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 🙂

To Skerryvore or not to Skerryvore? That was the question!

Back in June an island-bagging friend of ours started plans for a trip to Tiree in August, taking a boat out to a number of islands, but more importantly to Skerryvore lighthouse. Now, anyone who knows anything about lighthouses will understand the delight I felt on hearing of such a trip. We’d previously been out to Dubh Artach with Coastal Connection based in Oban. They had said they would be willing to take us out to Skerryvore, but this trip would take us out from Tiree, which would give us the opportunity to see the shore station, signal tower and museum at Hynish. Another boat trip for the same weekend would be heading north to Coll, taking in the Cairns of Coll including the lighthouse on Suil Ghorm.

We were short on a few people to get a boat-load and I had recently been in contact with the Secretary of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, of which I am a member, so I asked him if he knew of anyone else interested in joining us. Due to the short notice of the trip there were a number of people interested, but had other plans. However, one particular person was able to make it – a former keeper on Skerryvore!

We set off ridiculously early to catch the ferry from Oban to Tiree and were informed on the ferry that, although the trip to Skerryvore was originally planned for that afternoon, it might happen the following day. While the sea seemed calm at Oban, once we were past Mull we could see a change in conditions. On the boat we met up with Ian Duff, the former keeper at Skerryvore who was joining us. He had served there for 4 years of his career with the Northern Lighthouse Board, as well as Duncansby Head, Fladda and Sanda. If there’s one way to pass time quickly on the ferry journey from Oban to Tiree it’s listening to a string of fascinating stories from a former lighthouse keeper! We were to hear a lot of stories over the weekend, leading me to wish I had been recording everything Ian had said while we were there!

Once we had arrived, the organiser spoke to the boatman from Tiree Sea Tours, who were taking us out on the trips in their RIB. Tiree Sea Tours have only started running trips from the island this year and, over the summer have regularly organised trips out to Skerryvore when the weather has allowed. For us, we were hoping to get onto the rocks surrounding the lighthouse, which the boat company will only allow on a private charter, so that was the plan. The boatman said that they would meet us that afternoon to discuss the plan, with a view to running both of the proposed trips in one day as the swell was due to go down the following day. It was clear from the sea conditions that going out that afternoon would have achieved nothing, so we headed off to Hynish with Ian and Brian (the organiser of the trip).

Hynish signal tower
The signal tower at Hynish

The key buildings and features at Hynish are the shore station for Skerryvore, including the accommodation for the keepers’ families, the signal tower to/from which semaphore signals were sent to communicate with the keepers at the lighthouse, workshops and a man-made dock. As with Skerryvore itself, the shore station building and dock were designed by Alan Stevenson, who also oversaw the building work. Hynish was also the location from which the stone for the lighthouse was dispatched after being quarried on Mull and then transported by tender to Tiree. The shore station and signal tower at Hynish have not been used since 1892 when it was moved to Erraid, which was already the location of the shore station for Dubh Artach. Ian pointed out that Hynish was a better location for the shore station due to its proximity to Skerryvore lighthouse, whereas it was often not possible to see the lighthouse from Erraid. By the time Ian was a keeper on Skerryvore the shore stations for Skerryvore, Dubh Artach, Barra Head and a couple of others in the area were all located next door to each other on a single street in Oban – I imagine there must have been good community spirit there!

The museum at Hynish is wonderful and it was great to be able to visit it with Ian, who was able to point out that the old telescope on display was definitely from Skerryvore, but the clock wasn’t! We took a stroll up to the signal tower, which unfortunately was closed, and then we had a look around the dock that was built for use during the construction and servicing of the lighthouse. To visit a place that would have been so busy back in the late 19th century and which is now so quiet is fascinating. The world has changed so much and Hynish is a good example of how advances in communication and transport technology have led to the abandonment of places. Luckily, The Hebridean Trust have stepped in and have done some wonderful work there, of which there are details on their website. It is great to see everything that was built there either being maintained or used for another purpose.

Scarinish
Scarinish lighthouse

That afternoon we met up with Fraser and Kris from Tiree Sea Tours at the Scarinish Hotel, which confirmed that we would be hoping to get both trips done in the one day on the Saturday. It also gave us a chance to wander across from the hotel to Scarinish lighthouse, which used to be a more substantial structure (similar to Sgeir Bhuidhe at Port Appin, but hexagonal in shape). Now it is a much less interesting structure (for me anyway), but it wasn’t a lot of effort to get to so I couldn’t complain! A little later we went for a drive around the island and the air must have cleared a little as we got our first glimpse of Skerryvore from Tiree. Would we get there? – only time would tell.

Overnight I was hopeful that the wind would drop and we’d wake up to calmer seas and blazing sunshine in the morning. I was a little disappointed that this wasn’t the case, with the sea calmer but not flat and lots of cloud and light rain. We all got onboard the boat and off we went. It was bumpy from very early on as we began our journey out to Skerryvore, with there being little in the way of shelter on the pier. Not long after we set off the skipper decided to abandon the attempt and head north that morning, with the aim of returning to try Skerryvore that afternoon. My heart sank a little, but all was not lost as the Cairns of Coll beckoned.

Cairns of Coll
Cairns of Coll lighthouse on Suil Ghorm

After a stop off on Coll to pick up a man who had done extensive work in surveying the Cairns of Coll, we continued north. As we sailed through the many islands in the area it took a while before Suil Ghorm and its lighthouse emerged. It’s a wonderfully-shaped island, almost like the top half of a whale sticking up out of the sea – with a lighthouse on its head! The lighthouse was built in 1909 by David A and Charles Stevenson, who were responsible for a significant number of the smaller lighthouses, including the former light at Scarinish as mentioned above – particularly those that, in more recent years, have been replaced with the “flat pack” type. They were also the creators of some of the larger lighthouses too. We had planned to land on Suil Ghorm and there had been no indication that getting onto the island would be a problem. However, when we got there, the tide was fairly high with rocks just under the surface of the water all around the island. This meant we couldn’t get in close enough to be able to get onto the land without damaging the boat. I was happy to see it from the sea though.

That afternoon came the chance to try again for Skerryvore. The sea seemed to have calmed down a little and the skipper sounded slightly more optimistic that he’d be able to get us out there, but pessimistic about us getting off of the boat and onto the rocks. I was satisfied with that, as long as I could see it close up I was happy – besides, getting good pictures of lighthouses when you are sharing a rock with them can be really tricky. Ian had told us that, if he had been making the final decision as the whether or not it would be possible for a NLB boat or helicopter to land that day he would have said “no”, and he knows those rocks better than most.

Skerryvore2
Skerryvore lighthouse

We had a bumpy old ride out to Skerryvore, but as soon as I saw her pointing up ahead of us it all felt like it was worth it – and I knew that the return journey would be an easier ride. It is fairly widely reported that Skerryvore is often considered the most “graceful” lighthouse and there would be no argument from me on that. The Trinity House habit of replacing the top of rock lighthouse lanterns with helipads hasn’t done most of their wave-washed structures any favours, which automatically gives its Northern Lighthouse Board counterparts an advantage. In comparison to the Bell Rock or Dubh Artach lighthouses, which are both painted, Skerryvore’s untainted granite tower has more of a natural-ness to it.

While the sea to the east of the lighthouse (the side we were on) was relatively calm, you could see how rough things were to the west with waves breaking over the reef running north. Ian told us about a time that the Principal Keeper at Skerryvore had given the helicopter the go-ahead to land on the helipad (which sits on the rock next to the lighthouse), but after it had landed a wave broke over the top of the helicopter and damaged the blades. At the same time one of the other keepers was washed off of the rock and dislocated their shoulder. The coastguard helicopter needed to come and rescue both the NLB helicopter and the keeper. A pretty dramatic day!

Skerryvore1
Skerryvore’s helipad is located on the flat section in the centre of this picture

Another, more amusing, story he told was of a video he had made while serving on Skerryvore that he had shown to his mother. The video was of the other two keepers walking in circles around the outside of the helipad. His mother, understandably, asked what they were doing and Ian responded that they were getting some exercise and seeing how many laps they would have to do of the helipad to walk a mile.

Visiting Skerryvore was very special for me. It’s a real pinnacle lighthouse and takes me one step closer to visiting some of the more harder to reach lighthouses. This year has been a great year for that, what with the Flannans, the Monachs, Barra Head and now Skerryvore – it’s turned out to be a pretty successful year, probably thanks to the good weather we have had. The visit to Skerryvore, though, was made just that little bit more special by visiting it with Ian.

Skerryvore with Ian
With Ian Duff at his former “home”, Skerryvore

Ian spoke very fondly of his time as a keeper and the range of characters he encountered at the various locations. He described how Duncansby Head lighthouse was a big part of the local community while he was there, and that it marked the first time his wife had moved away from her hometown of Oban. It was also interesting to hear that he wasn’t too keen on the lighthouses on Oigh Sgeir and Sanda, which I think are wonderful. A particular point he made, which I’d never thought of before, was that he needed to climb three towers at Sanda in order to get to the lamp! Very true – I still think it looks amazing though!

For Ian, working for the Northern Lighthouse Board was more than just a job, it was (and still is) a hobby too. We had the pleasure of being invited to visit his house after arriving back in Oban and it is clear before you even step foot inside the door that he has a great appreciation for lighthouses (as I believe everyone should). While we were there I was amazed by his extensive collection of lighthouse books and we got to see the Skerryvore model that he had built during his time living in the lighthouse itself.

So, there we were – we made it to Skerryvore! A fantastic weekend 🙂