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 🙂

A Shetland Adventure – part 10

This post is somewhat delayed due to other tasks taking priority (namely, the book and a presentation related to it – more on that soon!), but it marks the final of my Shetland Adventure series. Reaching double figures is fairly impressive and what a fantastic two weeks it was. The final bagging day was certainly a good end to a thoroughly enjoyable holiday. So, here is what occurred on the final Shetland boat trip…

Aside from the two lighthouses on Fair Isle, I only had one more of the big lighthouses left in Shetland to visit, and that was Out Skerries. I’d been informed by my good friend Brian that landing on Bound Skerry, the lighthouse island within the Out Skerries group, was straightforward and was only difficult on a few days each year. So I was fairly confident about it.

We went out with Seabirds and Seals from Lerwick and I think everyone was a little worried initially about how we might combine. They, of course, are far more used to taking the average tourists about on their lovely, comfy boat to see seabirds and seals, as their name suggests. We, on the other hand, are much more focussed on getting off of the boat and onto islands numerous times a day. It took us a little while to get used to each other, but it turned into a fairly efficient process once we were all settled in. One thing I particularly enjoyed was the number of cups of tea and biscuits we were offered on the boat. It’s a great little set-up they have – and clearly one of the benefits you get from going with a tourist-orientated crew. Earlier in the week I did manage to wangle a flask of tea from Kevin from Compass Rose Charters, the operator who landed us on Muckle Flugga, though while the others were busy doing their island bagging business.

So, back to Out Skerries. The journey out there was easy enough. I’m not used to being on catamarans, clearly, as it felt different. Not so bumpy, a bit more rocky, but it was fine. Unfortunately it was a bit of an overcast day with plenty of rain, but we were informed that it should clear up by the afternoon.

Out Skerries distance
Out Skerries lighthouse awaits

After dropping a few of the group on one of the two main islands, we headed around to Bound Skerry. We’d seen the lighthouse for some time before we arrived there and it was nice to finally be approaching the island. There were only 5 of us going onto the island so we did two runs across in the tender, landing onto slippery platforms and then walking up slippery paths to get to the lighthouse. That’s the problem with rain it automatically makes rock more difficult to walk on, but we arrived at the lighthouse without incident.

Out Skerries path
Looking up the path from the landing area

It felt different there than I thought it would. For some reason I expected there to be more life about in the Out Skerries in general, of course not on the lighthouse island, but there appeared to be no one about – although I must admit that I didn’t land on the main island of Bruray. It all felt a little deserted, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think some of the most fantastic places I have been to are those where people once lived, but no longer do. It is certainly the case with a number of lighthouse islands, but there are others too.

Out Skerries and shore station
The lighthouse with the shore station in the background

The lighthouse is beautiful, and perhaps more so from a distance. It is wonderful to see it close up of course, but when you see it from further away (particularly from the neighbouring island of Grunay) it looks like it is nestled so nicely on the island, almost like it has always been there, as nature intended it to be. There is very little space on the island once you look beyond the lighthouse and helipad. You can see why they built the shore station for the keepers’ families on Grunay instead, although I have just discovered that Grunay was the location of the temporary lighthouse built in 1854 before the current tower was built on Bound Skerry in 1858. You feel very abandoned there, or maybe that was just because our boat went off to drop someone on Bruray and took longer to get back than we had thought! It was a great experience being there though and it’s definitely one of those inspiring places that, if I had the time, I might write some sort of story about. A very interesting visit.

I appeared to be the only one present to have known that Grunay, the next door neighbour island, was home to a little Shetland Islands Council lighthouse. As we approached it I was looking around towards the landing steps and knew exactly the view I was looking for, but just couldn’t see the lighthouse. It turns out that Grunay has a “dog leg” (I’m not sure that’s the right term, but I’m sticking with it). The small islet at the end of this dog leg is what I was looking for. It is separated from the main island by large boulders, which are tricky to navigate your way across – or at least that’s what I found. Whether or not the islet is tidal I’m not sure. I imagine that if it isn’t then in stormy weather the waves would crash over the boulders. Thankfully that day the sea was nice and calm.

Grunay
The lighthouse on Grunay

The little lighthouse on Grunay is similar to those at West Burrafirth, only it is round rather than square. It does have a Council look about it and it’s just tall enough to feature a door. We wandered around it in the long grass for a while before crossing back through boulder city. We knew we didn’t have a lot of time, but wanted to get to the old Out Skerries shore station. By this point I was pretty hot and I’d not had any lunch, so I wasn’t at my best, but as soon as I spotted the lighthouse peering up over the island I felt a bit better.

Out Skerries shore station
Out Skerries shore station (you can just spot the top of lighthouse above the roof)

The shore station, while still standing, has seen far better days. The windows and doors are all gone and nature has been left to do what it will to the buildings. I didn’t want to go far into the building as you never know what condition they might be in structurally, but I saw enough to feel a little sad about it. When you are seeing furniture in rooms where people once lived looking in such a bad way it does make you think. Ailsa Craig was the first one I saw,  but at least that one was being used (or should I say abused) occasionally by bird watchers. Here there has been no one since the keepers left the tower in 1972, when it became one of those in the first round of lights to be automated. Forty seven years without maintenance certainly takes its toll.

Out Skerries shore station internal
Inside one of the rooms at the Out Skerries shore station

The rain arrived just as we were walking back to the boat. Once we were back on board and attempting to dry out we went to collect the others who had been sheltering in the public toilets. Due to there still being a number of islands left to pick off on the way back to Lerwick, we only sailed past Muckle Skerry with no attempt to land. Muckle Skerry lighthouse is a flat-pack, and from the distance we saw it at and the conditions at the time it was considerably less inspiring than Out Skerries had been, but still a nice one to see.

Muckle Skerry
Our distant view of Muckle Skerry lighthouse

Our final lighthouse stop of the day was Hoo Stack. I had been informed the night before that: “Hoo Stack is called a stack, but it is anything but”, which I was pleased to hear. Landing on the island was fine, but it was then a bit of a clamber up among rocks and I was very kindly led by Alan while Bob helped with the landings. Alan had also led me up Gruney a couple of days before, so I am grateful to him (not that he will see this as he is a self-confessed techno-phobe). Once we were off of the rocks it was just a short walk up to the lighthouse.

Hoo Stack distance.jpg
Hoo Stack (or is it an island?!)

The lighthouse on Hoo Stack is another flat-pack, but quite an interesting one as it has three levels to it and the bottom level is missing the white cladding, which was very exciting as it meant I could physically get inside it. I’d been wanting to experience that for some time and managing it on the final one of my lighthouse islands of the trip was great. The sun had come out by this point too, which also increases your enjoyment of a place. Of course the others joined me inside the lighthouse too. I think they are really getting into this lighthouse bagging malarkey.

Hoo Stack
Hoo Stack lighthouse in the sunshine

A truly brilliant way to end the two weeks in Shetland. Reflecting back on it now, it seems almost like a dream, as if it never really happened, but it certainly did. The highlight though had to be Muckle Flugga, of course. After that I can’t even begin to pick out the best bits – there were far too many of them. 🙂

A Shetland Adventure – part 9

Every now and then I have a day involving lots of little lights and today was certainly one of them. We spent the day on a boat with Compass Rose Charters (who landed us on Muckle Flugga the other day) in Yell Sound, Shetland. I’d been looking forward to this one as there are plenty of small lighthouses on the approach to Sullom Voe. Some are Northern Lighthouse Board while others were installed by the council.

Our departure point was Toft on Mainland Shetland. First we headed out to the islands of Linga and Samphrey, which gave us a nice view of Firth’s Voe, which we’d walked to the other day.

Firths Voe
Firths Voe from a distance

From Samphrey we set off for the Sound and immediately you begin to spot little white towers around. The rest of the group wanted to get onto a couple of the islands on the east side of Yell Sound, which gave us an opportunity to see the Ness of Sound lighthouse, another one we had walked to during this trip.

Heading towards Brother Isle we could see Mio Ness, which is on the Mainland to the north east of Sullom Voe. Brother Isle was our next stop. By this time the sun had come out. Although the light on Brother Isle has no possible internal access to the tower itself I was still interested in seeing it as we were going there anyway. It’s a fairly interesting structure with a few little additional boxes around it. I’m glad I went to see it anyway.

Brother Isle
The light on Brother Isle

We sailed close to the light on Tinga Skerry. This one appears to be typical council style with the circular white tower made up of panels. The sun began to shin on it just as we were passing, which always has a way of making any structure look better than it otherwise would.

Tinga Skerry
Tinga Skerry lighthouse

Lamba was our next stop and this was a very interesting one. Not like any I had seen before. Next to the tower was what looked like three little gun barrels lined up. I’m pretty sure they are actually some sort of sector lights, so not quite so dramatic. It was a bit of an uphill walk to get to, but the blue sky in the background was great and it was nice to see something a bit different. It was a bit of a scramble on the rocks to get up, but not too bad.

Lamba
Lamba lighthouse

Little Holm was next on my hit list. It’s a tiny island really, but very beautiful. It is covered in patches of thrift and is also relatively low lying so no hills, no bonxies, just a lovely little place. It’s a Northern Lighthouse Board flat-pack but, as with so many of these, it’s the surroundings that make it so enjoyable and that was definitely the case here.

Little Holm
Little Holm lighthouse

It’s neighbour to the north, Muckle Holm, was steeper, but most of the height gain was done before we even left the rocks. This one has a far more dramatic coastline with a couple of big geos to look down into as you walk to the lighthouse. Again it’s a standard flat-pack.

Muckle Holm
Muckle Holm lighthouse

As we continued north we began to see the Point of Fethaland lighthouse, yet another we had paid a visit to on this holiday. It looks very small up on the high cliffs. I think I preferred seeing it from the land!

Our destination was the island of Gruney, which sits off of the coast of Point of Fethaland. We had seen the lighthouse on our visit to the Fethaland light, but now it was time to get onto the island and see it close up. This was where it got a bit interesting. All day we’d had flat calm landings on to dry rocks. Due to the direction of the wind and swell we needed to land on the east of the island. There was a relatively sheltered area, but the only problem was that we would be landing on a sloping slab of rock covered in seaweed with no easy place to go to avoid it. We were also struggling a little with the swell, which was moving the boat a bit as people got off. Fortunately Bob and a couple of others had micro spikes with them so Bob was able to land and stomp up the slab to hold the rope. When one of the group slipped on the seaweed I thought “I’m not sure I want to do this”, but a couple of them told me it would be ok so I got off of the boat and clung on to the rope while I shuffled my way up. Once we were past the worst of it one of the other group members helped to guide me up the rest of the rocks. You might think that I would have been relieved to have reached the top, but I was already worrying about how I was going to get back on the boat. I was, however, rewarded with some incredible views in various directions. Firstly the lighthouse was another interesting type. I was surprised to see a Northern Lighthouse Board plate on it as I’ve not seen any of their structures looking like this before. It made me question whether the Lamba light was also something to do with them, although it didn’t have a plate. The views across to Point of Fethaland were great, but the most impressive view was towards the array of sea stacks and a natural arch to the north. It made the effort to get there worthwhile. Getting back onto the boat wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Bob leant me his micro spikes and the combination of those and holding the rope again made me feel much safer. I was still glad to get back onto the boat though!

Gruney
Gruney lighthouse with Point of Fethaland in the distance

On our journey today we spotted a small white and orange tower on the island of Little Roe. It looked similar to the front light of the nearby Skaw Taing range so we felt it was important to get a closer view in order to judge whether or not it was the type that had internal access. On our way back down to Toft the skipper agreed to travel via Little Roe to give us a closer view. Looking through the zoom lens on the camera it was clear that it was the twin structure to the Skaw Taing Front range light. This was one I had not previously had on my list so I’m glad I found it today. As I said towards the beginning of this post, Yell Sound has plenty of lights.

Little Roe.JPG
Little Roe lighthouse

A really enjoyable day and a very successful one for getting to some of the lights I would otherwise only have seen from a distance. 🙂

A Shetland Adventure – part 8 (the best day)

I’m not even sure how to begin this post really, so I’m just going to dive straight in there and say it. Today was the day we landed on Muckle Flugga!

I’m sure many of you will know it already, but if not then Muckle Flugga is the most northerly lighthouse in the British Isles. It is perched beautifully on top of a big rock a short distance off of the north of Unst in Shetland. Interestingly the lighthouse did, in its early days, used to be known as North Unst. It is renowned for being difficult to land on and fairly wild in terms of sea state and weather.

Last week we took a drive up to Saxa Vord with the kids and my parents to see if we could spot the lighthouse. After the fun we had with trying to do that last November I thought it might be difficult to see again, but fortunately the cloud was high and the sun was out. We joined a number of others in looking across at it. My dad had taken his telescope so I was able to get a closer view without actually being closer. That afternoon we went to Unst Heritage Centre, which has a small but incredibly interesting exhibition space dedicated to Muckle Flugga lighthouse. There’s obviously a lot of local knowledge, experience and information there and it gives a great picture of the human side of the lighthouse with the keepers and boatmen. It’s well worth a visit for anyone interested in the lighthouse.

MF through telescope
Muckle Flugga lighthouse through a telescope

I should point out before I get too carried away with today’s trip that the Northern Lighthouse Board do not advise anyone lands on the island and we approached it fully accepting that we were doing it at our own risk.

Back to today’s trip, we had known since early last year that an attempt to land on Muckle Flugga was on the agenda for this two-week stint in Shetland. While I thought that two weeks in June would maximise our chances as much as we possibly could, I never really believed we would manage it. The boatman was hesitant to take us there for a start. He obviously knows the area well and understands that landing there is a rare occurrence. We went out with him on a trip last week and through conversations I had with him it seemed unlikely that we would even attempt it. One thing that did work in our favour though was that the skipper got a chance last week to see just how capable the group are of carrying out tricky landings. I’m not necessarily talking about myself. In fact, not at all, I tend to be helped a lot by my very able companions.

A few days later, yesterday in fact, we received a message from Alan who is organising the trips to say that the first Muckle Flugga group (which included us) would be going today and the forecast was also looking good. It was all sounding positive, but I wasn’t going to get my hopes up to much, just in case.

It was a fairly calm journey up the west coast of Unst, which was encouraging, but of course we had the shelter of the island on our side. The wind had moved around to the south east and the skipper had said last week that any wind/swell from the north would make it impossible to land – another thing in our favour.

 

MF from sea2
The view from the sea

Around 50 minutes into the trip the lighthouse came into view. The sea still didn’t seem to be too bad and I did think that perhaps we may well be able to do it. This was confirmed about 10 minutes later when we arrived near the landing and the skipper gave a positive indication that we would give it a go. There was still movement in the sea so we moved to the slightly sheltered north west side of the island to unload into the tender. Bob hopped into the tender along with Brian who has experience of landing there. I asked if I should go in the first run too and in I hopped, well slid really as it was a bit of a drop from the main boat into the tender (as I was to find when getting back into the main boat afterwards)! It was a bit splashy on the way to the island and I tried not to laugh too much as the others got splashed full in the face.

MF distance
The view from the sheltered side

Arriving at the landing place we knew we would need to go up the old steps as the new steps have been removed in places. Bob leapt off of the boat with his micro-spikes on to pull the boat in. The landing on a flat piece of rock was fairly straightforward, but it immediately got slippery for those of us not wearing micro-spikes. There were plenty of steps ahead of us (246 in total I was informed), but we took it slowly and a short time later we were there at the top with the lighthouse in front of us.

MF front
Muckle Flugga lighthouse

It’s astounding to think how the lighthouse and all of the associated buildings came to be here. It’s not even a particularly basic layout for a lighthouse complex. There are more buildings than there are at some other, much less remote lighthouses. How you would look at a big rock like that and think “I need to build a lighthouse there” without also thinking “Where on Earth do I even start?” I don’t know.

MF sector
The old sector light building

In the main courtyard there is the tower and attached buildings along with an old store room as well as a small square building that once housed an old sector light pointing eastwards. This sector light operated until it was replaced by a new light on Holm of Skaw, further around the coast to the south east. On the far side of the tower, just outside the compound, was the helipad and beyond this you could wander downhill slightly to another very small building. Apparently this was used at one point for keeping the Muckle Flugga resident chickens in! Just down the steps from the helipad was a great place to see the local puffins and fulmars from.

MF and helipad
The lighthouse and helipad

The views from the top of the rock are stunning. The low cloud was still rising in the distance when we were first there so there were the tops of a number of the nearby stacks with their heads in the cloud. We could also clearly see across to Out Stack, the most northerly piece of land in the UK, or as the promotional leaflets will tell you ‘The full stop at the end of the British Isles’! Standing on Muckle Flugga feels like a real achievement. The height of the island, the location and everything else bundled together is extraordinary. I found myself singing a lot while we were there, which is a sure sign of excitement.

We’d been brought across in three loads (I think, although I wasn’t paying too much attention to the others at that point) and the final group had a little more trouble with landing. It was becoming clear that we couldn’t spend much longer there without the swell picking up too much, so we began to make our way back down. I may have enjoyed the steps slightly more if they hadn’t been so slippery with some half covered in grassy tufts which seemed to be growing out of the stone! Getting back into the tender was fine, but the journey back was a little wet. The tide was changing and going against the wind, which was making things a bit more interesting. As previously mentioned, I just about managed to clamber back up into the main boat and enjoy the feeling of having been to such a challenging and inaccessible lighthouse.

MF steps
Some of the 246 slippery steps

Bob and a couple of the others were keen to land on Out Stack while we were there. If I was more able to bound about onto and off of rocks then I would have gone too just to be able to say that I’d been to the top of Britain. The skipper was concerned that there was only a short window of opportunity left to get them on the stack before the swell got too big. After a while looking for the best place to land the three of them got onto the stack and successfully reached the top. Getting them back onto the tender was a bit more interesting as they leapt in. At one point I think we all thought one of the guys had gone into the sea, but he emerged out of the boat. Bob was the final one off and leapt like a gazelle onto the tender, as he does!

The others landed on a couple of other islands/big rocks in the area so we were able to gaze lovingly at Muckle Flugga and its lighthouse for quite some time. One of these islands (just south of Muckle Flugga) was Cliff Skerry from which Bob took the most amazing picture looking across to the lighthouse.

MF from Cliff Skerry
Muckle Flugga from Cliff Skerry

What a fantastic place. I feel the same as I did with Sule Skerry and the Flannans, which is something along the lines of “was I really there?”, but I most definitely was and it may sink in at some point. What a place. 🙂

A Shetland Adventure – part 7

Today has been about quality over quantity. When it comes to the lighthouse on North Havra, many would argue that quality is not quite the right term for it, but I would disagree.

The lighthouse on North Havra is particularly difficult to see and not easy to get to either. Many of the lighthouses in Shetland can at least be seen from somewhere, but this one is different. It’s position on the island means that there is only one place that you can see its light (not the tower) from and that’s only on a clear night.

North Havra was one of eleven islands to be visited by the boat that had been chartered, the Silver Swift, operated by Shetland Sea Adventures based at Hamnavoe. Hamnavoe was a fantastic place to sail from, mainly because we could gaze across at the beautiful Fugla Ness lighthouse. What a wonderful lighthouse that one is. We didn’t quite sail right past it on the way out, but it was still nice to see it from the sea.

After a couple of other islands we arrived at North Havra. Thankfully the sea was calm today and the boat was well set up for getting into (and out of) the tender. So it was a relatively easy hop onto the rocks to get onto the island. As soon as we were off of the rocks we were heading up a particularly steep slope. For an island that’s fairly small it’s rather hilly. I was, of course, on bonxie alert and sure enough there were a couple circling – although Bob initially tried to tell me that they were gulls. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the lighthouse. As expected, the structure is very similar to that at Point of the Pund. It’s a fairly basic GRP tower with a light on top. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the rest of the group had decided to make the effort to go and see it too.

North Havra1
North Havra lighthouse

It turns out that the lighthouse really is hard to see from many angles. Even as we sailed around the island we couldn’t see if for quite a while. Once we were to the south of the island we could see it, but only until it disappeared behind another island.

A bit later, as the others were about to go onto another island, Bob pointed out Point of the Pund lighthouse, which we’d been to earlier in the week. On the way back into Hamnavoe Marina we got a closer view of Fugla Ness. It really is a beauty that one.

Fugla Ness
Fugla Ness lighthouse

So, the elusive North Havra was achieved and I am very pleased. Another success story from our Shetland Adventure. 🙂

A Shetland Adventure – part 6

I’m clearly on a roll here in Shetland. Today has involved visits to three more of the smaller lights on Mainland and Yell.

On Monday’s boat trip we could see the lighthouse at Whitehill, near Vatsetter, on Yell from a distance. Today was the day that we were going to attempt to get even closer. It was an overcast morning with a bit of rain in the air, but you can never let that stop you. After all of yesterday’s rain I thought it might have topped up the bogs a bit just to make them a bit more hazardous.

We parked up at Vatsetter towards the end of the public road and set off across the field. Although we could see the lighthouse at the start of the walk I knew that it was further than it looked. The ground was boggy in places, but not too bad as long as you looked where you were walking. There were a few leaps across damp channels, but that was it really. We headed down towards the beach and decided to follow the coastal route, which clearly caused a little distress to the nearby arctic terns and oystercatchers, but I told them ‘we come in peace’ in the hope that it would make a difference – it didn’t. There were a couple of old ruins by the shore and the remains of an old wrecked boat lay on the stones nearby. The walk was interesting enough that it didn’t seem like long until we arrived at the lighthouse.

Whitehill shipwreck.JPG
The shoreline and wrecked boat near Vatsetter

Whitehills lighthouse is a flat-pack affair and it has the usual solar panels that accompany this kind of structure. One thing we noticed about the solar panels was that they had a thick sheet of perspex over them, which may be an indication of how wild it can get there. It was certainly rougher around the coast there today than it has been in recent days with the wind having moved around to the south east. It was nice to see the location of the old Whitehill tower, which can now be found (painted red) at the side of the road on the approach to Arbroath.

Whitehill
Whitehill lighthouse

On our way back to the car we went cross country a bit more until we spotted some bonxies, which are fast becoming the bane of my Shetland lighthouse bagging days. They didn’t appear to be too aggressive, but we made our way back towards the coast just to steer well clear of them. Once again the terns and oystercatchers “welcomed” us on the way back and only a little while later we were back at the car. I remember looking at the OS maps and the locations of some of the lighthouses in Shetland last year and thinking ‘how on Earth am I going to manage to get to all of them with the distances and terrain’, but over the last few days I’ve realised that not all of them are so inaccessible. I’m not going to lie, there are a few that instil a sense of dread in me at the thought of it, but not so many as there were last year.

After stopping for lunch in Mid Yell, we moved on to our next endeavour, reaching the Ness of Sound lighthouse. I’d seen this one a number of times as it is visible from the main road in Yell as you travel north. It sits on a ‘tied island’, also known as a tombolo, in Yell Sound. Fortunately the sun had come out during lunch time so we were greeted with a beautiful view after we parked up in a lay-by on the main road to the north of Ulsta. It was fairly steep walking down the track which passes alongside a house. It’s always a little unnerving walking so close to someone’s house, but it appeared to be deserted. A great location for a house, just a stone’s throw from the two strips of land that lead you over the the Ness of Sound. It is, in fact, a double tombolo because it has these two strips rather than just one. We opted for the stoney stretch to cross over to the island that’s not really an island. It was fairly steep walking up the grassy, bogginess on the other side, but fortunately not too far before Yell Sound opened up in front of us.

Ness of Sound
Ness of Sound

The lighthouse beckoned, as they so often do, so we wandered down to it. Again it was a flat-pack and most definitely one with stunning views. As we walked down a lone bonxie lingered around a short distance away, but he/she flew off before we reached the lighthouse. There were wonderful views from every side of this one and after a while I sat down with my dad on the rocks in front of the tower taking in the view, while Bob looked into the intriguing concrete “lava spill” (as we called it) on the rocks, which also contained some old rope leading down to the sea from the lighthouse. We could see all the way up to the Point of Fethaland today and I imagined it would have been a wonderful day to have been up there, but Ness of Sound was certainly not a bad alternative. We eventually dragged ourselves away and headed back.

Ness of Sound lighthouse
Ness of Sound lighthouse

Our final stop of the day with Firths Voe. We’d seen it from a distance on our last visit in November, but obviously wanted a closer view. We parked up at the side of the road and wandered down into a farmyard before passing through a couple of gates and then crossing a field down to the lighthouse. To me this is a very recognisable lighthouse. I think it is partly because the ruins of an old building sit behind it and that makes up part of its profile.

Firths Voe1
Firths Voe lighthouse

We upset a few gulls and terns here and my dad was quick to point out that one of my “favourite” birds was flying over. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to bonxies, I don’t think you can really. I’d had enough of the “bonxie fear” today so it was lucky that there was only one and it flew off as quickly as it had arrived. What I like most about Firths Voe lighthouse is that it is still going strong when so many others of its kind have been replaced by flat-packs (not that I have anything against a flat-pack, of course). From memory, the last few of this kind that I had seen were the old Muckle Roe tower near Sumburgh Head and the former Sandaig Islands tower which is now in Glenelg. The latter two are no longer operational so it is fairly rare to see one of these still doing what it does best.

Firths Voe2
Firths Voe

The tide was out while we were there so we could walk around on the rocks and get views from the full 360 degrees. It looks wonderful from every angle. I was a little disturbed to see that the land and rocks on which the concrete base of the tower sits appears to be wearing away underneath and I hope this won’t continue or have any impact on the lighthouse. We also spotted a little pier nearby, which was presumably set up to serve the lighthouse from. It’s a beautiful place and although the tower is relatively new in terms of lighthouses, it is great to see that the last generation of Stevensons were successful at building long-lasting towers just as their ancestors had been. Once hundred and ten years down the line it’s standing proud, just as it should be.

Firths Voe3
Firths Voe from the seaward side

A great bagging day and definitely a few lighthouses to remember. 🙂

A Shetland Adventure – part 5

Today’s instalment of the Shetland Adventure took us over to the west coast of Shetland Mainland, and the island of Muckle Roe. Muckle Roe is attached to the mainland by a bridge, which is helpful for achieving a visit to the lighthouse there.

We parked at the “car park”, a little lay-by at the side of the road and set off. I was delighted to see a signpost saying “Lighthouse 2km”, mainly because I knew it was a flat-pack lighthouse and I’ve never seen a signpost specifically guiding you to a flat-pack before!

Muckle Roe sign
The flat-pack lighthouse sign

Those 2km were a beautiful walk. We went a little awry initially on the walk and ended up losing the path, but we quickly found it again. The path near enough followed the coast along, with plenty of lovely views, particularly the one in the picture below. I thought that one of the rocks jutting out into the sea here looked like an alligator.

Muckle Roe coastline
One of the incredible views – can you spot the alligator rock?

There were lots of ups and downs and this way and that way as we went. At one point we came to a loch with a lovely little stream leading into the sea. It was a really interesting walk. After a while, when it looked like we still may have had miles and miles still to go, the lighthouse came into view, tucked down at the coast. It looked like we were nearly there until I got a bit closer and discovered that we still had to go a bit further inland to get out to the lighthouse. It wasn’t so far though and the old handrail posts reassuringly led us in the right direction.

The lighthouse is surrounded by an array of rocky outcrops and the cliffs in front of the tower are amazing. As my regular readers will know, I am rather partial to a flat-pack lighthouse and this was a standard one. As with so many of them though it is in part the location that makes them so worth visiting. Would I have wanted to miss out on seeing the great views I got on Muckle Roe this morning? No, I wouldn’t, and if it hadn’t have been for the lighthouse I would have been very unlikely to have gone there. This is what it’s really all about – well, that and the lighthouses too of course.

Muckle Roe from landward
Muckle Roe lighthouse

Knowing that a old lighthouse on Muckle Roe is now next to the car park at Sumburgh Head, I wish I had been able to see it in its original home. People talk a lot about the full-time lighthouse keepers – and very rightly so – but what a wonderful job the person responsible for looking after the old lighthouse here would have had. Take a flask of tea along and sit outside the tower, which was built as an automatic station, on a nice day (I have a wonderful imagination, can you tell?) and enjoy the beauty of it all. A wonderful thought.

Muckle Roe from coast
Looking up at the lighthouse

With the jagged coastline and land around it there are plenty of angles to see the lighthouse from. There was also an interesting little stone hut – or the remains of one – not far from the lighthouse. Not sure what that would have been for, but again a fantastic place to have a hut. Eventually it was time to head off and the walk back was straight forward with no wrong turns taken. The rain started just as we arrived back at the car so our visit was perfectly timed.

This afternoon we finally made it to the Shetland Museum & Archives, which we’d unsuccessfully attempted to visit in November. I knew that it contained the old light mechanism from Bressay lighthouse, which is exactly where I went as soon as I arrived. It is a catoptric mechanism, using mirrors to reflect light rather than glass, which was installed in the Bressay tower in 1940. When the light was automated in 1989 the mechanism was removed and, of course, it is now on display for all to see, which is wonderful. What is most wonderful though is that they have set it up so you can press a big yellow button and it turns as it would have done in the lighthouse.

Bressay mechanism
The old light mechanism from Bressay lighthouse

It was great to see this sort of light mechanism in action and because of the mirrors you also get to see yourself upside down as it spins! It’s fantastic what they have done with it. A real centrepiece to the Museum – or at least that’s what I think anyway. 🙂

A Shetland Adventure – part 4

Well, what can I say about today except that it has involved possibly the best lighthouse-related walk I have ever done. We decided that today, when the wind was strong from the north, to walk to the most northerly point of Mainland Shetland, the Point of Fethaland. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? In fact it was incredible.

I was joined by Bob, my dad and our friend Mervyn, an island bagger. I was a little confused as to why Mervyn was interested in going to the Point of Fethaland as I just expected it to be a headland with no associated islands, but I was to find out exactly why Mervyn wanted to go there.

We parked up near the farm at Isbister and off we set. Once through the gate we had a choice of turning left or right. It turned out that a left turn would have taken us along a track all of the way, but we spotted cows up that way so turned right. Turning right meant we were taking the “off piste” route and we were wandering across fields and weaving our way over and around the wetter sections of grass before we rejoined the main track, which was basically a road. We spotted the island of Muckle Holm and its lighthouse off to the east on the way. The road petered out into more of a land rover track as we headed downhill and began to get the first views of the lighthouse and passed the old houses.

First view of PoF
The first view of Point of Fethaland

I was surprised at the number of houses, but it turns out the area was once a busy area with a deep-sea fishing station. Sixty boats operated here in the late 19th and early 20th century. These boats were manned by seasonal workers who shared the lodges of which there are believed to have been up to 36. It’s hard to imagine now that it was once the busiest deep-sea fishing station in Shetland. We didn’t see another soul on our whole journey.

Old houses
Some of the ruins of old houses in the area

As we approached Fethaland it became clear why Mervyn was interested. Fethaland itself is an island, albeit only at certain tides or in particularly wild sea conditions. As we walked across the rock and stones that divide the mainland from Fethaland it was fascinating to see the huge rocks to the west with waves crashing while to our right was a pebble beach with calm water in the sheltered natural harbour. Once we crossed the rocks it was a fairly steep walk up the island. At one point we ended up walking along a sheep track which ran along the side of a steep hill. Due to the wind I found myself stopping every couple of minutes until the strongest gusts passed before continuing on. Otherwise I could imagine myself tumbling sideways down the slope. One final push up the hill took us to the lighthouse and an absolutely stunning landscape opened up before us. As we went up, Bob had been to the high point of the island and I saw him climbing rather precariously up onto some rocks – not ideal in strong wind, but when he showed me the resulting picture I understood why he’d been up there.

PoF3
Bob’s view from the precarious rocks

The lighthouse is fascinating. I’ve not seen one like it before. It has a concrete base with a GRP section, containing the lens, on top. The lens was spinning away in the lantern. The black panels on the outside of the tower make it look much more modern than it actually is – it was first lit in 1977. Mervyn was delighted to have made it to the lighthouse too and said that it was his favourite and was beautifully engineered. As a former professor of engineering that is quite a powerful statement. I was pleased to have been there with him and that he is very swiftly coming around to this lighthouse bagging concept.

PoF1
The unique Point of Fethaland lighthouse

From Point of Fethaland we could also see the island of Gruney to the north, which boasts a small lighthouse. With the wild winds the sea was looking pretty choppy, which added to the awe-inspiring atmosphere of the place. It’s truly beautiful and in a really special place.

PoF and Gruney
The lighthouse overlooks the island of Gruney

After we’d spent a reasonable length of time there we started our journey back. It was all going so well until Bob (our guide) decided to climb up a nearby hill and we ended up missing a gate and needing to climb over a fence. All was fine though and we all made it back safe and happy to have been to such a wonderful place. This was certainly one of those days when you are glad to be a lighthouse bagger. 🙂

A Shetland Adventure – part 3

Today has been a long day with many hours spent on the Compass Rose run by Muckle Flugga Charters, but I was able to visit a lighthouse that I would otherwise never have reached. I waited on board while the others in the group did their islands. There were no easy landings today like we had yesterday on Linga and Vaila so I thought I would stay on the boat until we got to the island of Balta.

We passed the lighthouse on Balta before we landed so I could see that the terrain was very easy going and it would be a nice stroll across. Landing on the island was fine with just a very small clamber onto the rocks initially. Bob had very kindly offered to walk to the lighthouse with me before heading off for the high point. As expected the walk was straightforward with no obstacles at all. It was all rather pleasant really.

Balta Sound1
Balta Sound lighthouse viewed from the north

The lighthouse, as is common in Shetland, is a flat-pack, but it has not always been. The original tower that stood here was built in 1895 and designed by David Stevenson, the last generation of the lighthouse Stevensons. It was believed to have been one of the first concrete structures in Shetland. Having seen an old picture of it on Geograph, it looks a little different from others installed at that sort of time. While many of the other towers of that time were cast iron, it perhaps says a lot about the location and its exposure that it was constructed from concrete. I imagine it can get fairly wild there at times. This tower was demolished in 2003 and replaced with the flat-pack that stands there now. It’s a lovely calm place and I was delighted to have reached it as when you see them from the mainland or main islands they seem almost unreachable. It turns out they are not.

Balta Sound2
The lighthouse seen from the south east

It was a great trip and while I didn’t achieve much in the way of lighthouses it was good to chat with the others, see a bit more of the endless coastline of Shetland and also to get some bonus views of both Whitehill lighthouse near Vatsetter as well as the Uyeasound light, which we visited by land last year. The adventure has certainly continued. 🙂