A very fresh restart to the UK lighthouse tour

It’s been, and feels like it too, a long time since I posted on here about a lighthouse visit. What day could be better to get back up and running than May Day. A new month in mid-Spring and a brand new challenge. By brand new I mean it quite literally with a visit to a one-month old lighthouse. In March this year the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) switched on their first lighthouse built in almost 12 years on Rubha Cuil-cheanna in Onich, just to the south of Corran.

The need for a lighthouse here was recognised due to the increasing use of Corran Narrows by cruise ships arriving at and departing from Fort William. It was in 2009 that the Corran Narrows North East light was installed just to the north of Corran for this same purpose and to supplement the well-known light at Corran Point. The North East light previously held the title for youngest NLB lighthouse.

A drone shot Bob captured of the Corran Narrows North East lighthouse yesterday

On the way to Onich yesterday, I was keen to find out the meaning of the name Rubha Cuil-cheanna. I established that ‘rubha’ means ‘headland’ or ‘promontory’. This is a word I’d encountered before in lighthouse names, and understandably so. ‘Cuil’ means ‘recess’ or ‘nook’, and ‘cheanna’ is ‘head’. The hyphenation in the name indicates that ‘cuil’ is an adjective giving an indication of place to ‘cheanna’. Based on this my very rough translation is ‘nook head promontory’. That’s a very literal translation of course and if we look at Rubha nan Gall on Mull, which translates as ‘Stranger’s Point’ then ‘nook head point’ might be a bit more like it. Either way it’s a very good description of the geography of the area as you will see in this picture.

The very end of Rubha Cuil-cheanna, clearly showing the ‘nook’ at the bottom

I’d spent quite some time looking at maps prior to the trip to work out the best approach. It seemed over land probably wouldn’t be ideal as there looked to be houses about. I know the Scottish laws make many areas very accessible, but it’s usually best not to push it and risk being shouted at, especially when we had the kids with us. A coastal approach seemed best. Onich seemed the obvious starting point, but again it wasn’t clear where you could park without it becoming a long walk for the kids. I also looked at a Bunree start from the caravan site.

The map also suggested that it might be best visited at low tide as there wasn’t much room for manoeuvre around the coast at high tide. Our timing this morning didn’t really tie in with low tide, in fact it was only 90 minutes after high tide. Knowing that our chances of success were much better if we left it another two or three hours, we spent a while playing about on the rocky beach (having thankfully found a great place to park up just above the beach – there’s an area for those in camper vans to park by arrangement too). Joe the Drone went for a spin and was the first to catch a glimpse of the lighthouse we were aiming for. We decided to find a park for the kids to have a run about in to pass some time.

Onich beach at high tide
Joe the Drone’s first view of Rubha Cuil-Cheanna lighthouse with Corran Narrows beyond

En route we drove along to the caravan site at Bunree to check out access from that side, although the map suggested the tide would need to be even lower to get along parts of that stretch. A sign on the gate at the campsite said ‘No visitors’ so without trying to find a long way around the caravan site that didn’t seem a decent alternative.

I spent a couple of hours being very impatient, desperate to be heading to the lighthouse but realising the longer we waited the better. We arrived back at Onich about 2 and a half hours before low tide and it was clear that the route was looking much drier so off we set. These things always take so much longer with kids in tow, stopping to pick up shells and rocks or having a bit of a whinge about being tired.

The start of the walk at lower tide
At the ‘nook’

All seemed to be going relatively smoothly until we reached the far end of the promontory where the water was still quite high. Bob went off to check how wet it was while we waited. As he returned from inland I knew that he’d obviously found an alternative way that didn’t require wading.

Rubha Cuil-cheanna from above with the water still high around the very tip

We all set off up the grassy slope through the trees and followed a track to a certain point where Bob went off ahead again to check the route before continuing on.

Heading off the beach
The view from our first waiting point was particularly good

We made it to a point where we could catch sight of the lighthouse through the trees, but we were still above the beach with no really clear route down. Again Bob continued along the track while we waited and he then appeared on the beach below informing us that we needed to go down the rocks where we were instead. The rocks were all fairly grippy, just a bit steep and so Bob manhandled the kids down one at a time.

Continuing along at the higher level
A zoomed in view of the first glimpse of the lighthouse through the trees with Corran lighthouse in the background
The route down the rocks, which wasn’t so bad

Once we were down on the beach we knew it was plain sailing and a short time later we arrived at the lighthouse. It’s a stunning location with magnificent views up Corran Narrows and over to the hills on the opposite side of Loch Linnhe. The lighthouse is quite a standard flat-pack style, but (like the Corran Narrows North East light) with the solar panels mounted on one side of the structure rather than separate. The lighting arrangements are particularly interesting with an All Round Light for the benefit of vessels heading north and three directional lights helping navigation through the narrowest section near the main Corran lighthouse. The tower doesn’t have a NLB plaque on the door as yet, but hopefully it will soon.

Rubha Cuil-Cheanna lighthouse comes into view (the NLB capitalise the ‘c’ in ‘cheanna’
Rubha Cuil-Cheanna lighthouse
Rubha Cuil-Cheanna and Corran lighthouses will clearly work well together
The view down Loch Linnhe from the lighthouse
The All Round Light is visible here with the back of the directional lights
The Rubha Cuil-Cheanna directional lights

Joe the Drone had a fly around too and captured some beautiful shots before we began the walk back. By this point it was an hour before low tide and we were able to get back around the coast. It was still quite wet in places around the end of the headland, but it was fine to navigate along the seaweed section. Depending on the tides, I would say it’s only really going to be passable 90 minutes or so either side of low tide. Once we were a bit further around we headed out to the shingle bar from which the walk back to the car was nice and dry.

A Joe’s eye view showing the status of the tide around the point

It felt like a great achievement to have made it there while it’s still so new. It’s another example of a flat-pack being a real adventure to get to, and it was great to have the kids along this time. It’s the first flat-pack for them both and hopefully they will see many more in the years to come. When sharing a picture of the kids with the lighthouse with a friend earlier their response was ‘And your kids will think they just do the same as everyone else on a Saturday!’, and then going on to describe the adventures with the kids as ‘delightfully different’. It’s not something I’d thought about as it’s just what we’ve always done. Hopefully they’ll continue to embrace it as they grow older rather than rebelling and losing interest entirely. Time will tell.

On the way back, as shown earlier in the post, we stopped just up the A82 from the Corran Narrows North East lighthouse and Joe took a spin to get some pictures, including this great one showing the whole area lit along Corran Narrows.

Corran Narrows from above with the North East light in the bottom left, Corran Point on the right of the narrowest point and Rubha Cuil-cheanna in the distance

I would highly recommend this walk to others interested in exploring the area and it’s been a really good experience to check out access to this one which won’t have been visited so much just yet 🙂

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 🙂

Loch Eriboll in winter

In these times of lockdown I am grateful for the vast landscape and small numbers of people we have living up on the north coast. Today was an opportunity to embrace that and go off piste for a winter return to Loch Eriboll lighthouse.

With the prediction of sunshine and very little wind, it was time for Joe the Drone to dust himself off and head out for a flight. Thankfully Bob’s mum has been staying with us in our bubble for a few weeks now and was happy to manhandle the children again so we could head out.

Loch Eriboll was the first of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s flat-pack lighthouses I had visited. That was back in 2012 and I walked along to it again in 2019 with my pal John. Each visit so far has been different and today was really no exception. The frozen bog actually made it far more pleasant and less wet than it was on my first visit.

This lighthouse, and Loch Eriboll in general, holds a special place in my heart. I can’t pinpoint exactly why that is, but I am fascinated by it. I suppose it’s a combination of it’s beauty, it’s geography and geology, and the part it naturally plays in maritime safety – being the last safe haven before Cape Wrath for ships heading west and the first point of safety for vessels after rounding the Cape. Some places you just feel a connection to and this is certainly one of mine.

The start of the walk is very much focussed on walking along the east side of Loch Ach’an Lochaidh with it’s lovely little islands. On a day like today it’s hard to imagine it being anything other than serene.

The tranquil Loch Ach-an Lochaidh

Once past the loch it’s a matter of heading in the right direction which takes you up and down, left and right as you avoid boggy sections and steep slopes. Thankfully much of the vegetation has died back which made it a lot easier to navigate.

This picture gives an idea of the terrain
Near enough all the water in this burn was frozen over
Loch Eriboll lighthouse with the entrance to the loch in the distance

Once close to the lighthouse Bob sent Joe up and I explored a little bit. I took a stroll along to a sheltered beach area to the south of the lighthouse. Sadly a lot of rubbish has been gathering here.

I then took the opportunity to sit down and enjoying the panoramic views to the north, west and south – with the occasional glance back at the lighthouse of course.

The view of Loch Eriboll during my rest
The view to the west
The view of the lighthouse to the north

Joe captured some really excellent shots. I have always been fascinated by the white marks down the rock in front of the lighthouse, which presumably is where some sort of acid was thrown down it before the structure was changed to a flat-pack.

Joe the Drone’s shot of Loch Ach-an Lochaidh
A bird’s eye view from the north east
Loch Eriboll lighthouse from the south west

A further short stroll took me closer to the lighthouse where there were some good views to be had from it too. I suppose the modern structure can’t really be compared to the natural beauty of Loch Eriboll and the snow-capped hills on west side of the loch, but if I’d not been out there to see the lighthouse I’d never have seen the natural beauties on show there.

Loch Eriboll lighthouse gets some incredible views

The walk back was just as enjoyable. The remains of the little house not too far from the lighthouse always amazes me. What an equally beautiful and challenging place to live. There’s a lovely little burn running alongside the house though and I really like the patch of trees close by.

The ruin with the lighthouse and entrance to the loch beyond
There aren’t so many trees in the area so it was nice to see these
Lovely reflections on the way back
The burn you need to cross not far from the parking area

A really enjoyable relatively short walk today, made better by doing it in such frozen conditions. I’ll get back to my reflections posts shortly. 🙂

A lighthouse adventure in Essex

After our short boat trip out to see Gunfleet lighthouse on Tuesday morning it seemed a good opportunity to revisit some of the Essex lighthouses – and introduce Bob and Joe the Drone to them as well.

Back in 2012 the Naze Tower had been my first stop on my lighthouse tour and I’d not been back since. Some may argue that the Naze Tower might not have been a lit aid to navigation, but it also may have been – and, more importantly, it’s a lovely place to visit.

The Naze Tower

Due to Covid-19 the tower is currently closed, but that didn’t matter as the sun was shining and it was dry. My lighthouse pal John had joined us and we were all pleased to be able to spot Gunfleet lighthouse in the far distance having been closer to it that very morning.

The Naze Tower is quite impressive and is clearly very well looked after. The beautiful brickwork is looking excellent when you consider that the tower was built in 1720. The tower had been somewhat neglected in the past, but the owners did some extensive renovation and, in 2004, it opened to the public for the first time. Presumably it needed, and will continue to need, some repairs and maintenance done on it – it is 300 years old after all.

When it does reopen, hopefully next year, you can see it’s 8 floors which feature an art gallery with exhibitions, and a museum about the tower and surrounding area. On top of that, quite literally, you get the panoramic views.

Joe took to the sky and, as usual, captured the glorious coastline. Seeing this coastline is always tinged with a little bit of sadness though as it really does suffer from erosion. There is evidence on the beach here that some measures have been taken to try to reduce the erosion in the area as you can see in the picture below.

The sea defences were clear in one of Joe’s shots
The view from above looking towards the south

There’s a lovely little tea room nearby too and we chose to have lunch outside on a bench before waving goodbye to John and continuing on our way.

Harwich awaited our arrival and this is quite a special place for those with any maritime interest. It is where Trinity House monitor their lighthouses from – as well as the Northern Lighthouse Board lights during evenings and weekends. Trinity House also has a depot and buoy yard here. It has its own two old lighthouses, a Light Vessel you can (under normal circumstances) look around, the Lifeboat Museum and an array of other points of interest that make up the town’s Maritime Heritage Trail. In addition we were able to see three more light vessels anchored off shore in the area.

Harwich High Light and the Harwich Town Buoy at the start of the Maritime Heritage Trail
Light Vessel 18 which is usually open to visitors

The two lighthouses here are no longer active and haven’t been since 1863 when they were replaced by the two Dovercourt lights (more on those in a bit). The low light has housed the Maritime Museum since 1980 and the high light is now run by Harwich Society as a local interest museum.

Harwich High Light

The existing towers replaced the town’s original leading lights. All of these lights were intended to work in pairs to guide ships safely into the harbour.

Harwich Low Light with the High Light visible in the background

Joe had a little fly around the area too, which is actually how we realised the light vessels were offshore.

An aerial view of Harwich’s harbour area with the three light vessels visible
The lighthouses in Harwich

Harwich is a fascinating place and it would be nice to spend some more time here getting stuck into the maritime history.

Just a short drive to the south we found the two Dovercourt lighthouses. On my original tour I’d seen these two at low tide and with high tide now approaching it was interesting to see the bottom of the outer light under water and the rapidly heightening waves splashing around the base of the inner light.

The lighthouses at Dovercourt

As mentioned, these lighthouses were introduced in 1863 to replace the Harwich lights. At the time they were built they were believed to have been fairly revolutionary in that they were of the new screw pile design and were prefabricated. A ‘causeway’ was introduced between the two lighthouses which can be walked with care at low tide.

Dovercourt Inner lighthouse

The lights were decommissioned in 1917 when buoy markers were installed to mark the approach to Harwich and since then have been through a period of restoration in the 1980s. Recent investigations have found that further restoration work is required to secure their future and it looks like this is in hand, which is always good to hear.

Dovercourt Outer lighthouse

They are quite unique structures and it was good to also see them from a different angle with the help of Joe the Drone.

Dovercourt Inner light from the seaward side
Dovercourt Outer lighthouse from above

Yet another day of doing a little more exploring and revisiting had come to an end. A very good day it had been and with it also being the last planned lighthouse trip of the year I was glad it had been a success and undertaken with great company.

Let’s hope even a little lighthouse visit can occur at some point before the year is out. Finger crossed 🙂

A change of plan in Dundee

This is not the blog I was expecting, or hoping, to be writing today, but it is a blog post which means lighthouses have been visited, so never a bad thing.

We’d planned to travel down to Dundee and head over to the Isle of May today to take advantage of the Doors Open Days, which would allow us to get into two of the three lighthouses there.

Book release
Collecting my book from Whittles Publishing

Before I begin on that though, I should say that I received a message from the publisher of my book, The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide, to say that my advance copies were now in their office. Of course, that meant that I had to head over to see them after work before we began our journey south.

What a delight that was to be handed a copy of my own book! It’s taken me years to develop and I have been looking back at the process recently in preparation for a presentation I am due to give in a couple of weeks. It really has been a labour of love. To get my hands on the result is so rewarding and entirely wiped out the frustrations and stress I went through in order to get it to where it is. Such a fantastic feeling!

Right, back to our weekend. The visit to the Isle of May was not to be as I discovered by email this morning. We needed a back-up plan and this came in the form of Dundee Science Centre to entertain the kids in wet and windy weather.

Stopping here also gave the perfect opportunity to catch up with my lighthouse friend Laura who had also travelled to the area for the Isle of May. It was great to see her and nice to test out a copy of the book on exactly the type of person it is aimed at. Laura went away with a few lighthouses to do today that she’d missed the first time around and I hope she got on well with them.

We spent considerably longer at the Science Centre than anticipated, but when we did drag ourselves away we decided to take a drive up to Montrose as the kids needed a sleep and I was keen to get closer to the rear of the two range lights in Montrose harbour.

On the way to Montrose we passed the old Whitehill (or Vatsetter) light on the approach to Arbroath. I’ve seen this one a few times, but having recently been to the modern light at Vatsetter in Shetland where this one was previously located, I now have an extra level of enjoyment of it.

Montrose
Montrose Harbour Rear lighthouse

A little while later we arrived in Montrose and thanks to my book, which had the street names, we easily found the lighthouse. It’s an interesting one. It’s quite tall, but fairly slim with a fairly small, red section at the top which contains the light. I wandered around in the dunes next to it grabbing pictures from different angles. I was surprised to see dunes there to be honest. It’s a very industrial area and the lighthouse is just next to a massive warehouse. When we spotted the sign saying “Beach access” close to the lighthouse I was intrigued. I’ve since found some old pictures of the tower when it was white at the top rather than red and it certainly looks like there was much more of a beach next to the lighthouse then with no sign of the dunes. Presumably the river is shifting the sand banks over the years.

The river runs next to the lighthouse and there were a number of birds floating around on the water until a massive boat turned up and they drifted slowly towards the side of the river. It was brilliant to see Scurdie Ness in the distance too. It was great to get closer to this one after seeing from the south side of the river a couple of times.

 

Montrose and Scurdie Ness
Montrose Harbour Rear light with Scurdie Ness in the distance

The kids were both wide awake by the time we were passing back through Arbroath so we decided to stop at the Signal Tower Museum for a quick look around before it closed. It has been six years since I was last there. Life was very different then. Bob and I weren’t married and had no children, but also it was still very early in my lighthouse days. I wrote about it in my post at the time of my first visit. I had forgotten that it was as big as it is, and that they had the film depicting the building of the Bell Rock on a loop in one room. I caught the end of it and was reminded of just how incredible a feat it would have been to build a lighthouse on the Bell Rock. The film shows the Robert Stevenson, or at least the actor who played him, getting emotional when the light was first lit. It made me wonder how much of that was artistic licence (I suspect there was). It must have felt like a great achievement, but I wonder whether the Stevenson’s dealt with their successes by celebrating or whether they just moved on to the next task.

 

Signal Tower
Arbroath Signal Tower Museum

Anyway, I digress, the museum is still just as great as it was before. In fact it is better as, since 2017, they have held the old mechanism from the Bell Rock lighthouse (not the original, although they do have small parts of that too). It’s in a side room with a light inside and the mechanism is still in good working order, so it was lovely to see that in action.

I have heard that they are hoping to temporarily open the tower itself up to the public soon. It has been closed for health and safety reasons, but they are hoping to allow people to get up there a bit more in the future.

Signal Tower internal
Looking up the beautiful Signal Tower staircase

We stopped off at The Bell Rock Restaurant opposite the Signal Tower where we enjoyed smokies – we were in Arbroath after all. When we left the restaurant we spotted the Bell Rock tower in the distance with the sun shining off of it. I’d love to get back out there again some day to appreciate it all over again, and possibly even more so this time.

Although today turned out differently to how we had hoped it would, it’s still been a very good day with some lighthouses crammed in too. 🙂

18 hours in Orkney

Another delayed post and this one follows on nicely from my Shetland Adventure last month.

After we’d booked our holiday in Shetland I was invited to present at the Scapa 100 event, marking the centenary of the scuttling of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow back in 1919, which still remains the largest loss of warships ever to have taken place on a single occasion. The talk was to be related to my forthcoming book, The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide. I was a little worried about it as all of the lighthouses were turned off during the war and only used when required by the Navy, so I wasn’t sure if it would be relevant to the subject matter, but I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity.

This invitation meant cutting the Shetland holiday short by a day, but it was easy enough to get from Lerwick to Orkney on the ferry and the best bit was that we would pass islands with lighthouses on them. When we set off from Lerwick it was the longest day so there was still plenty of light for being able to spot the two lighthouses at either end of Fair Isle on the way past. Fair Isle is very high on my priority list and I hope to make it there next year at some point. It’s a beautiful island from the sea and I’m sure it is equally impressive from the island itself.

Fair Isle
The perfectly formed Fair Isle

Also lovely to see from the ferry was Auskerry lighthouse, another one on my list. The ferry sails fairly close to it and I am now hoping to get out there next month – fingers very much crossed! Another one I have on my list for next month is Helliar Holm. Such a lovely little lighthouse. It’s a great shape and I enjoyed seeing this one from the ferry too.

Helliar Holm.JPG
Helliar Holm lighthouse with a midsummer sky – taken through the window

There was still a little light in the sky as we arrived in Kirkwall. I was particularly excited to see the Pharos, the Northern Lighthouse Board‘s vessel moored up in the harbour. Also part of the Scapa 100 event was the opening up of the Pharos in Kirkwall and their second vessel, Pole Star, in Stromness. I was even more excited about this as I’d managed to take a look around the Pharos in April and with the Pole Star being in Stromness, the location of my talk, I was hopeful that I would get a chance to get on board that one too during the day. I knew it would be touch and go as it was open from 1-4pm and my talk was scheduled for 2-3pm. I spotted the Pole Star in the harbour as I arrived in Stromness that evening and also got the pleasure of seeing both the Hoy High and Low lights on Graemsay in action.

The following morning I had a plan of what I was going to do before my talk. I had plenty of time to kill so I first set off to get a view of the Pole Star. It is quite a bit smaller than the Pharos, which I hadn’t realised before. As I was leaving the harbour I saw the ferry to Graemsay set off and felt very jealous of those who were going to spend the day over on the island. It is a great island and it would have been a perfect day for a trip over there.

Pole Star
NLV Pole Star

Being a little bit obsessed with Sule Skerry at the moment, following my visit to the island and lighthouse in May, I was very keen to pay a visit to the old shore station in Stromness where the families of the keepers lived when the lighthouse was manned. To get there meant walking the length of the main street through Stromness, which is never a chore. It’s got a really lovely feel about it and a lot of history too.

On the way along I was on the look-out for the old Northern Lighthouse Board depot. Until 2004 the Pole Star (not the current one, but its predecessors) was based out of Stromness and I knew that the old building and pier were still around somewhere. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find them, but I need not have worried as I recognised the buildings straight away, mainly due to the distinctive quoins around the windows. While the quoins are a different colour to the current bamboo/biscuit/buff that is so common among Northern Lighthouse Board buildings, it was obviously the place I was looking for. The building has since been taken over by the local Council so I wasn’t so keen on wandering around the area, but the view from the main street was good enough for me.

NLB depot
The old Northern Lighthouse Board depot with the entrance to the old lighthouse pier in the background

A little further on was Stromness Museum, which was also on the agenda for the day, but didn’t open until 10am so I continued along the coastal road. Once I’d passed the buildings on the right the view opened up across Scapa Flow which was stunning in the bright sunshine. I imagine that stretch of water saw its fair share of divers during those 12 days of Scapa 100 events. I was so busy looking at the sea and ahead to try and see if I could spot the old Sule Skerry shore station that I found myself at the end of the road and, turning to look back, realised I’d already walked straight past it. I continued on around the corner and walked past the back of the building first. It always feels a little strange to be taking pictures of someone’s house, but then if you live in a place like that then you would probably need to get used to it. It’s a really big building, which isn’t surprising really when you think that it needed to house up to four families at a time.

Sule Skerry shore station back
The view from the rear of the Sule Skerry shore station

Walking back around to the front of the house I discovered the true majesty of it. It is amazing and its location is fantastic to look up at and, I imagine, equally impressive to look out from. It is very similar to the old shore station in Breasclete, Lewis where the families of the Flannan Islands keepers lived. I noticed the old Northern Lighthouse Board design above the door, which again is the same as the Breasclete building. There’s a wonderful garden in front of the house and then, on the opposite side of the road there is a little gate leading down the a small pebble beach. What a wonderful place that would have been to have grown up – and all the while your dad would have been out working on the most remote manned lighthouse in the British Isles. What a way to live!

Sule Skerry shore station
The former Sule Skerry shore station from the front

Not wanting to hang around too long taking pictures of someone’s house, I began the walk back towards the Museum. I arrived there to find that there was some filming taking place and I was told that I could either look around quietly or I could go back again in an hour when the filming should be finished. I decided to go for the latter and found a cafe to stop at for a cup of tea. An hour later I began to walk back and happened to bump into Mike Bullock, the Chief Executive of the Northern Lighthouse Board. I’d seen him give a talk about the Northern Lighthouse Board back in 2017 when we visited their headquarters in Edinburgh during the Doors Open Days, but never met him to have a conversation with. We chatted for five minutes, during which time I’m quite confident he established that I am very much an enthusiastic “enthusiast” when it comes to lighthouses, particularly Scottish ones. I also informed him that I was the one who tweeted about really wanting to get onto the Pole Star that afternoon (a tweet he had commented on the previous day). He very kindly gave me a Northern Lighthouse Board keyring and pin badge, we said our “hope to see you later”s and I continued on to the Museum.

The filming was still going on at the Museum, but I decided that I couldn’t delay my visit any longer. They have a wonderful array of lighthouse artefacts in there, particularly relating to the lights in Orkney. While there aren’t rooms and rooms dedicated to lighthouses they have certainly packed a lot of information and items into the area they do have for it. For anyone interested in lighthouses it’s a must visit place, that’s for sure. By the time I’d finished looking around the museum the filming had come to an end so I was able to speak to the staff there. They were particularly helpful as I was keen to get someone local to the area to help me with pronunciations of place names ahead of my presentation and they certainly did that!

Old Hoy lens
The original lens from Hoy Low lighthouse in Stromness Museum

Once I’d finished at the Museum I just about managed to find somewhere to have lunch (it was very busy) without needing to go back to the same cafe I’d been to that morning. I also took the opportunity to add pictures of the Sule Skerry shore station and old depot buildings into my presentation.

Walking back across to the venue I saw people heading over to the Pole Star and for the second time that day I was envious, but still held out hope that I would be one of them too. I was taken to the room I was presenting in and we managed to set up in time for the audience’s arrival. I was pleased to see that a good number of people had come along, but it did also make me slightly more nervous. From what I could tell the presentation went well. I’d focused it specifically on the lighthouse of Orkney and added in some information about lighthouses in wartime and war-related lighthouse incidents in Orkney. It was structured as a timeline starting with the old North Ronaldsay light and ending with Tor Ness (the last one to be introduced) and World War II. People seemed to engage well with it and asked a number of questions at the end – a couple of which I wasn’t able to answer (but I later put the same questions to Mike Bullock and he wasn’t sure either, so that made me feel better). A number of them also came up to speak to me at the end too, which was lovely.

It turned out that a lady who lives in the old Sule Skerry shore station was in the audience. She said that they would really like to restore the old Northern Lighthouse Board design above the door, but aren’t sure how to do so. She lives in a quarter of the building and is the only one to have kept most of the old fixtures and fittings as they would have been when the keepers’ families lived there. That would be amazing to see. She did invite me back for tea, which was really very kind, but I was on the late afternoon ferry so didn’t have time unfortunately. We happened to meet again on the Pole Star, which I did manage to get to in time!

As I mentioned before, it is a smaller vessel than the Pharos with no heli-deck, but still great to get onto. I was chatting to one of the crew and said “You must have been to some amazing lighthouses” and his response was that he can’t keep track of which ones he has and hadn’t been too, which seemed crazy to me, but then again I am a self-proclaimed enthusiastic enthusiast! After looking around the bridge I started speaking to another member of the crew. Unlike her colleague she is a massive fan of lighthouses and we spoke for quite a while about her adventures on the Pole Star, my lighthouse tour and the book, which she is really excited about. Her suggestion that I go on a world tour of lighthouses and take her along as an accomplice was a nice idea, although I’m not sure how I’ll fund that one! I was really pleased to have met her. If I’d had more time I would have carried on standing around chatting, but it was time for me to leave Stromness and Orkney and head back home.

On board Pole Star
The view from the bridge on the Pole Star

It had been a fantastic 18 hours in Orkney. I’d started out feel rather nervous and wanting to escape to Graemsay, but actually ended the day feeling glad to have been part of such a fantastic event. The organisers put in so much time and effort and delivered such a varied programme. I wished I’d stayed longer to see more of it, but I had to get back home to hide away and read through the draft of my book. I got a seaward look at both the old Lighthouse Board Depot and the Sule Skerry shore station as I said farewell to Stromness from the ferry.

Lighthouse pier and depot
The old lighthouse pier and depot from the sea

Another really positive and enjoyable experience in Orkney. I’m growing rather fond it that place. 🙂