One opportunity leads to another…

As mentioned in my previous post, we set off towards Montrose on Saturday pre-positioned for a visit to Scurdie Ness on Sunday. Not only was it going to be a visit to the lighthouse though, it was also an opportunity to get inside thanks to the combined efforts of the organisers behind Angus Coastal Festival and the Northern Lighthouse Board. Not an opportunity to be missed!

Leaving our accommodation just to the south of Aberdeen, we decided to pay a quick visit to Tod Head lighthouse while we were in the area. I really like Tod Head, it has a wonderful silhouette. We parked up and had a quick wander around – I say quick because we were keen to get to Ferryden and walk along to Scurdie Ness for the start of the event at 11am. I hadn’t really gone beyond the lighthouse before, so I thought I’d give it a try as the headland looked nice in itself and I expected the views back to the lighthouse to be wonderful. I wasn’t wrong. Why had it taken me so long to go for a walk down there?! There are the remains of an old concrete path with old pipes alongside leading towards the edge of the headland. We later discovered this was where the foghorn used to be, although nothing remains of the foghorn building itself now. When I received a message from Bob asking where I was I thought it was probably time to head back.

Tod Head from coast
Tod Head lighthouse

While we were keen to get there, Bob suggested he take a closer look at the light at Gourdon, which I’d seen up close on a previous visit, but he’d had to settle for a view from the car that time. It’s a difficult one to get a picture of unless you are content to photograph it from behind. Nice little tower though.

Gourdon
The little lighthouse in Gourdon

We arrived in Ferryden, parked up and began the walk along the beach and then up to the road. The sun was trying to break through the clouds, which is always a good sign. We spotted the lighthouse across the river, which we’d been to a few weeks ago and, of course, there are the various daymarks along the shoreline too. On the way to the lighthouse a lady passed us, obviously keen to get there too, and she arrived a little before we did at 10.35am. She wandered over and asked if we had been at Tod Head just before going down and I realised it was the lady who owns the lighthouse there. She was aware of my book and had a copy back at home so she was pleased to meet me and very kindly invited us back after we had finished at Scurdie Ness. I also said a brief hello to Fiona, the Communications lady at the Northern Lighthouse Board, who I’d met for the first time at their office last week.

Scurdie Ness approach
Scurdie Ness lighthouse

They obviously decided to get going with the trips as there were already a few of us lingering around, so off we went. There is not a lot to see at all going up the stairs, just an endless supply of spiral staircase – or at least that’s how it felt – and a few windows. The Northern Lighthouse Board’s website says there are 170 steps to the top, and that sounds about right. We reached the first floor where Tam Cairns (who showed me and the rest of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers group around Cape Wrath lighthouse in May) and the Retained Lighthouse Keeper for the area, Donald, gave us a bit of an introduction. We then continued up to the next level. There’s not a huge amount to see inside the lighthouse now, as is the case with most operational towers these days. So it was really just cabinets with bits of equipment or batteries inside.

Scurdie Ness stairs
The stairs inside Scurdie Ness lighthouse

We were greeted at the top by four of the modern lights that the Northern Lighthouse Board are introducing to an increasing number of their towers. A friend of mine calls them “puddings”. They contain an LED, which you can see if you look closely enough. Apparently these puddings are £17/18,000 each and are imported from Australia, but require hardly any maintenance unlike the old equipment which was becoming increasingly unreliable. I feel sad that the lights are being replaced by these puddings as it means the loss of a sweeping beam (these new lights just come on and go off). I mentioned this to Tam and he explained that what they have found with this type of light is that crews on board ships see the light flash, but because it doesn’t rotate they find it difficult to keep track of where the tower is between flashes. To resolve this they have been trialing a new set up at St Abbs where a very low level light, which is constantly on, is positioned inside the lamp room too and that light can always be seen. It appears to be working, so they are likely to employ the same set-up elsewhere too.

Scurdie Ness lamp room
The “puddings” in Scurdie Ness lamp room

I also asked about the new light arrangement in Duncansby Head lighthouse as they now have an LED inside a rotating optic, which is great and I hoped they would roll that out further, but alas it seems unlikely. Apparently the light at Duncansby Head needs to have a greater range than the puddings are capable of achieving. I found this quite fascinating as often we think of new technology being able to achieve more than older equipment, but clearly that is not the case here.

Scurdie Ness view from top
The view from the top of Scurdie Ness lighthouse

After we left the lamp room we took a spin out around the balcony. There are wonderful views from up there, particularly looking back along the river and, of course, I caught the obligatory lighthouse shadow on the ground below. The queue was well and truly forming below so we felt it was probably time to give someone else a turn. Down and down we went and then we spent a while eating the specially prepared Scurdie Ness lighthouse cake, drinking tea and chatting. The owner of Tod Head, Rohan, still seemed happy for us to visit and, once again it was an opportunity we couldn’t possibly have turned down.

Scurdie Ness owl
The owl at the top of Scurdie Ness lighthouse

We met Rohan back at the lighthouse a little while later. As we were standing outside I said to Bob that I was looking forward to seeing inside as I had a feeling it would be very different from any other lighthouse I’d been inside before. I wasn’t wrong. Rohan bought the lighthouse around the time I first visited it in May 2012 although she hadn’t moved in by that point. Since then she has been gradually doing it up while also maintaining what is a very old building. Rohan has had some incredible work done there. The living room area is fantastic with metal beams still visible and the old unit which used to house some of the main controls sitting in the corner, not to mention the amazing rounded tower that takes over a corner of the room. What I wouldn’t give to have a bit of lighthouse tower in my living room! She has tried to keep hold of a number of the old fixtures and fittings and the kitchen cupboards still feature “Wear eye protection” and “Hand protection must be worn in this area” as well as “Optic battery 12V Nominal”.

Tod Head looking up
Looking up Tod Head tower

Of course, the most amazing part was the tower. It’s not a tall one, but that really adds to its charm. There is a lower ground floor, which Rohan said they filled in as it used to just be full of mucky sludge. It’s currently being used for storage, but everyone needs that kind of space. We set off up the tower and came out on the first floor. Up here there was a little hatch in the wall that Rohan opened up. It was within the lower part of what used to be a door. She has tried to establish what the door there might have been used for in the past, but has not found any explanation so far. At this point, if you looked up you could see a square panel of glass through which a circular glass design, made up of 12 different sections, was visible. We got another look at both from the next floor up where it was fantastic to look down through the square pane and see the basement floor right at the bottom. The walls here were lined beautifully with wood and this little door leading out to the balcony looked perfect too. There was a small sign leant up against the wall saying that we should wear ‘hedgehogs’ upstairs if we planned on standing on the glass floor. I threw on a pair of pink ones and off I went.

Tod Head door
The little door leading out to the balcony

Now, I’m going into an increasing number of lamp rooms these days and it’s always nice to see a light still in them, but this one was amazing. The floor was incredible, the views were stunning and it was also rather hot too with all of the glass making for a lovely greenhouse feel! What a fantastic place to go on a stormy day and watch the waves crashing about below, or even on a nice day such as the day we were there when all is relatively calm and beautiful. There was a lot to love about it.

Tod Head lamp room
Inside the lamp room at Tod Head

The amazing tour continued back down on the next floor and then out onto the balcony. One of the many unique things about Tod Head lighthouse is that it has an extension to the balcony on the seaward east side. Whereas on most lighthouses you struggle to see the lantern properly from the balcony, this bit means you can step back and get a better view – and, of course, there were those brilliant views of the coast again to the north, east and south.

Tod Head lantern
The view of the lantern from the platform at Tod Head

We were up against time a bit as Rohan had some kids visiting for one of their birthdays, but we just had time to sit down at her dining table for a while and chat. I signed her copy of the book and she also offered us the privilege of being able to sign her table, which I was more than pleased to do. Evidence that I was in this beautiful lighthouse. I did tell Rohan that if she ever wants to give her home away then to just give me a call. I can certainly see the appeal of living there.

Before we left I had a quick picture with Rohan taken outside the lighthouse. It was so lovely to meet her and I felt very privileged to have been invited into her home. It was a very special day and a perfect example of why you should never (where possible) turn down an opportunity as you never know where it might take you. 🙂

A change of plan in Dundee

This is not the blog I was expecting, or hoping, to be writing today, but it is a blog post which means lighthouses have been visited, so never a bad thing.

We’d planned to travel down to Dundee and head over to the Isle of May today to take advantage of the Doors Open Days, which would allow us to get into two of the three lighthouses there.

Book release
Collecting my book from Whittles Publishing

Before I begin on that though, I should say that I received a message from the publisher of my book, The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide, to say that my advance copies were now in their office. Of course, that meant that I had to head over to see them after work before we began our journey south.

What a delight that was to be handed a copy of my own book! It’s taken me years to develop and I have been looking back at the process recently in preparation for a presentation I am due to give in a couple of weeks. It really has been a labour of love. To get my hands on the result is so rewarding and entirely wiped out the frustrations and stress I went through in order to get it to where it is. Such a fantastic feeling!

Right, back to our weekend. The visit to the Isle of May was not to be as I discovered by email this morning. We needed a back-up plan and this came in the form of Dundee Science Centre to entertain the kids in wet and windy weather.

Stopping here also gave the perfect opportunity to catch up with my lighthouse friend Laura who had also travelled to the area for the Isle of May. It was great to see her and nice to test out a copy of the book on exactly the type of person it is aimed at. Laura went away with a few lighthouses to do today that she’d missed the first time around and I hope she got on well with them.

We spent considerably longer at the Science Centre than anticipated, but when we did drag ourselves away we decided to take a drive up to Montrose as the kids needed a sleep and I was keen to get closer to the rear of the two range lights in Montrose harbour.

On the way to Montrose we passed the old Whitehill (or Vatsetter) light on the approach to Arbroath. I’ve seen this one a few times, but having recently been to the modern light at Vatsetter in Shetland where this one was previously located, I now have an extra level of enjoyment of it.

Montrose
Montrose Harbour Rear lighthouse

A little while later we arrived in Montrose and thanks to my book, which had the street names, we easily found the lighthouse. It’s an interesting one. It’s quite tall, but fairly slim with a fairly small, red section at the top which contains the light. I wandered around in the dunes next to it grabbing pictures from different angles. I was surprised to see dunes there to be honest. It’s a very industrial area and the lighthouse is just next to a massive warehouse. When we spotted the sign saying “Beach access” close to the lighthouse I was intrigued. I’ve since found some old pictures of the tower when it was white at the top rather than red and it certainly looks like there was much more of a beach next to the lighthouse then with no sign of the dunes. Presumably the river is shifting the sand banks over the years.

The river runs next to the lighthouse and there were a number of birds floating around on the water until a massive boat turned up and they drifted slowly towards the side of the river. It was brilliant to see Scurdie Ness in the distance too. It was great to get closer to this one after seeing from the south side of the river a couple of times.

 

Montrose and Scurdie Ness
Montrose Harbour Rear light with Scurdie Ness in the distance

The kids were both wide awake by the time we were passing back through Arbroath so we decided to stop at the Signal Tower Museum for a quick look around before it closed. It has been six years since I was last there. Life was very different then. Bob and I weren’t married and had no children, but also it was still very early in my lighthouse days. I wrote about it in my post at the time of my first visit. I had forgotten that it was as big as it is, and that they had the film depicting the building of the Bell Rock on a loop in one room. I caught the end of it and was reminded of just how incredible a feat it would have been to build a lighthouse on the Bell Rock. The film shows the Robert Stevenson, or at least the actor who played him, getting emotional when the light was first lit. It made me wonder how much of that was artistic licence (I suspect there was). It must have felt like a great achievement, but I wonder whether the Stevenson’s dealt with their successes by celebrating or whether they just moved on to the next task.

 

Signal Tower
Arbroath Signal Tower Museum

Anyway, I digress, the museum is still just as great as it was before. In fact it is better as, since 2017, they have held the old mechanism from the Bell Rock lighthouse (not the original, although they do have small parts of that too). It’s in a side room with a light inside and the mechanism is still in good working order, so it was lovely to see that in action.

I have heard that they are hoping to temporarily open the tower itself up to the public soon. It has been closed for health and safety reasons, but they are hoping to allow people to get up there a bit more in the future.

Signal Tower internal
Looking up the beautiful Signal Tower staircase

We stopped off at The Bell Rock Restaurant opposite the Signal Tower where we enjoyed smokies – we were in Arbroath after all. When we left the restaurant we spotted the Bell Rock tower in the distance with the sun shining off of it. I’d love to get back out there again some day to appreciate it all over again, and possibly even more so this time.

Although today turned out differently to how we had hoped it would, it’s still been a very good day with some lighthouses crammed in too. 🙂