Going Forth at the crack of dawn

I’m not really a morning person, but when there is something worth getting up at 2.45am for then I will do what needs to be done to make the most of an opportunity. Bob had managed to arrange a boat charter for us today from Burntisland for a bit more of an explore on the Firth of Forth. To ensure we could make the most of high tide it meant getting on board Calypso Marine’s RIB Alert at 5.30am (allowing a two-hour drive over from Ayrshire), before the sun had even risen. We had a bit of a laugh about how early it was with Stewart and Leanne who were taking us out and then climbed on board and off we went.

Setting off from Burntisland gave us a good opportunity to see how the west pier head light is looking after being struck by a ship and the lantern knocked off in January this year. Sadly it’s still not been repaired yet. However, at this point it was still quite dark so at least I got to see it in action.

Leaving Burntisland with the damaged lighthouse flashing away

It was great to be out on the water, heading west along the Forth, seeing lights flashing all around. Although mainly buoys it was good to see Oxcars Lighthouse operating and also see its red sector light too as we sailed away from it. Seeing the bridges too was also fantastic, with the incredible rail bridge, the road bridge (home to little Inch Garvie Lighthouse) and the new bridge, also known as Beamer Memorial Bridge (because the lighthouse on Beamer Rock was removed to make way for the bridge – I should add it’s not officially called that at all).

With the big chimney at Longannet edging closer I knew it wouldn’t be long until we arrived at Grangemouth, our first stop for the day. At the west of the entrance to the River Carron there is what looks like a very large cairn with a modern light and solar panel on top. This was significantly bigger than I expected it to be, but it wasn’t what I’d come for.

The light (or lit oversized cairn) at the entrance to the River Carron

The main point of interest for me was the old lighthouse opposite, which is just outside to boundary of the Ineos complex. I’d known not to expect much here. There are a small number of pictures about of it from the past thirty or so years, including this one, and also a couple (here and an artist’s impression here)showing how it looked when it was operational. I had partly been expecting just a big piles of rocks so was nicely surprised to see that there was something that still vaguely resembled a lighthouse, though a derelict one.

The remains of Grangemouth Lighthouse

It’s really sad to see the state it’s in now with parts of the walls fallen away and it just generally looking like a very unsafe structure. It’s devastating really how it’s been left to just gradually be destroyed now it no longer serves its purpose.

The former entrances to Grangemouth Lighthouse
A piece of rock dangling from the old handrail on Grangemouth Lighthouse

Very aware of our close proximity to the Ineos complex, Bob put Joe the Drone up and got some shots keeping clear of their boundaries.

The ruined Grangemouth Lighthouse from above

After I’d been manhandled back on to the boat with a push from behind by Bob and a pull up from Leanne we were ready to continue our journey. I left Grangemouth Lighthouse behind, feeling very glad that I’d made it there and put in the effort. I wonder how many more generations of lighthouse baggers will be able to do so.

With the rising sun in our eyes we began our return journey. Stewart and Leanne very kindly offered to sail us close to Inchgarvie Lighthouse on the way. It’s always seemed so small before, dwarfed by the infamous rail bridge, but when you get a closer look it is actually a good sized structure. It’s clearly had a bit of weathering over time but is still a perfect example of what I like to call a ‘lantern on legs’.

Inch Garvie Lighthouse
Inch Garvie Lighthouse under the Forth Rail Bridge

There was just time on the way back for Joe the Drone to take a quick flight around the very understated Oxcars Lighthouse.

A Joe the Drone’s eye view of Oxcars Lighthouse

I see Oxcars as the east coast’s equivalent of Skervuile near Jura on the west coast. Fairly little known, particularly outside of lighthouse circles, but still as much of a rock structure as the big ones like Skerryvore and Bell Rock – just not quite so far out to sea.

Oxcars Lighthouse at sunrise

I’ve found in recent years that revisiting places does increase your appreciation of them. Yes, it’s nice to pick off all lighthouses in an area in one trip, but it’s only by going somewhere a few times you notice some of the smaller details and start to familiarise yourself with a place. Today was my fifth time out on the Forth, but the first time I’ve truly appreciated how unique it is. To be going underneath those three bridges with an array of variously shaped islands ahead of you, from the ship-shaped Inchmickery, to the relatively vast Inchkeith, to the very recognisable lump that is Bass Rock in the distance, the Forth is unique in possessing so many islands, particularly as it’s on the east coast. It’s also got plenty of interest for those into history (particularly military) and scientific study. With it’s close proximity to Edinburgh, it’s been used as a playground for many inventors throughout the years, from testing the strength of lighthouse lens, foghorn trials and even paint sampling to establish the best exterior paint to use in marine environments, there’s been a lot going on in the Forth for many years.

The islands of (left to right) Inchkeith, Inchmickery (built up to resemble a warship) and Bass Rock in the distance

As we returned to Burntisland we had a clearer view of the damaged lighthouse.

Burntisland West Pier Head Lighthouse minus its lantern

After a coffee, freshly baked pain au chocolat and chat on board Stewart’s bigger boat, Pathfinder, we set off for Methil where I had some improvement work to do. Back in 2012 I was a lazy lighthouse bagger and if I couldn’t see a lighthouse very well I wouldn’t put in much effort. Methil was one of these. It isn’t actually very easy to see at all with so much of the harbour inaccessible to the general public. Last time I’d seen it from quite a distance so it was time to rectify that while in the area.

Parking up in an industrial area we set off on foot for the longest pier in the world (no, sorry, in Methil). We still hadn’t seen the light at this point and didn’t for some time to come. We wandered along a grassy mound and then down onto the pier which may have technically been closed to the public. This rule is clearly not abided by very often, although you can see why the rule has been made as one section of the pier in particular has been partially washed away.

The most damaged section of the pier in Methil

Onwards we continued, and by this point I was wondering whether or not the lighthouse was still there at all as it still hadn’t come into view. Thankfully I spotted the top of the lantern over the sea wall a short while later and then there it was.

Finally approaching Methil Lighthouse

The tower is no longer operational as a lighthouse. It’s only function now seems to be to hold the solar panels for powering the replacement light on a stick which is just in front of the old structure.

Methil Lighthouse with the new ‘light on a stick’

After a few quick pictures and a short flight by Joe the Drone we set off back along the heavily weathered pier.

Methil harbour from above

While doing some research into Grangemouth Lighthouse I’d come across some pictures of what seemed like an interesting structure worth closer inspection at Burnmouth. It meant a detour but, being the Lighthouse Detective I am, I just had to look into it. On the way there we happened to stop for lunch not far from Barns Ness so a bit of time there was required.

Barns Ness Lighthouse

I never give Barns Ness the credit it deserves. I visited it on my 2012 tour and, although it was nice to see, the low lying land it’s on didn’t wow me in the same way many of the others did. As I mentioned above though, the more you visited a place the more you enjoy it (with a few exceptions, of course) and I did really enjoy seeing Barns Ness and wandering around a bit more this time.

Barns Ness Lighthouse and cottages
Barns Ness Lighthouse tower

There’s a flying exclusion zone in the area due to Torness Power Station so Bob wandered off along to beach to where he could legally fly Joe the Drone and get some nice distance shots of the lighthouse and landscape. I used the spare time very wisely, having a lie down on the grass next to the beach and enjoying the peace, fresh air, sunshine and sound of the sea. My spot also offered great views across to Bass Rock which, as always, was looking fantastic.

Barns Ness from above

Half an hour down the road we made it to Burnmouth. Neither of us had been there before and it’s a beautiful little place. A real harbour, a fishing village as it should be. There were local men sitting around on the pier having a chat and some beautiful memorials to a local fishing disaster that occurred on 14th October 1881, where five boats carrying 24 local men were lost during a storm.

One of the memorials in Burnmouth to those lost in the 1881 disaster

From the moment we parked up I was fairly confident the little structure at the end of the east pier wouldn’t qualify as a lighthouse. We walked along the pier and climbed the very high steps up to it. It’s certainly not the same structure as before as it’s now just a hollow round metal tube with a cap on top. What I imagine has happened is that the old light was redundant and in a bad state, so it was replaced with something similar that was never intended as a navigational light. Something similar has happened with the light structure in Cullen. I think it’s great to see as it often shows how much the community values these small but important little features in their community.

The replacement structure on the end of the pier in Burnmouth

There may not have been an exciting new lighthouse in Burnmouth, but it’s a great place with a really lovely feel about it. Sometimes it’s nice to go somewhere different and change your focus a bit. Quite often you find the unexpected there 🙂

A final note from Shetland – and the challenges with lists

It’s been the final full day in Shetland today, ending a 10-day period of absolute perfection in terms of achieving everything I wanted to. With only three days of no boat trips, plus an extra day for me to spend with the family, there was just enough time to get to the land-based lights I had left to visit.

After the visit to Peerie Bard, home to Mousa Lighthouse, yesterday I have now visited all of the modern flat-pack (SPLAT) lighthouses in Scotland. There are a few I’ve not been close enough to touch yet, but have seen at very close range.

There was one, however, that had been mentioned to me and I’d not included on my list: Head of Mula. This one was built of the same aluminium framework as the flat-packs, but if didn’t have the white cladding on it, which to me is an open structure and therefore not meeting the criteria for inclusion on my list.

I mentioned Head of Mula to my lighthouse pal John and he was keen to see it. I thought it was definitely worth going along to check it out too, given that I am such a fan of the flat-pack type. It looked to be only a short walk from the ferry terminal on Unst. I wasn’t wrong. It is very easily accessed by following the main road north of the terminal for a short distance and then taking a right turn at a track heading uphill.

The track up to to Head of Mula

The track was great and after just a few minutes we spotted the top of the light just above an old wall ahead.

The light on Head of Mula

Beyond the lighthouse there were the remains of abandoned houses and it was really quite strange to be seeing such old buildings against the backdrop of a relatively new light structure.

The new light and the old building

The tower was exactly as had been described to me. This was where it got tricky though as the debate was then on as to whether or not it did qualify for my list. Is it possibly for someone to be enclosed within it? Not really. Someone could certainly step inside the frame, but they would still be completely exposed to the elements and visible to anyone on the outside. Therefore it doesn’t meet the criteria, but here is where the challenge has always been for me in preparing a definitive list of lighthouses.

Head of Mula Lighthouse (as the Northern Lighthouse Board plaque on the door says)

I always wanted my list to be objective and based entirely on what did or didn’t meet the criteria. I am well aware that one lighthouse may mean a lot to one person and very little to another. I’ve seen plenty of subjective lighthouse lists for Scotland out there and they usually feature the biggest and most impressive of the Stevenson lighthouses, often leaving out the smaller lights that (in my option) are just as enjoyable to visit – if not more so in some cases – as the large ones.

For me one of the big appeals of the flat-pack lighthouses has always been the beautiful places they take you to. Often places rarely explored by the masses and this too is the case at Head of Mula. The views here are fantastic, particular looking south/south east towards the Loch of Heogland and Holm of Heogland close in and then beyond to Fetlar.

The view to the south east

Looking west over Bluemull Sound was also excellent and the ferry moving back and forth between Yell and Unst was a regular reminder that civilisation was just down the track.

The view to the west

The light at Head of Mula has everything going for it that most flat-pack lighthouses have, except the white cladding. We jokingly referred to it all day as the ‘naked flat-pack’ due to its lack of white cladding “clothes”.

A closer look at Head of Mula

Thinking about my list, there are some lighthouses on there that I would be more than happy not to visit again, usually due to their location, but I’d happily stroll back up to Head of Mula again. This is where I feel a little envious of those who have their own personal list and can add/take away anything they please. From the point of view of The British Lighthouse Trail though, I need to be less subjective and not adjust it to become a list of lighthouses I personally think people should visit – although I do think that would make an excellent list.

The final decision on Head of Mula then? I’m going to have to say that the jury is still out. In terms of meeting the definition it’s a no. But if I think it’s important that people get to hear about it and visit it then absolutely yes. If any readers have any thoughts on this then do feel free to share these below in the comments.

The plaque on the lighthouse door

Back to Shetland though and, as mentioned in yesterday’s post, the past 10 days have really been made so successful by the crew on the two boats we have used. Kevin, Michael and Alan on Lysander and the wonderful aluminium tender were exceptional. Magnie and John on the Papa Stour and Ve Skerries trip were more than happy to get us wherever we wanted to go too. It makes such a difference to have boat crew who enjoy their time out with the baggers. It was a real pleasure to spend time with them all.

That’s it for another trip. I’m not sure where the next one will be yet, but I shall be sure to take my followers on here along wherever it is and report back. 🙂

Next stop: Out Skerries

It’s been another day onboard Lysander in Shetland today and it’s really starting to feel like home now. With Michael the fantastically knowledgeable and friendly skipper, and the equally knowledgeable and skilled tender skipper Alan, we have been in very good hands.

My first lighthouse stop of the day was Wether Holm. We were informed by Alan that ‘wether holm’ is the name given to islands where the sea gets shallower and breaks on the island. There are plenty of Wether Holms about in Shetland, but only one of them has a lighthouse. This is a flat-pack lighthouse and after we were dropped off it was just a quick stroll up to it. There were nice views across to Whalsay from the lighthouse including Suther Ness Lighthouse just across the water.

Wether Holm
Wether Holm Lighthouse
Wether Holm Lighthouse and you can just make out Suther Ness Lighthouse on Whalsay in the background

After we left the island Joe the Drone went for a fly and got some great aerial shots of the island and surrounding area.

Wether Holm from above
The tiny Wether Holm Lighthouse in a grand landscape

Next we landed on Inner Holm of Skaw. There’s no lighthouse here, but we were told that there were stories suggesting there was a human skull to be found near the cairn on the island. This intrigued us all so we took the opportunity to have a hunt for it, and with success too. Lying under a flat round rock close to the cairn were indeed bones. There was part of a skull, a jawbone still with some teeth in it and a few other bones too. It was very strange. Bob pointed out that there was a chapel marked on the map and when we looked back towards the cairn there was evidence of rows of stones that could well have been the walls of the old chapel. Our skipper looked into it a bit more and was informed that the remains are actually believed to be of the monk who built the chapel there.

The cairn on Inner Holm of Skaw

Onto my second new lighthouse of the day, Muckle Skerry. We’d considered landing on this one two years ago, but it had been raining and – given my experience of it today – I’m glad we didn’t. It’s a skerry so it’s rock really and although it looks from a distance like it has some nice grass on top it’s really just flora and fauna that thrives in wet environments combined with an occasional hard bit of soil and then random rocks in and around it all.

Muckle Skerry

It took us a little while to pick where we would land. The side of the island looked like any landing there would involve a scramble up rocks that looked green and potentially very slippery. We made our way around the island on the tender coming across another potential landing area where there turned out to be too many rocks just under the water. We then found a deeper section which got us onto some barnacle-covered rocks followed by a short section of slippy rock and then it was rock hopping all the way up to the mixed terrain described above.

Muckle Skerry Lighthouse

Muckle Skerry Lighthouse is another flat-pack and this time without a fence around it. There are great views all around which always make the less straightforward landings more worthwhile. It’s certainly somewhere you would struggle to land without the near perfect conditions we had today. We were very fortunate with sea conditions today.

Muckle Skerry Lighthouse, surrounded by the varied terrain

Joe was launched from the boat and caught some pictures which hopefully illustrate the tricky terrain of this one.

Muckle Skerry from Joe’s eye view
A very skerry-looking Muckle Skerry

We were bound for Out Skerries next. There are so many islands within this group that it wasn’t surprising that to save time we all dispersed a bit. Skipper Michael and I were dropped off on Bound Skerry, home to Out Skerries Lighthouse. Michael had never landed on the island before so we left the big boat moored up on the main island and Alan took us across.

Out Skerries Lighthouse on Bound Skerry

Although I’d been to Out Skerries Lighthouse before it was really nice to visit it with someone who was really looking forward to getting there. We had the island to ourselves for some time before the others arrived and we took a stroll around the rocks, getting as far to the east as possible so Michael could reach the most easterly he’s ever been in Shetland. One particular view from the highest point of the island was excellent with the lighthouse in the foreground and the shore station on neighbouring Grunay beyond.

The lighthouse on Bound Skerry
The walkway linking the lighthouse and the landing point

On a calm day it’s very hard to imagine how wild it must get there. Today is just seemed so tranquil and serene. For a while I sat at the base of the lighthouse and just enjoyed being there – that was until Bob came and asked me to move so I didn’t get in Joe the Drone’s pictures! However, I can’t complain as he did get some superb images. The blue sky appeared too!

Bound Skerry with its own lighthouse

A few hours – and a number of islands – later we arrived at Hoo Stack. John as well as Alan the boatman were keen to land here and I went ashore too, but stayed down on the rocks. I’d already been to this lighthouse back in 2019 and with the swell picking up I didn’t want to slow anyone down. The swell had picked up a fair amount by this point so landing wasn’t so easy, but we all did it and stayed dry, and John and Alan were happy.

Hoo Stack from above
Hoo Stack and its lighthouse

It’s been a long day, but another successful one. Mervyn has now set foot in one way or another on over 100 islands so far and I just have one lighthouse left to achieve my personal goal for this trip. That one is lined up for tomorrow. All fingers are crossed 🙂

To Papa Stour and Ve Skerries

It’s been some day today and certainly varied, taking in two very different lighthouses in extremely different settings. It is the day I have been waiting for, to make it to the remote and challenging Ve Skerries Lighthouse.

Leaving from Aith this morning, we set off for Papa Stour with our skipper Magnus Scott and John Anderson from Simmer Dim Charters. All four of us baggers on board had something of interest on this island that’s not so easy to get to, with one ferry a day in each direction only three days a week. For me, or course, it was a lighthouse – or, as I call it, a lightbox.

Upon arrival at the island Bob and John set off for the island high point and trig pillar while Mervyn and I took a stroll along the road, discovering quite a lot about the island community. For a start they have a great ferry terminal with tea and coffee making facilities, a book swap, a nice seating area and toilets.

Looking back at the pier on Papa Stour

There aren’t many houses on the island and those that are there are scattered alongside the road that runs from the pier to the airport landing strip. There’s a Primary School which has been closed now for around 8 years and the population of the island is just 6. A small community, but a really wonderful one which embraces its island and its history. This is very clear to see throughout Papa Stour.

Standing stones on Papa Stour

There is a wonderful ‘stofa’, an old Norwegian-style house made from carved wood. This was built in the place of a former stofa, but part of the build project was to allow younger people to learn the traditional skills of Norwegian building. It is really quite beautiful to see how well-constructed it is.

The Norwegian stofa on Papa Stour

We also took a look inside the Kirk, which is perfect for a small community. The building features a stained glass window that was designed and made by the locals to commemorate the lives of the four men from Papa who lost their lives during the Great War. It also contains a prayer tree which people can hang messages on explaining who they are praying for. There is also a small room with local history information and some locally made products for sale.

Papa Stour Kirk

From the Kirk we walked around to East Biggings and then began the attempt to reach the lighthouse. It had been visible nearly all the way around the road, but we’d not spotted a clear way to reach it. On our return journey we found a gate and followed the edge of a field down towards Housa Voe. Through one more gate and another field and we were there.

The field we walked around the edge of to reach the lighthouse

I would never say that these little lightboxes are anywhere near the most impressive, but they certainly do the job. The one here at Housa Voe is a similar type of structure to the two at West Burrafirth. It’s essentially a small square dry dashed building with a door at the back and a directional sector light shining out the front. There’s little more to it than that, but you can see when you step into the path of the light that it does it’s job very effectively. I had some fun for a few minutes walking back and forth in front of it and watching the red light change to white and then to green. This light is owned by Shetland Islands Council, which sort of explains its appearance. Clearly its purpose is to guide vessels safely into Housa Voe.

House Voe Lighthouse from the landward side
House Voe Lighthouse
House Voe light source

It was nice to introduce Mervyn to this type as well as they are very rarely visited. I’m not sure he was particularly impressed, but he pretended to be which was good of him. This is one of the delights of lighthouse bagging, discovering new places above and beyond just looking at the lighthouse.

The green light in House Voe Lighthouse

We left the lightbox behind and headed for the ferry terminal for a nice cup of tea. Even the waiting room is a trove of historical treasures relating to Papa Stour.

A little cove near the lighthouse

Once we were all back we set off to a few islands off of Papa Stour before we began to head north west towards a little collection of rocks called Ve Skerries. I’m not sure how well known Ve Skerries is in lighthouse circles. When you are as into lighthouses as I am you sort of lose any sense of what others do or don’t know. Anyway, for those who don’t know, Ve Skerries is a collection of very small islands/large rocks off the west coast of Mainland Shetland. They mark the most south westerly point of St Magnus Bay. On a clear day you can just make out the lighthouse in the distance from Eshaness. It is renowned for being a very dangerous area for ships with numerous wrecks occurring there. The most recent of which was the Corelleira in 2019 though thankfully there has been no loss of life there since the Ben Doran wrecked in 1930.

Ve Skerries

The sail out to Ve Skerries was actually not too bad at all and it was very encouraging to see hardly any swell around the islands. A fairly rare occurrence I think. I climbed into the tender with Bob and John and we set off to land on Ormal, the lighthouse island. We found somewhere to land and getting out of the boat was easy enough, but then the challenge began. Although the Ve Skerries are low-lying that doesn’t mean they are flat. The island is made up of tidal sections of rock and near enough all of these rocks seem to be jagged with no flat, horizontal edges. While some were covered in barnacles there was plenty of seaweed and slimy stuff about. Bob lent me his micro spikes which certainly made moving over the rocks much easier. It was a long section of rocks to cross though before we got to the helipad. Now whenever I think about Ve Skerries I remember those rocks and just have to laugh. It was quite an experience.

Ve Skerries Lighthouse

Relief set in when I finally got to the helipad which has a nice walkway across to the base of the lighthouse. There was a little stoney area down some steps from the helipad and John Anderson said it’s possible to find bits of ballast from the ships wrecked on the Skerries sometimes. I did have a look around, but couldn’t see anything.

Ve Skerries Lighthouse with a little of the stoney beach

Of course, we couldn’t have gone to Ve Skerries on a calm day without Joe the Drone coming along.

Ve Skerries Lighthouse and neighbouring islands
A Joe’s eye view of Ve Skerries Lighthouse

The lighthouse on Ve Skerries was first lit in 1979, built mainly to aid the large vessels moving around the area going to and from Sullom Voe. The wrecking of the Elinor Viking in December 1977 was also a deciding factor for the lighthouse which was already being spoken of at that point. After the lighthouse was built it received an award for its design and construction, and has very recently been granted listed status. It is a very unique structure, a real modern day rock lighthouse.

Getting back to the boat was slightly easier than the way we’d gone onto the island. However when I got towards the boat one of my feet slipped on some seaweed and my right foot ended up in the sea. Fortunately it was just my foot and I was able to get back into the boat safely before we had a quick stop in the very sheltered little harbour on North Isle, which was a great spot for watching the seals flopping on the rocks and swimming around.

Ve Skerries Lighthouse from North Skerry with plenty of seals keeping an eye on us

Reaching Ve Skerries Lighthouse felt like a great achievement. It is not frequently visited and probably for good reason.

Today was a great reminder to me of why I love doing this so much. That combination of straightforward, understated lighthouse trips and heading out into the wild extremes and creeping about over slippery rocks. Lighthouse bagging like this isn’t for everyone, but it certainly is for me – even if I do get a wet foot every now and then! 🙂

Completing the Shetland walks at Vaila Sound

Contrary to what yesterday’s post suggested, today didn’t turn out to be as exciting as I’d mentioned (that’s now planned for tomorrow – fingers crossed). However, it did feature some success: the completion of the ‘walkable from the main islands of Shetland lighthouses’. This doesn’t actually sound like much of an achievement, but given that they aren’t necessarily the easiest or shortest of walks (see the recent Bagi Stack post for the most extreme example) it’s quite a good milestone. This completion took place at ‘the light with many names’, also known as Vaila Sound, Ram’s Head or Whites Ness Lighthouse – whichever takes your fancy. To be a bit more specific, the lighthouse is officially known as Vaila Sound Lighthouse by the Northern Lighthouse Board. It is located on Ram’s Head which is a part of the Whites Ness circular walk. Hence how it ends up with so many names.

Vaila Sound Lighthouse very much reminds me of this wonderful post I saw last year, which includes a beautiful sketch of the lighthouse – not a style that is very often sketched I’m sure! This is one of the Solar Powered Lattice Aluminium Towers and they grow on me more and more every time I see a new one. This is particularly the case when they involve a great and not too challenging walk. A couple I know through the Association of Lighthouse Keepers moved to Shetland last year and they have visited Vaila Sound Lighthouse a couple of times so we enlisted one of them, who I named Tour Guide Andrew, to lead the way.

There’s a great area for parking just up the hill from the start of the walk at Whiteness and then it’s following a farm track signposted ‘Coastal walk’ for the first part. This track felt like luxury after some of the recent walks.

The starting point for the walk

After passing a couple of buildings it’s not long before you get some stunning views of Vaila Sound and the island of Linga.

The first view across Vaila Sound

Beyond the mast the track continues and you begin to get views of the island of Vaila itself, which I have very fond memories of visiting a couple of years ago. It’s a beautiful island with a really interesting little garden to explore.

Vaila from across the sound

The track then ends at a farm gate and we walked through the field a short way, ending up closer to the coastline. The views looking back towards Walls from here with the yellow flowers in the foreground were excellent.

The view towards Walls

We then arrived at an area of old ruined houses near the shoreline. One of them didn’t look as old as the rest and I thought ‘what an amazing location to live’, but of course it’s relative remoteness would have its drawbacks.

The more modern-looking property

From here we then took a short walk along the small, pebbly beach and took a look at the little stone jetty beyond it.

The old stone jetty near the ruined houses

From here the terrain gets a bit more undulating and after a stile, there is some uphill followed by downhill, but the uphills are so worth it for the views from the top.

One of the wonderful views from a higher point on the peninsula

A little more up and down later and the lighthouse suddenly comes into sight – and what a sight it is.

Vaila Sound Lighthouse comes into view

Bob set about preparing Joe the Drone while Andrew, John and I made our way towards the lighthouse.

Tour Guide Andrew on the approach to Vaila Sound Lighthouse

Unlike Hillswick and Bagi Stack lighthouses, this one is set fairly low down near the water and so it was possible to stand on the rocks behind it and get a great view of it against the serene waters of the Sound.

Vaila Sound Lighthouse

While we were gazing at the lighthouse a little fishing catamaran sailed past and honked its horn at us. It’s not often you get an opportunity to see a boat moving near one of these little lights so it was a perfect picture opportunity.

The little boat passing the lighthouse

The rocky terrain in front of the lighthouse is lovely and the jagged rocks compared to the calm waters in the area were a striking, but great contrast. I imagine it’s not always so calm!

Vaila Sound Lighthouse from below

It was possible to see the old boat landing area nearby and it looks like a little leap may be required to get from the flat landing area to the surrounding rocks to avoid wet feet!

Looking west across Vaila Sound with the landing platform just visible in the dark brown rocky area

Joe the drone, as ever, got some super scenic shots from above, including this one, which I absolutely love. Little did I realise at that point what was around the corner!

Ram’s Head and the Whites Ness peninsula from above

Sometimes you come across a view that just makes you say ‘wow’ (or in my case ‘wowzers!’) and the fabulous promontory of Green Head was a perfect example of that – and yes, I did indeed say ‘wowzers’ out loud when I first saw it.

Green Head

As you walk further around the coast you see more and more of the promontory and realise it’s actually joined to the Whites Ness peninsula by a narrow section of land.

Green Head from a different angle

From here we headed inland across a slightly boggy section of land before returning to the field we passed through and then onto the track.

A little wet underfoot at this point

This felt like a stroll in the park in comparison to some of the other recent walks to see lights. If there is anyone who happens to be in the Shetland area who isn’t sure about whether or not to visit a flat-pack lighthouse then this one is a great one to start with. It has many of the benefits of a flat-pack lighthouse – with the main one being that it’s in a stunning location – but without the tough walk. Just brilliant, and a really enjoyable way to get those ‘walkable lights’ done.

I should also mention here that I went on a short trip to Sumburgh Head Lighthouse this morning with my kids. They were delighted to see the Light the North Shetland map lighthouse on display here and, of course, had a wonderful time pressing the button in the museum that blasts out a foghorn’s bellow. I’m not sure the museum staff were so delighted!

Sumburgh Head Lighthouse with the Light the North lighthouse

Another great day in Shetland, but what will tomorrow bring…! 🙂

A stop off at Lunna Holm

The wind had dropped for us in Shetland overnight and, although we knew it may be a while before the sea recovered from 48 hours of strong wind, we decided to head out on Lysander again today and see what we could achieve.

Today’s trip started off at Ulsta on Yell and the agenda featured a number of islands including Lunna Holm which I’d been keen to get to for a while.

A few islands were visited and we got a closer look at the light on Rumble too. The tide in the area made it a very rocky little detour.

The Rumble light

A little while later we arrived at Lunna Holm. There was still plenty of movement in the water, but it didn’t prevent us landing thankfully. It‘s a nice little island and we wandered up towards the high point and then cut across in the direction of the lighthouse.

The first sighting of Lunna Holm lighthouse after landing

The lighthouse on Lunna Holm dates back to 1985 and it was introduced to mark the south eastern approaches to Sullom Voe during the hours of darkness. The foundations were prepared in the first half of 1985 and by the end of that year the structure was complete and the light operational.

Lunna Holm in the sunshine

The lighthouse, which is still the original 1985 tower, and it’s surrounding fence look like they could do with some attention so I was pleased to find that, in June this year, the Northern Lighthouse Board put out a tender for full refurbishment of the lighthouse. This is due to include not only a refurb of the tower and concrete base, but also replacement of the lighting system and the fence that surrounds the structure.

Lunna Holm Lighthouse

One of the crew on board informed us that a former inter-island ferries, The Earls, ran aground on Lunna Holm back in the 1980s, which may well have occurred before the lighthouse was installed.

The island reminded me a lot of Cava in Scapa Flow, Orkney. The lighthouse is the same type, the island has a similar sort of layout (for want of a better word), and the grassy terrain was the same. I always see Shetland and Orkney as being completely different, but there are definitely some similarities in certain areas, which geographically makes sense due to their relatively close proximity.

Joe the Drone went for a spin while we were there too.

Lunna Holm from above
Lunna Holm with Lunna Ness beyond

It was just the single lighthouse for me today, but I was happy. After a couple of busy walking days I was more than willing to spend a day on the boat and I even managed to fit in a nap, lying on the comfy seat, while the others ticked off another 6 islands in one go.

Tomorrow has the potential to be a very exciting day and I cannot wait! 🙂

Adventures on Yell Sound

Phew, what a day it’s been, out on a boat on Yell Sound picking up more lighthouses and islands.

Leaving the cars at Toft we crossed to Yell on the ferry and met Michael the skipper and the boat just over the other side in Ulsta. We passed the very beautifully-located Ness of Sound Lighthouse as we journeyed up Yell Sound.

Ness of Sound Lighthouse

We made our way right up to the north entrance and around Point of Fethaland. This was a perfect chance to see this very unique lighthouse from the sea where it looks so small compared to the dramatic natural surroundings. On the return later this morning I thought it looked rather Faroese from a certain angle. It was particularly good to see from the north east with the jagged rocks in the foreground and lighthouse sticking up on the top of the cliff. I don’t know anyone who has been to Point of Fethaland that has anything bad to say about it. The walk is superb.

Point of Fethaland with its lighthouse

Joe the Drone also took a spin here too.

Point of Fethaland from above

Heading around also gave us a chance to see Gruney, which was a reminder of the scary landing on a flat, sloped rock there back in 2019. However it did also bring back memories of the stunning views from the island that day too.

Gruney island and lighthouse

After some island bagging around the corner from Point of Fethaland, including a tidal island which had proven to be rather tricky to reach by land, we returned to Yell Sound. We were heading into the wind now and it was clear from the water conditions that the sea was getting a little more interesting. The skippers weren’t sure what we would manage from this point and a couple of group members set off to set foot on three islands, but only managed one before the swell was getting too heavy causing them to return to the main boat.

Then it was well and truly onto the lighthouses. The first stop was Muckle Holm, which was one I’d visited in 2019, but my lighthouse pal John had yet to do. I decided to go ashore for a revisit and I’m so glad I did. I’d forgotten how fascinating the island is with some stunning geos in both the middle and the west side and a fairly narrow section of grass leading to the east section of the island. Of course it was good to see the flat-pack lighthouse again.

The calm landing area on Muckle Holm
The seaward end of the landing geo on Muckle Holm, which has been used by Sullom Voe pilot boats for shelter in the past
One of the amazing geos on Muckle Holm
And another
Muckle Holm Lighthouse
Saying goodbye to Muckle Holm

What I found upon returning from the island was that, while sitting to move down the rocks, I managed to tear my waterproof trousers in two places. Normally this would be a pain, but I actually didn’t mind it as it made me feel like a proper island bagger. So many of them have holes in clothing from their exploits!

I stood aside for the next two islands, Little Holm and Brother Isle, as – although they both have lights on them – I have been to them before and there were others who hadn’t. Due to the sea conditions we could only really take three in the tender at one time so I settled for a view from the main boat with these two.

Little Holm

Next we got to the really interesting bit, the lights I’d not been close to before. The first of these was on Tinga Skerry. I wasn’t sure what to expect here as I recalled when I last saw it from a distance that it was just very low-lying rock and I didn’t know if landing would be possible. I was nicely surprised to see it was actually far more substantial than I’d given it credit for. After wandering up towards the lighthouse we spotted a male otter dashing away across the rocks. It was fantastic to see and a great start to a small, but interesting little skerry. The lighthouse isn’t the most interesting of structures, really just practical, but as I’ve said many times before (and particularly in this post) it’s so often the places these lights take you to that makes visiting them so enjoyable.

Tinga Skerry
Tinga Skerry with the otter on the rocks (see if you can spot him)
Tinga Skerry Lighthouse
Tinga Skerry from the landing

Then it was something entirely different with a visit to Little Roe. I’d not known about Little Roe until my last visit to Shetland, which thankfully occurred before my book was published. This was also a little unexpected as, contrary to what its name suggests Little Roe isn’t very “little” and certainly not in comparison to many of the other islands in the area. From the landing area at the rocky beach it was quite a walk on ground that alternated between long grass and squidgy moss, which fortunately was dry today. As we reached the highest point of the island we spotted the top of the lighthouse appearing ahead of us and set off for it. This is the first one of this type that I’ve been too and it’s bright orange paint was a real contrast to the grey skies at that point. It’s a very strange light, similar in shape to the one on Gruney. I always enjoy seeing these different style of towers though as seeing the same thing all the time could get a bit tedious. Just to the south of the lighthouse was what I originally thought was a single geo with beautiful cliffs. Walking a bit further on though I discovered there were two geos next to each other, resulting in a wonderfully shaped promontory in the middle. I also spotted a great little arch in one of the geos. Walking back was slightly easier with much more downhill, and rather strangely the remains of a fence. There are ruins of a building on the island so my guess would be that it was once home to someone who dug the peat and may well have had a fence! Back at the landing it was nice to have a sit down and enjoy the area while the first pair were taken back to the main boat. I found a fun bit of sloped grass to slide down. With the Balta seesaw and Little Roe grass slide I really do seem to be behaving like a child while out bagging these days.

Approaching Little Roe Lighthouse
Little Roe Lighthouse
Little Roe geos and the arch on the right

The final two stops of the day I was very keen to get to as it would save a particularly long walk at another time. The reason there are so many lights in Yell Sound is because it is used as an entry/exit route for Sullom Voe oil terminal. To get to these next lights involves walking around the coastline to avoid Sullom Voe, which is surrounded by fencing anyway so there is no shortcut. There are two lights at Skaw Taing and the skippers were very pleased to find some relatively calm water for a change where the boats weren’t constantly drifting unless underway. After a smooth landing we made the short walk to the front light, which would have been a twin of Little Roe, except it had a directional sector light on the front as well as the light on the top, which was also different to Little Roe. The rear light was a bit of a slog, but a fairly short slog so not too bad. This is an entirely different type of structure, stone-built and with an entrance hatch on top rather than a door on the side. Again there was plenty of soft ground to walk on here, but that didn’t stop me from just being glad that I didn’t need to undertake the very long and boggy walk around the coast.

Skaw Taing Front light with the rear in the background
Skaw Taing Rear looking up Yell Sound

There was one final stopping point and that was Mio Ness. Very similar to the light on Tinga Skerry, it wasn’t the most beautiful, but it was easy enough to land nearby with an even shorter walk than Skaw Taing to reach the lighthouse. I’d seen this one from the ferry before as well as a chartered boat in 2019, plus from the coastal road on Yell – it’s very easy to see from a distance, but not so easy to get a closer look. It seemed like a very successful end to today’s trip for me which involved achieving more than we thought we might given the gusting wind.

On the approach to Mio Ness Lighthouse
Mio Ness Lighthouse

It was just great to have seen these ones closer now and spent some time exploring some of these very different islands and skerries 🙂

Thoughts on modern Scottish lighthouses

In recent years while I’ve been visiting lighthouse of all shapes and sizes, particularly those smaller lights in Scotland, I’ve seen a number of very negative comments about these modern lighthouses. What I am referring to here are the Northern Lighthouse Board’s SPLATs (solar powered lattice aluminium towers). That acronym describes it rather perfectly actually, although regular readers of my blog will be aware that I personally refer to them as flat-pack lighthouses.

A standard flat-pack lighthouse. This one is on Hoxa Head in Orkney.

These towers are limited to only the north and west of Scotland, which gives a good indication of their often remote locations, on islands or tucked away on headlands. There are 53 of these structures in Scotland: 18 in Shetland, 2 in Orkney, 1 on the North Coast, 7 in the Outer Hebrides, 11 in the Inner Hebrides and West Highlands, 13 between Mull and Islay, and 1 in South West Scotland.

To start with, some history. My recent research suggests that, although it was around 1996 that these structures began to replace the older, small lighthouses, the two towers of this type on Gasay and Calvay – found on the approach to Lochboisdale in South Uist – were actually installed in 1985. These two framework towers aren’t as enclosed by the white cladding as many of the newer versions are, but they are still very much the same arrangement.

Gasay, one of the original flat-pack lighthouses.

I’ve been fascinated to find that the history of these towers actually goes back a lot further than I’d originally thought. Along with being left off most lighthouse lists, and left out of near enough all books on Scottish lighthouses, they are so rarely mentioned anywhere which is a shame as it appears they played a key role in shaping the future direction of small Northern Lighthouse Board structures for many years to come when those first two were installed.

For a good few years now I’ve had a growing appreciation of these structures. To begin my defence of them, I want to highlight the purpose of a lighthouse. Lighthouses, unless purely decorative, were never built for us land-based folk to gaze at adoringly. That is certainly the case for many of us now who travel to admire the big, old lighthouses. However, their primary purpose was to exhibit a light that could be seen at night and would help to guide ships. At night you can’t see the structure, all you know is that it’s a light helping to guide you or assisting you with working out exactly where you are. If it achieves that, regardless of what the structure looks like, then it is fulfilling its core purpose.

A variation on the typical flat-pack style lighthouse at Ornsay East Rock, Skye.

In an ideal world money would be no object, but of course cost plays a role when deciding what type of structure will be installed. As much as I love a large, dramatic lighthouse I recognise that, for any lighthouse authority, paying out hundreds of thousands (or more likely millions) of pounds to build a new one is not a wise financial decision.

Financial restrictions force a company to look at what is required for the new or replacement structure in this case. The big lighthouses we all know and love were built to be lived in and to contain a considerable amount of machinery and equipment too. If you’ve ever been in a lighthouse that contains the old equipment you will see that even then a lot was squeezed into a small space.

The island of Siolaigh in the Monach Isles, Outer Hebrides, boasts both a traditional and modern lighthouse.

If you have ever visited one of the flat-pack type lighthouses you will see just how little equipment is in them, usually just one or two cabinets on the ground or first floor and then the external light and another small cabinet on top. There is no need for bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom etc. so it’s understandable that the decision wouldn’t be made to build a lighthouse that has the space to accommodate those.

The walk to Muckle Roe Lighthouse in Shetland is one of the best I’ve done.

I’ve often seen mentions of ‘The Stevensons would be turning in their graves if they saw these’ and I’m not so sure they would. The Stevensons were engineers. Yes, engineers probably like to design the most awe-inspiring buildings which would give them a big personal boost, but practicality is key for them and if they were having to work within today’s budgets I’m sure they would opt for this type too. The final generation of Stevenson lighthouse engineers designed a range of smaller wholly practical lighthouses, such as the former Sandaig Islands Lighthouse (pictured below). These lighthouses are not grand, although I am still very keen on them myself. They were a sign of the times and reflected the changes in what was needed for new and unmanned lighthouses as well as availability of more cost-effective materials.

The original Sandaig Islands Lighthouse was designed by the last generation of Stevensons. It is now located in Glenelg near the turntable ferry.

On a final and personal point, I’ve visited a considerable number of these flat-pack towers over the past 9 years and I’ve had some of the best days out with them as my objective. I’d like to share a few examples. The light on Loch Eriboll, my first flat-pack, is one of those I’m most fond of. It’s a relatively short walk compared to many of the others, as long as you know where to start and the right direction to head in. The coastline of Loch Eriboll is top class and my first walk to the lighthouse really kicked off my ever-growing appreciation of that loch.

Loch Eriboll lighthouse in the winter sun

These lighthouses aren’t often easy to get to. You can’t drive to them as you can with some of the larger towers and they certainly don’t have obvious tracks or paths leading to many of them as all of the older lights do. Getting to the flat-pack now located on Cailleach Head near Scoraig was a massive personal achievement. I wasn’t sure I’d ever make it as I knew it involved a long walk in from the nearest road or making arrangements with a local boatman. This was also the case with Hoo Stack in Shetland, which was great fun to visit alongside some island bagging pals. The shared enjoyment with friends could very much also be said of Glas Eileanan (Grey Rocks Lighthouse) in the Sound of Mull, the Sandaig Islands light and Bunessan Lighthouse on the west coast of Mull.

Grey Rocks Lighthouse in the Sound of Mull

It’s not just friends though, my son visited his first flat-pack lighthouse when we walked to Point of Sleat. It was a great walk, but was super windy and I remember well us setting up a little pop-up shelter not far from the lighthouse to hide away in at lunchtime with the little man. My daughter only recently bagged her first flat-pack lighthouse, the newest one, Rubha Cuil-Cheanna near Onich. That was a great walk made slightly more challenging by having the kids to keep safe, but still good fun.

Rubha Cuil-Cheanna, the Northern Lighthouse Board’s newest addition.

There have been some fairly unique experiences involved in reaching them too. Wading through a channel of water to get to the flat-pack on Hestan Island was great fun. Visiting Papa Stronsay was also an interesting experience with the island being home to the Golgotha Monastery and having a long history of occupation by religious groups.

The tidal section, taken from Hestan Island

There have been so many great times getting out to these small but really important little structures. I suppose if there was one final thought I would like to end on it’s that, with the recent addition of the Rubha Cuil-Cheanna light, I’m just glad they are still adding new lighthouses, even if it is only one every 11 or so years 🙂

Joe goes to Pentland Skerries

On our way to Orkney last weekend we took a detour to John O’Groats to check on the developments around the old Duncansby Head foghorn. The area has really come on over the past year which is great to see.

The old Duncansby Head foghorn at the start and finish of the John O’Groats Trail

While we were there we spotted a black RIB zooming about just off the coast and noticed a little cabin for OceanTrek who operate the RIB. Never one to ever miss an opportunity to fly Joe the Drone, once the skipper was back on land Bob approached him and asked if he would be willing to take us out to Pentland Skerries during the week coming. After exchanges of pictures of the landing area there between Bob and Alex the skipper, it was agreed we would head out on Tuesday morning.

Arriving on Tuesday we got ready to go and set off. About five minutes or so into the journey it became very clear that a large and never ending bank of mist was creeping in from the east as it so often does. Within another few minutes we were in it and the decision was made to return to John O’Groats and try again another time. The speed at which the mist came in was really quite incredible. Even the lady who works in the little food cabin said she’d just left the hatch for a couple of minutes and came back and it was there. The joys of the east coast!

The mist emerging over the Pentland Firth

After numerous checks on the weather later in the day on Tuesday it was agreed that we would try again on Thursday morning. Waking up to mist at home this morning it wasn’t looking likely we would make it out again, but thankfully Alex reported no mist over in Wick, which would give a far better indication of what it was like at John O’Groats.

Conditions were great for the trip today and we hopped onboard the RIB and off we went. We knew conditions were better as we could see the two towers on the island of Muckle Skerry, the largest of the Pentland Skerries group. Between John O’Groats and Pentland Skerries the sea gets really interesting for a while. I recalled being told about it by the skipper for Caithness Seacoast in Wick when we went out with them back in 2013 (a note for anyone looking to visit in future, Caithness Seacoast will no longer land people on the island) and thinking at the time ‘I’m glad we’re not going through that!’ Today, however, we did go through it and it was expertly handled by Alex.

Much clearer today approaching Muckle Skerry

A short while later we arrived at the landing area and edged in slowly to avoid any rocks just under the surface. It was a bit of a step up, but Bob threw himself up and then he and Alex helped me (and my short legs) up. There we were on the island again.

The view from above the geo where we landed on the island

It was great to see those two towers again and the various views of them on the approach are always superb.

Of course the main purpose for this visit was so Joe the Drone could get some of his usual spectacular shots and he certainly did that.

Pentland Skerries Lighthouse and the former Low Light tower

We had a really good amount of time to explore the island today too and one of the most interesting parts I’d not seen before was the natural geo just to the north of the lighthouse. Muckle Skerry looks like a fairly low lying island from afar, but the cliffs in the group are impressively high. There is evidence here too that it may have been used at times for landing and lifting goods up for the lighthouse.

The view down into the geo
The lighthouse and geo from above
The view of Pentland Skerries Lighthouse from the geo

Since my last visit two years ago little has changed. The lighthouse and old tower are still looking glorious while the old keepers cottages are clearly not being maintained. The thing I find really frustrating about this is that someone has clearly bought the island including the cottages and yet is doing nothing with them. At the same time the owner doesn’t want anyone to go there, which they can’t enforce given Scotland’s freedom to roam legislation. It is yet another case of people buying things, not looking after them while not wanting anyone else to enjoy them. But we go there anyway so I can’t complain too much!

This time I really wanted to find the graveyard and old memorial stone that marks the loss of seven crew members from the Vicksburg, which was wrecked off the Pentland Skerries in 1884. While some of the crew were helped ashore by the lighthouse keepers those buried on the island weren’t so fortunate. The memorial stone also marks the loss of two of a Principal Lighthouse Keeper’s children who passed away on the island. Unfortunately, yet again I had no luck in finding it, but next time I will make sure I’ve done my research.

Considering the lighthouse grounds and buildings take up a relatively small area on the island there are plenty of old buildings and walls in various states of repair

There was plenty of bird life around today with gulls, terns, skuas, puffins, fulmar, razorbills and various smaller birds too. We tried to minimise any disturbance to them and thankfully the terns and skuas didn’t swoop, which is always a worry.

Arriving back at the boat it was great to hear that the crew had enjoyed their visit too, particularly seeing the number of puffins around and enjoying the sunshine which very kindly made an appearance not long after our arrival. We hopped back down into the boat and Alex sailed around the north of the island for a different view on the way back. It was a pretty short journey back to John O’Groats – the boat can certainly go fast, but we took it a bit easy going back through the bumpy section, which wasn’t too bad.

Enjoying the journey back

It was an excellent hour and a half spent on a really interesting island. Although I’ve been there three times now it doesn’t lose its appeal and actually it becomes more and more fascinating each time. I’ve only just got back, but would love another chance to go out there again 🙂

A backup plan with a bonus

For the last couple of months we’d had a lovely long weekend away to the Western Isles planned, including being on a chartered boat out to Sula Sgeir and North Rona, which I’d previously visited back in 2014. We had accommodation organised, ferries booked and had got the green light from the organiser of the trip. All was well, but actually it wasn’t, which I realised the day before we were due to leave when my good pal John called to check which ferry we were booked on as the time I’d told him didn’t tie in with any of the sailings. It was then that I discovered somehow we’d managed to book the ferries the wrong way around and we were due to sail from Stornoway to Ullapool instead of the other direction on Friday. We made a hasty call to Calmac having checked all sailings to the Western Isles to find nothing was available. The man on the other end of the phone confirmed this was the case and apologised, to which I reminded him it was our fault for getting the booking wrong in the first place so he had no need to apologise. With no way to get across there (due to COVID-19 related restrictions we couldn’t even hop into a friend’s car as they had no space even for extra foot passengers), the decision was made that we needed a backup plan.

6 months pregnant at North Rona back in 2014. A revisit this time just wasn’t meant to be

I didn’t want to drive for hours as that’s an easy way to waste a weekend and so I began researching Orkney and, more specifically Westray for Noup Head Lighthouse. The ferry times didn’t tie in and, wanting to leave North Ronaldsay for another time, I took a look at Start Point Lighthouse on a tidal island off Sanday. The fact that the island is tidal has made it a really tricky one to get to and I’d previously resigned myself to the fact that we’d need to stay overnight on Sanday sometime to be able to do it. Thankfully, looking at the tide times for Sunday, I found low tide in the area to be at 1.50pm with the ferry arriving 10.25am and then departing at 5.40pm. It seemed to me like an ideal day to get to Start Point Lighthouse finally.

Luckily Bob agreed to my suggestion and suggested I contact a friend who lives on Sanday to see if he knew of anyone who had a key to the lighthouse and could show us around. I thought it was probably a bit of a long-shot especially given the current pandemic, but it was worth a try. The lighthouse used to be open routinely with guided tours run by the Sanday Ranger, but these tours no longer take place. It didn’t take long to get a response from our friend with a couple of people to contact. I called and left a message with the man suggested as the best place to start and he got back to me later that day (this was Friday so there wasn’t much time to organise it) and said I’d need to get permission from his manager, but that he’s be willing to show us up the tower if his boss said yes. Rather fortunately I had met his boss on a couple of occasions over the past two years and when I called him he said he was happy. So it was all planned and I was going to get inside a lighthouse for the first time in 17 months!

The (correct) ferries for Orkney and Sanday were booked and camping arranged in Kirkwall so on Saturday we set off. Upon arriving we took a drive up to Birsay for a look at Brough of Birsay and its lighthouse.

Brough of Birsay
Brough of Birsay Lighthouse

Joe the Drone took a fly around his first Orkney lighthouse there too.

A Joe the Drone’s eye view of Brough of Birsay

Sunday morning came and it was off to Sanday. Heading straight for Start Point, I contacted Ian to say we were on the island and he confirmed he was just heading over to the lighthouse. Reaching the end of the public road we found the three spaces in the parking area already full so we found a verge further back that wasn’t blocking any gates etc. and began the walk. The first bit was easy, following a good path along the coast.

On the way to Start Point with the lighthouse in sight

The section between the main island and Start Point is rather deceptive. Initially you see a seaweed-covered track leading towards the tidal bit and think ‘oh, that looks fine to cross’. It’s not until you get beyond it that you encounter the very tidal section, which was still very wet when we arrived. At this point it was 2.5 hours before low tide and, as Bob escorted me across the seaweed and very wet bits like I was an old lady, we both ended up with wet feet. We made it to the other side though with no mishaps and then the path was easy going as the lighthouse got closer and closer.

Looking back across the tidal section about 2.5 hours before low tide

As we approached the lighthouse Ian, our tour guide appeared, and after a short chat we were off into the tower. Ian was wearing wellies, which is something I would highly recommend to anyone considering visiting Start Point – not for the tower of course, but for the crossing.

The unmistakable Start Point Lighthouse

Now climbing a lighthouse can cause some breathlessness anyway, but climbing with a face mask on makes it a lot harder. It wasn’t so bad though and I was just glad it wasn’t North Ronaldsay (the tallest land-based tower in Britain) we were going up.

The staircase inside Start Point Lighthouse

After the spiral staircase there were the obligatory ladders to climb and then, there we were, right at the top with some stunning views in all directions. Looking back towards Sanday, out towards the sea, down on the old ruined buildings, there was plenty to see and Ian pointed out roughly where the previous lighthouse used to be.

Based on maps we later saw at Sanday Heritage Museum, the former lighthouse would have been in the top right hand corner of the square field, next to the old buildings

Start Point had confused me for some time. On the Northern Lighthouse Board’s website the tower/light is dated 1806, but other sources said the current tower replaced the 1806 tower in 1870. I thought there was no better way to find out the truth than to look and ask around locally. Ian confirmed the current tower is the second with the first one introduced as a day mark in 1802. When wrecks continued to occur in the area it was decided a light was required and so a lantern and light replaced the stone ball on top of the tower (the ball can now be found on top of the old North Ronaldsay lighthouse). It was the first lighthouse in Scotland to have revolving lighthouse apparatus, paving the way for the light characteristics used in all lighthouses today and listed in the Admiralty List of Lights.

Ian opened up the wonderful fourth order Fresnel lens to show us the bulbs and explained that, for a while, there had been the risk of the lens being removed from the tower and replaced with a modern LED. It now sounds like this is not going to be the case, which is always a pleasure to hear.

Start Point Lighthouse lens
Inside the lens

Back down on the next floor Ian opened up the door to the balcony and we were blessed with even better views of the surrounding area. The tide at Start Point is really interesting. There is roughly 45 minutes in time difference between high and low tide on either side of the tidal section getting out to Start Point. Ian explained just how unpredictable the tides can be there and that he limits his visits to 2 hours maximum in order to make sure he can get back across to Sanday safely.

The view from the top of the lighthouse. Ian pointed out how the rocks almost look to be shaped like waves in places.
With Ian at the top of Start Point lighthouse

Back down the bottom of the tower I gave Ian a copy of my book as a little thank you gift. I think it’s safe to assume that anyone who signs up to be a Retained Lighthouse Keeper must have an interest in lighthouses. We bade farewell to Ian and set off to explore some of the ruined buildings in the area as well as getting some awesome views of the very unique striped lighthouse.

Start Point Lighthouse and part of the old mill buildings nearby
Start Point Lighthouse from the east

In the grounds of the lighthouse was a framework platform the type of which I’d seen at Ushenish last year. Since that visit I’ve been informed that it was a wind power trial the Northern Lighthouse Board has carried out, but (as at Ushenish) it had failed as it was blown to pieces within the first couple of weeks.

The platform used to test wind power generation at Start Point

Stopping for lunch it was time for Joe the Drone to have another flight and, as usual, he caught some fantastic shots from the sky.

Start Point Lighthouse from above with Sanday in the background
Joe’s view of Start Point

Once Joe was safely back down it was time to head back. It was still 50 minutes before low tide, but the tidal section was significantly less wet than it had been on our outward journey. I wouldn’t go so far as to say dry as I imagine with all the rocks and seaweed it never really completely dries out.

We paid a visit to Sanday Heritage Centre on the way back and the lady handed us their reference book about the lighthouse, which had some great little pieces in it and further confirmed the history of the lighthouse(s) mentioned above. There was a large poster on display about the lighthouse, showing an old map with the location of the former lighthouse, which having been there, we were able to picture how it would have looked out there.

That evening, leaving Sanday behind, I was satisfied in the knowledge that sometimes things happen for a reason. If the reason for the incorrect Western Isles ferry booking was that I really should go to Start Point instead then I’m certainly not complaining 🙂