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. 🙂

Around Unst and to Muckle Flugga

Yesterday marked the first day of a holiday in Shetland and it certainly got off to an excellent start with a chartered boat trip around Unst.

It was all a bit of a rush in the morning with a fairly short window of opportunity for getting off the ferry, offloading the kids with my parents at our amazing accommodation, and then getting to the ferry at Toft to head to Yell by 8.45am. It was a tall order, but we made it and our small group gathered at Cullivoe to head out on board Lysander, the new boat owned by the same company as the Compass Rose which took us to Muckle Flugga and numerous islands in the area in 2019.

We climbed on board and off we set. It was very good to be back out with bagging friends after such a long time without being part of a group beyond just a few people. The plan was to sail clockwise around Unst and visit a number of islands on the way. We got off to a good start and after a few members of the group had set foot on some islands it was time to head for the main event of the day, an attempt to land on Muckle Flugga. The skipper reported the conditions up there the previous day had been very rough and so he didn’t hold out much hope of landing. Ever the optimist I was willing to withhold judgement until we got closer. The further north we got the more surprised we became at how calm it still seemed. Finally Muckle Flugga with its majestic lighthouse came into view and us lighthouse baggers waited patiently – well, not actually very patiently at all.

Approaching Muckle Flugga

As we edged closer it became more obvious that landing was likely to be possible, although we still needed to check out the landing area a bit closer as there was still a little bit of swell running in there. A few of us keen beans hopped into the brilliant ‘tin bath’ tender and set off for the landing. There was quite a bit of movement in the water, but thankfully not enough to stop us getting safely onto the rocks.

Looking up on the approach to the landing

After a brief celebration we were keen to get going up those historical steps. It was a real delight to see so many puffins around and although many were scared off as we made our way up the steps, we were still able to see them at fairly close range. There were some fulmar chicks around too threatening to spit at us, but we left them in peace and moved on.

Puffins on Muckle Flugga
Out Stack and the puffins

Although I’d been before and so knew the lie of the land there, it was still a real pleasure to see the stunning views towards Out Stack and to the east. Added to this was the pure joy emanating from those I was with who felt just as awe-inspired as I had the first time around, enjoying the combination of getting to this so rarely visited corner of the British Isles and seeing the incredible lighthouse and landscape of the area.

The view south from Muckle Flugga
Muckle Flugga Lighthouse
The lighthouse from the helipad

There was no way we could have gone to Muckle Flugga without Joe the Drone coming along. I’ll let those pictures speak for themselves.

Muckle Flugga and its neighbouring rocks
A Joe the Drone view of Muckle Flugga Lighthouse
Muckle Flugga Lighthouse and Out Stack

Knowing our work was not done for the day, we enjoyed the last moments of exploring before descending back down to the boat. After leaving Muckle Flugga we headed down Burra Firth for a few of the group to set foot on another island. This was rather fortuitous as it gave us a chance to see the Muckle Flugga Shore Station from the sea.

Muckle Flugga Shore Station at Burrafirth

I was particularly excited about our next stop as it was an island I knew wouldn’t be easy to get to. Holm of Skaw is home to the lighthouse that replaced an old sector light which was within the Muckle Flugga complex. The structure here is a flat-pack lighthouse and very much a standard one. There was a bit of swell at the landing point we went for on the west side of the island. The rocks were covered in barnacles, which certainly helped to prevent slipping, but wasn’t too easy on the hands. Once up on the grass it was actually quite a surprising island, which reminded me a lot of some of the islands in Yell Sound, like Little Holm and Muckle Holm with some really surprising flora and fauna about. The island is fairly flat and grass-covered, but there are some reminders of its harsh location with some impressive geology on the east side. I found this particularly interesting as I always expect the west side of islands to be the more rugged, but I suppose its location gives it a little protection from the west.

Approaching Holm of Skaw Lighthouse
Holm of Skaw Lighthouse
A geo on the east side of Holm of Skaw

Joe the Drone refuses to miss an opportunity so got some excellent images of the island.

Holm of Skaw from above
Holm of Skaw

After the challenges of landing on the west, we used a calmer spot on the south of the island for returning to the tender. I had missed getting a bit wet on a tender so was actually quite pleased, sitting at the very front of the tender, to get a bit of a splashing. You don’t get the fully experience if you aren’t splashed along the way on these boat days.

Down the east side of Unst we had our final stop of the day, which was Balta island. I’d visited this one and its lighthouse in 2019, but it was great to approach the island from the north this time and see how just long it is. It’s a pretty special island and somehow stands out from many others. It boasts some very impressive little beaches and it was only from seeing the drone shots later on that day that I appreciated just how rugged it is on the east side. Again it surprised me, but this one is very much more sheltered on the west side with Balta Sound being only a relatively narrow channel between the island and Unst.

Balta island from the north
Balta from the south

We landed on the rocks below the little breakwater and set off, heading south to the lighthouse for the lighthouse baggers to visit Balta Sound Lighthouse. This is another easy island to walk about on and the sheep have left some nice little tracks all over the place. There are remains of old buildings on the island and I imagine there is plenty of history there and it once was home to a fairly good-sized population.

On the approach to Balta Sound Lighthouse
Balta Sound Lighthouse

It was great to see the lighthouse again and to be joined by the rest of the lighthouse bagging group there too. It’s another standard flat-pack, but it’s a really lovely location. I could spend a lot longer on the island just walking around its coastline.

Balta island

It was then time to head back to Cullivoe and rest after an enjoyable but tiring day 🙂

A Shetland Adventure – part 8 (the best day)

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.

MF through telescope
Muckle Flugga lighthouse through a telescope

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.

 

MF from sea2
The view from the sea

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.

MF distance
The view from the sheltered side

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.

MF front
Muckle Flugga lighthouse

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.

MF sector
The old sector light building

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.

MF and helipad
The lighthouse and helipad

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.

MF steps
Some of the 246 slippery steps

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.

MF from Cliff Skerry
Muckle Flugga from Cliff Skerry

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. 🙂