Western Isles: the final light

It’s been just over seven years since I visited my first lighthouse in the Western Isles and it’s taken six week-long trips there to have got as close as I possibly could to all 23 of the lights. The map below from my book shows where they all are. I’ve physically touched 20 of them and have been close to three others. Those are Milaid Point, Gasker and, today’s light Calvay.

Lighthouses of the Western Isles

This morning it was time to leave the Western Isles. We’d previously booked the ferry from Lochmaddy on North Uist to Uig on Skye. Once we became aware that we couldn’t get out on a chartered boat though, I suggested we change the booking to go out from Lochboisdale instead so we could at least pass Calvay and it’s little light as we left. With the booking changed, we poised ourselves on the outside deck of the ferry for departure.

The view from the ferry towards Gasay island

While we waited we could see the lights on both Gasay, which we visited on Sunday, and Calvay. By the time we set off the lights had gone out for the day. It was good to pass by Gasay having been there a few days ago and to see some of the rocks we had wandered about on submerged.

Gasay lighthouse

A little further on was Calvay. The light on Calvay is a twin of the one on Gasay and has the important role of guiding vessels safely into and out of Lochboisdale.

Calvay and its lighthouse with South Uist behind

Calvay is a relatively small island, but it has some history. In the 13th century a castle was built on a tidal section of the island and later Bonnie Prince Charlie used the castle, now in ruins, to hide.

A Wikipedia entry for Calvay castle states that the island also has a lighthouse built by David Alan Stevenson in 1891, which is very clearly no longer the case. That does, however, suggest that it was the small white towers, like Sgeir Ghlas which I visited on Saturday, that stood here previously. I notice there is no mention of Gasay lighthouse on the Northern Lighthouse Board’s Stevenson’s engineers list, which suggests that the light on Gasay came later.

Calvay lighthouse

It may have just been a fleeting glance at Calvay’s little light, but hopefully at some point I will get to take a closer look.

So that’s me having visited all of the lighthouses in this area. I’ve had to try harder and been more persistent here than I have in any other region of the UK. I’ve had some fantastic days out with highlights being: visiting the unnerving Sula Sgeir and the beautiful North Rona on my very first visit to the Western Isles; walking up to Barra Head lighthouse and the incredible views from that most southerly point of the Outer Hebrides; two stunning days in a row wearing short sleeves in the sunshine when visiting the Flannans Isles and the Monach Islands followed by Haskeir lighthouse; to this trip where I reached some of the most remote lights.

Me at North Rona, 6 months pregnant, in 2014

I know I have three left I can improve upon and hopefully the opportunity will arise one day. I now feel more confident about landing on Gasker having had my little scrambling episode to get to Rubh Uisenis. I’d like to land at Milaid Point when conditions allow and visit Calvay when boats are back up and running again. Until then I will enjoy my wonderful memories of this stunning part of the country.

At Barra Head lighthouse in 2018

Before I finish this post I wanted to return to the topic of COVID-19 as mentioned in yesterday’s post. The pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on the trips we have managed this year. While we have enjoyed the trips, they are not the same as they were pre-COVID.

In terms of visiting lighthouses using chartered boats we are now going alone or with one or two friends rather than with 10 or more others as we have done in the past. This, of course, increases the cost significantly.

In addition, we always book self-catering accommodation where we know we’ll not be mixing with others. Our choice in accommodation is also dictated by the cancellation policies as we realise that short notice cancellations may be required to ensure we comply with the government’s regulations. We don’t eat out, instead cooking dinner for ourselves at the accommodation or getting a takeaway. This trip has been the first where we have used public transport (the ferry) and we sat outside for the crossing with face masks on, and fortunately today’s crossing was very quiet so we sat indoors away from others with our face masks on for the entirety of the journey. Some of these things aren’t enjoyable, but the opportunity to visit these lighthouses, get outdoors and have a change of scene more than makes up for it. 🙂

Putting in the effort for Ushenish

Phew, where do I begin? I’m not sure I’ve ever put as much effort into visiting a single lighthouse as I did over the past few days with Ushenish. With a good view of Calvay lighthouse from the ferry tomorrow when we leave Lochboisdale, it only left this one lighthouse that I had not yet seen in the Western Isles.

The plan for the beginning of this week had been to go out with Uist Sea Tours from Lochboisdale, land on Calvay and then head around to the landing point for Ushenish as well as doing some islands for Bob along the way. All was well, and then COVID-19 arrived on South Uist. David who runs Uist Sea Tours contacted me at the end of last week to say that he may need to go into self-isolation and was then in regular contact over the weekend with updates and then final confirmation that he would not be able to take us out. I should say that David has been incredibly quick to respond to my messages in organising the trip and I hope one day we do manage to get out on his boat. A really professional company who are up for these mad lighthouse and island-related days out.

Then the fun of finding an alternative boatman began. During the course of Sunday I contacted five alternative boat companies, two based on the Uist, one on Barra and two others on Skye. We had also floated the idea with Seumas at Sea Harris on Saturday and he ended up offering us a really reasonable price to come all the way down from Scalpay just to take us to the landing for Ushenish and then drop us back off again. I really cannot recommend Sea Harris enough! Some companies weren’t available or weren’t running due to the pandemic, one got back to me with a quote and a couple didn’t respond. Needless to say it was a lot of effort.

Bob made the suggestion that we could walk out to the lighthouse. Initially I was hesitant, thinking that it was a ridiculously long walk, but we looked at the map and I suddenly realised that this was the only way I could guarantee I would get there (boats are obviously weather dependent, although it was looking ok for today). I happily agreed to this plan and we chose today rather than yesterday as the weather was forecast to be considerably better.

This morning we set off, parking at the starting point we’d found on a short recce the other day. The route was initially following a good path and across a couple of nice (although broken in places) bridges. There had been heavy rain early this morning, which meant the paths were fairly muddy in places.

The route finder leads the way
One of two little bridges that made crossing streams easy
Some very picturesque views early in the walk
We encountered a number of ruined buildings along the way
The path follows alongside Loch Sgioport (or Skipport)

After around 1.5kms the path marked on the map ended, but for an extra half a kilometre an extended track continued. Between dodging mud and boggy sections I managed to stop and enjoy the views.

The extended path then came to an end and it was down to Bob to guide us through. One of the biggest challenges during the walk was crossing rivers. Some, such as the one pictured below, involved a bit of a leap of faith. Others weren’t so wide, but presented other challenges such as slippery rocks at crossing points which led to me getting very wet at one point!

Approaching the beautiful Loch Bein

The terrain varied from muddy, boggy, rough to overgrown. There were plenty of up and downhills too, which kept me on my toes. Bob had chosen a higher route across the section between the end of the extended path and the lighthouse landing area to help avoid the longer undergrowth and even wetter ground further down. The section with no path was by far the trickiest and when we could we followed the deer tracks. Otherwise Bob navigated us professionally through whatever terrain we came upon.

After what felt like a long time, the old lighthouse store at the boat landing area came into view and we followed a deer track along the coast.

The old concrete landing is now in a poor state.
The old lighthouse store at the start of the track to the lighthouse
The view looking back from the track to the lighthouse
We spotted the partially covered water storage hut alongside the track

I knew it couldn’t be long before we reached the lighthouse and Bob stopped ahead of me, which is always a good sign that we are on the approach.

The approach to the lighthouse

Ushenish lighthouse is a small tower, not needing to be high due to its position on a tall cliff. There are a couple of buildings within the complex, but originally there would have been the keepers’ houses here where they lived with their families – what a life that would have been! The houses have now been demolished, but you can still see their foundations.

The information panel is looking a little weather beaten, but is full of information
Ushenish lighthouse

It was a real shame to see the wall around the lighthouse falling away in places. As with Tiumpan Head the other day, it reminds you of the hard work that would have gone into building it all those years ago, over 160 years in fact. It is sad to see, but I suppose the wall is no longer so important.

It was fairly windy at the lighthouse with some strong gusts, but Bob decided to try putting Joe the Drone up to see if he could manage to capture some images. Joe only went up for a short time due to the wind, but still managed some fantastic shots.

There was an interesting structure in the complex. I recalled seeing something very similar elsewhere, it may have been Auskerry in Orkney. I’m not sure what it is for, but would be very interested to hear if anyone has any ideas. You can contact me here if you have any thoughts or information.

After having lunch at the lighthouse it was time to begin the long journey back. This was where we suddenly began to spot nature aplenty. Within the lighthouse complex there were a number of hairy caterpillars and it always amazes me how these small creatures that seem so delicate can survive in such harsh areas. I recalled visiting Eshaness lighthouse in Shetland last year and being fascinated by how many butterflies were there. They always look so small and easily damaged and yet seeing them in these locations proves that they are much more hardy than we give them credit for. All the way back to the car there were caterpillars littering the ground and I made a point of being careful to avoid stepping on them.

Further along the track we had a call from our little daughter who wanted to speak to us. As we were chatting Bob said “Is that an eagle?” and we watched as a sea eagle flew around close by and then landed near the edge of the cliff. We waited patiently to watch it fly off again, but it seemed quite happily settled on the ground. What a treat!

We reached the landing area again and braced ourselves for the off piste section again.

The walk back was tiring and we just kept walking. I felt that if I stopped I wouldn’t want to get going again so I put my head down, concentrated on one step at a time and waited patiently until we got to the easier section again.

A wonderful view looking down on Lochs Bein and Sgioport
Some Eriskay ponies welcomed us back to the path

I was glad to be back on the path, but even happier to get back to the road. It had been a long walk, about 10 miles in total with the weaving around we did to make the going a little easier. Walking to Ushenish lighthouse is the furthest and most challenging walk I’ve ever done to a lighthouse and I am pleased that it involved more effort than many others. A reviewer of my book described my ‘tenacity’ and I’d not realised until reading that how determined I am to reach these places. I certainly am determined, even if it nearly breaks me. I certainly won’t be forgetting the walk to Ushenish in a hurry. A great day! 🙂

Haskeir: the bonus bag

On the visit to the Monach Isles back in May we had a bonus lighthouse bag in the form of Haskeir lighthouse, which is located 13 kms west north west of North Uist. Although we knew we were visiting the island and that it was home to a lighthouse, we were both expecting a “flat-pack” affair. We were pleased, however, to discover that it was something more substantial. Not “Stevenson” substantial, but definitely worth visiting.

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Haskeir lighthouse from the sea

As we arrived at the island and prepared to get into the tender a helicopter flew overhead and landed on the island. We wondered if we were going to get any trouble from a potential owner or anything, but the door opened, a couple of people got out, took pictures, hopped back in again and off they went. The helicopter was operated by PDG and was blue and orange in colour. These are the helicopters currently contracted by the Northern Lighthouse Board to transport their engineers around to service the lighthouses.

We weren’t sure whether we would manage to land on the island, but the conditions were in our favour once again. The landing wasn’t too bad and there was a bit of a clamber up some rocks and along a couple of narrow ledges before we reached the relatively flatter ground. The island reminded me very much of Eilean Chathastail on which the Eigg lighthouse (a very similar structure to this one) sits.

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Haskeir lighthouse

Being careful not to disturb the birds we made our way up to the lighthouse. It’s what I have started referring to as a “halfway lighthouse”, a white, 9 metre, fibre glass structure with a white lantern. The lighthouse was constructed in 1997 and is one of only two buildings on the island, the other being an old bothy, which we didn’t see while we were there. As with those we’d visited the day before and that morning, it was a very peaceful place and definitely worth the effort of getting off of the boat.

The high point of the island was just next to the lighthouse, which is always pleasant and tends to keep everyone happy 🙂

 

The Flannans – finally!

For the past three years we have been holidaying in the Outer Hebrides, based on Lewis or Harris, with a chartered boat lined up and ready to take us, and a number of other hill/island baggers out to the Flannan Isles. All three times the trip has been cancelled due to poor sea conditions.

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Eilean Mòr lighthouse

The Flannan Isles lie 32km west of Lewis and, as you can imagine, are subject to some pretty wild seas at times. Having spent so many years waiting to get out there, a part of me thought it might never happen. But then we saw the forecast for last week, which coincided with what had become our annual holiday to the Western Isles. Sunshine, virtually no wind. It was looking promising and even more so when we received a message to say that our boatman, Seumas Morrison of Sea Harris, was confident that we would make it out there. Landing, though, would be another matter entirely…

Of course, my priority was landing on Eilean Mòr, the main island, which boasts the famous lighthouse (more on that shortly). The group we were with, including Bob, were also interested in landing on the other seven islands (or lumps of rock, in some cases) that make up the Flannans. The sea looked nice and calm on the morning we headed out. None of us expected to be able to land on anything other than the main island, and we weren’t even sure about that one!

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The east landing on Eilean Mòr

After an hour and 40 minutes on the boat we approached Eilean Mòr. Quite quickly we realised that a landing would definitely be possible, although we’d need to time it right to avoid getting wet feet. Very kindly, Bob had taken along a rope and he joined a couple of others as the first group to land, which then gave him time to set up a rope/handrail to help the rest of us. We arrived at the east landing, which very helpfully still has many of the steps intact. A clear path then took us up and in a big, sweeping route around to the lighthouse. The path followed what would have been the tracks (removed now), which would have taken the supplies up to the lighthouse. Apparently the interchange point between the tracks going down to the east landing and the west landing – which they would change manually – was known affectionately by the keepers as “Clapham Junction”.

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Eilean Mòr lighthouse

The lighthouse sits beautifully at the top and there’s a real awe-inspiring feel about the place, possibly helped by its remoteness and how challenging it is to get to. Slightly off the path to the right as you walk up is the old chapel (known locally as the “dog kennel” apparently, which says a lot about its size!) As you walk up, the helipad is just behind the chapel.

On such a calm day, it was difficult to imagine how wild it could be out there, although the state of the west landing area suggests the severity with much of what was put in place for the keepers’ landings, including the steps, having been washed away.

It is easy, before visiting the island, to view it solely as “the one from which the keepers went missing”, but visiting the island gives you the opportunity to see it for what it actually is, which is a beautiful structure, built in (what must have been) a challenging location that now makes for a very special place. There is a feeling you get on these islands off of the west coast of Scotland that I haven’t experienced anywhere else – possibly, in part, due to the low number of visitors to these islands. Hyskeir is another example as is the Eigg lighthouse on a small island to the south east of Eigg. It’s isolation, but the beautiful kind that soothes the soul. It probably helps that I’ve been to them on calm, sunny days!

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View of the west landing on Eilean Mòr

Descending down the path and back on to the boat went smoothly with our “handrail” in place! We then went on to get those more adventurous members of the group landed on all of the other islands, which I sat back, viewed the Eilean Mòr lighthouse from various angles and watched one of the boatman successfully catch numerous coalfish and some fair-sized pollock. It was all very relaxing.

Later in the week, we grabbed the opportunity to visit the exhibition and memorial dedicated to the three keepers lost from Eilean Mòr in 1900. For those not aware, on the 15th December a vessel passing by noted the light did not appear to be operating. When a boat was sent on 26th of that month (after being delayed by the weather from 20th) for the changing of the keepers, the first man onto the island reported that none of the three keepers were to be found. There are numerous stories about what could have occurred, including a poem that took a little artistic licence with the story. The most likely story, in my opinion, is that one or two of them got into some trouble at the edge of the island and the other went to help resulting in all three being lost to the sea. It’s a very sad story and the exhibition and memorial pay tribute to them.

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The lighthouse exhibition in Breasclete

The exhibition, titled ‘Waiting for darkness to fall’, opened in April at Breasclete Community Hall and is open daily from 2-4pm. The community of Breasclete chose to develop the exhibition and memorial as it is in the village that the lighthouse’s shore station was based (it is still there now and stands out clearly from the rest of the buildings. A picture can be found in one of my previous posts). It features descriptions of the Flannan Isles, the building of the lighthouse, what is known about the disaster and the aftermath. A great deal of information has been pulled together for the exhibition, including excerpts about the island from various publications, weather reports from the time the keepers went missing, newspaper cuttings following the loss of the keepers, and pictures of the development, building and launch of the memorial, which is located just half a mile down the road, next to the water’s edge.

We spoke to a very friendly gentleman from Breasclete Community Association who was on hand to chat to visitors and he informed us that there are a number of potential plans in the pipeline to ensure the exhibition can remain permanent and expand upon it. He said that they hope to introduce visits out to see the island itself by boat or helicopter at some point and also look for a more permanent home for the exhibition. I had read online that there has been some talk about the community purchasing the shore station and using the building as a home to information about the lighthouse and the missing keepers.

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The Flannan Memorial in Breasclete

Of course, we also had to visit the memorial. It really is a lovely piece of work. The artist James Crawford of Garynahine has carved the shape of the lighthouse out of sandstone and it sits on top of a Lewisian Gneiss rock shaped like Eilean Mòr. This stone is on a bed of smaller stones with beautiful sandstone block-work around the edge. A bronze wave appears to the left of the island, the wave heading straight for it. A plaque features on the front with the names of the three keepers: James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald Macarthur. I’ve included a couple of  extra pictures below of the finer details.

Having the opportunity to see both the island and lighthouse as well as the exhibition and memorial in the same week was a real treat. I feel very lucky to have been able to do so. 🙂

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