Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: the storm before the calm – part two

Part one of this post finished off with my book content being submitted to Whittles Publishing in February 2019. It was time to get prepared for Spring, which was going to be busy with lighthouse trips. Firstly I got to organise and attend two Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) events, the first based out of Oban, taking in Lismore, Corran and Ardnamurchan lighthouses as well as a tour of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s depot and their vessel Pharos. The second trip involved much more planning on my part when I welcomed a number of ALK members to the north coast of Scotland for internal tours of Noss Head, Duncansby Head and Dunnet Head, and Cape Wrath lighthouses. It really was great fun to spend time with lots of likeminded people.

The ALK group at Noss Head lighthouse

Although the ALK events had begun, it didn’t put a stop to my own trips. The previous December we’d made contact with the owner of North Coast Sea Tours to find out if they would be willing to get us to the particularly tricky Sule Skerry. Not only did they agree to that, but the owner also suggested we and a few of our friends could join him and a few of his pals as he brought his boat back up from Ballycastle, Northern Ireland in April 2019. The idea for the West Coast Adventure was born. With Derek the skipper in charge of the boat, Bob in control of the island and lighthouse itinerary and myself taking the lead on organising accommodation for everyone, it was a big task to pull it all together, but for the incredible days we got out of it there was no denying it was worth it. It’s really unlike any other trip I had been on before or have been on since. A really great experience and opportunity.

My very unscientific method of measuring the circumference of a lighthouse on Rona

The fun with North Coast Sea Tours continued the following month when we finally managed to get out to Sule Skerry. The first day a group of island baggers made it there and the second it was the lighthouse baggers’ turn. It was another incredibly unique trip and much more like the bagging years times, but with some of my new lighthouse friends along for the ride too. An added bonus with this trip was sailing around Cape Wrath as Derek brought the boat around to the north coast in preparation for the Sule Skerry trips.

Sule Skerry lighthouse – formerly the most remote manned station in the British Isles

June 2019 saw the biggest overlapping of this period with the ‘bagging years’. On the last big trip I joined with the collectors of all things, which was in Shetland, I was desperate to go out and enjoying visiting lighthouses and islands as I had in previous years. I had a wonderful time – how could I not, especially with reaching the magnificent Muckle Flugga and so soon after Sule Skerry felt like a huge achievement – but my enjoyment was, in some ways, hampered by the pressure of having so much else to do at the same time. At one point I was wandering the streets of Lerwick on my way to the library to print out two copies of my 200+ page book and then heading onwards to the Post Office to get one copy sent off to a friend to review. There was a tight deadline on reviewing it and, at the same time, I’d done little preparation for the presentation I needed to deliver in Orkney on the way back home from the Shetland trip. That period really was the most stressful, when I realised that perhaps I had overcommitted somewhat. I still managed to get to and enjoy some of the most fantastic places though, thanks in no small part to Alan who did an amazing job of organising trips for around 40 of us, especially when the first week was almost a write-off for so many of the planned boat trips.

The incredible Muckle Flugga lighthouse

My presentation in Orkney was followed just a couple of months later by a trip for a small number of us to some of Orkney’s beautiful islands and lighthouses not covered by ferries. While the north coast had thunderstorms we had absolutely gorgeous weather and made it to so many fantastic islands, including Copinsay, Papa Stronsay and even landed at Barrel of Butter in Scapa Flow.

Copinsay lighthouse moved very quickly towards the top of my favourite Orkney lights list after this visit

Mervyn joined us for that trip and returned the favour at the end of that month when he invited us on a fantastic boat trip around Mull, picking up far more lights than I even thought we would, including a landing on Lady’s Rock. By this point I was well and truly caught up in the ALK efforts and I remember travelling to Oban for the Mull trip and having a phone call with a boatman based in Eastbourne about the trip I had organised for some ALK members to go out to Royal Sovereign and Beachy Head lighthouses. There was a lot of overlapping, but thankfully not as much as in Shetland!

Lady Rock lighthouse

September 2019 was a particularly busy month. Always trying to make the most of an opportunity a visit to Scurdie Ness lighthouse was in order during the Angus Coastal Festival. A chance encounter there led to a wonderful tour of Tod Head lighthouse too, which was a huge bonus. Just a few days later I was in Edinburgh for the launch of my book at the National Library of Scotland. This involved a presentation to almost 100 people and a book signing afterwards. Once that had passed it was full on over the next couple of weeks with final plans coming together for the ALK AGM at Spurn. A lot of trips involve doing something else on the way there or back to break up the journey or maximise on opportunities. That time it was a visit to the National Museum of Scotland’s large item store in Granton to see the old Sule Skerry hyper-radial lens. On the way back it was a quick spin out on the Firth of Forth to land at both Oxcars lighthouse and on Inchkeith. It was a very busy month, but a real variety and a lot of fun.

My book launch at the National Library of Scotland

After that life calmed down a bit and there was background planning to do for the ALK and various promotional articles to write for my book, but not a lot else until the following February when I travelled to Bidston lighthouse and observatory for an ALK archive event. I am so pleased I made the effort and spent all those hours on the train as it was to be my last trip for some time.

The view from Bidston lighthouse

Then along came COVID-19 and lockdown. Personal trips and ALK events were being cancelled all over the place and that was really quite hard to take when there had been so many exciting plans for the year. It was a relief when restrictions were eased and it really became about just taking opportunities for last minute trips like Galloway, Ayrshire and Argyll, Canna, Suffolk and the Western Isles (which was actually Plan C after the ALK AGM weekend in Belfast – Plan A – was postponed, and travel to Ireland for some new lighthouses – Plan B – wasn’t permitted).

Reaching the most remote land-based lighthouse in Britain, Rubh Uisenis in the Western Isles

The past year has been such a strange time as I’m sure it has been for so many. A rollercoaster really, but I’ve also benefitted from it in a number of ways. A few months into the pandemic I rediscovered my love of music which had fallen by the wayside during the years of lighthouses and kids, and I’ve started walking a lot more, partly just to be doing something outside but also to see the local landscape in much greater detail than I ever have just driving through it.

I suppose most importantly though I’ve realised how important people in my life are. Some of these people I expected while others have come as a really lovely surprise. I’d never really considered myself to be a “people person” and I’m really quite happy in my own company, but I’ve realised I do need people and it’s great to know they are there, as I am for them. We are always stronger when we stick together.

Leaving Canna lighthouse with the Isle of Rum in the background – Canna and Sanday became two of my favourite islands after this trip

It’s also been a good time to reflect on many things and my lighthouse journey has been a massive part of that. Before I started these posts I was thinking a lot about where I’d come from, where I’d been and how all of this had impacted on my life and me as a person. To be able to write these thoughts down in some sort of semblance of chronological order has really helped me to gather it all together and say to myself ‘Right, that’s what has happened. This is where I am now. How will I go forward from here?’ Of course none of us really know what will happen, which is one of the the joys of life, or the most frightening aspects depending on how you see it. What I do know though is that I want to be out there, seeing more, enjoying more and being more glad than ever before that I can do it. I hope you’ll continue to join me for the journey 🙂

The stunning Canna and Sanday

I am posting this from the community shop on the island of Canna, one of Scotland’s Small Isles to the south west of the southern point of Skye. That in itself says a lot about the island. The community shop is the only place on the island where visitors can access WiFi and there is very patchy mobile phone signal. To some that may be a reason not to visit, but my opinion is that it adds to the charm. As a result, Canna has been able to retain that traditional community feel where no one needs to lock their doors, and everyone helps and supports each other. The community shop is open 24 hours a day and works on an honesty box system where customers write down what they bought and how much they paid.

The logo for the Community Shop on Canna

Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, the island is unique in that the National Trust will sometimes do calls for new residents on the island and people must apply. The school on the island has not been open for some years now as the teacher and all primary aged pupils moved away.

Canna – or its neighbour Sanday, which it is attached to by a bridge – boasts a little lighthouse and this was a key reason for choosing to visit the island. Bob had also never been here, so he was keen to get to the island’s high point. The trip had originally been planned for Easter and we had booked accommodation in the West Caravan run by Canna Campsite. Due to the pandemic, we had to postpone our visit and we re-booked for the October half term holiday in the hope that we would be able to travel. The announcement by the Scottish Government last week meant that we were still able to travel thankfully. 

We had a stroll along the beach at Chanonry Point on the way to Mallaig. It was the first time I’d been to Chanonry Point since my 2012 tour and there were the usual dolphin spotters about. It was nice to approach it from the road end this time as last time I’d walked to it along the beach from the campsite to the east. 

Chanonry Point lighthouse

It also meant I got to see the old pier, which I assume was built for servicing the lighthouse.

The pier at Chanonry Point

After an overnight stay in Fort William we arrived in Mallaig. Another point I should highlight about Canna before I continue is that it is not allowed for non-residents to bring vehicles over to the island, so we struggled on board with our masses of luggage and food supplies.

The ferry journey was good with very few other passengers on it and everyone keeping their distance. The best part, of course, was seeing Canna lighthouse on the approach to the island. I do enjoy seeing these types of towers and it made me look forward to the walk to it even more – although it seemed like quite a long way!

Canna lighthouse from the sea

After we’d had our bags collected by the campsite owner to take along to the caravan, we set off along the road passing the shop, the post office and a few houses on the way. The day was so calm and there were beautiful views all around.

The view shortly after arrival on Canna

I had two aims for my visit to Canna. The first was to reach the lighthouse and the second was to find a point on the island from which I would be able to see Hyskeir lighthouse flashing at night. Hyskeir is around 6 miles off of Canna and the lighthouse and island it sits on are one of my favourite places. My visit there a few years ago (that blog post doesn’t give it enough credit) was fantastic. It wasn’t long after we arrived at the caravan that Bob called ‘I don’t think you’ll need to go far to see Hyskeir flashing’. Looking out of the big living room window of the caravan I could see Hyskeir there on it’s low lying island, visible just above the bridge across the Sanday. I’ve since noticed that the caravan may be one of the only houses/places to stay on the island from which you’d be able to see it without going outside. So lucky! You can probably guess what I spent the evening doing that first night – oh, ok and the second evening!

A distant view of Hyskeir lighthouse shining in the sun

After a showery day yesterday we decided today would be the best day to walk out to Canna lighthouse. The wind was still strong as it had been yesterday, but it was dry and sunny. We wrapped up in our numerous layers and set off. The puddles were still full this morning, which occupied the kids for the first half an hour of the walk. We’d been to the high point of Sanday on our first day here so we knew where we had to go. The track continued all the way along to the church and disappeared just before the six wildly spinning wind turbines.

The church on Sanday

From this point we became a bit more wary. The lady who owns the caravan had told us that there were some cows out towards the lighthouse and one of them had been a pet last year and so could be a little bit too approachable. We aren’t keen on cows and are very aware of the risks of coming across them when they have calves. We were on our guard and, as we reached the off piste and sometimes boggy section, Bob navigated us across higher ground to give us good vantage points as we went to help with spotting the cows before we reached them.

One of the views on the way to the lighthouse

We found them eventually, in a small gully area – presumably sheltering from the wind to the south west of the lighthouse. We crept past as fast as we could and made our way up the other side. Checking back every now and then to make sure we weren’t being followed, we slowly began to let our guard down on the final stretch to the lighthouse.

The final approach to the lighthouse

These lighthouses are always in such beautiful locations. I think of Eigg lighthouse on Eilean Chathastail in particular. They look great with the extra platforms and, at this one, the platform made the perfect spot for a picnic. Here it was also possible to walk underneath the platform which I’d not been able to do before. Just down from the lighthouse is the landing area for the lighthouse with an old derrick. Here are a few pictures of the lighthouse.

Canna lighthouse
An engraving on the stone under the lighthouse platform
Looking back on the return journey

Once we were satisfied that we had spent enough time there and eaten enough to get us through the return journey we set off. Considering the location of the cows on the southern side of the island on our walk out, Bob suggested we take the more direct route along the north coast on the way back. This turned out quite well with no sign of the cows and we got back to the ‘Gate of Safety’, as we called it, a lot quicker. From here it wasn’t long before we were back on the track near the wind turbines and church again, and then the walk was straightforward.

One of the views on the walk back along the north side of the island

It had been a great walk and we were amazed at how well our six-year-old had coped with it. He was still managing to find enough energy to run up to and jump into the puddles as we neared the caravan! It had also been fantastic to see another new lighthouse and explore Canna and Sanday. There are so many reasons I would recommend Canna as a perfect holiday destination. Firstly, it’s a great place to ‘get away from it all’ as they say. Secondly, it is beautiful – it is the lowest lying of the Small Isles and therefore much easier to get around and explore. Which relates to the third reason to visit, which is that there is so much to see here as demonstrated by the fact that my son says he wants to stay forever and explore all of the tidal islands, hills, and other points of interest. There is a fantastic sea stack over on the east coast which we saw yesterday. Finally, if you are into lighthouses, the walk out to Canna lighthouse is great, if a little challenging in places, and getting to see the lighthouse on Hyskeir flashing is such a treat.

Another one of my favourite views on Canna

We have another two evenings left here, and I intend to make the most of seeing that beautiful Hyskeir flashing out of the window as the dark descends. 🙂

5 days in Orkney – day 2

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.

Kirkwall pier
Kirkwall West Pier lighthouse

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.

Helliar Holm from sea
Approaching Helliar Holm

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.

Helliar Holm on island
Helliar Holm lighthouse

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.

Calf of Eday
Calf of Eday lighthouse

 

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! 🙂