The big lights of the Western Isles

I’ve spent many a day out getting to the lighthouses on small islands off the coast of the Western Isles, but this means that I’ve somewhat abandoned the lights on the main islands of Lewis and Harris. With the exception of Butt of Lewis I’d not visited them since my first trip to the Western Isles in 2014. It felt like a good time to rectify that.

Having seen Tiumpan Head flashing last night I was keen to get a bit closer to it again. We set off and as we headed out of Stornoway I spotted a ship with a particularly recognisable shape just off the coast. I’ve seen the Northern Lighthouse Board’s maintenance vessel Pharos on many of my trips out and about, and was fortunate enough to have a look around her in Oban last year. The first time I saw her was at Bell Rock back in 2012, which was actually one of my first lighthouse boat trips.

I obviously wanted to get a closer view today if I could. Looking at the map I thought we’d be able to get the best view from Swordale. Luckily there was a nice gate with a “no dogs” sign on it leading to a field where we could get some nice views across to it. A bit of a bonus, although I did get wet feet as I walked across a rather boggy part of the field. No pain, no gain!

The Northern Lighthouse Board’s vessel Pharos

A short time later we arrived at Tiumpan Head. Last time we were there it was misty and overcast and the one lasting memory was of dogs barking and barking the whole time. This time the dog barks were still there, but the weather was much better, albeit quite windy.

Tiumpan Head lighthouse

As well as the improved conditions my appreciation of the lighthouse was greater this time around. Much of the last few years of lighthouse visits has been spent dashing around like a headless chicken trying to do as much as possible in the limited time available. Now I find myself more and more spending longer at these places and enjoying them more, discovering more and letting them grow on me. In a message to a friend earlier I likened the lighthouses to people and how the more you see them and get to know them the more fond of them you become. Of course there are always exceptions!

The lighthouse tower at Tiumpan Head

The tower, which is maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board is looking great, but it was sad to see that part of the outer wall of the complex has fallen away. It made me think of the builders all those years ago when the lighthouse was built making these wonderful solid structures. It is rare, in my experience, to see the walls falling down.

Tiumpan Head lighthouse was the damaged section of wall

After I’d finished wandering around and taking some pictures, we drove west and discovered what looked remarkably like an old lighthouse building alongside a little slipway at Portnaguran. I got in touch with a friend who is knowledgeable on the history of the Northern Lighthouse Board and he agreed that it most likely was related to the lighthouse and used as an equipment or materials store coming in from, or going out by, boat from the slipway. I also checked with my friend and he confirmed that the grey colour of the quoins were what the Northern Lighthouse Board used before they introduced the yellow/beige colour, which goes by many names. These discoveries teach you that you really do need to keep your eyes open as you never know what you might discover.

The old Tiumpan Head store and slipway in Portnaguran

On the way to our next destination, we stopped by to check access to Arnish Point lighthouse for a friend of mine who plans to visit it next year. We found the road that we’d driven up 6 years ago and decided against going up there this time due to the large puddles/potholes on it. Thankfully it looked like access would still be fine, but we decided against the 1km walk to the lighthouse today as we had somewhere else to be. We did find a nice vantage point on the way out of the industrial estate though that offered wonderful views of the lighthouse and all the way over to where the Pharos was anchored.

Arnish Point lighthouse and the Pharos in the distance

Our final destination of the day, and by chance we arrived there later than planned, was Eilean Glas on Scalpay. This one is so often photographed and you can really see why. For a start everyone loves a red and white lighthouse, and when it is located here with panoramic vistas in every direction what is not to like?

I had read a few days earlier that the improvement works to the cottages at Eilean Glas were now forging ahead and that a new guidebook about the lighthouse had just been published. The sign near the parking area also mentioned tea and coffee being available – there aren’t many lighthouses where you can get that!

The track out to the lighthouse is fantastic. Last time we visited we didn’t realise there was a track and so took the coastal route, which was nice but a bit more challenging – especially at 6 months pregnant! There’s obviously a considerable amount of work gone into the track and signposting. It certainly makes it a much more accessible place than it probably was previously.

The track that leads to the lighthouse

With the sun going down we had that wonderful warm glow on the lighthouse and we are both now converted to the idea of visiting lighthouses at sunset. Fortunately we weren’t there too late to see the lady who is coordinating the effort to renovate the cottages. Once we’d bought a copy of the guidebook and a cup of tea we got chatting to her about the work going on there. The work actually began in 1983 so the effort is as old as I am, but it’s been a little stop/start since then. The current push is sounding positive though and let’s hope it continues.

There’s a lot to see there and, as always, this is best shown in picture form, so here are a few from today.

Eilean Glas lighthouse
The old Eilean Glas lighthouse – one of the oldest in Scotland
Some of the more recently installed windows

Bob had taken Joe the Drone along with us, although we weren’t sure if it would be too windy to use it. He decided to give it a go anyway and Joe seemed to cope fine with any gusts. He had to come back down briefly as it began to rain, but the shower didn’t last long and he was back up again in no time. Often when you are taking pictures of something you can see if it’s going to make for a particularly good image. It’s slightly different with the drone though as you really just put it up, fly around and see what looks good once you are up there.

At first the drone was struggling with automatically flying in a circle around the lighthouse as the brightness of the white bands were causing the drone to lose its focus. After trying a few different angles, Bob flew it around the seaward side on the south east, looking back towards the lighthouse. Looking at the picture on the screen we knew that this was the angle it had to be taken from with the mountains of Harris in the background. Here are a few of Joe’s pictures.

My favourite picture of the day

I heard earlier today that a friend had shared some of Joe’s pictures from the Butt of Lewis yesterday with one of his friends. One of the comments that came back was that it was interesting how the lighthouse dominates when seen from the ground, but some of the drone images make it look so small in comparison to the landscape surrounding it. It is so true and one of the joys of the drone images is that it reminds you that no matter how big or tall manmade structures are, nature will always dwarf them. I think that’s a nice note to end on today. More to come tomorrow… 🙂

A week on Mull

Two weeks ago we spent some time on Mull, staying in Tobermory. As soon as we left Oban on the ferry the lighthouse viewings began, with a glimpse of Dunollie beacon, just north of Oban, and the stunning Lismore lighthouse (more on that one in the next post).

Rubha nan Gall lighthouse
Rubha nan Gall lighthouse

On our first full day we decided to risk getting a soaking by walking to Rubha nan Gall lighthouse to the north of Tobermory. Shortly after leaving the road and heading through the trees, we came across a sign telling us that the path ahead was closed. It was clear that no one had really taken much notice of the sign, so we pretended we hadn’t seen it and continued along the coastal route, which proved to be particularly muddy and narrow in places. It was quite a picturesque walk and we were fortunate not to be rained on. As we approached the lighthouse I remarked on how similar it looked to Eilean Ban lighthouse where we had stayed just a few weeks before. It’s not only the lighthouse that’s similar, but the access bridge as well. Unfortunately a high locked gate prevented us from reaching the tower, but we got some great views anyway from the pier leading to it. We spent a while sitting on the pier and enjoyed the emerging sun while we could, with views across to the Ardnamurchan peninsula. The walk back was equally enjoyable.

When we returned to Tobermory we stopped off at the town’s museum, where we found out about the story of Neptune II that set off on a 100 mile overnight journey from one port to another in Newfoundland in 1929. The ship was caught in a storm which caused them to endure a 48 day, 3,000 mile journey, during which they came across the lighthouses at Skerryvore, Dubh Artach and Ardnamurchan before setting foot on land again. We also found a little more information about the Rubha nan Gall lighthouse at the aquarium in Tobermory.

The observation tower on Erraid, with windows looking out towards Dubh Artach and Skerryvore
The observation tower on Erraid, with windows looking out towards Dubh Artach and Skerryvore

We spent an afternoon walking across to Erraid, a tidal island, and exploring the island. Erraid was used as a base for construction of the Dubh Artach lighthouse, including the quarrying of the granite for the tower. While the lighthouse was in operation, the keepers and their families lived on Erraid and the observation tower was also constructed. We visited the tower and were able to get a distance glance of Dubh Artach lighthouse (more on this one too in another post coming soon). Robert Louis Stevenson visited the island while his father was involved in constructing the lighthouse and set his novella ‘The Merry Men’ there as well as a chapter in ‘Kidnapped’. It’s a fantastic little island and even more enjoyable with the knowledge that you need to get back before the tide turns!

The beacon at Dunollie
The beacon at Dunollie

Our final day on Mull was spent visiting Iona. On our return journey to Oban we noticed the Northern Lighthouse Board’s maintenance vessel, Pharos (which we had previously seen at Bell Rock and on our way out to St Kilda), parked up a short distance from the Oban ferry terminal. We took a drive up and noticed that the Northern Lighthouse Board have a terminal there, which is a base for their vessels, but also where passengers for the Hebridean Princess alight. On our way north to Appin, our base for the following week, we stopped to look at the Dunollie beacon a bit closer up.

The following week was a blur of boat trips, remote lighthouses and sunshine. More on this to follow soon! 🙂