uklighthousetour

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

A lens special

Throughout my lighthouse “career” (if you can call it that), I’ve tended to stick to the towers. Not literally, of course, but I’ve not necessarily been distracted by the intricate details of the lights and how they all worked, the lighting sources, how the keepers lived – although I find it all very fascinating, and knowing some former lighthouse keepers now that area is of particular interest. In terms of visiting things though, it’s always been about the towers – until now!

I have a growing fascination with the optics, or lenses, that once projected the light out of the towers. Perhaps it’s because I’m seeing more of them or they are becoming less common with technological advances. Or maybe they are just incredibly beautiful. Whatever the reason is behind it, I am very much enjoying discovering lenses.

I had seen the former Inchkeith lens in one of the large halls at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh earlier in the year and a couple of weeks ago I got to see it again. Most people use the platform it sits on as a seat and probably pay it very little attention (and get in the way of my photos), but it really is beautiful. It is a first order dioptric lens designed by David A Stevenson and it served its purpose in Inchkeith lighthouse, in the Firth of Forth, for 96 years before it was replaced in 1985. It is accompanied by the mechanism that rotated the lens. I recently spoke to a lady who curates the lighthouse exhibits for the museum (more on that very kind lady in a bit) and she said that they did try getting the lens and mechanism up and running in the museum in the past, but there were a number of technical problems with it. They have a number of other lighthouse-related exhibits at the museum with a dedicated section including a couple of films related to the keepers and the trials and tribulations of lighting the Eddystone Rocks off of the South Devon coast.

Inchkeith lens

The Inchkeith lens

A few days later we found ourselves back in the centre of Edinburgh for a day. We were going to head towards the museum again, but our son decided that he wanted to walk up Carlton Hill to see the tower and buildings up there, so that was the decision made, up we went. We’d not necessarily planned to go into the Nelson Monument up there, but again the little man decided we would. As it was his birthday weekend and a bit of climbing up a tower is good exercise off we went. There are some great views from up there, including the island of Inchkeith where the lighthouse mentioned above can be found. It was back on the ground floor that we found an item of particular interest. Well, it was actually Bob who discovered it just as we were about to leave. It was the old lens from Rubha nan Gall lighthouse, just to the north of Tobermory on Mull. This one is a fixed Fresnel lens, named after physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel who invented this type. It was removed from Rubha nan Gall lighthouse in 2012. That was quite a good find as there is very little information available about this one being hidden here. I’m hoping that will change now though since I’ve seen it and am telling everyone!

Rubha nan Gall lens

The Rubha nan Gall lens

Now, this is where it gets really exciting. Back at the beginning of the year during a visit to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses I was talking to their Collections Manager, Michael Strachan, who is really into lenses and knows all of the different types, which I am still getting to grips with. His knowledge of lenses is extensive and he particularly likes the hyper-radial type (the biggest and most powerful of all, so it’s completely understandable). I can’t recall exactly how the subject came up, but I must have mentioned that I was planning on going to Sule Skerry this year and he informed me that the old hyper-radial lens from Sule Skerry is now in the possession of the National Museum of Scotland. A little while later I discovered that it was kept in storage at the museum’s facility in Granton. I was in contact with the curator at the museum, Julie, and we left it that I would contact her when I was next in the area to arrange a visit to see it.

Although I’d not forgotten about it, I did leave it too late on this occasion to contact Julie, but she did get in touch and managed to make it along to my talk at the National Library of Scotland last month. She quickly introduced herself after the talk and we agreed that I would let her know when I was next in the area. By this point I was becoming a bit obsessed with wanting to see the lens. To be honest I’ve been a little obsessed with Sule Skerry lighthouse in general since visiting it in May – or maybe the obsession began before that when I could only refer to Sule Skerry as “the place that cannot be named” due to getting over-excited every time I thought about it.

I did know that I would be passing Edinburgh at the end of last week on the way down to the Association of Lighthouse Keepers AGM in Hull. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to call upon Julie’s very kind offer to finally see the lens. Thankfully she was available and she also informed me that they are currently re-building the old Tod Head lens and mechanism next to the Sule Skerry lens – this was just getting better and better!

We turned up in Granton last Thursday and met Julie who took us straight to the large item store. There are certainly some large items in there. We skirted around the outside of them before arriving at the incredible lens that I had been so desperately waiting to see.  Needless to say it is huge and I would have quite liked to have tried to see how many people you can fit inside it, but there were only three of us there and I don’t think we would have been allowed inside it anyway. I’m guessing at least 8 people there. It’s just incredible and when you see the size of it and the profile of the tower it came from with its oversized lantern, I immediately wanted to invent time travel so I could go back and see it in action with its powerful beam sweeping around – probably as I get blown off of the island! I did try to recreate what it must have been like by walking around the outside of it whilst filming, but there’s no light in the middle anymore so it didn’t really work. The lens was built by Barbier and Benard and was first lit in 1885. It was removed from the tower on 23rd April 1977. I can’t seem to find any pictures of the tower with the lens inside, so I may need to do some asking around to uncover one. If anything the visit here has possibly made me even more obsessed. I think I’ll be ok though, but I’m now even more desperate to go back for a re-visit.

Sule Skerry and Tod Head lenses

The Sule Skerry lens with me to give an idea of its size. The Tod Head lens and mechanism can be seen in the background.

As expected, the Tod Head lens (another Fresnel) and mechanism were just next door to the Sule Skerry lens. This had actually been transferred here from the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. There’s still some work to be done on it, but it’s getting there and it was quite nice to see it partially constructed with some of the parts still left to go on stored close by. When you see the lenses fully constructed you don’t tend to think about how difficult they must be to build, but seeing them partially constructed gives a bit of an insight into how much of a puzzle it must be. Perhaps not so much in this case when everything is so clearly and helpfully labelled. What a job that must be to do though! It was great to see this one having recently been inside the tower at Tod Head. It’s nice to be able to link these lenses to their original homes.

Tod Head lens

The Tod Head lens (so far) and mechanism

Julie then showed us around some of the smaller lighthouse-related items they hold in storage, including a beautiful model of one of the old lights that was on the Eddystone (I think it may have been the Rudyerd tower judging by the shape of the tower. There was a 3kW bulb (or lamp) which was rather impressive, but the best bit (of the small items) had to be a small piece of lead. There is a story associated with this particular piece of lead and it relates to the Rudyerd tower built on the Eddystone Rocks, which was first lit in 1709. The story goes that in December 1755 the lantern caught fire at the top of the tower and the keeper on watch at the time, Henry Hall, attempted to put the fire out by throwing water upwards at it using a bucket. Molten lead was dripping down from the lantern and some of this lead dripped into Hall’s mouth and down his throat. Hall died 12 days later and the piece of lead extracted from his stomach is that very piece that we saw at the museum stores last week. It’s a very dramatic story and there is even more details about it and the lengths the doctor who extracted the lead went to following the incident on the Trinity House website.

Lead from stomach

The piece of lead found in Henry Halls’ stomach

Just before we left the stores Julie took us right to the back of the grounds where we found the old foghorn from Inchkeith, which she explained will be moved inside soon.

Inchkeith foghorn

The old foghorn from Inchkeith

What a fantastic time we spent with Julie. The stores are a treasure trove of various items and Julie is working her way through them, getting everything sorted out, dated, etc. It’s fascinating. As I said to Julie, when you go to a museum you have no idea that you are probably only seeing a relatively small percentage of what the museum actually owns or holds. This visit gave a great insight into exactly how it works.

For anyone who is interested in joining a tour of the stores then the museum do run monthly tours and you can find out more about them here. You can also organise a private visit like we did. It comes highly recommended. 🙂

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Sule Skerry: a birthday location

Living on the north coast of Scotland there is one lighthouse that, relatively, seems so close and yet so far away. For years I have been aware of Sule Skerry, which lies around 35+ miles north of the north coast and 40 miles west of Orkney. It is the most remote (formerly) manned lighthouse in Britain and has proven to be extremely difficult to get to. The only people I had known who had been there were Northern Lighthouse Board employees or guests – as well as my doctor who has previously been out with a bird-ringing group. Getting there was becoming a bit of a problem.

During a drive through Kylesku in August last year, Bob noticed a trailer advertising trips to North Rona and Sula Sgeir run by a company called North Coast Sea Tours. Those who regularly read my blog posts will know that we recently travelled north from Ballycastle in Northern Ireland to Kylesku in the north west Highlands of Scotland with North Coast Sea Tours. That trip was a result of our discussion with the skipper, Derek, about possibly getting out to Sule Skerry. Derek was happy to take us out there, weather permitting, and has since proven that there is very little he says ‘no’ to!

So, that was how we came to organise a week’s charter of the North Coast Sea Tours covered RIB in an attempt to get two groups (island-baggers and lighthouse-baggers) out to Sule Skerry. We chose the week of 20th May as it’s normally a fairly settled time of year, the tides times were right and my birthday fell on the Tuesday. Then we just had to hope for the best. The best clearly came on Monday when the island-baggers set off and arrived safely there within a couple of hours, travelling at a good speed most of the way. Bob was part of that group and when he got home that night and showed me the pictures my spirits rose at the thought that we may actually manage to land on the island too the following day.

Looking out of the window on Tuesday, which was incidentally my birthday, I saw there was significantly more wind than there had been the previous day and my spirits dropped a little. As we set off in the boat it soon became apparent that our good sea conditions luck was running out. It was an uncomfortable ride and about 30/45 minutes into the trip the skipper stopped and asked if we were willing to proceed, reassuring us that we would definitely be able to get out there, but that landing was very unlikely. I was disappointed, but we collectively agreed that we wanted to continue and if we had to settle for seeing it from the sea then we would do that. It was a long three-hour journey out there, but some of us settled into it after a while and there was great excitement as we approached the island and saw the tower. As we neared the island it became apparent that actually the landing areas were fairly sheltered. Derek asked for a few of us to go over to check out the landing area to see if getting onto the island was possible. I jumped at the chance to be in the first shuttle.

ss from sea

Sule Skerry lighthouse

We found a perfectly flat platform to land on and I gave a little shout “yes” once I was on the island. It was a pretty slippery landing area and the stone around the old tracks leading up the path were also slippery with some sections of the path broken over time. We made it to the lighthouse though, which was incredible. We had puffins just a short distance away to the left and, beyond the puffins, were a number of gannets. It is believed that these gannets have recently starting nesting on Sule Skerry after moving on from the nearby Sule Stack. We also spotted some bonxies as we reached the highest point of the island.

ss landing

Looking back towards the landing area

The lighthouse, although looking a little worse for wear in places, is beautiful. The look of the tower is very similar to the Flannan Isles lighthouse with the “oversized” lantern. While the lantern now only contains a very small light, when built in 1895 it had to accommodate a huge hyper-radial lens, hence the need for such a huge lantern. While these two towers (Sule Skerry and Flannans) don’t have the more elegant look of some of the others, I am a big fan of them. I think it helps that they are in very remote and beautiful places.

ss2

Sule Skerry’s oversized lantern

The shape of the buildings around the tower is really interesting. The tower rises up out of the middle of an octagonal building, which presumably was where the keepers’ accommodation would have been. In this way it is similar to some of the rock lighthouses, except the lower level of the tower is much wider. It’s certainly very compact. The tower itself also appears to have old bands on it. Whether this is related to the stone used to build it or a previous paint job I’m not sure (note: see explanation in comments below from Ian Cowe). There is also what looks like a large curved indentation across one side of the tower. Who knows what caused that, but this tower clearly receives more than its fair share of brutal weather. It’s very much still standing though!

tower

Looking up the tower, you can see the bands as well as the damage

We didn’t have long on the island as the conditions were fine for landing in a sheltered spot, but we didn’t know whether the swell situation would deteriorate any further. We wandered around the lighthouse, taking in the nearby helipad and very interestingly shaped weather station. We also went to the highest point of the island (it’s fairly flat really) and sheltered behind a little black hut, and both of these locations were good angles for taking pictures of the lighthouse. It was raining, which always poses a few problems when using cameras, and the wind was strong in places so not quite ideal conditions, but that didn’t really matter.

helipad

Looking towards the helipad and weather station

I was pleased to be accompanied by my friend John while looking around. John completely understood the significance of reaching Sule Skerry and what a rare opportunity it was. He was also just as excited as I was about being there. However, he was much more negative about the possibility of getting there during the bumpy ride out to the island, while I tried to remain positive. I am glad I was right, but I should say that I am grateful to John for his assistance with getting up the worst of the slippery slope on the island.

ss

Sule Skerry lighthouse with its numerous solar panels

Getting back down to the dinghy involved sitting down and shuffling slowly down the slippery rocks with the support of a rope Derek had tied on to ensure that if we did slip then we wouldn’t go far/end up in the sea. We returned to the boat feeling elated at what we had achieved, but at the same time with a sense of “did that really just happen?”. It certainly did happen and every minute of the rough crossing was worth it. The return journey, via the very impressive Sule Stack, was much easier and quicker as we were going with the swell. As I said on the boat, it really felt like we were just riding the waves as a surfer would. Great fun.

Sule Skerry lighthouse, in my opinion, rarely gets the recognition it deserves. People talk a lot about the rock lighthouses, the Flannans lighthouse and many others, but in my experience it is rare to hear people speak about this one. Whether it is because people cannot see it unless they are out on the Atlantic in that particular area, or it is deemed too remote to be achievable I don’t know. I know that I will be speaking about it for many years to come though. A trip that I will remember very fondly 🙂

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