday, I found low tide in the area to be at 1.50pm with the ferry arriving 10.25am and then departing at 5.40pm. It seemed to me like an ideal day to get to Start Point Lighthouse finally.
Luckily Bob agreed to my suggestion and suggested I contact a friend who lives on Sanday to see if he knew of anyone who had a key to the lighthouse and could show us around. I thought it was probably a bit of a long-shot especially given the current pandemic, but it was worth a try. The lighthouse used to be open routinely with guided tours run by the Sanday Ranger, but these tours no longer take place. It didn’t take long to get a response from our friend with a couple of people to contact. I called and left a message with the man suggested as the best place to start and he got back to me later that day (this was Friday so there wasn’t much time to organise it) and said I’d need to get permission from his manager, but that he’s be willing to show us up the tower if his boss said yes. Rather fortunately I had met his boss on a couple of occasions over the past two years and when I called him he said he was happy. So it was all planned and I was going to get inside a lighthouse for the first time in 17 months!
The (correct) ferries for Orkney and Sanday were booked and camping arranged in Kirkwall so on Saturday we set off. Upon arriving we took a drive up to Birsay for a look at Brough of Birsay and its lighthouse.
Joe the Drone took a fly around his first Orkney lighthouse there too.
Sunday morning came and it was off to Sanday. Heading straight for Start Point, I contacted Ian to say we were on the island and he confirmed he was just heading over to the lighthouse. Reaching the end of the public road we found the three spaces in the parking area already full so we found a verge further back that wasn’t blocking any gates etc. and began the walk. The first bit was easy, following a good path along the coast.
The section between the main island and Start Point is rather deceptive. Initially you see a seaweed-covered track leading towards the tidal bit and think ‘oh, that looks fine to cross’. It’s not until you get beyond it that you encounter the very tidal section, which was still very wet when we arrived. At this point it was 2.5 hours before low tide and, as Bob escorted me across the seaweed and very wet bits like I was an old lady, we both ended up with wet feet. We made it to the other side though with no mishaps and then the path was easy going as the lighthouse got closer and closer.
As we approached the lighthouse Ian, our tour guide appeared, and after a short chat we were off into the tower. Ian was wearing wellies, which is something I would highly recommend to anyone considering visiting Start Point – not for the tower of course, but for the crossing.
Now climbing a lighthouse can cause some breathlessness anyway, but climbing with a face mask on makes it a lot harder. It wasn’t so bad though and I was just glad it wasn’t North Ronaldsay (the tallest land-based tower in Britain) we were going up.
After the spiral staircase there were the obligatory ladders to climb and then, there we were, right at the top with some stunning views in all directions. Looking back towards Sanday, out towards the sea, down on the old ruined buildings, there was plenty to see and Ian pointed out roughly where the previous lighthouse used to be.
Start Point had confused me for some time. On the Northern Lighthouse Board’s website the tower/light is dated 1806, but other sources said the current tower replaced the 1806 tower in 1870. I thought there was no better way to find out the truth than to look and ask around locally. Ian confirmed the current tower is the second with the first one introduced as a day mark in 1802. When wrecks continued to occur in the area it was decided a light was required and so a lantern and light replaced the stone ball on top of the tower (the ball can now be found on top of the old North Ronaldsay lighthouse). It was the first lighthouse in Scotland to have revolving lighthouse apparatus, paving the way for the light characteristics used in all lighthouses today and listed in the Admiralty List of Lights.
Ian opened up the wonderful fourth order Fresnel lens to show us the bulbs and explained that, for a while, there had been the risk of the lens being removed from the tower and replaced with a modern LED. It now sounds like this is not going to be the case, which is always a pleasure to hear.
Back down on the next floor Ian opened up the door to the balcony and we were blessed with even better views of the surrounding area. The tide at Start Point is really interesting. There is roughly 45 minutes in time difference between high and low tide on either side of the tidal section getting out to Start Point. Ian explained just how unpredictable the tides can be there and that he limits his visits to 2 hours maximum in order to make sure he can get back across to Sanday safely.
Back down the bottom of the tower I gave Ian a copy of my book as a little thank you gift. I think it’s safe to assume that anyone who signs up to be a Retained Lighthouse Keeper must have an interest in lighthouses. We bade farewell to Ian and set off to explore some of the ruined buildings in the area as well as getting some awesome views of the very unique striped lighthouse.
In the grounds of the lighthouse was a framework platform the type of which I’d seen at Ushenish last year. Since that visit I’ve been informed that it was a wind power trial the Northern Lighthouse Board has carried out, but (as at Ushenish) it had failed as it was blown to pieces within the first couple of weeks.
Stopping for lunch it was time for Joe the Drone to have another flight and, as usual, he caught some fantastic shots from the sky.
Once Joe was safely back down it was time to head back. It was still 50 minutes before low tide, but the tidal section was significantly less wet than it had been on our outward journey. I wouldn’t go so far as to say dry as I imagine with all the rocks and seaweed it never really completely dries out.
We paid a visit to Sanday Heritage Centre on the way back and the lady handed us their reference book about the lighthouse, which had some great little pieces in it and further confirmed the history of the lighthouse(s) mentioned above. There was a large poster on display about the lighthouse, showing an old map with the location of the former lighthouse, which having been there, we were able to picture how it would have looked out there.
That evening, leaving Sanday behind, I was satisfied in the knowledge that sometimes things happen for a reason. If the reason for the incorrect Western Isles ferry booking was that I really should go to Start Point instead then I’m certainly not complaining 🙂
After the excitement of boat trips over the last three days, today was a return to dry land. Well, that was the plan anyway. Looking out of the window this morning suggested that there would be nothing really dry today with rain pouring down. The rain rarely stops us though, and we are glad it didn’t as it cleared up. Our aim of today was to reach Tor Ness lighthouse on the west coast of Hoy. I knew this one was never going to be easy. If it had been we would have done it a couple of years ago when we looked out towards it. That day the rain did stop us, along with the cows and the fact that we had our then 2-year-old son with us. We knew it wouldn’t have made for an enjoyable trip so it was postponed. This trip to Orkney seemed like the best time to do it. We were child-free and had John, who has already walked out to Tor Ness, with us to lead the way – or at least that was the plan!
We easily found the farm from which you can access the lighthouse, but we weren’t comfortable parking there so returned to the main road and parked up in a lay-by. As we walked up the road towards and through the farm we were wary of the barking dog on the left and then the bull and two calves with their mother in the field to the right. This wasn’t going to be an easy one, we could already tell. Fortunately the dog was inside and the cows in the small field watched us but didn’t seem too bothered. We then followed the track between the fields which was fine and I was secretly wishing that the track would go with us all of the way to the lighthouse.
The track ended at a gate into a field where a number of cows and a bull were hanging around. The three of us are all a bit concerned about cows and so we lingered at the gate for a while, trying to decide which route to take to avoid being trampled. John showed us the route he had taken by cutting along the fence line down to the beach, but it seemed the cows had preempted that and positioned themselves exactly across the route John would have taken that time. While we faffed about, trying to work out what to do, the cows slowly began moving over to the left and after a while the area alongside the fence on the right became clear. John bravely decided to be the one who went first to check out the cows reaction. Fortunately they seemed fine so we followed on behind. The cows weren’t bothered by us, but we hurried on along the fence line anyway and we soon felt we were out of the danger zone.
We then came across some rather boggy ground and managed to negotiate our way around it, but I don’t think any of us came out with dry feet (Bob’s shoes were still wet from paddling yesterday when he was helping to move the tender). We then reached higher ground and Bob suggested sticking to the coastline so we did. I didn’t realise why at the time, but discovered later that there was a reason for this, and it wasn’t just the great sea views. The walk out from here was fine. A little boggy in places, but nothing too bad. We could see the lighthouse which helped to push us on. It was getting really quite hot by this point as the sun had come out and there was very little wind.
Tor Ness lighthouse is a fairly unique one. While the tower that houses the light is similar to the one we saw on Cava yesterday and a number of others, it is accompanied by another round tower and the Northern Lighthouse Board name plate is on this extra tower. A different tower was here previously, but I’m not sure if this other building was part of that or just required for storage. This little feature makes it more recognisable, which is always nice. There is a brick (or unpainted) section around the door of the second tower. I’m not sure if they left that bit for a reason or for decorative purposes.
There’s a fantastic view of the lighthouse from the little bit of cliff that juts out just to the south of the lighthouse – or at least there is when the sun is on that side of the tower. Bob discovered it first of course and it was only after we then wandered around behind the lighthouse that we realised that particular section of cliff is overhanging underneath. Pretty scary, but everything was fine. With the blue skies every angle on this one was great. It was a real achievement to get to this one as I’d seen it from a distance and seen the light flashing from Dunnet Head. The biggest achievement though would be to get back in one piece!
We began the journey and seemed to be taking more of a cross-country route. It was a bit boggy, but not too bad. John pointed out a bird being attacked by what looked like an Arctic Skua and it was then that I was made aware of the bonxies off to the right, which of course left me cowering in fear. Bob had spotted them on the way out, but had suggested taking the coastal route in order to avoid them. He knows better than to tell me when bonxies are about as it immediately gets me stressed. Fortunately they were fine with us though and there was no need to worry – although I still did, of course.
All of the way back we were thinking about the cows and bull and where they would be. John got his camera out and had a look around using his zoom. It turned out that, rather annoyingly, they were in the worst place possible, right by the gate we needed to get through. They may well have been fine and moved away if we had gone near, but we weren’t willing to take the risk.
We followed the same fence line along as we had on the way out, but when we reached a gate into the next field we hopped through it and followed the line of the wall. The cows watched us, but we felt more comfortable with a fence and wall between us and them. There was a bit of damage to the wall part way up the field and Bob suggested we get over the wall into the next field, from which we could then get back onto the normal path. He tested the wire in the fence to see if the electricity going to it was turned on. After checking a couple of times, he was sure it was off so he went to step over and a moment later he retreated backwards and I put my hands out to stop him falling over. It turned out the electric fence was on. So we abandoned that option and walked to the top of the field where there was a gate.
We managed to get into the next field, which would take us down to the main track again. This field was filled with growing vegetables and such like so we skirted around the outside. Aside from the nettles and thistles prickling my legs it was all going ok until I fell down a hole – or at least my leg did. Not ideal, but I was fine and continued on – and John who was behind me learnt not to step where I had. As we neared the corner closest to the field with the cows in they all moved away and we realised that maybe it would have been fine anyway. We finally reached the gate and could see people working up at the farm. I had visions of them flying down on a quad bike to confront us about walking through their field, but they didn’t. In fact they drove off just as we were approaching the farm so I thought they couldn’t have been that annoyed.
The bull in the field with his family watched us pass and John paid the bull compliments as we passed in an effort to stop him marching through the wall to get us, which he wouldn’t have done anyway. There was no dog barking at the house and we finally made it back to the car – where we were attacked by midges. I must say I was very relieved to have made it back safely.
We then took a quick spin along to Cantick Head to see the lighthouse quickly. While we’d had lovely sunshine on the walk it was so misty here that we could barely see the lighthouse as we approached. In complete contrast to the weather when we saw it yesterday, and in fact when I first saw it. That’s often the joy of these places, each visit is different.
I realise that the majority of this post has been describing the journey to and from Tor Ness, but when you’ve been doing this for a while you realise that (as stated in the Hokey Cokey) that’s what it’s all about! 🙂
Our third day in Orkney has been just as enjoyable as the first two were. We changed boat operator today. Going out of St Margaret’s Hope, we spent the day on Scapa Flow with Gareth and Liam from Orkney Marine Charters on board the Mary Ann. They are a new company, and the only small boat operator on Scapa Flow to offer charters in the area.
We set off from St Margaret’s Hope and, on the way out, spotted Barrel of Butter in the distance and then Hoxa Head a little later. As the view really opened up on our way to Swona we could then see Cantick Head, then Pentland Skerries and Stroma. When we’d established the islands we wanted to visit in preparation for the trip I hadn’t really considered just how many others we would see on the way.
We arrived at Swona a little while later and managed to land successfully. We have been blessed with some particularly calm days this weekend, which is great, it makes trips so much more enjoyable. While the island baggers went off to the high point, I joined John in walking around to (what I would call) the beacon on the north of the island. There are a number of derelict houses on the island in various states of disrepair. Along with the houses there are a number of other objects that have seen much better days, such as an old tractor and a boat that has either been wrecked on the island or is just falling to pieces from lack of use. It certainly feels abandoned, much like it’s neighbour Stroma. Continuing around the coast it wasn’t too far to get to the beacon. There’s not a lot to the light here, just a little cabinet, a post with a light on top and then some solar panels on a frame. It was still good to see though and we also spotted the south light from here. As we walked back we noticed a post sticking up with a few holes in it. If you looked through the holes you were looking straight at the two towers on the Pentland Skerries. We jokingly referred to the post as the Pentland Skerries signal tower.
Due to time limitations and risks from getting too close to the island’s resident cattle, we decided that we would just sail around the south of the island instead. There are some stunning cliffs around the east side of Swona and we were pleased when the top of the light on the south appeared over the rocks. We took some pictures and Bob suddenly appeared carrying a a lifejacket and put it on John. He’d managed to arrange for the tender to the taken into the rocks so we could get a closer look at that light too.
We soon found ourselves back on the island and we could see the cattle high up in the distance so weren’t concerned about them at all. The sun had come out too and we managed to get up to the light. While my priority is always about lights with internal access, which this one doesn’t have, it was still a good one to visit. Something a bit different. Along with the light on the north end of the island and others I’ve seen recently such as Brother Isle, it’s quite interesting to see the range of layouts the Northern Lighthouse Board use for these types of structure. They all appear to be slightly different in layout and component parts. There was a cleit close to the lighthouse as well as the remains of an old building that may well have been used for storage for the lighthouse. It used to be a proper little white tower in the location of the current tower and it is likely that more storage was needed for that one. This light was well worth a visit.
Heading north towards some of the islands within Scapa Flow, we passed close by Cantick Head and stopped for a while to enjoy the views of it from the bottom of the cliffs. It’s a lovely lighthouse and the whole complex is very well looked after. It’s always nice to see lighthouses from the sea as they very often look entirely different – and, of course, that is the angle they are supposed to be seen from. Leaving Cantick Head we passed the Ruff Reef beacon sitting off of the coast just off of Cantick Head. John had previously walked out to this one, but with the tide higher when we were there today there would have been no chance of that. It’s very similar to how the beacon off of Stroma looks. It was great to look back and get views of both Cantick Head and Ruff Reef together. It presented a nice picture of the various structures that light the coastline and rocks.
It was the turn of the island baggers to get a bit more done so I chilled out on the boat for a while. A few islands later we reached Cava. After dropping the lads off at the bottom end of the island to walk over the high point and meet us at the top, John and I had a lovely beach landing just to the south of the lighthouse. This visit was a good one as it marked John’s final lighthouse on Orkney. He’d seen it from the ferry, but it was the only one he’d not got close to. Once we reached the highest point on what is referred to as the Calf of Cava (the little bit at the top of the island that is joined to the main island by a narrow strip of beach and grass), the view really opened up and we could see the lighthouse with the coastline of Mainland Orkney in the background. A fantastic view to approach the lighthouse. Once we were at the lighthouse John did a celebratory star jump and we wandered around the lighthouse to get views from all angles. It’s a wonderful little spot. The rest of the group joined us a little while later and it was then time to make our way back to the boat.
We had one final stop before we headed back to St Margaret’s Hope. We’d requested a sail past of Barrel of Butter in the original communication with Gareth, not realising that there would be an option to land there. As we approached it was looking like landing would actually be possible so we hopped into the tender and set off with waves splashing in our faces on the way to the rocks on which the light sits. It was fairly shallow on the final stretch and Liam and Bob climbed out and dragged the tender closer to the exposed rocks/seaweed where Charlie and I then jumped out and slowly made our way across the deep seaweed to the dry rocks. Thankfully it has been dry for a while as I imagine it would be a much bigger challenge to walk on the rocks if they were wet. We made it safely to the light and had a quick check to make sure that it definitely didn’t have any internal access – it didn’t. That means it doesn’t make it onto my list, but I’m so pleased we stopped there. It was a real treat to have landed there. It seems there are a couple of stories about where it got its name from. One theory is that its central location to so many of the islands and land in and around Scapa Flow meant it would be the perfect place for a market for residents to go and get their “barrel of butter”. Another story says that the name originates from a time when residents in Orphir wished to hunt seals on the rocks there (and there are still seals there to this day, I can confirm) and paid an annual rent of a barrel of butter in order to be allowed to do so. Whatever the origins, it’s a good name and a fantastic place to visit. I imagine it’s rarely landed on so that always gives it a special edge too.
Thinking that was us done for the day, Gareth said he would sail close to the Nevi Skerry light, which was good to see. Again, something a bit different. This one is owned by Orkney Islands Council, which would explain why it looks so different to the rest. It was nice to see this one up close as it’s been flashing away out there at night and very much visible from our B&B, Ayre of Cara. It had been bothering me that I couldn’t work out which light it was I could see, but now I know!
That was it for our three-day island bagging extravaganza. We had a fantastic time out on the boats. We now have just under two days left to fit in a few more adventures on dry land or using scheduled ferries. Orkney really is a very special place. 🙂
The Orkney adventure continued today with a second day out on Northerly Marine Service’s covered RIB Sula. We’d taken a quick look at Helliar Holm yesterday before heading back, but the tide was too low to get onto the slipway. The decision was made to do it first thing in the morning.
We started the day with a closer view of the old lighthouse in Kirkwall. It was nice to see it without fishing paraphernalia surrounding it.
We had to wait a little longer though as our first stop was Shapinsay, which is the island Helliar Holm sits just off of. While the island baggers went off to the high point I wandered around with John. Shapinsay is a beautiful island, particularly the harbour area where you have The Douche, an old salt water shower with a dovecot on top, and the beautiful Balfour Castle with it’s gateway. I would have liked to have walked to The Douche, but the Highland cattle in the way put me off a bit. There was still plenty to see there though. From the old public toilet just above the pier to the fantastic stone towers that littered the coastal roads and decorative stone architecture all around. It’s a wonderful island and I’m very glad that the guys needed to get to the high point. I think it would be a great place to take the kids sometime.
It was just a quick hop over to Helliar Holm once we’d left Shapinsay. The tide was a little low again, but I managed to get onto the slipway with no trouble. The landing is well maintained as is the short tower. It’s a great little tower and particularly attractive. The sector lights add to its loveliness – a bit of extra colour never goes amiss. While the tower is in good condition, the same certainly can’t be said for the old keepers’ houses behind it. You can see from the sea that they are in a particularly bad way. When you are on the island and see pigeons flying out of the broken windows it’s never a good sign. It’s in a really bad way as can only be expected when it was abandoned in 1967 and nothing has been done with them since. It has been said that someone bought the cottages when they were sold by the Northern Lighthouse Board after automation, which is a real shame. It’s a great little island. Responsibility for the lighthouse was passed to Orkney Council due to the light only really being used for navigation into and out of Kirkwall. The old sundial is still there, but even that looks like it needs some renovation. Having said that, I think the building is beyond renovation now. We walked up the steps to the first floor entrance, but it certainly wouldn’t have been a good idea to have gone inside. No doubt we would have ended up on the ground floor having gone through the floorboards. Instead John and I played see-saw on part of an old door that was resting across the top step. Not your average thing to do at a lighthouse! It was a really interesting island to visit though and certainly a good one to get to as it’s so visible, but not necessarily easy to reach.
After we left Helliar Holm the island baggers did what they do best and reached the high point of a few islands. While they were on the island of Wyre we popped across with the boatmen to get a cup of tea on Rousay, which was a nice relaxing way to spend half an hour or so. We all then landed on Egilsay. To me Egilsay felt like a smaller version of Eday. There was no one about and we caught glimpses of St Magnus Church as we walked up to the crossroads. We decided to carry on ahead and stopped at the local community centre, which was open. They’ve got a fantastic setup there with a kitchen, big room for events, lounge and, most importantly, a toilet!
A few islands later we entered Calf Sound between Eday and the Calf of Eday. It was a perfect opportunity to land at the little lighthouse for another visit. It was a seaweed-covered landing and I was glad to have Bob the Handrail there to help me across. The tower is looking a little rusty now, but it’s always good to revisit an old friend.
Our final island for the day was Sanday. Unfortunately not for the lighthouse at Start Point this time, but we got in touch with a friend who lives on the island and he came to pick us up from the ferry and whisked us up to the island high point. It felt a little like Challenge Anneka, but it was good that everything came together at the end of the day and it was another successful day for all involved.
Northerly Marine Services have been exceptional over the last two days, doing everything they can to help us out. Also, we now know that if the conditions are right it’s possible to visit Auskerry, Copinsay, Helliar Holm and Pentland Skerries all in one day. Wonderful! Got to love lighthouses! 🙂
It feels like a long time since I wrote a post on here although it’s really not been so long at all. It’s been a busy year though, but I’m delighted that it’s nowhere near over yet for my lighthouse adventures.
Gathering a small group of island and lighthouse baggers, we set off for Orkney last night and were delighted to see that the forecast for our entire five days on Orkney was looking calm and dry. The mist that had plagued the area for a few days earlier in the week had also lifted. With a report from the Paul at Northerly Marine Services that it was due to be flat calm, it was all looking very positive for my endeavour to “tidy up” all of the Orkney lighthouses I’d yet to do that weren’t covered by scheduled ferries. On the way to Stromness from Scrabster last night we, of course, spotted the two lights on Graemsay as well as Sule Skerry shore station, which was fantastic. I grow fonder of Orkney every time I visit.
This morning we watched Paul’s boat, Sula, glide into Kirkwall Harbour this morning, and a short time later we were off, waving goodbye to the little old Thomas Telford light in the harbour. Our first two stops were the islands of Muckle Green Holm and Linga Holm, neither of which were home to lighthouses, but the island bagger were pleased to land on those two.
In preparation for the trip, I’d been in contact with the monks at Golgotha Monastery on Papa Stronsay. They were happy for us to go, so that was our next stop. As soon as you arrive at the pier you are greeted by welcoming signs and as you walk through the grounds there are some lovely little touches that have been introduced since the monastery was established after purchasing the island from a cattle farmer. We met one of the resident monks who was very kind and welcoming and wished us an enjoyable time on the island. That sort of thing really enhances your enjoyment of these places. It was a bit of a walk to the lighthouse, but all relatively flat so quite nice really. The island baggers headed off to the high point while I continued on with my flat-pack partner in crime. This one was fairly standard, as many of them are, but again in a great location. The island baggers joined us a short time later and it was great to see them wanting to visit another flat-pack lighthouse. Bob has always been interested in visiting them anyway (even if it is mainly just to get me there), but the others in the group seemed pleased too. It’s a fantastic island with a lovely feel about it.
After leaving Papa Stronsay we made a stop on Stronsay itself while the island baggers got a pre-arranged taxi (organised by the really helpful skipper) to take them closer to the high point of the island.
Heading south our next stop was Auskerry. I’d seen the lighthouse on Auskerry from the ferry to Kirkwall from Lerwick in late June and realised how beautiful it was then, so having the opportunity to visit it was great. I’d contacted the owner of the island a few weeks ago to check that she was happy for us to visit and fortunately she was. Landing on the island, as was the case with all of the lighthouse islands today, was really straightforward, just step off of the boat onto the slipway. From the landing it is a really short walk to the lighthouse, and what a lighthouse it is! There’s something very elegant about it. It looks different with its band of bamboo/buff etc. underneath the very top section of the lantern. It’s a tall tower and you can see why when you realise how flat the island is. There were some sheep roaming in the fields around the lighthouse (and we spotted the old sun dial in the neighbouring field), but we all tried not to bother each other too much. The best view of the lighthouse is from the beach side, particularly with the position of the sun as it was at the time. There are the remains of a wrecked ship at the coast here too. As we arrived back at the slipway we spotted the owner of the island who lives there. It was nice to meet her. What a life she must have, living there with her family. The certainly are keeping the buildings attached to the lighthouse in good condition, which is always lovely to see.
It was time to leave Auskerry, but onwards we went as the next island that beckoned was Copinsay. As opposed to the flatness of Auskerry, Copinsay rises up gradually from sea level on one side to rather high cliffs on the other. In that way it was very reminiscent of Barra Head lighthouse. It’s a bit of a stroll up to the lighthouse, but entirely worth it. We stopped off at the helipad on the way and checked out the panoramic views from there – it really was lovely weather by this point. The lighthouse came closer and closer until we were there and I headed up to the highest point of the island to get a wonderful view of the tower standing there alone with some fantastic clouds above it. It’s not a big tower, it doesn’t need to be, but what it lacks in height it makes up for in general appeal. Once I’d left the high point and made my way down to the gate, during which time I squealed about a bonxie flying nearby and dashed to the nearest person to hide, I had a beautiful moment I can only describe as the “grand reveal”. Although I had already seen the lighthouse, I was not expecting to be quite so taken aback by how wonderful it looked when I came around the side of the building it was there in front of me, sitting up on the raised grassy area. Although it’s not tall it is fairly imposing from below.
The buildings around the lighthouse are, unlike Auskerry (but again like Barra Head), looking very sad and neglected. We learned from the boatman that they are actually owned by different people, not all the Northern Lighthouse Board. It is such a shame to see it left like that looking so shabby, particularly when the lighthouse has recently been painted (for Princess Anne’s visit in the last couple of weeks). Still a wonderful place and definitely a major highlight for me today. The landing was ok, although there were some of the panels missing so you definitely needed to look where you were stepping. As we came back down to the boat I realised the tide had gone down a bit and I was worried we would have to go on the particularly dodgy bit of the landing area where bits are broken and missing all over the place, but it was fine.
An added bonus was our final stop of the day. We were talking about the plan this morning and there was mention of Copinsay and possibly Swona (which we didn’t get to). Bob just happened to ask the boatman if he would be willing to go to the Pentland Skerries to land on Muckle Skerry and it was only Bob and I in the group who had been there before. The answer from Paul the skipper was that it would be fine. Nothing has been any trouble for him today at all, which is perfect. He had not been to or landed on Muckle Skerry before, so was quite interested to go there. The sea was so calm today and had continued to be so. Unsurprisingly, the roughest stretch was after we entered the Pentland Firth when it got more choppy. It was still fine, but you certainly noticed the difference. As we had been there before, Bob told the skipper where the landing place was, which made it a lot quicker. Landing was fine again, although a little slippy on the rocks to start with. The next section of the walk up to the lighthouse involved a large number of rocks in step formation, which was massively helpful for getting up to the grass. From there you have a nice stroll towards the lighthouse.
Some of the cottages have seen better days. One of the cottages had a door open so we checked to see if anyone was in before we slipped inside. I noticed on the mantlepiece that there was some sort of black board with the names of the Principal Keeper and Assistance Keepers. It had a date at the top: 1994. Having just checked online, the lighthouse would have been automated in that year, so those three could very well have been the last keepers at the lighthouse. I also walked around the walled gardens a bit to establish where the graveyard is, but I didn’t see it. I think we are all aware that the tide was dropping so we didn’t want to leave it too late in case the boat dropped too low next to the landing area. It’s a brilliant island. I could just do with a bit of a longer trip there to find everything on the island, which is bigger than it looks!
We all left Muckle Skerry feeling very happy with our achievement and the day in general. We did wonder if we could manage a visit to Helliar Holm on the way back to Kirkwall, but the tide had dropped a lot, so it would have involved some effort to have got up onto the slipway (for me anyway with my short legs)! We decided to leave it until first thing tomorrow when the tide will be higher. I was pleased to get close though as the light on it was amazing. I think it’s a beautiful tower anyway, but bathed in yellow-y light, it was even better.
Something fun to look forward to tomorrow after such a successful day today! 🙂
Another delayed post and this one follows on nicely from my Shetland Adventure last month.
After we’d booked our holiday in Shetland I was invited to present at the Scapa 100 event, marking the centenary of the scuttling of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow back in 1919, which still remains the largest loss of warships ever to have taken place on a single occasion. The talk was to be related to my forthcoming book, The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide. I was a little worried about it as all of the lighthouses were turned off during the war and only used when required by the Navy, so I wasn’t sure if it would be relevant to the subject matter, but I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity.
This invitation meant cutting the Shetland holiday short by a day, but it was easy enough to get from Lerwick to Orkney on the ferry and the best bit was that we would pass islands with lighthouses on them. When we set off from Lerwick it was the longest day so there was still plenty of light for being able to spot the two lighthouses at either end of Fair Isle on the way past. Fair Isle is very high on my priority list and I hope to make it there next year at some point. It’s a beautiful island from the sea and I’m sure it is equally impressive from the island itself.
Also lovely to see from the ferry was Auskerry lighthouse, another one on my list. The ferry sails fairly close to it and I am now hoping to get out there next month – fingers very much crossed! Another one I have on my list for next month is Helliar Holm. Such a lovely little lighthouse. It’s a great shape and I enjoyed seeing this one from the ferry too.
There was still a little light in the sky as we arrived in Kirkwall. I was particularly excited to see the Pharos, the Northern Lighthouse Board‘s vessel moored up in the harbour. Also part of the Scapa 100 event was the opening up of the Pharos in Kirkwall and their second vessel, Pole Star, in Stromness. I was even more excited about this as I’d managed to take a look around the Pharos in April and with the Pole Star being in Stromness, the location of my talk, I was hopeful that I would get a chance to get on board that one too during the day. I knew it would be touch and go as it was open from 1-4pm and my talk was scheduled for 2-3pm. I spotted the Pole Star in the harbour as I arrived in Stromness that evening and also got the pleasure of seeing both the Hoy High and Low lights on Graemsay in action.
The following morning I had a plan of what I was going to do before my talk. I had plenty of time to kill so I first set off to get a view of the Pole Star. It is quite a bit smaller than the Pharos, which I hadn’t realised before. As I was leaving the harbour I saw the ferry to Graemsay set off and felt very jealous of those who were going to spend the day over on the island. It is a great island and it would have been a perfect day for a trip over there.
Being a little bit obsessed with Sule Skerry at the moment, following my visit to the island and lighthouse in May, I was very keen to pay a visit to the old shore station in Stromness where the families of the keepers lived when the lighthouse was manned. To get there meant walking the length of the main street through Stromness, which is never a chore. It’s got a really lovely feel about it and a lot of history too.
On the way along I was on the look-out for the old Northern Lighthouse Board depot. Until 2004 the Pole Star (not the current one, but its predecessors) was based out of Stromness and I knew that the old building and pier were still around somewhere. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find them, but I need not have worried as I recognised the buildings straight away, mainly due to the distinctive quoins around the windows. While the quoins are a different colour to the current bamboo/biscuit/buff that is so common among Northern Lighthouse Board buildings, it was obviously the place I was looking for. The building has since been taken over by the local Council so I wasn’t so keen on wandering around the area, but the view from the main street was good enough for me.
A little further on was Stromness Museum, which was also on the agenda for the day, but didn’t open until 10am so I continued along the coastal road. Once I’d passed the buildings on the right the view opened up across Scapa Flow which was stunning in the bright sunshine. I imagine that stretch of water saw its fair share of divers during those 12 days of Scapa 100 events. I was so busy looking at the sea and ahead to try and see if I could spot the old Sule Skerry shore station that I found myself at the end of the road and, turning to look back, realised I’d already walked straight past it. I continued on around the corner and walked past the back of the building first. It always feels a little strange to be taking pictures of someone’s house, but then if you live in a place like that then you would probably need to get used to it. It’s a really big building, which isn’t surprising really when you think that it needed to house up to four families at a time.
Walking back around to the front of the house I discovered the true majesty of it. It is amazing and its location is fantastic to look up at and, I imagine, equally impressive to look out from. It is very similar to the old shore station in Breasclete, Lewis where the families of the Flannan Islands keepers lived. I noticed the old Northern Lighthouse Board design above the door, which again is the same as the Breasclete building. There’s a wonderful garden in front of the house and then, on the opposite side of the road there is a little gate leading down the a small pebble beach. What a wonderful place that would have been to have grown up – and all the while your dad would have been out working on the most remote manned lighthouse in the British Isles. What a way to live!
Not wanting to hang around too long taking pictures of someone’s house, I began the walk back towards the Museum. I arrived there to find that there was some filming taking place and I was told that I could either look around quietly or I could go back again in an hour when the filming should be finished. I decided to go for the latter and found a cafe to stop at for a cup of tea. An hour later I began to walk back and happened to bump into Mike Bullock, the Chief Executive of the Northern Lighthouse Board. I’d seen him give a talk about the Northern Lighthouse Board back in 2017 when we visited their headquarters in Edinburgh during the Doors Open Days, but never met him to have a conversation with. We chatted for five minutes, during which time I’m quite confident he established that I am very much an enthusiastic “enthusiast” when it comes to lighthouses, particularly Scottish ones. I also informed him that I was the one who tweeted about really wanting to get onto the Pole Star that afternoon (a tweet he had commented on the previous day). He very kindly gave me a Northern Lighthouse Board keyring and pin badge, we said our “hope to see you later”s and I continued on to the Museum.
The filming was still going on at the Museum, but I decided that I couldn’t delay my visit any longer. They have a wonderful array of lighthouse artefacts in there, particularly relating to the lights in Orkney. While there aren’t rooms and rooms dedicated to lighthouses they have certainly packed a lot of information and items into the area they do have for it. For anyone interested in lighthouses it’s a must visit place, that’s for sure. By the time I’d finished looking around the museum the filming had come to an end so I was able to speak to the staff there. They were particularly helpful as I was keen to get someone local to the area to help me with pronunciations of place names ahead of my presentation and they certainly did that!
Once I’d finished at the Museum I just about managed to find somewhere to have lunch (it was very busy) without needing to go back to the same cafe I’d been to that morning. I also took the opportunity to add pictures of the Sule Skerry shore station and old depot buildings into my presentation.
Walking back across to the venue I saw people heading over to the Pole Star and for the second time that day I was envious, but still held out hope that I would be one of them too. I was taken to the room I was presenting in and we managed to set up in time for the audience’s arrival. I was pleased to see that a good number of people had come along, but it did also make me slightly more nervous. From what I could tell the presentation went well. I’d focused it specifically on the lighthouse of Orkney and added in some information about lighthouses in wartime and war-related lighthouse incidents in Orkney. It was structured as a timeline starting with the old North Ronaldsay light and ending with Tor Ness (the last one to be introduced) and World War II. People seemed to engage well with it and asked a number of questions at the end – a couple of which I wasn’t able to answer (but I later put the same questions to Mike Bullock and he wasn’t sure either, so that made me feel better). A number of them also came up to speak to me at the end too, which was lovely.
It turned out that a lady who lives in the old Sule Skerry shore station was in the audience. She said that they would really like to restore the old Northern Lighthouse Board design above the door, but aren’t sure how to do so. She lives in a quarter of the building and is the only one to have kept most of the old fixtures and fittings as they would have been when the keepers’ families lived there. That would be amazing to see. She did invite me back for tea, which was really very kind, but I was on the late afternoon ferry so didn’t have time unfortunately. We happened to meet again on the Pole Star, which I did manage to get to in time!
As I mentioned before, it is a smaller vessel than the Pharos with no heli-deck, but still great to get onto. I was chatting to one of the crew and said “You must have been to some amazing lighthouses” and his response was that he can’t keep track of which ones he has and hadn’t been too, which seemed crazy to me, but then again I am a self-proclaimed enthusiastic enthusiast! After looking around the bridge I started speaking to another member of the crew. Unlike her colleague she is a massive fan of lighthouses and we spoke for quite a while about her adventures on the Pole Star, my lighthouse tour and the book, which she is really excited about. Her suggestion that I go on a world tour of lighthouses and take her along as an accomplice was a nice idea, although I’m not sure how I’ll fund that one! I was really pleased to have met her. If I’d had more time I would have carried on standing around chatting, but it was time for me to leave Stromness and Orkney and head back home.
It had been a fantastic 18 hours in Orkney. I’d started out feel rather nervous and wanting to escape to Graemsay, but actually ended the day feeling glad to have been part of such a fantastic event. The organisers put in so much time and effort and delivered such a varied programme. I wished I’d stayed longer to see more of it, but I had to get back home to hide away and read through the draft of my book. I got a seaward look at both the old Lighthouse Board Depot and the Sule Skerry shore station as I said farewell to Stromness from the ferry.
Another really positive and enjoyable experience in Orkney. I’m growing rather fond it that place. 🙂
It’s been a long old winter, I think most people would agree. There’s nothing like a young baby and a bit of cold, wild weather to scupper any plans for enjoyable trips to lighthouses. That’s not necessarily the case for Bob though who managed to land on Bass Rock earlier in the year, and Inchkeith this weekend. I’m not jealous at all, not one bit!
Happily, Easter has arrived and, for us, that marks a change in our calendar with the first few trips away to exciting and obscure places throughout the UK. We spent last Easter on Orkney (see a previous blog) and the weather was awful and, when Bob mentioned doing the same again this year and I agreed, it started to look like it might just be the same again. After booking we also realised that it clashed with the very exciting event taking place down in Fraserburgh at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, where the old Kinnaird Head lighthouse was turned on for one night only and manned by former lightkeepers to mark the 20th anniversary of Fair Isle South lighthouse being the last to be automated. From what I’ve seen it looked like a wonderful night and, if I could have been split into two for one weekend only, my other half would definitely have been there for that!
Back to Orkney, our key priority this year was to spend a day on Graemsay and visit the two lighthouses (Hoy High and Hoy Low) for me and the island high point for Bob. The main challenge was faced with this trip was that it is only a passenger ferry that serves the island and the current timetable meant we had to choose between a two-hour rush around the island or a six-hour visit, and with two young kids in tow it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Our solution was to go with the longer option and hire bikes from Orkney Cycle Hire in Stromness along with a buggy for the kids to sit in to trail behind Bob. On a day that was due to be sunny, but cold we needed to make sure the kids didn’t freeze and the buggy offered the perfect solution.
So, along we went with our bikes and buggy. My last venture in riding a bike was on our honeymoon back in 2013 when we cycled between the three lighthouses on Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland (see this post for the fun we had that day!) in the wind and rain. Fortunately we had more pleasant weather this time with some nice sunshine. We reached Hoy High lighthouse first, the tallest and most visible of the two. The 33 metre white tower was built, along with the Low lighthouse, in 1851 under the direction of Alan Stevenson. The two lighthouses operate together as leading lights, guiding ships safely through Hoy Sound. The tower is very in-keeping with the style of many of the other Scottish lighthouses. We didn’t get too close to this one as the former keepers’ buildings are now privately owned.
The road that joins the two lighthouses offer some stunning views (as do pretty much all of the island’s roads). One of the best has to be looking back to the lighthouse from the other end of the beautiful beach at Sandside. We chose this as the perfect spot for lunch a bit later on in the day, using one of the many picnic benches scattered across the island (there was a map at the pier on Graemsay showing where these picnic benches are located). The picnic benches were a nice touch and very welcoming for those of us visitors who do make the journey over (Graemsay doesn’t get the recognition, visitor numbers and attention it deserves in my opinion, but then maybe that’s what the residents of the island love about it).
We chose to leave the bikes and buggy at the top of the track down to the Hoy Low lighthouse and walk down. We were glad we did as it would have been a fairly bumpy ride for us all! I’d previously seen Hoy Low lighthouse from the Northlink ferry between Scrabster and Stromness and it was usually dwarfed by the hills on Hoy, which makes for a stunning picture. This lighthouse stands only 12 metres, but it’s a beautiful tower. Nearby there is an old World War II defence building. There are also remains of an old house next to the lighthouse compound, of which very little is still standing. The most obvious remains are of the fireplace, clearly very well built in its day! This lighthouse marked the first official lighthouse “bag” for our little girl at the age of 7 months (slightly later than our son who visited his first on the way home from hospital)! After reaching the bikes again we headed for the high point, which Bob bagged successfully. It’s good that our hobbies run in parallel on many occasions! We then stopped for lunch next to the beach and went for a bit of a walk. The very kind people at Orkney Cycle Hire had lent us some buckets and spades for the beach, but the chilly wind meant we didn’t get a chance to use them.
We managed to complete our tour of the island and lunch within 4 hours and, being aware that the kids had been a bit cooped up, we decided to head back to the pier to see what the waiting room had to offer. I was concerned that it wouldn’t be open, but I needn’t have worried. Quite the opposite! Not only was it open, but the heating was on, which we were incredibly grateful for. Our son was particularly happy to have somewhere to play about and he adopted a small teddy bear from the honesty box – we knew we’d be buying it and taking it home when he started sweeping it across the floor!
All in all, we had a wonderful day on Graemsay. For those going to Orkney and interested in seeing an island that many others choose not to visit it is a must. I imagine the locals are quite fond of its quietness compared the neighbouring (and significantly bigger) island of Hoy. Living there would certainly involve some planning when it comes to such activities as the weekly shop, but I can imagine it’s easy enough once you get into the habit.
This trip involved a number of other activities on Orkney mainland, but no other lighthouses. Every time we leave Orkney we have always already started discussing how our next visit will pan out. We are planning, at some point in the not to distant future, a longer trip, taking in a number of the islands, including Sanday (for Start Point, which involves a bit of planning with the tide), North Ronaldsay and Westray. We also hope to organise trips to some of those that aren’t covered by the scheduled sailings.
Our next potential lighthouse-bagging trip will be next month when we head for the Western Isles again. This will be our latest attempt to reach the Monachs and the Flannans. We shall see what sea conditions await, so watch this space… 🙂