Joe goes to Pentland Skerries

On our way to Orkney last weekend we took a detour to John O’Groats to check on the developments around the old Duncansby Head foghorn. The area has really come on over the past year which is great to see.

The old Duncansby Head foghorn at the start and finish of the John O’Groats Trail

While we were there we spotted a black RIB zooming about just off the coast and noticed a little cabin for OceanTrek who operate the RIB. Never one to ever miss an opportunity to fly Joe the Drone, once the skipper was back on land Bob approached him and asked if he would be willing to take us out to Pentland Skerries during the week coming. After exchanges of pictures of the landing area there between Bob and Alex the skipper, it was agreed we would head out on Tuesday morning.

Arriving on Tuesday we got ready to go and set off. About five minutes or so into the journey it became very clear that a large and never ending bank of mist was creeping in from the east as it so often does. Within another few minutes we were in it and the decision was made to return to John O’Groats and try again another time. The speed at which the mist came in was really quite incredible. Even the lady who works in the little food cabin said she’d just left the hatch for a couple of minutes and came back and it was there. The joys of the east coast!

The mist emerging over the Pentland Firth

After numerous checks on the weather later in the day on Tuesday it was agreed that we would try again on Thursday morning. Waking up to mist at home this morning it wasn’t looking likely we would make it out again, but thankfully Alex reported no mist over in Wick, which would give a far better indication of what it was like at John O’Groats.

Conditions were great for the trip today and we hopped onboard the RIB and off we went. We knew conditions were better as we could see the two towers on the island of Muckle Skerry, the largest of the Pentland Skerries group. Between John O’Groats and Pentland Skerries the sea gets really interesting for a while. I recalled being told about it by the skipper for Caithness Seacoast in Wick when we went out with them back in 2013 (a note for anyone looking to visit in future, Caithness Seacoast will no longer land people on the island) and thinking at the time ‘I’m glad we’re not going through that!’ Today, however, we did go through it and it was expertly handled by Alex.

Much clearer today approaching Muckle Skerry

A short while later we arrived at the landing area and edged in slowly to avoid any rocks just under the surface. It was a bit of a step up, but Bob threw himself up and then he and Alex helped me (and my short legs) up. There we were on the island again.

The view from above the geo where we landed on the island

It was great to see those two towers again and the various views of them on the approach are always superb.

Of course the main purpose for this visit was so Joe the Drone could get some of his usual spectacular shots and he certainly did that.

Pentland Skerries Lighthouse and the former Low Light tower

We had a really good amount of time to explore the island today too and one of the most interesting parts I’d not seen before was the natural geo just to the north of the lighthouse. Muckle Skerry looks like a fairly low lying island from afar, but the cliffs in the group are impressively high. There is evidence here too that it may have been used at times for landing and lifting goods up for the lighthouse.

The view down into the geo
The lighthouse and geo from above
The view of Pentland Skerries Lighthouse from the geo

Since my last visit two years ago little has changed. The lighthouse and old tower are still looking glorious while the old keepers cottages are clearly not being maintained. The thing I find really frustrating about this is that someone has clearly bought the island including the cottages and yet is doing nothing with them. At the same time the owner doesn’t want anyone to go there, which they can’t enforce given Scotland’s freedom to roam legislation. It is yet another case of people buying things, not looking after them while not wanting anyone else to enjoy them. But we go there anyway so I can’t complain too much!

This time I really wanted to find the graveyard and old memorial stone that marks the loss of seven crew members from the Vicksburg, which was wrecked off the Pentland Skerries in 1884. While some of the crew were helped ashore by the lighthouse keepers those buried on the island weren’t so fortunate. The memorial stone also marks the loss of two of a Principal Lighthouse Keeper’s children who passed away on the island. Unfortunately, yet again I had no luck in finding it, but next time I will make sure I’ve done my research.

Considering the lighthouse grounds and buildings take up a relatively small area on the island there are plenty of old buildings and walls in various states of repair

There was plenty of bird life around today with gulls, terns, skuas, puffins, fulmar, razorbills and various smaller birds too. We tried to minimise any disturbance to them and thankfully the terns and skuas didn’t swoop, which is always a worry.

Arriving back at the boat it was great to hear that the crew had enjoyed their visit too, particularly seeing the number of puffins around and enjoying the sunshine which very kindly made an appearance not long after our arrival. We hopped back down into the boat and Alex sailed around the north of the island for a different view on the way back. It was a pretty short journey back to John O’Groats – the boat can certainly go fast, but we took it a bit easy going back through the bumpy section, which wasn’t too bad.

Enjoying the journey back

It was an excellent hour and a half spent on a really interesting island. Although I’ve been there three times now it doesn’t lose its appeal and actually it becomes more and more fascinating each time. I’ve only just got back, but would love another chance to go out there again 🙂

A backup plan with a bonus

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.

6 months pregnant at North Rona back in 2014. A revisit this time just wasn’t meant to be

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.

Brough of Birsay
Brough of Birsay Lighthouse

Joe the Drone took a fly around his first Orkney lighthouse there too.

A Joe the Drone’s eye view of Brough of Birsay

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.

On the way to Start Point with the lighthouse in sight

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.

Looking back across the tidal section about 2.5 hours before low tide

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.

The unmistakable Start Point Lighthouse

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.

The staircase inside Start Point Lighthouse

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.

Based on maps we later saw at Sanday Heritage Museum, the former lighthouse would have been in the top right hand corner of the square field, next to the old buildings

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.

Start Point Lighthouse lens
Inside the lens

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.

The view from the top of the lighthouse. Ian pointed out how the rocks almost look to be shaped like waves in places.
With Ian at the top of Start Point lighthouse

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.

Start Point Lighthouse and part of the old mill buildings nearby
Start Point Lighthouse from the east

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.

The platform used to test wind power generation at Start Point

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.

Start Point Lighthouse from above with Sanday in the background
Joe’s view of Start Point

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 🙂

My final Skye light

As I mentioned in Friday’s post, I had just two lighthouses on Skye left to visit before this weekend. With Dunvegan Lighthouse bagged that just left one more: Waternish Point.

With rain forecast for this afternoon – and the need to get home today – a fairly early start was required. After the kayaking and then the added extras from yesterday it was a balance between setting off at a decent time and getting enough sleep.

It was nice and dry when we set off and quite some time later we arrived in Trumpan (I’ve said it before, Skye is big). Spotting the starting point for the walk as we drove past we then parked up opposite the old church. This church was the scene of a particularly nasty episode in the long-running battles between the MacLeods of Skye and the MacDonalds of Uist. In revenge for an equally sinister event on the island of Eigg, the MacDonalds made their way to Trumpan and burned the church while it was full of local worshippers. The churchyard surrounding the ruins contains a number of graves, including some quite recent ones.

The remains of Trumpan church

There’s also a Dark Skies area next to the car park and I can imagine it gets very interesting there at night with the lack of light in almost every direction.

Once we were ready we set off along the road and through the gate. We were very much aware that cows could play a part in the day’s adventure, which is always enough to put Bob on edge certainly. He adopted the role of ‘cow lookout’ and went on ahead a little way, scanning the track and surrounding area. We reached a little mound featuring a cairn and Bob headed on up and ushered me up once he’s got to the top. He’d spotted the cows which had young with them and a couple had stood up when they spotted Bob. They weren’t far at all from the track so a bit of off-piste was required just to be sure we didn’t spook them.

The cairn from which Bob spotted the cows (not shown in this picture)

We headed for the coast across the heather and after a very short time encountered a gaping chasm (Bob called it a gully, but it was definitely a chasm). ‘Follow the sheep track’ Bob advised me as we started to scramble down into the chasm. My response was ‘But I’m not a sheep.’ Sheep manage to balance their way about on all sorts of skinny ledges – which isn’t so easy for me as a human. ‘Follow the staircase’ was another one of his comments and I didn’t even dignify that one with an answer.

This picture doesn’t show very well just how gaping the chasm really was!

We made it safely and slowly to the bottom of the chasm and, of course, then there was a burn to cross. I am rubbish at crossing rivers or streams, but thankfully this time I managed not to get wet. Then it was up the other side, which actually was much easier. More sheep must have been up that side of the chasm prior to my visit.

From here we followed the coast for a while to make sure we were out of sight of the cows. I’m usually always on the look out for silver linings when things don’t quite go to plan. I certainly wasn’t while in the chasm (although it did look nice), but once we were back on the well-trodden sheep track along the coast there were some spectacular views both to the west and onwards in our direction of travel to the north.

The view to the north with the hills of Harris in the distance

We ended up following the coast for far longer than I expected and our 1km off-piste detour came to an end as we joined the track again at a nice little bridge. From here it was just trudging on, passing sheep and their lambs occasionally.

The bridge where we rejoined the track

Eventually I got my first glimpse of our destination, Waternish Point Lighthouse. It did look about 500 miles away (I exaggerate), but it was a positive sign. We passed a couple of chaps who were just on their way back from the lighthouse and chatted to them for a few minutes before continuing on our way.

My very first glimpse of Waternish Point Lighthouse

Reaching the end of the track we encountered the remains of walls and most notably the ruins of a house, which Joe had a fly over.

The remains of the old house at Unish

From here it was all downhill to the lighthouse and the lower you got the boggier it became, but thankfully the ground wasn’t too wet today. The lighthouse gradually got closer and then finally I was there at my final lighthouse on Skye!

Waternish Point Lighthouse

What can I say about Waternish? Immediately you notice the stunning views across to the Outer Hebrides with the incredible hills of Harris on display and then a flurry of islands (I’m not sure at all that’s the correct name for a group of islands, but we’ll go with it) including the Shiants and the interestingly shaped and very appropriately named Lord Macdonald’s Table. Sadly the Uists had disappeared into the distance by then, but there was plenty to keep you occupied. Apparently it’s a great place for spotting whales and dolphins, but we didn’t see any of them, but we did see a Calmac ferry passing en route to Uig and the men we met on the way there had seen a submarine come up above the surface. Who needs whales and dolphins, eh!?

Waternish Point Lighthouse with the Shiants and other islands visible to its left

Onto the lighthouse. The current structure was built in 1980 and like just a few others has more than one door – presumably this is so you can access the inside of the tower safely without the door flying off in the wind and you would use the appropriate door based on the wind direction. This tower replaced the 1924 tower, designed by David and Charles Stevenson. It’s clear when you are there that there must originally have been a fair number of buildings on the site and now all that remains of them are the foundations. I really like the current tower as it is. There are very few like it left standing now so it’s always a pleasure to see one.

Waternish Point Lighthouse and the Harris hills beyond

Of course Joe the Drone had to have another little fly around.

Waternish Point from above
A fabulous view of the Waternish (or Vaternish) peninsula

Just before we left I decided, for no apparent reason, to give the lighthouse a ‘high five’. Even as I was doing it I said ‘Can you give a lighthouse a high five?’ Anyway, I did. I even added a bonus ‘on the side’ high five! Then it was time to head back. The slog back up to the ruined house was tough. The energy from my lunch hadn’t quite kicked in at that point so I was slow and tired, and incredibly glad to get to the track when we eventually did. On the way we spotted a white-tailed eagle soaring around and being chased off by a smaller bird, who we imagined was defending its nest. There were also the remains of a small sheep and tiny lamb in the area, further evidence that we were on eagle hunting ground.

Back on the track we retraced our steps, with the wind and rain in our faces, we got to the bridge and left the track again. The cows were in roughly the same place as before, but had moved even closer to the track and so we strolled on quickly while we were in sight of them. The gaping chasm wasn’t quite so gaping on the way back (still a chasm though – and wet this time too). I had expected us to head for the track again once we were past the cows, but Bob thought we should continue to follow the coastal route. Imagining even more gaping chasms opening up in front of me, I reluctantly followed. I’m actually very glad we did as there were even more wonderful views to behold in the final section. We followed the coast as far as we could before heading slightly inland and following a fence line which took us directly to the gate. Just a bit more track to go, one more gate and then we were back at the car.

The view to the south west
A great combination of towering cliffs and low lying land

It had been quite a walk and I’d struggled a bit at times, mainly I think because of tiredness from the weekend’s adventures. It was so worth doing though and I would definitely recommend doing that coastal route to anyone visiting. It really is superb for impressive panoramic views. Just mind the gaping chasm! 🙂

A new mode of transport to Eilean a’Chait

In 2015 – almost exactly 6 years ago, in fact – we took a tour with Calum’s Seal Tours from Plockton for a closer look at Eilean a’Chait Lighthouse. Having done that trip it was one I thought I’d never manage to get a closer look at…

Fast forward to the week just gone when Bob said to me ‘Do you fancy going to Eilean a’Chait and landing?’ to which I obviously responded ‘Of course’. It was a few minutes later that he announced we’d be going by kayak. There have been a few occasions when Bob has made announcements like this and a wave of dread has swept over me. The first time it was skiing (which I didn’t enjoy so much), the second time was going up in a tiny helicopter to fly over Mew Island (which I thought was great fun in the end, Bob thought otherwise, especially when I took control of the steering!), and the last time was a skid control driving course, which was frightening. Nevertheless, each time I did them and accepted that I was being forced out of my comfort zone. This time I knew would be no different and I just had to get on with it.

We arrived in Plockton this morning ready to meet Willie from Sea to Skye and our fellow novice kayakers for an introduction to kayaking course. Bob had hired a double kayak for us and made Willie aware that our key priority was to get out to and landed on Eilean a’Chait.

One of many things I’ve learned from today is that kayaking takes preparation time. You don’t just turn up, jump into the kayak and go so there was plenty of time for me to stand around thinking ‘Can we just get this over with?’ After some really handy advice on how to get into the kayak, paddling techniques, and what to do if you capsize (terrifying!) we were ready to go and off we set.

Trying out the kayak

We spent a while in the harbour at Plockton just having a try before Bob and I were sent off with a couple of the guides to head straight for the lighthouse. It was actually really quite relaxing, apart from the occasions when Bob decided to paddle like there was no tomorrow and any attempt I made to paddle along was lost in the midst of his frantic oar-use.

After a while the lighthouse came into view as we neared the neighbouring island of Eilean-an-Duine, which is where the house for the former keepers’ family is located. The house can still be seen today and at low tide it is possible to wade between the two islands. This time we were aiming straight for the lighthouse though and we found a nice little seaweed pool to stop alongside the rocks and haul ourselves out of the kayak. It was a bit of a scramble to get up to the grass at the top of the island and there is actually very little grass there, but the barnacles on the rocks were great for grip even if they were a little rough on the skin.

Approaching Eilean a’chait Lighthouse

Eilean a’Chait Lighthouse, or Plockton Lighthouse as some call it, is looking a little worse for wear. It’s now privately owned and there is some evidence that work has been done here to renovate it, but maybe that the work has come to a bit of a standstill. I am told that it was open as a holiday let some years ago.

A closer view of the Eilean a’Chait lantern

The lighthouse actually had quite a short-lived period as an active aid to navigation. It was built around 1880, 10 years after the train connection between Dingwall and Stromeferry was introduced. From Stromeferry people could catch a steamer from the pier over to Skye and this light was deemed necessarily for the steamers to navigate the surrounding waters safely. There are varying accounts of when the light was deactivated, with one source citing 1904 and another the 1920s. Either way its discontinuation ties in with the further extension of the railway to Kyle of Lochalsh, which provided a much shorter ferry route to Skye.

Eilean a’Chait Lighthouse

The two of us explored the island for a while as our fellow kayakers glided across the calm sea surrounding it. It’s a really interesting island and was also great to see it from above with some Joe the Drone images, including one which clearly shows the shallow the sandbank between Eilean a’Chait and Eilean-an-Duine.

The sandbank leading from Eilean a’Chait to Eilean-an-Duine is visible here
Another angle from Joe the Drone

After a while I made my way back to the kayak while Bob quickly bagged the island high point. Once we were safely back in the kayak we set off to meet the others for lunch on a beach to the west. It was a good opportunity to have a chat with Willie, the other guides and others in the group. Willie explained that when he’d heard that a lighthouse bagger was coming along he thought I must be mad, but he actually admitted that having talked about lighthouses for a while he could understand the appeal.

Continuing further west it was getting quite choppy on the water and paddling was getting much harder. Turning back we were told to aim for the lighthouse, which was just fine with me. Bob and I returned to shore with Chris the guide while the others continued on for a bit longer. Frankly I was pretty tired by that point and felt the need to stretch my legs. It was an excellent adventure and I was nicely surprised that I felt very safe out in the kayak and that getting into and out of it during the day was actually not as challenging as I’d expected. Kayaking would certainly be something I’d be up for doing again – so well done to Willie and his team (and to Bob of course) for making it such an enjoyable day out.

This picture shows Eilean a’Chait in the foreground with the other islands we kayaked around today beyond

By the time we were back in the car and heading off I was pretty worn out, but there was still work to be done. We’d decided to use the afternoon to catch the turntable ferry from Glenelg to Kylerhea and then see if we could touch the little Kylerhea Lighthouse. We were looking forward to a cup of tea in the old Sandaig Islands Lighthouse, now positioned just at the top of the ferry slipway, but sadly the flasks were no longer there and it looks like a tea room has opened nearby instead.

The old Sandaig Islands Lighthouse – with it’s light on!

While we waited for the ferry Joe the Drone took another spin.

The Glenelg turntable ferry slipway and the old Sandaig Islands Lighthouse

Once in Kylerhea we headed for the car park for the bird/nature hide, which is a good (or probably the only) starting point for walking to the lighthouse. Last time we visited part of the path down to the shore had been washed away so we weren’t able to get so close. This time though we followed the little track down to the pebbly beach. It was only an hour after high tide so I couldn’t touch the lighthouse, but it was nice to see it much closer than before anyway.

Kyle Rhea Lighthouse
If I’d been willing to wait another hour I might have been able to touch Kyle Rhea Lighthouse

It was also another outing for Joe too.

Some very relaxed seals were quite happy on a rock near Kyle Rhea Lighthouse
A bird’s eye view of Kyle Rhea Lighthouse
Kyle Rhea Lighthouse seen from the south

It would have been rude not to have given Joe the chance to clap eyes on the beauty that is Ornsay lighthouse when we are staying so close to it, so we made one final stop on the way back.

It’s not possible to photograph Ornsay Lighthouse from a bad angle. I think the shape of the island is like a crocodile!
Ornsay Lighthouse with the wonderful mountainous backdrop

It’s been a thoroughly exhausting day, but also great fun. Don’t tell Bob, but I’m quite glad he organised the trip. 🙂

Birthday bagging on Skye

A few years ago Skye became the place to be on my birthday, but it’s now been a while since I spent any length of time there – and birthdays were taken up with other trips like 2019’s Sule Skerry extravaganza!

This meant I still had a couple of lighthouses left unvisited on Skye. A long-awaited return was in order and there was no way I was going to turn down a weekend there.

Today was the day to set off. Nana was in position to take over child management at home (thanks Nana!). There was the usual packing at the last minute, throwing stuff into the car and then saying ‘have we got everything?’ This is especially the case at the moment after not being away much at all over the past year.

The journey felt long today, but we finally made it to Skye. That’s always only part of the journey though. I always forget just how big the island is and sometime later we were still in the car heading towards Dunvegan.

I’d found a walk report on the Walkhighlands website that took in Dunvegan Lighthouse at Uiginish Point, just to the north west of Dunvegan. This was really handy as, although we had Bob’s GPS device with us, it told us a particular gate we needed to go through (climb over) to be on the right side of the fence for the lighthouse.

The view from the starting point, across the loch to Dunvegan Castle

Parking up just before Uiginish Farmhouse, we wrapped up warm as the northerly breeze was fairly strong and chilly. We set off through the farm, passing Uiginish Lodge, which is painted incredibly bright white. There’s a nice track along here and, while we were on the lookout for cattle making an appearance, we only encountered sheep.

The first part of the walk follows the track

The Walkhighlands report advised that when you reach two gates you should go through the one on the left. This was great advice as the lighthouse is one of those you can’t see until you are near enough at it, so being on the right side of the fence when it’s easy enough to do so is always helpful.

The point at which you leave the track and choose the gate on the left

Bob, as usual, took the high route with the excuse that he was looking out to see if there were any cattle about. I wandered along a much less resistant route and enjoyed the views to the west across to a little bay with some stunning cliffs beyond.

The beautiful view to the west

The lighthouse soon came into sight and we battled into the breeze to get to it. It is one of the flat-pack kind and, boy, was the wind whistling through it today! When you see it on a map it looks like it could be a nice sheltered spot nestled there in Loch Dunvegan, but don’t be fooled, especially when the wind is coming from the north. It was great to look across and see the entrance to Loch Dunvegan and The Minch beyond. To the east there are good views across to Dunvegan Castle. It’s a superb spot for panoramic views.

The first glimpse of Dunvegan Lighthouse
Made it to Dunvegan Lighthouse
There’s some quite dramatic scenery in the area
Dunvegan Lighthouse looking out towards the entrance to Loch Dunvegan

There’s not a lot of information out there about Dunvegan Lighthouse. A Google search brings up lots of links to, relatively, nearby Neist Point and a search for Uiginish Point instead doesn’t fare much better. It is clear that the lighthouse is used to help guide vessels safely out of the Minch and into Loch Dunvegan. It is also used by vessels negotiating the route between Uiginish Point itself and the nearby island of Gairbh Eilean. My research has shown that in the 1890s steamers bound for the Western Isles stopped off in Dunvegan and this continued until the 1950s, which would explain why a Northern Lighthouse Board light would be required in this area. The lighthouses installed by the NLB were generally those that provided some sort of national importance, such as ferry and general shipping routes, while the lighting of harbours for local fishing, for example, fell to the local harbour authorities.

The view from the top of the lump behind the lighthouse

The walk back from the lighthouse was rather more pleasant without the wind in our faces and there ended a rather nice little wander and a great new bag for me.

One final lovely view!

More adventures to come tomorrow… 🙂

Thoughts on modern Scottish lighthouses

In recent years while I’ve been visiting lighthouse of all shapes and sizes, particularly those smaller lights in Scotland, I’ve seen a number of very negative comments about these modern lighthouses. What I am referring to here are the Northern Lighthouse Board’s SPLATs (solar powered lattice aluminium towers). That acronym describes it rather perfectly actually, although regular readers of my blog will be aware that I personally refer to them as flat-pack lighthouses.

A standard flat-pack lighthouse. This one is on Hoxa Head in Orkney.

These towers are limited to only the north and west of Scotland, which gives a good indication of their often remote locations, on islands or tucked away on headlands. There are 53 of these structures in Scotland: 18 in Shetland, 2 in Orkney, 1 on the North Coast, 7 in the Outer Hebrides, 11 in the Inner Hebrides and West Highlands, 13 between Mull and Islay, and 1 in South West Scotland.

To start with, some history. My recent research suggests that, although it was around 1996 that these structures began to replace the older, small lighthouses, the two towers of this type on Gasay and Calvay – found on the approach to Lochboisdale in South Uist – were actually installed in 1985. These two framework towers aren’t as enclosed by the white cladding as many of the newer versions are, but they are still very much the same arrangement.

Gasay, one of the original flat-pack lighthouses.

I’ve been fascinated to find that the history of these towers actually goes back a lot further than I’d originally thought. Along with being left off most lighthouse lists, and left out of near enough all books on Scottish lighthouses, they are so rarely mentioned anywhere which is a shame as it appears they played a key role in shaping the future direction of small Northern Lighthouse Board structures for many years to come when those first two were installed.

For a good few years now I’ve had a growing appreciation of these structures. To begin my defence of them, I want to highlight the purpose of a lighthouse. Lighthouses, unless purely decorative, were never built for us land-based folk to gaze at adoringly. That is certainly the case for many of us now who travel to admire the big, old lighthouses. However, their primary purpose was to exhibit a light that could be seen at night and would help to guide ships. At night you can’t see the structure, all you know is that it’s a light helping to guide you or assisting you with working out exactly where you are. If it achieves that, regardless of what the structure looks like, then it is fulfilling its core purpose.

A variation on the typical flat-pack style lighthouse at Ornsay East Rock, Skye.

In an ideal world money would be no object, but of course cost plays a role when deciding what type of structure will be installed. As much as I love a large, dramatic lighthouse I recognise that, for any lighthouse authority, paying out hundreds of thousands (or more likely millions) of pounds to build a new one is not a wise financial decision.

Financial restrictions force a company to look at what is required for the new or replacement structure in this case. The big lighthouses we all know and love were built to be lived in and to contain a considerable amount of machinery and equipment too. If you’ve ever been in a lighthouse that contains the old equipment you will see that even then a lot was squeezed into a small space.

The island of Siolaigh in the Monach Isles, Outer Hebrides, boasts both a traditional and modern lighthouse.

If you have ever visited one of the flat-pack type lighthouses you will see just how little equipment is in them, usually just one or two cabinets on the ground or first floor and then the external light and another small cabinet on top. There is no need for bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom etc. so it’s understandable that the decision wouldn’t be made to build a lighthouse that has the space to accommodate those.

The walk to Muckle Roe Lighthouse in Shetland is one of the best I’ve done.

I’ve often seen mentions of ‘The Stevensons would be turning in their graves if they saw these’ and I’m not so sure they would. The Stevensons were engineers. Yes, engineers probably like to design the most awe-inspiring buildings which would give them a big personal boost, but practicality is key for them and if they were having to work within today’s budgets I’m sure they would opt for this type too. The final generation of Stevenson lighthouse engineers designed a range of smaller wholly practical lighthouses, such as the former Sandaig Islands Lighthouse (pictured below). These lighthouses are not grand, although I am still very keen on them myself. They were a sign of the times and reflected the changes in what was needed for new and unmanned lighthouses as well as availability of more cost-effective materials.

The original Sandaig Islands Lighthouse was designed by the last generation of Stevensons. It is now located in Glenelg near the turntable ferry.

On a final and personal point, I’ve visited a considerable number of these flat-pack towers over the past 9 years and I’ve had some of the best days out with them as my objective. I’d like to share a few examples. The light on Loch Eriboll, my first flat-pack, is one of those I’m most fond of. It’s a relatively short walk compared to many of the others, as long as you know where to start and the right direction to head in. The coastline of Loch Eriboll is top class and my first walk to the lighthouse really kicked off my ever-growing appreciation of that loch.

Loch Eriboll lighthouse in the winter sun

These lighthouses aren’t often easy to get to. You can’t drive to them as you can with some of the larger towers and they certainly don’t have obvious tracks or paths leading to many of them as all of the older lights do. Getting to the flat-pack now located on Cailleach Head near Scoraig was a massive personal achievement. I wasn’t sure I’d ever make it as I knew it involved a long walk in from the nearest road or making arrangements with a local boatman. This was also the case with Hoo Stack in Shetland, which was great fun to visit alongside some island bagging pals. The shared enjoyment with friends could very much also be said of Glas Eileanan (Grey Rocks Lighthouse) in the Sound of Mull, the Sandaig Islands light and Bunessan Lighthouse on the west coast of Mull.

Grey Rocks Lighthouse in the Sound of Mull

It’s not just friends though, my son visited his first flat-pack lighthouse when we walked to Point of Sleat. It was a great walk, but was super windy and I remember well us setting up a little pop-up shelter not far from the lighthouse to hide away in at lunchtime with the little man. My daughter only recently bagged her first flat-pack lighthouse, the newest one, Rubha Cuil-Cheanna near Onich. That was a great walk made slightly more challenging by having the kids to keep safe, but still good fun.

Rubha Cuil-Cheanna, the Northern Lighthouse Board’s newest addition.

There have been some fairly unique experiences involved in reaching them too. Wading through a channel of water to get to the flat-pack on Hestan Island was great fun. Visiting Papa Stronsay was also an interesting experience with the island being home to the Golgotha Monastery and having a long history of occupation by religious groups.

The tidal section, taken from Hestan Island

There have been so many great times getting out to these small but really important little structures. I suppose if there was one final thought I would like to end on it’s that, with the recent addition of the Rubha Cuil-Cheanna light, I’m just glad they are still adding new lighthouses, even if it is only one every 11 or so years 🙂

A very fresh restart to the UK lighthouse tour

It’s been, and feels like it too, a long time since I posted on here about a lighthouse visit. What day could be better to get back up and running than May Day. A new month in mid-Spring and a brand new challenge. By brand new I mean it quite literally with a visit to a one-month old lighthouse. In March this year the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) switched on their first lighthouse built in almost 12 years on Rubha Cuil-cheanna in Onich, just to the south of Corran.

The need for a lighthouse here was recognised due to the increasing use of Corran Narrows by cruise ships arriving at and departing from Fort William. It was in 2009 that the Corran Narrows North East light was installed just to the north of Corran for this same purpose and to supplement the well-known light at Corran Point. The North East light previously held the title for youngest NLB lighthouse.

A drone shot Bob captured of the Corran Narrows North East lighthouse yesterday

On the way to Onich yesterday, I was keen to find out the meaning of the name Rubha Cuil-cheanna. I established that ‘rubha’ means ‘headland’ or ‘promontory’. This is a word I’d encountered before in lighthouse names, and understandably so. ‘Cuil’ means ‘recess’ or ‘nook’, and ‘cheanna’ is ‘head’. The hyphenation in the name indicates that ‘cuil’ is an adjective giving an indication of place to ‘cheanna’. Based on this my very rough translation is ‘nook head promontory’. That’s a very literal translation of course and if we look at Rubha nan Gall on Mull, which translates as ‘Stranger’s Point’ then ‘nook head point’ might be a bit more like it. Either way it’s a very good description of the geography of the area as you will see in this picture.

The very end of Rubha Cuil-cheanna, clearly showing the ‘nook’ at the bottom

I’d spent quite some time looking at maps prior to the trip to work out the best approach. It seemed over land probably wouldn’t be ideal as there looked to be houses about. I know the Scottish laws make many areas very accessible, but it’s usually best not to push it and risk being shouted at, especially when we had the kids with us. A coastal approach seemed best. Onich seemed the obvious starting point, but again it wasn’t clear where you could park without it becoming a long walk for the kids. I also looked at a Bunree start from the caravan site.

The map also suggested that it might be best visited at low tide as there wasn’t much room for manoeuvre around the coast at high tide. Our timing this morning didn’t really tie in with low tide, in fact it was only 90 minutes after high tide. Knowing that our chances of success were much better if we left it another two or three hours, we spent a while playing about on the rocky beach (having thankfully found a great place to park up just above the beach – there’s an area for those in camper vans to park by arrangement too). Joe the Drone went for a spin and was the first to catch a glimpse of the lighthouse we were aiming for. We decided to find a park for the kids to have a run about in to pass some time.

Onich beach at high tide
Joe the Drone’s first view of Rubha Cuil-Cheanna lighthouse with Corran Narrows beyond

En route we drove along to the caravan site at Bunree to check out access from that side, although the map suggested the tide would need to be even lower to get along parts of that stretch. A sign on the gate at the campsite said ‘No visitors’ so without trying to find a long way around the caravan site that didn’t seem a decent alternative.

I spent a couple of hours being very impatient, desperate to be heading to the lighthouse but realising the longer we waited the better. We arrived back at Onich about 2 and a half hours before low tide and it was clear that the route was looking much drier so off we set. These things always take so much longer with kids in tow, stopping to pick up shells and rocks or having a bit of a whinge about being tired.

The start of the walk at lower tide
At the ‘nook’

All seemed to be going relatively smoothly until we reached the far end of the promontory where the water was still quite high. Bob went off to check how wet it was while we waited. As he returned from inland I knew that he’d obviously found an alternative way that didn’t require wading.

Rubha Cuil-cheanna from above with the water still high around the very tip

We all set off up the grassy slope through the trees and followed a track to a certain point where Bob went off ahead again to check the route before continuing on.

Heading off the beach
The view from our first waiting point was particularly good

We made it to a point where we could catch sight of the lighthouse through the trees, but we were still above the beach with no really clear route down. Again Bob continued along the track while we waited and he then appeared on the beach below informing us that we needed to go down the rocks where we were instead. The rocks were all fairly grippy, just a bit steep and so Bob manhandled the kids down one at a time.

Continuing along at the higher level
A zoomed in view of the first glimpse of the lighthouse through the trees with Corran lighthouse in the background
The route down the rocks, which wasn’t so bad

Once we were down on the beach we knew it was plain sailing and a short time later we arrived at the lighthouse. It’s a stunning location with magnificent views up Corran Narrows and over to the hills on the opposite side of Loch Linnhe. The lighthouse is quite a standard flat-pack style, but (like the Corran Narrows North East light) with the solar panels mounted on one side of the structure rather than separate. The lighting arrangements are particularly interesting with an All Round Light for the benefit of vessels heading north and three directional lights helping navigation through the narrowest section near the main Corran lighthouse. The tower doesn’t have a NLB plaque on the door as yet, but hopefully it will soon.

Rubha Cuil-Cheanna lighthouse comes into view (the NLB capitalise the ‘c’ in ‘cheanna’
Rubha Cuil-Cheanna lighthouse
Rubha Cuil-Cheanna and Corran lighthouses will clearly work well together
The view down Loch Linnhe from the lighthouse
The All Round Light is visible here with the back of the directional lights
The Rubha Cuil-Cheanna directional lights

Joe the Drone had a fly around too and captured some beautiful shots before we began the walk back. By this point it was an hour before low tide and we were able to get back around the coast. It was still quite wet in places around the end of the headland, but it was fine to navigate along the seaweed section. Depending on the tides, I would say it’s only really going to be passable 90 minutes or so either side of low tide. Once we were a bit further around we headed out to the shingle bar from which the walk back to the car was nice and dry.

A Joe’s eye view showing the status of the tide around the point

It felt like a great achievement to have made it there while it’s still so new. It’s another example of a flat-pack being a real adventure to get to, and it was great to have the kids along this time. It’s the first flat-pack for them both and hopefully they will see many more in the years to come. When sharing a picture of the kids with the lighthouse with a friend earlier their response was ‘And your kids will think they just do the same as everyone else on a Saturday!’, and then going on to describe the adventures with the kids as ‘delightfully different’. It’s not something I’d thought about as it’s just what we’ve always done. Hopefully they’ll continue to embrace it as they grow older rather than rebelling and losing interest entirely. Time will tell.

On the way back, as shown earlier in the post, we stopped just up the A82 from the Corran Narrows North East lighthouse and Joe took a spin to get some pictures, including this great one showing the whole area lit along Corran Narrows.

Corran Narrows from above with the North East light in the bottom left, Corran Point on the right of the narrowest point and Rubha Cuil-cheanna in the distance

I would highly recommend this walk to others interested in exploring the area and it’s been a really good experience to check out access to this one which won’t have been visited so much just yet 🙂

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 🙂

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

I left my previous post, which covered up to Summer 2018, at the end of what I called ‘the bagging years’, when there were lighthouse and island trips aplenty on board chartered boats. Those years were relatively care-free with little knowledge of the 18-month juggling act that was to come. With so much going on it has been difficult to fit it all into one final Reflections post, so this is part one of ‘the storm before the calm’. As usual I have scattered pictures taken during this period throughout.

As mentioned in a previous Reflections post, the idea of writing a book containing a comprehensive listing of UK lighthouses came about in 2012/13. I had been working on this list on a fairly casual basis since, but it was in around 2017 that my efforts to get it completed and into some sort of semblance of order that could be published really picked up. By Spring 2018 it felt like I was getting there and, encouraged by Bob, I contacted Whittles Publishing to see if they would be interested. I have a tendency not to give myself much credit for the work I do and so had expected I would need to self-publish. As you can probably imagine, I was delighted when I had a response from Whittles saying that they were very interested and even included a paragraph about why they thought they would be the best publisher for the book!

Skerryvore lighthouse, where it wasn’t as calm as this picture makes it look

Just a month or so after this initial contact I was having a look through the quarterly journal from the Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK) and noticed some vacancies for their events team. By that point I’d been a very inactive members of the ALK for almost five years with my only contribution being writing a piece about my favourite lighthouse after I happened to meet Stephen who owns Bidston Lighthouse and is a Trustee for the ALK, and made him aware of this blog. The role looked interesting – organising events to see lighthouses, why not? I’d had plenty organised for me over the years so it seemed like a great opportunity to do the same for others. I made contact with David, the ALK’s Secretary, and within a couple of days I’d spoken to three of their Trustees and was near enough on board.

With hindsight, taking on both the publication of the book and the role at the ALK within a couple of months was a little over the top. I was already working part time and had a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old to look after. However, I knew it would take a little while before the ALK events would get up and running and so the book could be done and dusted by the time that picked up – or at least that’s what I thought.

The island of Fidra in the Firth of Forth was a wonderful place to visit

In the meantime there were more bagging trips to be had. A trip to Tiree in September 2018 with an attempt at landing on Skerryvore was an offer I simply could not refuse. The organiser, Brian, asked if I knew of anyone else who would be interested in joining as there were some spaces available. With my new contacts at the ALK and at fairly short notice I was able to recruit one man and he just happened to be a former Skerryvore lighthouse keeper – what could be better!? There is considerably more detail about that trip here, but it was the first to combine the bagging trips with another person primarily interested in lighthouses. Just 10 days or so after this there was a day trip to Fidra planned by organiser-extraordinaire Alan. It was excellent to be back in the company of a number of those on some of my earliest bagging trips.

My efforts for the ALK really began in September that year at their AGM in South Wales. There were so many people to meet, things to learn and ideas to take in. It was a great weekend though and I left feeling like I’d made so many new friends in a very short space of time. One of these friends in particular has had a few mentions here since, my lighthouse pal John. I found out before the AGM that John was also into the flat-pack lighthouses dotted around Scotland so I was, of course, keen to meet him. John actually turned out to be one of the overlaps in much of what was going on back then. He was happy to review my list for the book and share some of his pictures with me to help fill in some gaps. He was also was very helpful in getting me up to speed with the ALK and he would, a short time later, go on to join a number of trips with me.

One of the benefits of being an ALK member is getting inside lighthouses you couldn’t normally, such as the tower on Flatholm

Later in 2018 I arranged a meeting with Whittles and prior to that they sent over a draft publishing agreement. I was asked for a sample chapter and so I sent over the text and pictures for the Northern Scotland section. When Bob and I turned up for the meeting I was amazed to see there in front of me a draft design of the chapter. It was an incredibly bizarre but brilliant feeling. We agreed some minor changes to the publishing agreement and decided on a deadline of February 2019 for me to get all content to them.

The deadline for the book put a little pressure on as I knew there were some gaps where neither myself or John had good pictures of certain lighthouses. Prior to 2018 I’d had a fairly clear “bagging season” which generally ran from about April to September, give or take a month every now and then. With Autumn approaching I was going to need to put in some out of season effort.

Corbiere lighthouse and the tribute to those who saved the lives of all passengers on board the French catamaran Saint-Malo after it struck a rock in the area in April 1995

Possibly the most outlandish trip happened in late October/early November that year when the kids were left with a grandparent while Bob and I flew south to the previously unexplored Jersey where we spent two days cramming in all of the lighthouses. We then were in Ayrshire for a day or two with the kids and on a RIB ride along the Clyde to see more lights before driving to Aberdeen where we flew up to Shetland for a couple of nights. That was some adventure and probably best described in the posts from those times rather than summarised here. As we prepared to leave Shetland at the end of that week I was falling asleep in the hire car on the way to the airport after all of the travelling, rushing about and staying up late to write up what the antics of the day for my posts.

The old Muckle Roe tower and Sumburgh Head lighthouse in Shetland

Three further, but less intense, trips followed with one to Northern Ireland in December 2018, another family trip to Islay in January 2019 and finally a day out in South East England to grab a few more pictures before settling down to get the content pulled together in that final month. Always happy to fit in just one more opportunity I finally made it out to, and landed on, Bass Rock in January 2019, which was a real achievement after a failed attempt a couple of months earlier.

It was a big bonus to see my very first Republic of Ireland light, Moville, during boat trip to see some Northern Irish lights

The deadline for my book came and went with everything submitted on time. I felt I could temporarily take a deep breath before diving back in again. The best and worst was yet to come… More very soon 🙂

Reflections of a lighthouse fanatic: the bagging years

I write this post after thinking over it for a few days, I can honestly say that the thing I miss most, aside from seeing family and close friends, at these times are the times I spent out on chartered boats, setting off for the relatively unexplored islands around the UK, particularly those in Scotland. These “bagging” years, as I call them, ran from around mid-2014 to mid-2019, although this post will only cover up until Summer 2018 for reasons that will be made clear in the next and final post. I have thought about those times a lot over the past year and not only because I’ve not been able to do them as I used to, but because I don’t imagine they will feature in my life in the same way going forward.

This is a fairly long post this time as there is a lot to say. I did consider splitting it over two, but I didn’t want readers to lose the essence of it in the transition between posts. I have included pictures from the bagging years throughout to make it slightly easier on the eye.

The beautiful Barra Head lighthouse

To clarify what the bagging years were here is a bit of background. As explained in my previous post, I’d met and married Bob. For those who don’t know Bob, two of his favourite pastimes are hill-bagging (reaching the summit of hills – mostly in the UK now, but he has also completed 6 of the 7 summits – or 6.9 as he says after his Everest attempt in 2013) and island-bagging (reaching the high point of an island). Both of these are guided by lists. Of course I like lists too, more specifically lighthouse lists. Bob was, back in 2014, a member of a group of like-minded people called the Relative Hills of Britain (now the Relative Hills Society) with islands naturally falling under that as they also contain hills, although members are also interested in various Ordnance Survey-related points such as trig pillars and benchmarks. Members of RHB organised group trips to islands not covered by schedule or routine ferries and boats. With Bob going off on these adventures it was only a matter of time before I was invited along too.

One of my favourite non-lighthouse islands, Scarp just off the west coast of Lewis. What remains of the old schoolhouse on the island can be seen here.

The term “bagging” and the idea of ticking things like islands off a list seems to divide opinion. Those against its use see it as simply a ticking exercise with no time spent enjoying or experiencing these places. There are three reasons I fully support what they (and I, in fact) do:

  1. It is not necessarily the case that baggers do nothing in these places to enhance their experience of it. On some of the very small islands there is little else to do than walk around a bit and then leave. On the larger islands they often do spend more time there, checking out old buildings, walking the beaches or looking at other points of interest.
  2. When they get to these islands they do what they love, walking up hills, visiting a lighthouse or getting to trig points. If others with different interests went to these places they may choose to sit on the beach and sunbathe, for example.
  3. Finally, but most importantly in my opinion, when you have been out on any of the trips with the baggers, you will end up in places that you can never imagine, that most people don’t even know exist. If they weren’t into lists then they would never see these magnificent places.

From those I’ve met most are happy to be called “baggers” and to do what they are doing. In the process they aren’t harming anyone and that, to me, is the most important thing.

My introduction to these trips came in May 2014 with a trip organised by Alan who has done so much towards getting me and others to places we had only dreamed of. We went out from Skerray harbour on the north coast of Scotland to the Rabbit Islands, which had looked so alluring from a distance for some time. It was rather an embarrassing start actually as when I went to get off the boat onto the island I was completely in control of what I was doing and going at my own speed, but Bob obviously thought otherwise and went to haul me onto the island faster than I was planning to go. The result of this being me ending up lying on top of Bob. It gave everyone a laugh and all of those on the trip went on to become friends who I always looked forward to seeing in one place or another, just like many of the others I was yet to meet.

The view looking towards the north coast of Scotland from the beach that separates the two Rabbit Islands at high tide

A month later, at 6 months pregnant, we spent a week over in the Outer Hebrides, camping at various stunning locations and heading out on a couple of boat trips, including my next island bagging adventure. This one was to the tiny island of Sula Sgeir followed by nearby North Rona, both to the north of the main Outer Hebrides. This was organised by John who I’d met on the Rabbit Islands trip. If I was ever going to wonder what I’d let myself in for and say “never again” it would have been then. Thankfully, whatever stressors I had to deal with at Sula Sgeir were all forgotten upon arrival at North Rona. North Rona was bliss, with the exception of a few bonxies hanging around ready to swoop on any unsuspecting bagger. While there the group wandered in groups or alone in various directions, chatting and laughing – just really enjoying their time on the island. The atmosphere was wonderful and from that point I was a little bit hooked.

North Rona with its lighthouse near the highest point of the island

Over the few years that followed our annual holiday would always tie in with the hill/island bagger events. One of my most memorable days spent out on boats was in 2015 on another Alan trip from Oban with Coastal Connection when we visited the island of Oigh Sgeir and its lighthouse, more commonly known as Hyskeir lighthouse. During that visit I grew so fond of the place, and I recall the enjoyment I hit from wandering along the bridges, checking out the basalt columns, spotting minke whales in the distance – in fact everything about the place was stunning. We also visited Eigg lighthouse on the little island Eilean Chathastail afterwards which I enjoyed so much for the peaceful surroundings. I remember staying at the lighthouse enjoying the sounds and views while the others went to the high point. Later that day a couple of us waited on the boat while the rest of the group disembarked for a trek across Muck. Heading around to the pier the rest of us then enjoyed sitting in the sunshine outside the little cafe where we had lunch, ready to welcome the others back with big smiles.

Hyskeir lighthouse on the island of Oigh Sgeir

The bagging years have taken me completely out of my comfort zone on numerous occasions. In fact most island landings without a nice pier, jetty or steps get me a little nervous. Thankfully I’ve not had any major incidents so far and hopefully it stays that way, but I think that is down to the other baggers and the boatmen always being willing to help me out if I end up struggling at all. I am always amazed at the baggers who will sit on the boat, fall asleep, wake up when we get to the next island and just go without giving any thought to checking out where the landing might be. One landing attempt stands out far above the others though for being really frightening and it was actually at Dubh Artach lighthouse, which we attempted to land at the day after the perfect Oigh Sgeir day mentioned above. A group of us were in the tender edging closer to the rock and Bob was just about to attempt to step out onto the rock. He got his foot onto a bit of metal grate just as the swell came in and as it was going back out we weren’t going with it. A result of this could well have been that we’d be tipped out of the boat, but thankfully the skipper handled it superbly. I was pretty glad to be back on the main boat that day!

Dubh Artach lighthouse

Later in 2015 and then into 2016 there were some Welsh visits organised by Adrian. We visited the Skerries, a truly beautiful island off the Anglesey coast, and Tudwal East in South Wales to get a closer look at the Tudwal West lighthouse, as well as landing at both Smalls and South Bishop lighthouses off the west coast. One of my most amusing memories was on The Smalls. There were numerous seals hanging around on the rock as we approached and they went off for a swim and kept a close eye on us as their heads bobbed up and down in the water. Seals, like most animals, leave a lot of mess and I recall making my way over a section of rock that was pretty slippy with their waste. I remember seeing a slightly craggier bit and thought “oh, I might get better grip on those rocks” and a few seconds later I was stranded on said rocks knowing that wherever I stepped I was going to slip. Thankfully Bob came to the rescue and escorted me to safety.

At Smalls lighthouse

Later on in 2016 Rick organised a trip out to Little Cumbrae. This was an excellent island to explore and a real treat to be able to get inside the old lighthouse for a look around. One of my favourite parts though had to be standing around for about 20 minutes at or near the island high point while a few members of the group debated which point out of two was actually the highest. I have some amazing pictures of the group standing around with some scrutinising their GPS devices while others gaze at a bit of rock looking a little bemused by the whole situation. Before the boat came to pick us up we had a little time to spare back at the jetty on the east side of the island and so we decided to make the most of the falling tide and visit the tidal Castle Island. The tide wasn’t low enough to get across without getting wet feet initially, but Bob went wading on through boots and all anyway. Others removed their boots and paddled through. I joined the final lot who waited patiently until the tide had dropped enough to allow for a dry crossing.

Little Cumbrae

Building on an already successful year, Alan’s annual trip for 2016 saw us all travelling to the Isles of Scilly. We were so lucky with the weather that week and managed to achieve near enough everything we wanted to. Lighthouses were visited, island high points were bagged and on one particular day I ended up staying in the small tender with another of the ladies on the trip as the side of the main boat was so high I knew I would struggle to get back into it from the tender. The skipper said that Gladys and I could stay in the tender and be dragged along until we reached an island where he could get the main boat in to pick us up. It was such a fun ride along. There was minor panic (probably more major panic in the main boat though) when a wave caught the boat and sent Gladys falling backwards into the middle of the tender. She was absolutely fine and we had a good laugh about it.

On board our little chariot in the Isles of Scilly

2017 didn’t start so well with an awful bout of morning sickness, but by April I was ready to head out on a Douglas-organised trip and this time to Lady Isle. It was so good to be out in the real fresh air again and going to a lighthouse that was so unique too. We were accompanied on the boat by the skipper’s lively spaniel who wasted no time in jumping into the tender for a big old run around on Horse Island, which the group visited after Lady Isle. It was a really enjoyable day and the time spent on Lady Isle itself was really pleasant.

On Lady Isle with its very distinctive lighthouse

Then came the big bagging year: 2018. For three years between 2014 and 2017 we’d been to the Outer Hebrides, shipping in grandparents for childcare duties once the kids had come along. The big aim was always to get out to the Flannans Isles and the Monach Islands, but we’d just never had good enough sea conditions to be able to do it. Then 2018 came around and our first two bagging days offered calm seas, calm enough to allow us to reach both of these places, the Flannans on the Monday and Monachs on the Tuesday. Those were both such special trips and to have waited for so long to get there made me appreciate them all the more. I was also delighted to land at Haskeir after the Monachs which allowed me to see the little light there too.

The two lighthouses on Shillay, one of the Monach Islands

Later that year Mervyn planned a trip to Barra with a number of boat trips organised including one to Berneray, home to Barra Head lighthouse. That was a superb day and not only for the lighthouse. Some of the highlights of trips I have been on have actually been on islands with no lighthouse in sight. On this particular trip one such moment was on a beach on Pabbay where I walked along the beach and at one point spent about 10 minutes watching a ball of foam spinning around in one of the little streams leading down the sea.

The beautiful beach on Pabbay

During these few years there were many other lighthouse adventures with Bob, and then with our son, and from 2017 our daughter too – all of which have been included in posts on this site. I am delighted to report that the kids are well and truly into this lighthouse bagging malarkey, and can even be encouraged to do a small hill here and there if there is the promise of Smarties at the top. The little one even demands to be let into every lighthouse we see. She will go far, that one!

I am super grateful to all of those who organised the trips mentioned here as well as the other adventures not included in this write-up. I am also hugely thankful to the baggers who really supported my book and bought their own copies – to Douglas who suggested the inclusion of the listing on haroldstreet.org.uk and then to Alex and Rob who supported the case for it to be added to the site which usually only features hill lists and walking routes. Charlie and Mervyn were among the handful of people I knew at the launch of my book at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh in September 2019, and the Relative Hills Society were keen to feature my book in their regular newsletter as a members’ publication.

I have a lot to thank so many of the baggers for. Although my interests didn’t start out being the same as theirs (and they really are “collectors of all things” as a skipper once described it) they welcomed me, helped me and – probably because they love a good list anyway – embraced the opportunity to visit lighthouses too, even enjoying bagging the flat-pack types more than most other lighthouse enthusiasts I know. I have a real fondness for them and what they do. They are amazing to watch when you’re out and about with them, they just seem to keep going and going. They will be out on a boat doing island after island and it gets to the afternoon lull period at 2.30/3pm and they are still going and you know it’s because it is what they love to do, and for some it is even more than that – it is what they live to do. 🙂