There are the odd occasions when you spend some time in a place and plans just don’t work out as you’d hoped. Usually, in the case of visiting island lighthouses, this is due to the weather. This was certainly the case over the past week which we spent in South Uist.
The Western Isles islands of Lewis and Harris hold a special place in my heart, but the shores of the chain of islands comprising of North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay plus a multitude of smaller islands around them, were fairly unexplored. The area doesn’t boast the volume of lighthouses that the islands to the north do and most that can be found there I had visited last year, including Ushenish, Weavers Point and Gasay. There was one that remained though, Calvay. I’d seen it from the ferry last year as we left Lochboisdale, but seeing it from the ferry just wasn’t close enough and so it was part of the agenda for the week just gone.
As the week approached it was clear that the weather wasn’t got to play ball. With strong winds and wet weather forecast, it looked like we’d be lucky to get out on a boat trip at all. I was in regular contact with David from Uist Sea Tours and it only took a couple of days to realise that Friday was really going to be the only day a trip would be possible. It was no big problem as we occupied ourselves as tourists on the islands with the kids and met up with friends who had joined us for the week.
As Friday approached we got the final confirmation from David that we were good to go. The plan was to stick to Lochboisdale area and then creep up the east coast a little way and, if conditions allowed, to sail down to the island of Gighay to the south west of Eriskay. With the kids in tow it was decided that I would join for the beginning of the trip only, taking the kids along for a short ride out to Calvay and back.
There was still some swell about, remnants of a few days of strong winds, and so landing on the north side of the island looked like it might be a bit tricky. Although it would land us further from the lighthouse, we headed around to the south side where it seemed nice and calm. For this first venture onto the island (the others returned later) it was just my lighthouse pal John and I.
Landing on seaweed is never the nicest way to set a first foot on an island, but we managed it with some assistance from David. There aren’t many occasions when you hear someone say ‘Grab any part of me you need to’! Then it was making our way across the wet and dry rocks before we hit the heather. There are good things about heather, it’s really grippy underfoot, but it’s also very hard work to walk through. You can never really see where you are stepping and on occasionally there will be a hole hidden underneath and I ended up with a foot in a hole a few times, which would end with me having a ‘quick sit down’ two or three times.
John did a great job of navigating, heading off ahead and then advised as to whether we should continue on that route or head for a slightly easier looking track. We find a nice grassy route at one point, but then lost the benefit of the ground being fairly dry underfoot. The distance from the landing point to the lighthouse was relatively short, but it wasn’t easy going.
We arrived to some lovely views across the entrance to Lochboisdale waters. The island is really best known for its castle (which is on a different tidal section of the island) and was one of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hiding places. The full story of his escapes on and around Calvay can be found here.
The existing lighthouse here was installed in 1985 and, along with its twin light on Gasay, was the first of the second generation of this type (a friend of mine who was on the trip refers to them as Stefansons – a combination of a link to the Stevenson lighthouse engineers, and the flat-pack style of the towers. The original ‘Stefanson’ was on Eilean nan Gabhar near Jura, but it has since been replaced making these two the oldest still in existence.
The structure is the Northern Lighthouse Board’s standard framework tower with white cladding – known as SPLATS (solar powered lattice aluminium tower). It is slightly different though in that it has no cladding on the ground level and a section on the first floor that is also unclad, on the landward side. These white cladding panels work wonders as daymarks and have certainly helped me to spot many a flat-pack lighthouse in the past.
The first lighthouse on Calvay was built in 1891 to a design of David A Stevenson with the assistance of his brother Charles. The light was installed following a request from the West Highland Commission that more aids to navigation be built to support trade in the area. The purpose of the lighthouse on Calvay specifically was to mark the entrance to Lochboisdale. Nothing there at present resembles the style of lighthouse he often designed, although he didn’t stick to the a standard design with examples of more unusual styles being Dunollie and Kyle Rhea lighthouses.
While there we noticed an old concrete pillar laying on its side on the ground in front of the light. I have since asked the boatman what purpose this served and whether it was somehow related to the stone platform just to the west of the light (which is shown as a shed here). It may well be that this pillar was part of the former lighthouse. He is going to look into it, but if any readers have further information about this then do get in touch here.
Keen not to hold everyone up for too long at the start of the day, we began the slow walk back to the pick-up point, which was easier than the drop-off, but still seaweed-covered. I think that was unavoidable really and John was a big help in getting me safely across the seaweed without slipping.
Just this evening, while looking back through some of the drone images we spotted a little jetty not far at all from the lighthouse. It’s quite tucked away, understandably given that its primary purpose is probably to allow vessels to land to maintain the lighthouse. The walk from it wouldn’t have been half as fun though!
Back on the main boat it was time for the kids and I to head back to dry land. We had some lovely reflection views of the light on Gasay en route back to the marina, which incidentally is where the starting point is for the short walk to Gasay lighthouse – made accessible without a boat since the new marina was built.
It may only have been a single lighthouse on this trip, but actually that was really the only one on the original itinerary that I’d not managed to get close to before so I’m happy. 🙂