I’m not even sure how to begin this post really, so I’m just going to dive straight in there and say it. Today was the day we landed on Muckle Flugga!
I’m sure many of you will know it already, but if not then Muckle Flugga is the most northerly lighthouse in the British Isles. It is perched beautifully on top of a big rock a short distance off of the north of Unst in Shetland. Interestingly the lighthouse did, in its early days, used to be known as North Unst. It is renowned for being difficult to land on and fairly wild in terms of sea state and weather.
Last week we took a drive up to Saxa Vord with the kids and my parents to see if we could spot the lighthouse. After the fun we had with trying to do that last November I thought it might be difficult to see again, but fortunately the cloud was high and the sun was out. We joined a number of others in looking across at it. My dad had taken his telescope so I was able to get a closer view without actually being closer. That afternoon we went to Unst Heritage Centre, which has a small but incredibly interesting exhibition space dedicated to Muckle Flugga lighthouse. There’s obviously a lot of local knowledge, experience and information there and it gives a great picture of the human side of the lighthouse with the keepers and boatmen. It’s well worth a visit for anyone interested in the lighthouse.
I should point out before I get too carried away with today’s trip that the Northern Lighthouse Board do not advise anyone lands on the island and we approached it fully accepting that we were doing it at our own risk.
Back to today’s trip, we had known since early last year that an attempt to land on Muckle Flugga was on the agenda for this two-week stint in Shetland. While I thought that two weeks in June would maximise our chances as much as we possibly could, I never really believed we would manage it. The boatman was hesitant to take us there for a start. He obviously knows the area well and understands that landing there is a rare occurrence. We went out with him on a trip last week and through conversations I had with him it seemed unlikely that we would even attempt it. One thing that did work in our favour though was that the skipper got a chance last week to see just how capable the group are of carrying out tricky landings. I’m not necessarily talking about myself. In fact, not at all, I tend to be helped a lot by my very able companions.
A few days later, yesterday in fact, we received a message from Alan who is organising the trips to say that the first Muckle Flugga group (which included us) would be going today and the forecast was also looking good. It was all sounding positive, but I wasn’t going to get my hopes up to much, just in case.
It was a fairly calm journey up the west coast of Unst, which was encouraging, but of course we had the shelter of the island on our side. The wind had moved around to the south east and the skipper had said last week that any wind/swell from the north would make it impossible to land – another thing in our favour.
Around 50 minutes into the trip the lighthouse came into view. The sea still didn’t seem to be too bad and I did think that perhaps we may well be able to do it. This was confirmed about 10 minutes later when we arrived near the landing and the skipper gave a positive indication that we would give it a go. There was still movement in the sea so we moved to the slightly sheltered north west side of the island to unload into the tender. Bob hopped into the tender along with Brian who has experience of landing there. I asked if I should go in the first run too and in I hopped, well slid really as it was a bit of a drop from the main boat into the tender (as I was to find when getting back into the main boat afterwards)! It was a bit splashy on the way to the island and I tried not to laugh too much as the others got splashed full in the face.
Arriving at the landing place we knew we would need to go up the old steps as the new steps have been removed in places. Bob leapt off of the boat with his micro-spikes on to pull the boat in. The landing on a flat piece of rock was fairly straightforward, but it immediately got slippery for those of us not wearing micro-spikes. There were plenty of steps ahead of us (246 in total I was informed), but we took it slowly and a short time later we were there at the top with the lighthouse in front of us.
It’s astounding to think how the lighthouse and all of the associated buildings came to be here. It’s not even a particularly basic layout for a lighthouse complex. There are more buildings than there are at some other, much less remote lighthouses. How you would look at a big rock like that and think “I need to build a lighthouse there” without also thinking “Where on Earth do I even start?” I don’t know.
In the main courtyard there is the tower and attached buildings along with an old store room as well as a small square building that once housed an old sector light pointing eastwards. This sector light operated until it was replaced by a new light on Holm of Skaw, further around the coast to the south east. On the far side of the tower, just outside the compound, was the helipad and beyond this you could wander downhill slightly to another very small building. Apparently this was used at one point for keeping the Muckle Flugga resident chickens in! Just down the steps from the helipad was a great place to see the local puffins and fulmars from.
The views from the top of the rock are stunning. The low cloud was still rising in the distance when we were first there so there were the tops of a number of the nearby stacks with their heads in the cloud. We could also clearly see across to Out Stack, the most northerly piece of land in the UK, or as the promotional leaflets will tell you ‘The full stop at the end of the British Isles’! Standing on Muckle Flugga feels like a real achievement. The height of the island, the location and everything else bundled together is extraordinary. I found myself singing a lot while we were there, which is a sure sign of excitement.
We’d been brought across in three loads (I think, although I wasn’t paying too much attention to the others at that point) and the final group had a little more trouble with landing. It was becoming clear that we couldn’t spend much longer there without the swell picking up too much, so we began to make our way back down. I may have enjoyed the steps slightly more if they hadn’t been so slippery with some half covered in grassy tufts which seemed to be growing out of the stone! Getting back into the tender was fine, but the journey back was a little wet. The tide was changing and going against the wind, which was making things a bit more interesting. As previously mentioned, I just about managed to clamber back up into the main boat and enjoy the feeling of having been to such a challenging and inaccessible lighthouse.
Bob and a couple of the others were keen to land on Out Stack while we were there. If I was more able to bound about onto and off of rocks then I would have gone too just to be able to say that I’d been to the top of Britain. The skipper was concerned that there was only a short window of opportunity left to get them on the stack before the swell got too big. After a while looking for the best place to land the three of them got onto the stack and successfully reached the top. Getting them back onto the tender was a bit more interesting as they leapt in. At one point I think we all thought one of the guys had gone into the sea, but he emerged out of the boat. Bob was the final one off and leapt like a gazelle onto the tender, as he does!
The others landed on a couple of other islands/big rocks in the area so we were able to gaze lovingly at Muckle Flugga and its lighthouse for quite some time. One of these islands (just south of Muckle Flugga) was Cliff Skerry from which Bob took the most amazing picture looking across to the lighthouse.
What a fantastic place. I feel the same as I did with Sule Skerry and the Flannans, which is something along the lines of “was I really there?”, but I most definitely was and it may sink in at some point. What a place. 🙂