Stroma with friends

Back in July 2015 I spent a few hours on the island of Stroma in the Pentland Firth. The blog post written about it was titled ‘Alone on an abandoned island’¬†as I joined the trip alongside a number of photographers whose target on the island was clearly very different to mine. This time I have called this post ‘Stroma with friends’ as I was most definitely in good company second time around. A number of my lighthouse friends were around this week for the fantastic Sule Skerry trip and they had all expressed an interest in getting across to Stroma if they possibly could. A few of them had tried to make it before on Association of Lighthouse Keepers trips to the North Coast, but had not managed for various reasons. After our trip to Sule Skerry on Tuesday the weather began to deteriorate and I spoke to the owner of the island that evening to find out what the likelihood of being able to get over there was. He asked if we minded a bit of rain and I, of course, said no. You can’t let rain stop you on these endeavours. He asked me to call back the following morning for a final decision. I must admit I wasn’t hopeful, but was pleasantly surprised when he asked us to be there for 10am on Wednesday morning.

We all gathered and hopped on board the Boy James at Gills Bay. It is only a short trip across to Stroma, but the Pentland Firth can be lethal. I’ve heard it said by too many boatman that it is very dangerous and you can certainly see, when crossing it, that it is a very disturbed stretch of water. Stroma, apparently, translates as ‘island in the stream’, which is something of an understatement when you discover that strength of the tidal races that run through the Pentland Firth, some of which are believed to have been running at up to 30km an hour. One of these tidal races is The Swilkie off of the northern point of Stroma, which gives the name of the point on which the lighthouse sits the name ‘Swilkie Point’. It seems that ‘Swilkie’ translated into Old Norse means ‘Swallower’, which is probably more representative of the hazardous tidal situation there.

Fortunately we made it safely over to the island, thanks to the great experience of the boatman who is also the island’s owner. He farms sheep on the island and has recently stayed over there for a month during lambing. I was interested to discover that he still has some lambs yet to be born, which I thought was quite late. It turns out that the reason they lamb so late (with pre-planning of course) is because it takes longer for the nice green grass to grow on Stroma and, as a result, the good quality milk produced by the ewes doesn’t come in until later than in many other places.

Stroma lh2
On the approach to Stroma lighthouse

Once we were on the island we had just over 3 and a half hours to explore. Of course the priority was the lighthouse so we set off, deciding that we would do anything else we wanted to see on the way back. I recalled it well from my first visit, not that it is a particularly difficult place to navigate around, but it was all very memorable to me, which can’t be said for all of the islands I have been to.

On the way to the lighthouse we could see the two towers on the island of Muckle Skerry, the largest of the Pentland Skerries, basking in sunlight as well as Cantick Head on Orkney and the beacon on the neighbouring island of Swona. Watching those lights come on at night must be wonderful to see from Stroma.

It didn’t take us long to arrive at the lighthouse. From a distance the lighthouse looks very similar to many others, but there are a number of small features that stand out. I was surprised by just how many gates they had going into the main compound and there were some small decorative touches that are often a good indication of a Stevenson-designed lighthouse. The presence of the old foghorn building as well as another oddly-shaped tower adds even more interest to the area. It is reported that the old 4th Order lens from Sule Skerry (not the original hyper-radial lens) was transferred to Stroma for use as the lighthouse was undergoing automation in 1996. The current tower on Stroma is actually believed to have replaced an earlier, non Northern Lighthouse Board, lighthouse of which there are no remains. Clearly attempts were made to address the hazards of Swilkie Point before it was brought up on a national level.

Stroma lh and towers
Stroma lighthouse with the old foghorn tower

The hazards in the area had not been limited to the sea though as a plaque on the side of the lighthouse honours the memory of John Calder an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper who fell to his death from the tower on 22nd April 1910. The plaque was placed on the tower by his family in 2010, 100 years after his death.

After we felt satisfied that we’d spent enough time at the lighthouse, we walked back up the path. We’d all spotted a building on the east coast of the island on the way to the lighthouse, which had drawn our attention due to the Northern Lighthouse Board colours, white and bamboo/biscuit/buff (apparently all the same colour, but it depends which supplier you get it from). We took a stroll down there. There was not a lot to see in the building itself, but just to the south of the building was an old pier and slipway with a rather rusty boat looking ready to be lowered into the sea at the top of the slipway. While I say the pier was old, it is in very good condition and the plaque part way along explains that it was build by the local community. It reads “1900. The foundation stone of this pier was laid by Mrs Carrow on 4th August” and lists members of the local pier committee. Clearly not much happens here these days with the fantastic harbour arrangement at the south of the island now, but it’s a great area to explore.

Stroma old boat
The old boat at the top of the slipway

We passed the War Memorial on the way back, which is a beautiful piece of art made up of stones of various shapes and sizes. Considering Stroma is only a small island, the memorial features a lot of names. Both wars must have been a real blow to the community on the island. It is yet another reminder of how close the community must have been before the last residents left in 1962.

Stroma wm
Stroma’s War Memorial

Stroma does feel remote, although you are not far from mainland Caithness. There is a similar feel on a number of abandoned islands. Aside from St Kilda, a lot of these places weren’t so far away, but still have a sense of isolation, but certainly not a bad one.

The weather had been kind to us until we were making our way back to the harbour and by that time the wind and rain was on our backs. We arrived back at the harbour just before the owner did and we all hopped on board the boat back to the mainland, waving a fond farewell to the island.

Last time I had been over I was not aware of having sailed close to the beacon off of the south coast of the island, but we certainly did on the way back this time. I imagine it was to enable us to work best with the current. It was nice to see the beacon from a lot closer, although I discovered later that evening when I got back home and showed my picture to Bob that the beacon must have changed since 2015. Below are two pictures, before and after, to illustrate the change.

Stroma beacon old
The beacon in 2015
Stroma beacon
The beacon as it is today

Another fantastic day on Stroma and one that has actually made me even more desperate to visit again to explore even more of the island. A really wonderful place ūüôā

Alone on an abandoned island

I spent¬†Sunday on Stroma, a small island just north of Gills Bay in Caithness. The island was doing quite nicely, population-wise, in the early 1900s, but¬†as the years passed residents began to leave due to its¬†lack of opportunity, increasing economic¬†problems and it’s isolation from the rest of Caithness. The final native residents left in 1962, leaving only the lighthouse keepers until the lighthouse was automated in 1997. The island is now owned by the Simpson family who graze sheep and cattle there. They also, very kindly, will take groups of people across to the island for a day to have an explore. We have a trip booked for the end of August, but an opportunity came up for Sunday, so¬†Bob and I¬†decided one of us would go¬†on this trip¬†and the other could go later. I drew the “long straw” and got Sunday, so off I went this morning to catch the boat.

Just one of the derelict houses
Just one of the derelict houses

We left Gills Bay and a short time later,¬†arrived at the harbour. I was quite impressed by the piers they had there. Not something you’d expect to see on a island with no inhabitants! My first priority was to reach the lighthouse on the north point of the island, which I’d previously only seen from the ferry to Orkney. I set off on the path leading straight up. Almost immediately the derelict houses appeared, all in varying states – some with their roof and windows semi intact and others with no roof, windows and barely any walls¬†at all. As I walked along¬†I heard a gentle hum from behind which grew louder and louder. I turned and saw a man approaching on a quad bike. I stepped aside to let him pass and he joked ‘Cannae move fae the traffic!’ and continued merrily on up to one of the only houses that still looks intact. This house sits just next to the old manse which has a bit of a run down telephone box in front of it – a reminder that it wasn’t too long ago that¬†the island¬†was populated. A little further on is a memorial for those from Stroma who lost their lives in First and Second World War. I then followed a couple of sheep who led me (ran away from me) almost all the way to the lighthouse.

Swilkie Point lighthouse and the foghorn buildings
Swilkie Point lighthouse and the foghorn buildings

The lighthouse is a typical Stevenson creation – a bit of a beauty. There is now a helipad next to the compound for the Northern Lighthouse Board to get easy and quick access to the lighthouse. They built a pier a short distance away on the east coast of the island for bringing in supplies when it was manned and it’s possible to see a building near this pier that has a very Northern Lighthouse Board-look about it (white building with yellow/beige-colour decorative stonework). Between the lighthouse compound and the coastline there are two stone structures. I was aware that there was previously a foghorn there, a fact which was confirmed by the presence of a warning sign saying ‘Noise’ near the lighthouse. These two structures are both different shapes and I’m not entirely sure whether they were both foghorn related or if one of them served another purpose. I was able to walk into both of them, although there’s not a great deal to see. At this section of coastline there are large, flat platforms of rock beyond which you can see a great deal of movement in the sea where different tides meet and clash. It’s a great little spot.

The Gloup
The Gloup

From the lighthouse I took a quick look at a geo on the east coast before heading back inland.¬†On the way I passed a ruined house with no roof. Inside the grass was growing and I spotted a baby gull in the corner shortly before it’s mother threatened to dive-bomb me! I found the¬†main path again and decided to head to the west coast to take a¬†look at the Subterranean Passage and¬†The Gloup. Due to the¬†sheer¬†cliffs and the state of the coastline I¬†didn’t see a great deal of the geo at the entrance to the Passage as I wanted to make sure I didn’t end up at the bottom! The Gloup is fantastic. It’s a huge hole in the ground that is linked to the coast by a tunnel that runs under the ground out to the Passage entrance.¬†A stunning thing to see, especially the vertical, flat cliff¬†above the tunnel entrance.

The wrecked Golden Promise
The wrecked Golden Promise

From The Gloup I went to head back to the path, but then realised that I wasn’t far at all from “Loch Lomond”, which was created by the island’s residents in order for them to sail model boats. There were a few little birds running about near the water. It wasn’t long after this, while attempting to head back to the manse, that I spotted a couple of great skuas. Having been to a few obscure¬†islands in the last couple of years, I was aware that these aren’t the type of bird that you’d want to take home! Instead of reaching the manse, I hugged the coast to avoid being attacked by one of the beasts. On another section of flat rock, I spotted a wrecked ship, the Golden Promise, which I have since found out was wrecked in September 2011 after its skipper fell asleep. Everyone had been rescued, but the boat is rusting away there now.

The boat arriving to collect us
The boat arriving to collect us

I finally reached the path again and quickly wandered along to the highest point of the island, making sure that there were no skuas about. I then walked along a stretch of the south coast of the island before watching seals in the sea from a nice little beach near the harbour. As I wandered around the south of the island I could see the movement of the tide as the stretch of sand between the south west point of the island and the interesting beacon just off of the coast appeared and then disappeared again.

I had a great day on Stroma, although I realised how much I’m now used to going to this type of place with Bob and not alone. The place has a lonely feel about it when you’re on you own. Although there were about 13 others on the trip, for the majority of the time we were there, I couldn’t see any of them. This may have been because they wanted to get pictures of puffins and I had other priorities. One thing that I felt particularly moved by while there were the measures people had taken to weather-proof their houses while they were occupied, such as walls around their gardens and doors on the sides of porches to protect them from the wind.¬†It¬†must have been a very sad day for each of the families when they left, knowing that these measures would no longer matter and the houses would be at the mercy of the weather from that day.

What I found most interesting about the visit, though, was the transition from the sadness I felt about this place in seeing all of the abandoned houses to the realisation that, while there are no humans left, there is a great deal of life still there. There are birds¬†or sheep everywhere you look and, while they may not always be there, during this visit there was no shortage of animal life. It’s a great place and¬†I hope to be able to visit again in the future to see the bits I missed this time ūüôā