uklighthousetour

One crazy lady and a bizarre obsession = an ongoing tour of the best lighthouses the UK has to offer

The mad plan: Shetland – part three

Today was the last official day of the mad plan (we do now have the Clyde trip organised for tomorrow), but it was also the day where the mad plan caught up with me. It has indeed been a mad week: eight ferries, one boat trip, four flights, and – most importantly – over 20 lighthouses not including the distance bags. No wonder I’m tired.

Anyway, another factor contributing to my tiredness today was Bob’s insistence that we get the 7.10am ferry across to Whalsay. I obviously didn’t mind visiting the lighthouses, but did it have to be so early a start! His reasoning was that it would then allow us time to visit some more on Mainland Shetland before flying back to Aberdeen. How could I argue?! So, a 5.20am alarm call it was.

Off we set in the dark (I know, there are so many things wrong with this) and made the first ferry. Due to the irrepressible southerly winds we have experienced in Shetland over the last couple of days the ferry was departing from Vidlin, which meant a potential sighting of the light on Wether Holm on the way to Whalsay. Sadly, this was not to be as the ferry took a different route. The crossing was a little splashy in places, but not too bad. Not only did we have an early start, but our time was restricted on the island to 1 hour and 25 minutes (not by ferries necessarily, but by Bob – the man is relentless). So, 85 minutes to visit two lighthouses and hopefully allow him time to get to the island high point. Fortunately, Whalsay isn’t too big and the lighthouses aren’t too many miles apart.

Symbister Ness

Symbister Ness lighthouse

Our first stop was Symbister Ness on the south west coast of the island. Brian had very helpfully informed us that it was just on the other side of the quarry, which we skirted around. If anyone reading this is thinking that Bob is cruel then you’ll be pleased to know that he got wet feet on the way to the lighthouse (mine are still dry)! It was quite wet underfoot in places, but in general was straightforward. The lighthouse is one of the delightful IKEA types, which replaced a more traditional looking structure (more on the original a bit later). It was a nice vantage point for watching the waves crashing on the smaller islands in the area and on the rocks just below the lighthouse. Having spent just long enough there to take some pictures, we needed to return to the car in order to stick to the schedule.

Suther Ness

Suther Ness lighthouse

Suther Ness was our next destination. Again, Brian had offered his advice on where to park and we made sure not to leave the car in anybody’s way. Suther Ness sits in a stunning location, similar to Ness of Sound on Yell, on a small almost-island that is connected to Whalsay by a narrow strip of land. The sun was rising as we walked out to the lighthouse and who can resist that golden glow? We could also see the light on Wether Holm from here so we felt we hadn’t entirely missed out on that one. The original lighthouse at Suther Ness now stands in the car park outside the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh. The team at the Museum are doing fabulous work to give a home to the disused lights and optics. The current tower at Suther Ness is also a flat-pack IKEA. After two days in Shetland I had not managed to see any of this type at close range, so felt the need to make up for it today!

Wether holm

Wether Holm lighthouse

Again, sticking to the schedule we dashed back to the car and I encouraged Bob to make an attempt on the island high point as he’s not got a lot out of the past week in terms of hills. That good wife move almost backfired though as he only had a very short period of time to bag the hill before we needed to get back to the ferry, which meant he had to rush, so perhaps not as enjoyable for him as it could have been. But he got the hill done and we made it back to the ferry and just about squeezed on. We were particularly pleased to find that the ferry was taking its usual route back to Vidlin, which would take us past Wether Holm. We got fairly close too, so a nice end to our very brief visit to the island. I imagine there is plenty more to see there, but the other attractions will need to wait for another time.

Old Symbister Ness

The old Symbister Ness lighthouse

I mentioned earlier the former lighthouse at Symbister Ness. Well, unlike the Suther Ness light, this one has ended up in a more unconventional location – in somebody’s garden in Collafirth on Shetland Mainland. We simply had to stop by and see it. It is very much out of place, but makes you smile when you see it. It felt a little weird taking pictures of someone’s garden, but I’m sure they must be used to it. I mean, you don’t put something like that in your garden and expect people to ignore it, surely! It’s great to see it as you head north on the main road. I have informed Bob that I would like one in our garden, so I shall eagerly await Christmas…

The main aim of the trip to Shetland was to gather some pictures of its lighthouses and we all know variety is the spice of life. I had seen very distant pictures of the two Shetland Council-owned lights in West Burrafirth. From a distance they just looked liked a box with a small light coming from them. I really knew very little about them, except that they were 2 metres tall so I suspected they had doors and were probably a bit more substantial than they appeared online. These lights would definitely offer the variety I required so we headed for West Burrafirth and the inner light first.

West burrafirth inner

West Burrafirth inner light

Spotting it from the ferry terminal initially we then knew exactly where we had to go. It was a short walk to the lighthouse (Bob still managed to get his foot wet for the third time though) and I can confirm that it is indeed bigger than it looks. It’s still essentially a box with a light sticking out of it, but there’s more to it than that. Firstly, it is actually a building, roughcasting and everything! Secondly, the light is really quite interesting. If you look into the tube sticking out of the hole (I’m really selling it here, aren’t I?!) you can see the different sector colours. It’s all a little bit modern and you just never know it could revolutionise lighthouse technology in the future – probably not, but it’s a clever idea. I have decided to name this type a “light box” – it’s an affectionate term.

West burrafirth outer

West Burrafirth outer light

I’m not going to say I enjoyed visiting the West Burrafirth outer light as much as that would be a lie. This was where my mood really went downhill. I can only blame lack of sleep and food and I have since apologised to Bob for his having to put up with me. Anyway, this walk was slightly longer with a bit more up and down, but we got there. You may be interested to know that this one is slightly different to the inner lighthouse. The light doesn’t stick out of the structure, it is set in slightly. The door also has a wider pane of glass! Really, there’s not much to say about them, but I can’t recall having seen any like this before.

It was finally time for a quick lunch and we decided, on the way south, to stop off at Port Arthur to check out access to the Point of the Pund light. We found the gate and start of the footpath, but decided we didn’t have time for the walk today, so we abandoned a visit. We’ll be back for that one, but good to get an idea of the starting point.

So that was really it for today and we are now back on the mainland. With it being such a clear evening we were able to clearly see Fair Isle and the islands of Orkney on the flight back. What a time we had on Shetland. It was exhausting, but so worth it. We achieved so much more than I expected and that is, in no small part, due to Brian. I must also mention Bob’s massive contribution to the trip: all of the miles of driving, the wet feet and putting up with me. Finally, thanks to Bob’s mum for having the kids and enabling us to have such a mad week.

One more post to come tomorrow following our Clyde trip and there is a chance that will be it for this year, but what a year it’s been! 🙂

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The mad plan: Shetland – part two

A second day of lighthouse bagging in Shetland today, but how could we really have followed the success of yesterday? Well, the truth is we probably couldn’t, but that wasn’t going to stop us, so we ventured out into the wind and rain this morning to meet Brian not far from the ferry to Yell. Today has felt a bit like the grand tour of Shetland, although this morning’s weather was really not in our favour when it came to spotting lighthouses on the numerous small islands that surround Mainland, Yell and Unst. Our ultimate aim today was to reach the very top of Unst for a glimpse of the lighthouse that seems to magically sit on the rock that is Muckle Flugga, making it the most northerly of all British lighthouses.

With a little while to wait until the ferry to Yell, we drove into Mossbank and had a brief look at Firths Voe lighthouse from the end of the road. We’d seen it flashing (or occulting really) as we’d driven up the main road to the south west. We didn’t have time this morning to walk to it, but we will return at some point as it’s an easy one to get to.

Uyeasound

Uyeasound lighthouse

Once on Yell and driving north along the road that follows the west coast, Brian was informing us of all of the lights we would be able to see in Yell Sound if there wasn’t so much mist about. It was one of those mornings where you know it’s no use looking for something that’s any distance away. We were just hopeful that it might clear at some point. On the road north we saw the Ness of Sound lighthouse, which looks fantastic. A great little walk to do some day soon, but we were keen to get to Unst so continued the journey.

Arriving just in time for the ferry, we made the short crossing and decided to take a break from the car at Uyeasound to see the lighthouse there. Brian, having been to the lighthouse numerous times and not fancying the short walk in the wind and rain, very sensibly decided to watch us from the car. Uyeasound lighthouse isn’t your usual style of lighthouse, which is interesting for me! There are a few of this type dotted around Shetland and they are more substantial than they look when you are close up. It’s a really easy walk to the lighthouse and on a nice day it could be part of a really pleasant stroll along the beach.

Flugga shore station

Muckle Flugga shore station

Continuing our journey to the very north we were very much still in the mist. Brian wasn’t convinced we would see Muckle Flugga, but we didn’t want to miss the opportunity if the weather cleared a bit as the forecast was predicting. As we neared Burrafirth there was no sign of improvement so Brian suggested we stop by the old shore station for Muckle Flugga. The shore station itself is in a great location with wonderful views of the coastal landscape of the area. The old boat shed is still very much there and it gave a really good idea of how the boats were launched and where the keepers began the final leg of the journey to “The Flugga”. Part of the cottages has been converted into the Hermaness Visitors Centre, although that is closed at this time of year. Another of the cottages is self-catering accommodation. Just beyond the main building is the helipad. It would be a wonderful place to depart from for getting to the lighthouse, although Brian’s undertaking of that journey on so many occasions in the past has considerably dampened his enjoyment of it.

So, it was time to see if we were going to have any luck seeing the lighthouse itself from beyond Saxa Vord. Once we were up there it became clear very quickly that the low cloud simply wasn’t going to allow it. We decided to stay in the area though and try again in a little while – we weren’t so easily discouraged.

Brian suggested heading out to Holm of Skaw to see the most northerly house and I, of course, quickly pointed out that I recalled there being a lighthouse (the flat-pack IKEA type) out that way, which Brian confirmed was correct. On the approach to the most northerly house we could see the lighthouse in the distance. Interestingly, we learned from Brian that the dangers around the Holm of Skaw were originally covered by a red sector light within the Muckle Flugga lighthouse compound. The small building that housed this light is still there today, but the light was discontinued when Holm of Skaw lighthouse was introduced. Brian also informed us that Muckle Flugga was originally known as North Unst lighthouse.

After another quick and unsuccessful attempt at seeing The Flugga we decided to give the weather a little longer to sort itself out while we went for lunch. It was one of the most productive lunches I’ve ever experienced while we quizzed Brian, with mapping set up, for details of access to the lighthouses and the best viewpoints to see them from if they were a little more tricky to get to. Invaluable stuff, this. He really does know everything there is to know about Shetland and its lighthouses!

Flugga

Our view of Muckle Flugga lighthouse

Now, it was obvious that the sky had cleared by the time we left the very nice Final Checkout Cafe, so we went for a third and final attempt on The Flugga. As we got closer we were all feeling a lot more confident – I may have clapped with excitement at one point, something I do very rarely! Then when I spotted her (sorry, the lighthouse) as we came over the rise I might have squealed “There she is!” – something I do slightly more often, but not frequently! It was still a little misty, but the lighthouse was very definitely there between the two rising slopes. It wasn’t a view for getting stunning or detailed pictures, but I had seen it – or as Brian so eloquently put it, “eyeballed” The Flugga! I was, of course, very happy about this, particularly as we had tried and failed the first two times. You always appreciate things much more when you don’t succeed straight away, as was very much the case with the Flannans and the Monachs (I was getting quite used to our annual holidays to the Western Isles while we waited for the perfect conditions to get to them).

Satisfied, we began our journey back down the islands. On the way, and as a result of improved visibility, we were able to see the Balta Sound lighthouse, the light on Little Holm, Mio Ness lighthouse and The Rumble light beacon. A much more interesting return journey.

Eshaness2

Eshaness lighthouse this evening

We travelled straight back in order to see the final lighthouse that Brian had offered to show us: Eshaness. It’s a fair old drive out to Eshaness, but we were rewarded towards the end of the journey by views of the light flashing away, inviting us to continue on over and pay a visit. Brian informed us that once the light was on there would be no access to the lamp room. I was fine with that. With regularly visiting lighthouses, so often you are there during the day and don’t get to witness the light in action, so it was a great opportunity to do just that.

We sat with Brian for a while as he showed us pictures he has of Muckle Flugga, Ve Skerries (which you can often see at Eshaness flashing at night, but not today unfortunately), Out Skerries, Sule Skerry, Cape Wrath and the Flannans, among others. The pictures are fascinating and some have great stories to accompany them. While we were there a couple who run a lighthouse museum on Lake Erie in the USA joined us for a little while. After that we spent a while taking pictures of the lighthouse from outside before saying a very fond farewell to Eshaness. It was a wonderful end to another lighthouse-filled day. We have more time here tomorrow before our flight leaves so you can expect one more Shetland post coming very soon.

me and brian

Me with Brian

Leaving Eshaness also meant that it was time to say goodbye to Brian who had proven to be the most valuable of lighthouse tour guides there could possibly be. His experience and knowledge combined took his “tour” far beyond your average look around a place. He knows these lighthouses inside out and clearly has a real enjoyment of and enthusiasm for them. He’s also incredibly modest: I told him earlier that he was so helpful and great company too and his response was “I’m just me”. I will definitely be maintaining regular contact with Brian in the future. We’ve got a good new friend there! 🙂

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The mad plan: Shetland – part one

The mad plan for this week was introduced in my post from Sunday. We successfully completed the Jersey part of the week, and today the second half began: Shetland!

I’ve struggled a little with Shetland recently. Having never been there I was getting to the point with my lighthouse list where it felt like everything was miles apart with massively long walks to each of them. The reason for coming to Shetland for three days was to take pictures of some of its lighthouses, but after the first day it has already become one of my most exciting trips to date.

After just a couple of hours sleep last night and an early flight from Aberdeen to Sumburgh, I wasn’t quite bouncing off of the walls with excitement. That soon changed though as we spotted the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head flashing away as we came in to land. The start of our time here was also enhanced by meeting up with Brian who, in his “retirement”, carries out maintenance work on 37 lighthouses across Shetland. I had come into contact with Brian through my membership of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers and Ian Duff who joined us for the Skerryvore trip earier this year. Brian and Ian have known each other for many years and worked together in a number of lighthouses. Brian had very kindly offered to act as our tour guide for seeing some of the major lights, and he suggested heading straight to Sumburgh Head. I was, of course, delighted with this suggestion.

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Sumburgh Head lighthouse

Brian made arrangements with the Northern Lighthouse Board for us to go up the tower. The day was just getting better and better already! Throwing into the mix the fact that the sun was just rising made it even more amazing! The tower at Sumburgh Head is fairly short – one of the benefits of sitting on top of high cliffs, I suppose. This made it particularly pleasant to climb up. The optic and light must be turned off before anyone goes up there. It is a massive optic and, partnered with the views from the tower, made for a really special experience. He also showed us how the foghorn equipment worked and we got to witness him starting the engines, which he routinely does just to keep them up and running.

It didn’t take us long to realise that Brian is an absolutely master of his trade. He knows everything about Shetland’s lighthouses as well as so many others. There are only a few he hasn’t been too, and by all accounts it sounds like he was often specifically chosen to address problems with the lights across Scotland. He’s served in some of the most impressive including Sule Skerry, Skerryvore, Chicken Rock and Ardnamurchan and has stories to tell about them all. Watching him doing anything within the lighthouse at Sumburgh as well as the foghorn was fascinating. His attention to detail and his knowledge are outstanding. Definitely the right person to have around if anything goes wrong!

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The old Muckle Roe lighthouse with Sumburgh Head in the background

From Sumburgh we headed back down the road and stopped at the old Muckle Roe light which welcomes visitors to Sumburgh Head at the main parking area. Brian had already informed me that he and a colleague had re-built the tower in its current location – no mean feat considering most of the detail necessary to assist with building it had long gone. As if the day wasn’t exciting enough, we were able to get inside this little tower and climb to the top where we saw the small optic, more great views and got to spend some time in one of these lovely structures that I’d never had the opportunity to get inside before. I felt very privileged, especially as Brian had taken the time to show just the two of us around.

After lunch we hopped over on the very short ferry crossing to Bressay. As well as continuing to work for the Northern Lighthouse Board, Brian also does some work for the Shetland Amenities Trust who own both the old Muckle Roe light at Sumburgh and the old lighthouse at Bressay as well as the associated buildings. As soon as you arrive at Bressay lighthouse you know you are somewhere very special. I don’t even know where to begin in describing the coastline around it, and then with the lighthouse standing tall above it… There are really no words. If the geo and surrounding rocks next to the lighthouse weren’t enough, the tower itself stands not far away at all from a natural arch (known as the “Giant’s Knee” by the keepers). It’s places like Bressay that remind me of why I enjoy lighthouses so much. To actually explain why I enjoy them is tough – just go to Bressay and you will find out for yourself!

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Bressay lighthouse

Brian had warned us that the lamp room was now completely empty (the old optic can be seen in the Shetland Museum and Archives) and I was expecting to feel sad about it once we reached the top, but I felt anything but. Firstly, they’ve raised the floor level slightly making it exactly the perfect size of room for someone of my short stature. The views from every single angle are awe-inspiring and the acoustics inside are fascinating!

Standing around in the lamp room at Bressay was a brilliant opportunity to hear lots more of Brian’s stories from his days travelling the lights of Scotland. One question I asked which prompted numerous stories was “what do you think really happened to the keepers who missing from the Flannans?” He said that there is something very strange about the Flannans lighthouse and recalled various occurrences of things happening that made no sense. Some of the stories he told were particularly creepy, such as one of the keepers seeing a man in a storeroom and when he returned to Brian was clearly frightened. When they went back to the room there was no one there and the keeper pointed to the spot he’d seen this man and it was within a small area that always felt considerably colder than the rest of the room. Brian also felt like he was being watched sometimes when no one else was around. By this point I definitely wasn’t smiling anymore! There was one really funny story though when one of the keepers was outside the lighthouse on a very misty day and saw three man emerging from the mist and he thought it was the missing men. It turned out to be three fishermen from the Channel Islands who had landed on the island and wandered up to the lighthouse. We laughed about it, but it would have been pretty scary for him!

Anyway, I digress (very easy to do with Brian’s stories). We eventually pulled ourselves away from the lighthouse and took a drive up to the island high point in the hire car, as you do! It was quite bumpy and the road wasn’t really suitable for a Micra, but it’s still intact.

Before we left Brian for the day he had a look through my list and shared his knowledge of the best way(s) to access the lighthouses he regularly visits. There is no end to his knowledge!

Twageos

Twageos Point lighthouse

We decided to finish the day with a couple of stops off at some of the smaller lighthouses. Being in the Lerwick area anyway, the structure at Twageos Point was just begging us to visit. It turned out to be a very simple visit – the lighthouse basically has its own gate and a well-trodden path leading to it. In comparison with the lights we’d already seen that day it wasn’t the most amazing, but it has its own charm and was obviously built to be functional above anything else.

With just a short time left before the sun was due to go down, we obviously felt the need to cram in another lighthouse.

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Fugla Ness lighthouse

We opted for Fugla Ness based on it being fairly easy to access and not too far from where we were. The walk out there was a combination of easy grassy sections and big old boulders. Bob rushed off ahead with all of the abilities of a mountain goat to then have to wait for me to catch him up (or came back and accompany me along). As soon as I saw this one from the road I knew I loved it! The surrounding scenery probably helps, but it really is a beauty, sitting there on its own little grass and rock peninsula. I think I might just take that one home. I will let the picture speak for itself.

On top of the lighthouses we’ve visited, we also had distance glimpses of a number of other lights today, including Mousa, Hoo Stack and Moul of Eswick. We’ve seen the islands of Foula and Fair Isle too. So many islands still to do here…

I am hoping this post goes some way in conveying just how much I have enjoyed today. All of the smiling and fun of the day (and probably the lack of sleep last night) is catching up with me! We have another day lined up with Brian tomorrow. More on that tomorrow evening! 🙂

I should also note that, in my last blog post, I mentioned that we would be going on a RIB ride along the Clyde to catch a few of the lights there. For technical reasons relating to the boat we weren’t able to do this on Wednesday. It has instead been postponed until Monday.

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