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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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! 🙂
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.
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.
Joe the Drone also took a spin here too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was just great to have seen these ones closer now and spent some time exploring some of these very different islands and skerries 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
Joe the Drone took a fly around his first Orkney lighthouse there too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
As I mentioned in Friday’s post, I had just two lighthouses on Skye left to visit before this weekend. With Dunvegan Lighthouse bagged that just left one more: Waternish Point.
With rain forecast for this afternoon – and the need to get home today – a fairly early start was required. After the kayaking and then the added extras from yesterday it was a balance between setting off at a decent time and getting enough sleep.
It was nice and dry when we set off and quite some time later we arrived in Trumpan (I’ve said it before, Skye is big). Spotting the starting point for the walk as we drove past we then parked up opposite the old church. This church was the scene of a particularly nasty episode in the long-running battles between the MacLeods of Skye and the MacDonalds of Uist. In revenge for an equally sinister event on the island of Eigg, the MacDonalds made their way to Trumpan and burned the church while it was full of local worshippers. The churchyard surrounding the ruins contains a number of graves, including some quite recent ones.
There’s also a Dark Skies area next to the car park and I can imagine it gets very interesting there at night with the lack of light in almost every direction.
Once we were ready we set off along the road and through the gate. We were very much aware that cows could play a part in the day’s adventure, which is always enough to put Bob on edge certainly. He adopted the role of ‘cow lookout’ and went on ahead a little way, scanning the track and surrounding area. We reached a little mound featuring a cairn and Bob headed on up and ushered me up once he’s got to the top. He’d spotted the cows which had young with them and a couple had stood up when they spotted Bob. They weren’t far at all from the track so a bit of off-piste was required just to be sure we didn’t spook them.
We headed for the coast across the heather and after a very short time encountered a gaping chasm (Bob called it a gully, but it was definitely a chasm). ‘Follow the sheep track’ Bob advised me as we started to scramble down into the chasm. My response was ‘But I’m not a sheep.’ Sheep manage to balance their way about on all sorts of skinny ledges – which isn’t so easy for me as a human. ‘Follow the staircase’ was another one of his comments and I didn’t even dignify that one with an answer.
We made it safely and slowly to the bottom of the chasm and, of course, then there was a burn to cross. I am rubbish at crossing rivers or streams, but thankfully this time I managed not to get wet. Then it was up the other side, which actually was much easier. More sheep must have been up that side of the chasm prior to my visit.
From here we followed the coast for a while to make sure we were out of sight of the cows. I’m usually always on the look out for silver linings when things don’t quite go to plan. I certainly wasn’t while in the chasm (although it did look nice), but once we were back on the well-trodden sheep track along the coast there were some spectacular views both to the west and onwards in our direction of travel to the north.
We ended up following the coast for far longer than I expected and our 1km off-piste detour came to an end as we joined the track again at a nice little bridge. From here it was just trudging on, passing sheep and their lambs occasionally.
Eventually I got my first glimpse of our destination, Waternish Point Lighthouse. It did look about 500 miles away (I exaggerate), but it was a positive sign. We passed a couple of chaps who were just on their way back from the lighthouse and chatted to them for a few minutes before continuing on our way.
Reaching the end of the track we encountered the remains of walls and most notably the ruins of a house, which Joe had a fly over.
From here it was all downhill to the lighthouse and the lower you got the boggier it became, but thankfully the ground wasn’t too wet today. The lighthouse gradually got closer and then finally I was there at my final lighthouse on Skye!
What can I say about Waternish? Immediately you notice the stunning views across to the Outer Hebrides with the incredible hills of Harris on display and then a flurry of islands (I’m not sure at all that’s the correct name for a group of islands, but we’ll go with it) including the Shiants and the interestingly shaped and very appropriately named Lord Macdonald’s Table. Sadly the Uists had disappeared into the distance by then, but there was plenty to keep you occupied. Apparently it’s a great place for spotting whales and dolphins, but we didn’t see any of them, but we did see a Calmac ferry passing en route to Uig and the men we met on the way there had seen a submarine come up above the surface. Who needs whales and dolphins, eh!?
Onto the lighthouse. The current structure was built in 1980 and like just a few others has more than one door – presumably this is so you can access the inside of the tower safely without the door flying off in the wind and you would use the appropriate door based on the wind direction. This tower replaced the 1924 tower, designed by David and Charles Stevenson. It’s clear when you are there that there must originally have been a fair number of buildings on the site and now all that remains of them are the foundations. I really like the current tower as it is. There are very few like it left standing now so it’s always a pleasure to see one.
Of course Joe the Drone had to have another little fly around.
Just before we left I decided, for no apparent reason, to give the lighthouse a ‘high five’. Even as I was doing it I said ‘Can you give a lighthouse a high five?’ Anyway, I did. I even added a bonus ‘on the side’ high five! Then it was time to head back. The slog back up to the ruined house was tough. The energy from my lunch hadn’t quite kicked in at that point so I was slow and tired, and incredibly glad to get to the track when we eventually did. On the way we spotted a white-tailed eagle soaring around and being chased off by a smaller bird, who we imagined was defending its nest. There were also the remains of a small sheep and tiny lamb in the area, further evidence that we were on eagle hunting ground.
Back on the track we retraced our steps, with the wind and rain in our faces, we got to the bridge and left the track again. The cows were in roughly the same place as before, but had moved even closer to the track and so we strolled on quickly while we were in sight of them. The gaping chasm wasn’t quite so gaping on the way back (still a chasm though – and wet this time too). I had expected us to head for the track again once we were past the cows, but Bob thought we should continue to follow the coastal route. Imagining even more gaping chasms opening up in front of me, I reluctantly followed. I’m actually very glad we did as there were even more wonderful views to behold in the final section. We followed the coast as far as we could before heading slightly inland and following a fence line which took us directly to the gate. Just a bit more track to go, one more gate and then we were back at the car.
It had been quite a walk and I’d struggled a bit at times, mainly I think because of tiredness from the weekend’s adventures. It was so worth doing though and I would definitely recommend doing that coastal route to anyone visiting. It really is superb for impressive panoramic views. Just mind the gaping chasm! 🙂
In 2015 – almost exactly 6 years ago, in fact – we took a tour with Calum’s Seal Tours from Plockton for a closer look at Eilean a’Chait Lighthouse. Having done that trip it was one I thought I’d never manage to get a closer look at…
Fast forward to the week just gone when Bob said to me ‘Do you fancy going to Eilean a’Chait and landing?’ to which I obviously responded ‘Of course’. It was a few minutes later that he announced we’d be going by kayak. There have been a few occasions when Bob has made announcements like this and a wave of dread has swept over me. The first time it was skiing (which I didn’t enjoy so much), the second time was going up in a tiny helicopter to fly over Mew Island (which I thought was great fun in the end, Bob thought otherwise, especially when I took control of the steering!), and the last time was a skid control driving course, which was frightening. Nevertheless, each time I did them and accepted that I was being forced out of my comfort zone. This time I knew would be no different and I just had to get on with it.
We arrived in Plockton this morning ready to meet Willie from Sea to Skye and our fellow novice kayakers for an introduction to kayaking course. Bob had hired a double kayak for us and made Willie aware that our key priority was to get out to and landed on Eilean a’Chait.
One of many things I’ve learned from today is that kayaking takes preparation time. You don’t just turn up, jump into the kayak and go so there was plenty of time for me to stand around thinking ‘Can we just get this over with?’ After some really handy advice on how to get into the kayak, paddling techniques, and what to do if you capsize (terrifying!) we were ready to go and off we set.
We spent a while in the harbour at Plockton just having a try before Bob and I were sent off with a couple of the guides to head straight for the lighthouse. It was actually really quite relaxing, apart from the occasions when Bob decided to paddle like there was no tomorrow and any attempt I made to paddle along was lost in the midst of his frantic oar-use.
After a while the lighthouse came into view as we neared the neighbouring island of Eilean-an-Duine, which is where the house for the former keepers’ family is located. The house can still be seen today and at low tide it is possible to wade between the two islands. This time we were aiming straight for the lighthouse though and we found a nice little seaweed pool to stop alongside the rocks and haul ourselves out of the kayak. It was a bit of a scramble to get up to the grass at the top of the island and there is actually very little grass there, but the barnacles on the rocks were great for grip even if they were a little rough on the skin.
Eilean a’Chait Lighthouse, or Plockton Lighthouse as some call it, is looking a little worse for wear. It’s now privately owned and there is some evidence that work has been done here to renovate it, but maybe that the work has come to a bit of a standstill. I am told that it was open as a holiday let some years ago.
The lighthouse actually had quite a short-lived period as an active aid to navigation. It was built around 1880, 10 years after the train connection between Dingwall and Stromeferry was introduced. From Stromeferry people could catch a steamer from the pier over to Skye and this light was deemed necessarily for the steamers to navigate the surrounding waters safely. There are varying accounts of when the light was deactivated, with one source citing 1904 and another the 1920s. Either way its discontinuation ties in with the further extension of the railway to Kyle of Lochalsh, which provided a much shorter ferry route to Skye.
The two of us explored the island for a while as our fellow kayakers glided across the calm sea surrounding it. It’s a really interesting island and was also great to see it from above with some Joe the Drone images, including one which clearly shows the shallow the sandbank between Eilean a’Chait and Eilean-an-Duine.
After a while I made my way back to the kayak while Bob quickly bagged the island high point. Once we were safely back in the kayak we set off to meet the others for lunch on a beach to the west. It was a good opportunity to have a chat with Willie, the other guides and others in the group. Willie explained that when he’d heard that a lighthouse bagger was coming along he thought I must be mad, but he actually admitted that having talked about lighthouses for a while he could understand the appeal.
Continuing further west it was getting quite choppy on the water and paddling was getting much harder. Turning back we were told to aim for the lighthouse, which was just fine with me. Bob and I returned to shore with Chris the guide while the others continued on for a bit longer. Frankly I was pretty tired by that point and felt the need to stretch my legs. It was an excellent adventure and I was nicely surprised that I felt very safe out in the kayak and that getting into and out of it during the day was actually not as challenging as I’d expected. Kayaking would certainly be something I’d be up for doing again – so well done to Willie and his team (and to Bob of course) for making it such an enjoyable day out.
By the time we were back in the car and heading off I was pretty worn out, but there was still work to be done. We’d decided to use the afternoon to catch the turntable ferry from Glenelg to Kylerhea and then see if we could touch the little Kylerhea Lighthouse. We were looking forward to a cup of tea in the old Sandaig Islands Lighthouse, now positioned just at the top of the ferry slipway, but sadly the flasks were no longer there and it looks like a tea room has opened nearby instead.
While we waited for the ferry Joe the Drone took another spin.
Once in Kylerhea we headed for the car park for the bird/nature hide, which is a good (or probably the only) starting point for walking to the lighthouse. Last time we visited part of the path down to the shore had been washed away so we weren’t able to get so close. This time though we followed the little track down to the pebbly beach. It was only an hour after high tide so I couldn’t touch the lighthouse, but it was nice to see it much closer than before anyway.
It was also another outing for Joe too.
It would have been rude not to have given Joe the chance to clap eyes on the beauty that is Ornsay lighthouse when we are staying so close to it, so we made one final stop on the way back.
It’s been a thoroughly exhausting day, but also great fun. Don’t tell Bob, but I’m quite glad he organised the trip. 🙂
A few years ago Skye became the place to be on my birthday, but it’s now been a while since I spent any length of time there – and birthdays were taken up with other trips like 2019’s Sule Skerry extravaganza!
This meant I still had a couple of lighthouses left unvisited on Skye. A long-awaited return was in order and there was no way I was going to turn down a weekend there.
Today was the day to set off. Nana was in position to take over child management at home (thanks Nana!). There was the usual packing at the last minute, throwing stuff into the car and then saying ‘have we got everything?’ This is especially the case at the moment after not being away much at all over the past year.
The journey felt long today, but we finally made it to Skye. That’s always only part of the journey though. I always forget just how big the island is and sometime later we were still in the car heading towards Dunvegan.
I’d found a walk report on the Walkhighlands website that took in Dunvegan Lighthouse at Uiginish Point, just to the north west of Dunvegan. This was really handy as, although we had Bob’s GPS device with us, it told us a particular gate we needed to go through (climb over) to be on the right side of the fence for the lighthouse.
Parking up just before Uiginish Farmhouse, we wrapped up warm as the northerly breeze was fairly strong and chilly. We set off through the farm, passing Uiginish Lodge, which is painted incredibly bright white. There’s a nice track along here and, while we were on the lookout for cattle making an appearance, we only encountered sheep.
The Walkhighlands report advised that when you reach two gates you should go through the one on the left. This was great advice as the lighthouse is one of those you can’t see until you are near enough at it, so being on the right side of the fence when it’s easy enough to do so is always helpful.
Bob, as usual, took the high route with the excuse that he was looking out to see if there were any cattle about. I wandered along a much less resistant route and enjoyed the views to the west across to a little bay with some stunning cliffs beyond.
The lighthouse soon came into sight and we battled into the breeze to get to it. It is one of the flat-pack kind and, boy, was the wind whistling through it today! When you see it on a map it looks like it could be a nice sheltered spot nestled there in Loch Dunvegan, but don’t be fooled, especially when the wind is coming from the north. It was great to look across and see the entrance to Loch Dunvegan and The Minch beyond. To the east there are good views across to Dunvegan Castle. It’s a superb spot for panoramic views.
There’s not a lot of information out there about Dunvegan Lighthouse. A Google search brings up lots of links to, relatively, nearby Neist Point and a search for Uiginish Point instead doesn’t fare much better. It is clear that the lighthouse is used to help guide vessels safely out of the Minch and into Loch Dunvegan. It is also used by vessels negotiating the route between Uiginish Point itself and the nearby island of Gairbh Eilean. My research has shown that in the 1890s steamers bound for the Western Isles stopped off in Dunvegan and this continued until the 1950s, which would explain why a Northern Lighthouse Board light would be required in this area. The lighthouses installed by the NLB were generally those that provided some sort of national importance, such as ferry and general shipping routes, while the lighting of harbours for local fishing, for example, fell to the local harbour authorities.
The walk back from the lighthouse was rather more pleasant without the wind in our faces and there ended a rather nice little wander and a great new bag for me.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 🙂