It’s been just over seven years since I visited my first lighthouse in the Western Isles and it’s taken six week-long trips there to have got as close as I possibly could to all 23 of the lights. The map below from my book shows where they all are. I’ve physically touched 20 of them and have been close to three others. Those are Milaid Point, Gasker and, today’s light Calvay.
This morning it was time to leave the Western Isles. We’d previously booked the ferry from Lochmaddy on North Uist to Uig on Skye. Once we became aware that we couldn’t get out on a chartered boat though, I suggested we change the booking to go out from Lochboisdale instead so we could at least pass Calvay and it’s little light as we left. With the booking changed, we poised ourselves on the outside deck of the ferry for departure.
While we waited we could see the lights on both Gasay, which we visited on Sunday, and Calvay. By the time we set off the lights had gone out for the day. It was good to pass by Gasay having been there a few days ago and to see some of the rocks we had wandered about on submerged.
A little further on was Calvay. The light on Calvay is a twin of the one on Gasay and has the important role of guiding vessels safely into and out of Lochboisdale.
Calvay is a relatively small island, but it has some history. In the 13th century a castle was built on a tidal section of the island and later Bonnie Prince Charlie used the castle, now in ruins, to hide.
A Wikipedia entry for Calvay castle states that the island also has a lighthouse built by David Alan Stevenson in 1891, which is very clearly no longer the case. That does, however, suggest that it was the small white towers, like Sgeir Ghlas which I visited on Saturday, that stood here previously. I notice there is no mention of Gasay lighthouse on the Northern Lighthouse Board’s Stevenson’s engineers list, which suggests that the light on Gasay came later.
It may have just been a fleeting glance at Calvay’s little light, but hopefully at some point I will get to take a closer look.
So that’s me having visited all of the lighthouses in this area. I’ve had to try harder and been more persistent here than I have in any other region of the UK. I’ve had some fantastic days out with highlights being: visiting the unnerving Sula Sgeir and the beautiful North Rona on my very first visit to the Western Isles; walking up to Barra Head lighthouse and the incredible views from that most southerly point of the Outer Hebrides; two stunning days in a row wearing short sleeves in the sunshine when visiting the Flannans Isles and the Monach Islands followed by Haskeir lighthouse; to this trip where I reached some of the most remote lights.
I know I have three left I can improve upon and hopefully the opportunity will arise one day. I now feel more confident about landing on Gasker having had my little scrambling episode to get to Rubh Uisenis. I’d like to land at Milaid Point when conditions allow and visit Calvay when boats are back up and running again. Until then I will enjoy my wonderful memories of this stunning part of the country.
Before I finish this post I wanted to return to the topic of COVID-19 as mentioned in yesterday’s post. The pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on the trips we have managed this year. While we have enjoyed the trips, they are not the same as they were pre-COVID.
In terms of visiting lighthouses using chartered boats we are now going alone or with one or two friends rather than with 10 or more others as we have done in the past. This, of course, increases the cost significantly.
In addition, we always book self-catering accommodation where we know we’ll not be mixing with others. Our choice in accommodation is also dictated by the cancellation policies as we realise that short notice cancellations may be required to ensure we comply with the government’s regulations. We don’t eat out, instead cooking dinner for ourselves at the accommodation or getting a takeaway. This trip has been the first where we have used public transport (the ferry) and we sat outside for the crossing with face masks on, and fortunately today’s crossing was very quiet so we sat indoors away from others with our face masks on for the entirety of the journey. Some of these things aren’t enjoyable, but the opportunity to visit these lighthouses, get outdoors and have a change of scene more than makes up for it. 🙂
Phew, where do I begin? I’m not sure I’ve ever put as much effort into visiting a single lighthouse as I did over the past few days with Ushenish. With a good view of Calvay lighthouse from the ferry tomorrow when we leave Lochboisdale, it only left this one lighthouse that I had not yet seen in the Western Isles.
The plan for the beginning of this week had been to go out with Uist Sea Tours from Lochboisdale, land on Calvay and then head around to the landing point for Ushenish as well as doing some islands for Bob along the way. All was well, and then COVID-19 arrived on South Uist. David who runs Uist Sea Tours contacted me at the end of last week to say that he may need to go into self-isolation and was then in regular contact over the weekend with updates and then final confirmation that he would not be able to take us out. I should say that David has been incredibly quick to respond to my messages in organising the trip and I hope one day we do manage to get out on his boat. A really professional company who are up for these mad lighthouse and island-related days out.
Then the fun of finding an alternative boatman began. During the course of Sunday I contacted five alternative boat companies, two based on the Uist, one on Barra and two others on Skye. We had also floated the idea with Seumas at Sea Harris on Saturday and he ended up offering us a really reasonable price to come all the way down from Scalpay just to take us to the landing for Ushenish and then drop us back off again. I really cannot recommend Sea Harris enough! Some companies weren’t available or weren’t running due to the pandemic, one got back to me with a quote and a couple didn’t respond. Needless to say it was a lot of effort.
Bob made the suggestion that we could walk out to the lighthouse. Initially I was hesitant, thinking that it was a ridiculously long walk, but we looked at the map and I suddenly realised that this was the only way I could guarantee I would get there (boats are obviously weather dependent, although it was looking ok for today). I happily agreed to this plan and we chose today rather than yesterday as the weather was forecast to be considerably better.
This morning we set off, parking at the starting point we’d found on a short recce the other day. The route was initially following a good path and across a couple of nice (although broken in places) bridges. There had been heavy rain early this morning, which meant the paths were fairly muddy in places.
After around 1.5kms the path marked on the map ended, but for an extra half a kilometre an extended track continued. Between dodging mud and boggy sections I managed to stop and enjoy the views.
The extended path then came to an end and it was down to Bob to guide us through. One of the biggest challenges during the walk was crossing rivers. Some, such as the one pictured below, involved a bit of a leap of faith. Others weren’t so wide, but presented other challenges such as slippery rocks at crossing points which led to me getting very wet at one point!
The terrain varied from muddy, boggy, rough to overgrown. There were plenty of up and downhills too, which kept me on my toes. Bob had chosen a higher route across the section between the end of the extended path and the lighthouse landing area to help avoid the longer undergrowth and even wetter ground further down. The section with no path was by far the trickiest and when we could we followed the deer tracks. Otherwise Bob navigated us professionally through whatever terrain we came upon.
After what felt like a long time, the old lighthouse store at the boat landing area came into view and we followed a deer track along the coast.
I knew it couldn’t be long before we reached the lighthouse and Bob stopped ahead of me, which is always a good sign that we are on the approach.
Ushenish lighthouse is a small tower, not needing to be high due to its position on a tall cliff. There are a couple of buildings within the complex, but originally there would have been the keepers’ houses here where they lived with their families – what a life that would have been! The houses have now been demolished, but you can still see their foundations.
It was a real shame to see the wall around the lighthouse falling away in places. As with Tiumpan Head the other day, it reminds you of the hard work that would have gone into building it all those years ago, over 160 years in fact. It is sad to see, but I suppose the wall is no longer so important.
It was fairly windy at the lighthouse with some strong gusts, but Bob decided to try putting Joe the Drone up to see if he could manage to capture some images. Joe only went up for a short time due to the wind, but still managed some fantastic shots.
There was an interesting structure in the complex. I recalled seeing something very similar elsewhere, it may have been Auskerry in Orkney. I’m not sure what it is for, but would be very interested to hear if anyone has any ideas. You can contact me here if you have any thoughts or information.
After having lunch at the lighthouse it was time to begin the long journey back. This was where we suddenly began to spot nature aplenty. Within the lighthouse complex there were a number of hairy caterpillars and it always amazes me how these small creatures that seem so delicate can survive in such harsh areas. I recalled visiting Eshaness lighthouse in Shetland last year and being fascinated by how many butterflies were there. They always look so small and easily damaged and yet seeing them in these locations proves that they are much more hardy than we give them credit for. All the way back to the car there were caterpillars littering the ground and I made a point of being careful to avoid stepping on them.
Further along the track we had a call from our little daughter who wanted to speak to us. As we were chatting Bob said “Is that an eagle?” and we watched as a sea eagle flew around close by and then landed near the edge of the cliff. We waited patiently to watch it fly off again, but it seemed quite happily settled on the ground. What a treat!
We reached the landing area again and braced ourselves for the off piste section again.
The walk back was tiring and we just kept walking. I felt that if I stopped I wouldn’t want to get going again so I put my head down, concentrated on one step at a time and waited patiently until we got to the easier section again.
I was glad to be back on the path, but even happier to get back to the road. It had been a long walk, about 10 miles in total with the weaving around we did to make the going a little easier. Walking to Ushenish lighthouse is the furthest and most challenging walk I’ve ever done to a lighthouse and I am pleased that it involved more effort than many others. A reviewer of my book described my ‘tenacity’ and I’d not realised until reading that how determined I am to reach these places. I certainly am determined, even if it nearly breaks me. I certainly won’t be forgetting the walk to Ushenish in a hurry. A great day! 🙂
With the wind shifting around to the north and the wind speed increasing it was touch and go as to whether or not we would make it out on the boat trip we had planned yesterday. Bob spoke to Seumas from Sea Harris the previous night and I was delighted when he confirmed that we would go ahead with the trip.
It was the first time I’ve been out on the water around the Western Isles visiting lighthouses for a couple of years and I must admit I had missed it’s wild ways and unpredictable nature, and also the boatmen who know it so well (well mainly Seumas as he has got me to near enough all of the offshore lights in the Western Isles).
Off we set from Scalpay and our first stop was one I was very excited about. Sgeir Ghlas is a bit different with the red top – and it’s one of those older towers introduced by the Northern Lighthouse Board around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries.
Landing on the island was fine as the sea was calm and the seaweed covering the rocks wasn’t too slippy. Being a very small and relatively flat piece of land it was only a short stroll to the lighthouse. It’s looking a little weather beaten, but apparently much better than when our skipper was last there. That time it didn’t have a door and there were birds nesting inside. It’s good to see that it now has both doors intact and reminds me of Rubh’an Eun on Bute which has also had a bit of improvement work done to it in recent years.
Bob flew Joe the Drone for a while and, as usual, got some great shots.
Leaving the island behind we headed out into The Minch and then northwards along the east coast. The change in sea conditions became very obvious as soon as we were out of the shelter of Harris. Up the coast we passed Rubh Uisenis lighthouse which I had previously only seen from a great distance on the way to Eilean Glas lighthouse. We decided to first tackle Milaid Point lighthouse, which we all knew would be the trickiest of the day and come back to Rubh Uisenis.
Milaid Point lighthouse is a flat-pack style and these are usually not the most interesting looking. This one is a bit different though and reminded me a little of the one on the Garvellachs which is also in a fantastic location. Milaid Point lighthouse is set down on the cliff with steps leading down to it from the cliff top. As a result it’s actually not so far above the sea. The view from the sea is great with the light, the steps and two old platforms, one of which was presumably where the previous lighthouse tower was located, and the skipper recalled there being some sort of radar station there at some point which probably explains the other platform.
It was fairly obvious that we weren’t going to be able to land near the lighthouse with the rise and fall of the swell so we sailed around the corner to the south to see if we could find somewhere to land and then walk up and along. Once we were in the tender we realised just how steep the cliffs in the area were. A couple of times we spotted sections we thought we might be able to make it up, but once we were in the small tender we realised just how steep it would be. Bob landed at one place and walked/scrambled up the sections of rock to see if it would be a suitable way up. He ended up descending back down one particular section, a flat slope, using a rope as it was so slippery. So that was not an option, but I was very grateful that he had tried to find a way that I could manage.
We took the tender back around to the rocks below the steps near the lighthouse, but we all agreed that it wasn’t going to be possible to land. It was a shame, but we’d got great views of it and Bob managed to fly Joe the Drone around it a bit too.
We’d spent longer than expected at Milaid Point and it was time to sail back down towards Rubh Uisenis lighthouse. Although there was a landing below the lighthouse here, again there was just too much swell. We anchored just to the south in a sheltered area and hopped into the tender to see if there was anywhere here that would make it slightly more accessible than Milaid Point.
Sailing back around to the landing area for a closer look we thought it was just too much of a risk with quite a significant rise and fall in the water level. We’d spotted a potential point around the corner and so went along to that. Thankfully we both managed to get ashore, but the hardest bit was to come. I am not a climber and never will be, or even a scrambler. I’ve just scrambled a bit on very few occasions when reaching a lighthouse requires it. I think the best way to describe the section of rocks we needed to climb up is with a picture so here is one.
It was slow going getting up there, but we made it and then there was a short walk along to the lighthouse, although there was a hill in the way so we had to go over that. I was surprised not to be able to see the lighthouse once we reached the top of the hill, but it’s another one that’s set down a bit and so we had to walk a bit further before it came into view. Once we reached the top of the slope where the ground dropped down to the lighthouse the scrambling and uphill walk were forgotten. I know you are supposed to look up at lighthouses, but there’s always something special about looking down on them, particular when it’s one of these types of towers.
These round white towers were introduced by the Northern Lighthouse Board to replace some of the older small lighthouses (like the one on Sgeir Ghlas shown above), but before they started to use the flat-pack type. The Shiants Isles in the background helped to make the view even more enjoyable. Also knowing that this was a place that very few people would have been added to my appreciation of it. Rubh Uisenis is believed to be the most remote land-based lighthouse in Britain with hours and hours of walking over hills and bog to endure if you attempt it from the land.
We wandered around for a while, down some of the steps, taking a look at the platform the old lighthouse (I assume) would have sat on. There is a wonderful picture online of the previous lighthouse located here.
Reaching Rubh Uisenis felt like a great achievement. It had seemed so inaccessible previously. I was very pleased, but I also realised we needed to get back down the rocks!
Bob had brought along his trusty rope and for the descent tied it around my waist and held on tight while I went down. We did this in three sections with me stopping on a ledge part way down, pulling the rope down and then waiting for Bob to come down to where I was before I carried on. It was pretty hard going, moreso because I was struggling at times to pull the rope to take the next step, but that was a good sign as if I’d fallen I would have been glad of the tension in the rope! I didn’t fall though and we made it safely back down and onto the boat. It’s fair to say I was very relieved and very happy!
Again we’d spent longer there than planned. Whizzing on down the coast we sailed past Eilean Glas lighthouse which was looking just as wonderful as it did by land on Friday.
Onwards to North Uist and this next one marked my first visit to the Uists, and what a dignified one it was.
Weavers Point, or Weaver Point lighthouse, is another one that involved a fairly long walk across difficult terrain if approached by land so what better way to arrive than by boat, especially when there are some wonderful steps leading up the cliff. Quite a treat that was, especially after the last one!
Weaver Point lighthouse is another flat-pack structure and a fairly standard one, but it was good to see it up close and enjoy the surrounding scenery too. I’m looking forward to spending more time on the Uists in the coming days.
At this point I was feeling like I was hogging all of the boat time so it was Bob’s turn to enjoy a couple of islands he’d not been to before. In true goat fashion he was up and down both in no time at all.
By now the sun was going down, but there was one more stop for the day. We’ve sailed out of Leverburgh a number of times and so regularly passed the red and black Dubh Sgeir light. We were both keen to investigate it a bit more so we landed on the rocks and slowly (because I am not a goat like Bob) made our way towards the tower. When Bob says “use these steps” or “walk on the path” you can almost guarantee that what is in front of you in no way resembles steps or a path. At one point we found a large long and fairly flat rock which Bob likened it to Sauchiehall Street (one of Glasgow’s main shopping streets)!
Dubh Sgeir is an interesting light and though there’s not much to it, it was nice to visit. As I said to Bob it felt like the the Western Isles’ answer to Barrel of Butter (which is in Scapa Flow, Orkney – take a look at this post from last year to see that one).
The sun was setting so it was time to head back to Scalpay. We had a bit of an added bonus on the way back with some common dolphins leaping out of the water alongside the boat. Normally I’m not so excited when you see the occasional dolphin or whale fin sticking out of the sea, but to see them swimming and jumping alongside us was great. They obviously wanted to celebrate my successful day. As did a few of the lighthouses we’d seen as they were flashing away as we returned to Scalpay – always a delight to see.
It had been a very long day, with 11 hours on the boat, but a really successful one. I’d reached a few lights that had been bothering me for quite some time and also been as close as it was safe to get to all of the lighthouses on and around Lewis and Harris. Another fantastic day to add to the bank of memories I have of the area.
I hope to do at least one more post during this trip, but the second boat trip we had planned has had a rather large spanner thrown in the works. Fingers crossed plan B or Plan C will come together! 🙂
I’ve spent many a day out getting to the lighthouses on small islands off the coast of the Western Isles, but this means that I’ve somewhat abandoned the lights on the main islands of Lewis and Harris. With the exception of Butt of Lewis I’d not visited them since my first trip to the Western Isles in 2014. It felt like a good time to rectify that.
Having seen Tiumpan Head flashing last night I was keen to get a bit closer to it again. We set off and as we headed out of Stornoway I spotted a ship with a particularly recognisable shape just off the coast. I’ve seen the Northern Lighthouse Board’s maintenance vessel Pharos on many of my trips out and about, and was fortunate enough to have a look around her in Oban last year. The first time I saw her was at Bell Rock back in 2012, which was actually one of my first lighthouse boat trips.
I obviously wanted to get a closer view today if I could. Looking at the map I thought we’d be able to get the best view from Swordale. Luckily there was a nice gate with a “no dogs” sign on it leading to a field where we could get some nice views across to it. A bit of a bonus, although I did get wet feet as I walked across a rather boggy part of the field. No pain, no gain!
A short time later we arrived at Tiumpan Head. Last time we were there it was misty and overcast and the one lasting memory was of dogs barking and barking the whole time. This time the dog barks were still there, but the weather was much better, albeit quite windy.
As well as the improved conditions my appreciation of the lighthouse was greater this time around. Much of the last few years of lighthouse visits has been spent dashing around like a headless chicken trying to do as much as possible in the limited time available. Now I find myself more and more spending longer at these places and enjoying them more, discovering more and letting them grow on me. In a message to a friend earlier I likened the lighthouses to people and how the more you see them and get to know them the more fond of them you become. Of course there are always exceptions!
The tower, which is maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board is looking great, but it was sad to see that part of the outer wall of the complex has fallen away. It made me think of the builders all those years ago when the lighthouse was built making these wonderful solid structures. It is rare, in my experience, to see the walls falling down.
After I’d finished wandering around and taking some pictures, we drove west and discovered what looked remarkably like an old lighthouse building alongside a little slipway at Portnaguran. I got in touch with a friend who is knowledgeable on the history of the Northern Lighthouse Board and he agreed that it most likely was related to the lighthouse and used as an equipment or materials store coming in from, or going out by, boat from the slipway. I also checked with my friend and he confirmed that the grey colour of the quoins were what the Northern Lighthouse Board used before they introduced the yellow/beige colour, which goes by many names. These discoveries teach you that you really do need to keep your eyes open as you never know what you might discover.
On the way to our next destination, we stopped by to check access to Arnish Point lighthouse for a friend of mine who plans to visit it next year. We found the road that we’d driven up 6 years ago and decided against going up there this time due to the large puddles/potholes on it. Thankfully it looked like access would still be fine, but we decided against the 1km walk to the lighthouse today as we had somewhere else to be. We did find a nice vantage point on the way out of the industrial estate though that offered wonderful views of the lighthouse and all the way over to where the Pharos was anchored.
Our final destination of the day, and by chance we arrived there later than planned, was Eilean Glas on Scalpay. This one is so often photographed and you can really see why. For a start everyone loves a red and white lighthouse, and when it is located here with panoramic vistas in every direction what is not to like?
I had read a few days earlier that the improvement works to the cottages at Eilean Glas were now forging ahead and that a new guidebook about the lighthouse had just been published. The sign near the parking area also mentioned tea and coffee being available – there aren’t many lighthouses where you can get that!
The track out to the lighthouse is fantastic. Last time we visited we didn’t realise there was a track and so took the coastal route, which was nice but a bit more challenging – especially at 6 months pregnant! There’s obviously a considerable amount of work gone into the track and signposting. It certainly makes it a much more accessible place than it probably was previously.
With the sun going down we had that wonderful warm glow on the lighthouse and we are both now converted to the idea of visiting lighthouses at sunset. Fortunately we weren’t there too late to see the lady who is coordinating the effort to renovate the cottages. Once we’d bought a copy of the guidebook and a cup of tea we got chatting to her about the work going on there. The work actually began in 1983 so the effort is as old as I am, but it’s been a little stop/start since then. The current push is sounding positive though and let’s hope it continues.
There’s a lot to see there and, as always, this is best shown in picture form, so here are a few from today.
Bob had taken Joe the Drone along with us, although we weren’t sure if it would be too windy to use it. He decided to give it a go anyway and Joe seemed to cope fine with any gusts. He had to come back down briefly as it began to rain, but the shower didn’t last long and he was back up again in no time. Often when you are taking pictures of something you can see if it’s going to make for a particularly good image. It’s slightly different with the drone though as you really just put it up, fly around and see what looks good once you are up there.
At first the drone was struggling with automatically flying in a circle around the lighthouse as the brightness of the white bands were causing the drone to lose its focus. After trying a few different angles, Bob flew it around the seaward side on the south east, looking back towards the lighthouse. Looking at the picture on the screen we knew that this was the angle it had to be taken from with the mountains of Harris in the background. Here are a few of Joe’s pictures.
I heard earlier today that a friend had shared some of Joe’s pictures from the Butt of Lewis yesterday with one of his friends. One of the comments that came back was that it was interesting how the lighthouse dominates when seen from the ground, but some of the drone images make it look so small in comparison to the landscape surrounding it. It is so true and one of the joys of the drone images is that it reminds you that no matter how big or tall manmade structures are, nature will always dwarf them. I think that’s a nice note to end on today. More to come tomorrow… 🙂
Today was the first day of a new adventure in the Western Isles. With our son now at school, we called upon Bob’s mum to take the childcare wheel while Bob and I have a week away exploring even more of the lighthouses and islands in the area. This will be our sixth week-long break over here and I’ve grown very fond on the Western Isles since I first visited in 2014. Many a day has been spent on the water here and there is no place like it.
This morning we set off early and quickly realised how cold it was. The sky had obviously been beautifully clear overnight leading to layers of frost on the trees. Very unexpected for September.
The first lighthouse we spotted today was Loch Eriboll. This little flat-pack lighthouse may not be much to look at, but I think it’s quite special and I’ve enjoyed a couple of great walks out there. As it was still early the light was on and I was pleasantly surprised to see it’s flash was a lovely warm white light rather than the harsh LEDs so often used these days. I am always intrigued by Loch Eriboll lighthouse as it seems like such an unlikely location for a light, bit I suppose if you consider that the loch is the only large safe haven to the west of Scrabster for ships passing along the north coast then it makes a lot of sense.
With a little time to spare before we needed to be in Ullapool for the ferry we swung into Rhue, just to get a view of the lighthouse there, which always looks good against the surrounding landscape.
We were grateful that the weather was calm and dry today as it meant our crossing on the ferry was much more enjoyable. We’d chosen to sit outside to avoid the extra risk that comes with being around people indoors these days. It was lovely to pass Rhue lighthouse again and then Cailleach Head lighthouse too and remember our walk out to that one last year in glorious weather. I’d been reliably informed that the Northern Lighthouse Board’s technicians had been out at the lighthouse just yesterday to fix a fence that had been damaged by livestock. What a varied job they must have!
After catching a glimpse of Tiumpan Head as we approached the Western Isles we were greeted, as always, by the small but perfectly formed Arnish Point lighthouse. It always reminds me that I am arriving at a place which I have so many wonderful memories of. Lots of laughs, friendships made and masses of fresh air.
As soon as we arrived we checked into our self-catering cottage. By this time I had already started to wonder whether or not it would be possible to see Tiumpan Head lighthouse flashing from the house and it didn’t take me long to discover that I had a problem with seeing it, if indeed I could, from the upstairs windows due to them being so high. Ever the resourceful one, Bob grabbed a chair for me to stand on and I discovered that, yes, peering out to the left you could make out the lighthouse tower in the distance. That was an added bonus I’d not expected, as were the freshly-baked scones the owner’s wife had made for us and the range of local goodies in the fridge too!
After Bob had popped up a hill (spotting the Flannans Islands in the distance from the top) we headed north in time to see the sun going down at Butt of Lewis. I’ve been to the Butt of Lewis a number of times, probably every time I’ve been to the Western Isles, but it’s always been a bit windy, wild and sometimes wet so we’ve never spent very long there. On previous trips the good weather days have been reserved for boat trips to exciting offshore islands and lighthouses. So in today’s calm conditions it was lovely to wander around a bit more and enjoy spending the extra time there. The parking area next to the lighthouse has clearly had some work done to it recently with new kerbs and some picnic benches. The setting sun always casts such wonderful colours over everything and it was no exception here. As with all lighthouses it is always best shown in pictures so here are a few.
The latest addition to the family, Joe the Drone, has also made the effort to join us and with there being barely any wind it wasn’t long before he was up and away capturing some fantastic images. I should thank Bob for his very important role in getting them. Here are a few of Joe’s pictures.
It was beginning to get cold as the sun was making its final descent below the horizon so I hopped into the car and waited for the light to come on. Sometimes the sun seems to set so quickly, but it all took a little longer at Butt of Lewis. I was a little disappointed to find that it’s just the back-up lights in operation at the moment as they don’t give the same effect, but it was still good to see it working.
As we drove along the road away from the Butt of Lewis I kept my eyes on the horizon to the north east as we had been able to see the hills around Cape Wrath on the way out to the lighthouse. I thought I caught a glimpse of what could have been Cape Wrath lighthouse flashing. I mentioned it to Bob and he pulled over and confirmed that there definitely was a flashing light over that way. That was good to see.
On the way back to the cottage this evening I spotted Tiumpan Head flashing with it’s modern bright white on/off light and I wondered if I would be able to see it from the window at the cottage after all. I am delighted to confirm that I can. 🙂
Last week we dragged the kids and my mother-in-law over to the island of Barra in the Western Isles with one specific target in mind: to get me to the island of Berneray to see Barra Head lighthouse. Bob had visited the island and lighthouse back in July 2014 when I had been 7 months pregnant – we thought not the best time for long and multiple boat trips with potentially risky landings! He had always promised that he’d get me there some time to make up for my missing out then.
The journey to Barra became a bit of a lighthouse tour in itself, beginning with a quick stop at Cromarty. As we were heading south on the A9 we decided to try something different and take the 2-car ferry across the Cromarty Firth from Nigg. It’s a really fun little ferry with just enough space for the two cars. The crossing also gave us a new vantage point for the lighthouse at Cromarty and, after the crossing, we wandered around the building. This was my second time at the lighthouse, my first being during my original tour back in 2012.
On the drive to Oban, we glimpsed Corran lighthouse and, once on the ferry, there was plenty of lighthouse fare on offer. We spotted Dunollie (north of Oban), Lismore, Ardnamurchan, as well as Duart Point, Rubha nan Gall and Ardmore Point (all three of which are on Mull), and a few of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s modern “flat-pack” lighthouses.
The week started well when our skipper, Francis (owner of the Boy James who routinely runs trips to Berneray’s neighbouring island of Mingulay) announced on the Monday morning that we would be heading down to Berneray first that day. A great start to the week, and exactly what I wanted to hear! We travelled down the east side of the islands of Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay on our way there. The majority of the time we were sheltered from the westerly wind by the islands, with occasional relatively rougher (or should that be “wetter”?!) sections in the more exposed areas.
The landing on Berneray was very easy, although we were surprised not to have landed on the island’s pier. Instead we arrived on the rocks on the north east of the island, just to the east of the pier. Thanks to both the Boy James and its tender being well set-up for moving onto and off of, getting onto the island was easy enough.
There is a clear track up from the pier to the lighthouse and we joined this track near an old shed close to the pier. It’s a fair wander up to the lighthouse, but there are points of interest scattered along the way with old houses in various states of disrepair, the helipad presumably used by the Northern Lighthouse Board, and what appeared to be a well with a pump. As we walked up the hill to the lighthouse the cloud was coming and going, at one point entirely obscuring the lighthouse. The light in Barra Head lighthouse sits higher above sea level than any other in the UK. While the lighthouse is only 58 feet (just over 17.5 metres), the huge cliffs on which it is located mean the light operates from a height of 693 feet (slightly over 211 metres). It is incredible to see. As you walk the track, the lighthouse gets bigger and bigger, but once you reach the start of the lighthouse wall and look over the edge you see the true extent of the cliffs, which dwarf the lighthouse.
The buildings, which I assume were the keepers’ cottages, in front of the lighthouse on the landward side are looking worse for wear, not surprising really given that the station was automated in October 1980 and the wild weather that hits the island on a regular basis. We were surprised to hear that the skipper of the Boy James had lost 19 working days in the month of July this year. This says a lot about the sea conditions and weather in the area; the sun may be shining and conditions can seem calm, but the extreme exposure changes everything.
Often we have visited islands with lighthouses on calm days and you can’t imagine how wild it can get. Barra Head is different though. The dramatic scenery of the cliffs and the slippery courtyard outside the lighthouse hint at just how bad it can be. Some of the aerial images I have seen since on the Canmore website of the cliffs on which the lighthouse perches give me the chills. You then get a better grasp on just how close we were to the edge of two cliffs at exactly the same time when we walked to the highest point on the island, which is just next to the lighthouse. The lighthouse sits right at the top of an extremely tall gully in the cliffs, and I imagine this gully sends up some pretty huge waves at times. I mentioned the word “dramatic” before and I think that is the best word to describe it in any conditions.
The lighthouse itself was built by Robert Stevenson and completed in 1833. While the island may seem like an almost impossible place to live compared to today’s standards, it was home to a small number of people in the past. The last remaining residents though were the lighthouse keepers who lived in the cottages there until the station was automated. The keepers, interestingly, have their own walled graveyard on the island not too far from the lighthouse. Within the walls are three graves, including those belonging to two of the keepers’ children who died at particularly young ages. The keepers’ cottages, which I referred to above, appear to have an interesting history since the keepers left. There is a fascinating summary of the plans for the buildings at buildingsatrisk.org.uk since automation. I really hope someone manages to find a use for it before too much more damage is done.
Berneray is a very special place and I feel privileged to have been able to make it there. If I were given another chance to visit then I wouldn’t hesitate to take it. If you are ever thinking of heading that way then I would definitely recommend getting there on the Boy James. A fantastic trip and a great day, and the kids were in bed when we arrived back at our accommodation too! 🙂
On the visit to the Monach Isles back in May we had a bonus lighthouse bag in the form of Haskeir lighthouse, which is located 13 kms west north west of North Uist. Although we knew we were visiting the island and that it was home to a lighthouse, we were both expecting a “flat-pack” affair. We were pleased, however, to discover that it was something more substantial. Not “Stevenson” substantial, but definitely worth visiting.
As we arrived at the island and prepared to get into the tender a helicopter flew overhead and landed on the island. We wondered if we were going to get any trouble from a potential owner or anything, but the door opened, a couple of people got out, took pictures, hopped back in again and off they went. The helicopter was operated by PDG and was blue and orange in colour. These are the helicopters currently contracted by the Northern Lighthouse Board to transport their engineers around to service the lighthouses.
We weren’t sure whether we would manage to land on the island, but the conditions were in our favour once again. The landing wasn’t too bad and there was a bit of a clamber up some rocks and along a couple of narrow ledges before we reached the relatively flatter ground. The island reminded me very much of Eilean Chathastail on which the Eigg lighthouse (a very similar structure to this one) sits.
Being careful not to disturb the birds we made our way up to the lighthouse. It’s what I have started referring to as a “halfway lighthouse”, a white, 9 metre, fibre glass structure with a white lantern. The lighthouse was constructed in 1997 and is one of only two buildings on the island, the other being an old bothy, which we didn’t see while we were there. As with those we’d visited the day before and that morning, it was a very peaceful place and definitely worth the effort of getting off of the boat.
The high point of the island was just next to the lighthouse, which is always pleasant and tends to keep everyone happy 🙂
For the past three years we have been holidaying in the Outer Hebrides, based on Lewis or Harris, with a chartered boat lined up and ready to take us, and a number of other hill/island baggers out to the Flannan Isles. All three times the trip has been cancelled due to poor sea conditions.
The Flannan Isles lie 32km west of Lewis and, as you can imagine, are subject to some pretty wild seas at times. Having spent so many years waiting to get out there, a part of me thought it might never happen. But then we saw the forecast for last week, which coincided with what had become our annual holiday to the Western Isles. Sunshine, virtually no wind. It was looking promising and even more so when we received a message to say that our boatman, Seumas Morrison of Sea Harris, was confident that we would make it out there. Landing, though, would be another matter entirely…
Of course, my priority was landing on Eilean Mòr, the main island, which boasts the famous lighthouse (more on that shortly). The group we were with, including Bob, were also interested in landing on the other seven islands (or lumps of rock, in some cases) that make up the Flannans. The sea looked nice and calm on the morning we headed out. None of us expected to be able to land on anything other than the main island, and we weren’t even sure about that one!
After an hour and 40 minutes on the boat we approached Eilean Mòr. Quite quickly we realised that a landing would definitely be possible, although we’d need to time it right to avoid getting wet feet. Very kindly, Bob had taken along a rope and he joined a couple of others as the first group to land, which then gave him time to set up a rope/handrail to help the rest of us. We arrived at the east landing, which very helpfully still has many of the steps intact. A clear path then took us up and in a big, sweeping route around to the lighthouse. The path followed what would have been the tracks (removed now), which would have taken the supplies up to the lighthouse. Apparently the interchange point between the tracks going down to the east landing and the west landing – which they would change manually – was known affectionately by the keepers as “Clapham Junction”.
The lighthouse sits beautifully at the top and there’s a real awe-inspiring feel about the place, possibly helped by its remoteness and how challenging it is to get to. Slightly off the path to the right as you walk up is the old chapel (known locally as the “dog kennel” apparently, which says a lot about its size!) As you walk up, the helipad is just behind the chapel.
On such a calm day, it was difficult to imagine how wild it could be out there, although the state of the west landing area suggests the severity with much of what was put in place for the keepers’ landings, including the steps, having been washed away.
It is easy, before visiting the island, to view it solely as “the one from which the keepers went missing”, but visiting the island gives you the opportunity to see it for what it actually is, which is a beautiful structure, built in (what must have been) a challenging location that now makes for a very special place. There is a feeling you get on these islands off of the west coast of Scotland that I haven’t experienced anywhere else – possibly, in part, due to the low number of visitors to these islands. Hyskeir is another example as is the Eigg lighthouse on a small island to the south east of Eigg. It’s isolation, but the beautiful kind that soothes the soul. It probably helps that I’ve been to them on calm, sunny days!
Descending down the path and back on to the boat went smoothly with our “handrail” in place! We then went on to get those more adventurous members of the group landed on all of the other islands, which I sat back, viewed the Eilean Mòr lighthouse from various angles and watched one of the boatman successfully catch numerous coalfish and some fair-sized pollock. It was all very relaxing.
Later in the week, we grabbed the opportunity to visit the exhibition and memorial dedicated to the three keepers lost from Eilean Mòr in 1900. For those not aware, on the 15th December a vessel passing by noted the light did not appear to be operating. When a boat was sent on 26th of that month (after being delayed by the weather from 20th) for the changing of the keepers, the first man onto the island reported that none of the three keepers were to be found. There are numerous stories about what could have occurred, including a poem that took a little artistic licence with the story. The most likely story, in my opinion, is that one or two of them got into some trouble at the edge of the island and the other went to help resulting in all three being lost to the sea. It’s a very sad story and the exhibition and memorial pay tribute to them.
The exhibition, titled ‘Waiting for darkness to fall’, opened in April at Breasclete Community Hall and is open daily from 2-4pm. The community of Breasclete chose to develop the exhibition and memorial as it is in the village that the lighthouse’s shore station was based (it is still there now and stands out clearly from the rest of the buildings. A picture can be found in one of my previous posts). It features descriptions of the Flannan Isles, the building of the lighthouse, what is known about the disaster and the aftermath. A great deal of information has been pulled together for the exhibition, including excerpts about the island from various publications, weather reports from the time the keepers went missing, newspaper cuttings following the loss of the keepers, and pictures of the development, building and launch of the memorial, which is located just half a mile down the road, next to the water’s edge.
We spoke to a very friendly gentleman from Breasclete Community Association who was on hand to chat to visitors and he informed us that there are a number of potential plans in the pipeline to ensure the exhibition can remain permanent and expand upon it. He said that they hope to introduce visits out to see the island itself by boat or helicopter at some point and also look for a more permanent home for the exhibition. I had read online that there has been some talk about the community purchasing the shore station and using the building as a home to information about the lighthouse and the missing keepers.
Of course, we also had to visit the memorial. It really is a lovely piece of work. The artist James Crawford of Garynahine has carved the shape of the lighthouse out of sandstone and it sits on top of a Lewisian Gneiss rock shaped like Eilean Mòr. This stone is on a bed of smaller stones with beautiful sandstone block-work around the edge. A bronze wave appears to the left of the island, the wave heading straight for it. A plaque features on the front with the names of the three keepers: James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald Macarthur. I’ve included a couple of extra pictures below of the finer details.
Having the opportunity to see both the island and lighthouse as well as the exhibition and memorial in the same week was a real treat. I feel very lucky to have been able to do so. 🙂
We went over to the Western Isles earlier this month for a week-long holiday, staying in a great four-bedroom house on Harris. I’d been to the Western Isles a few years ago and visited the easier to get to lighthouses, such as Butt of Lewis, Tiumpan Head, Arnish Point and Eilean Glas. So this time the plan was to reach another that involved a bit more of a stretch of the legs, Aird Lamishader.
I knew before we set off for the walk from Borghastan/Borrowston that the lighthouse was one of the “flat pack” style. To get there we had to navigate our way down some nice steep slopes (we seemed to miss the sensible path down). Once we made it to the fields below we encountered some particularly friendly/scary sheep that, instead of running away as I would normally expect them to do, started to follow us. I was later informed that it was likely to be because they, and their lambs, were still bring fed by the farmer at that point, so they expected us to feed them. Once we’d passed over the fields we started the wander up a hill that Bob wanted to climb and said would be a more direct route to the lighthouse. So, up we went and spent some time checking out the view before we went down the other side. By this point it was feeling like quite a trek, but at least we could see the lighthouse.
After crossing more fields and going up another (considerably smaller) hill we arrived at the lighthouse. As with most “flat pack” lighthouses, there’s not a lot to say about them, but they are often located in places with rather good views and this one was no exception. We were even fortunate enough to catch sight of the Flannan Isles out to sea. Fortunately we walked around the hill on the way back, but in the process met even more over-friendly sheep. I managed to calm down though when we spotted a man heading the same way as us. He was a local former Gaelic teacher who has been growing carrots in the area. He was a friendly man and took us the sensible route back to the car.
The following day we revisited the Butt of Lewis lighthouse briefly. I say briefly because it was a bit wild that day!
On the way back to our accommodation that day we drove through Breasclete on the west coast of Lewis in search of the old Flannan Isles lighthouse shore station. We spotted the big house from the main road, and as we got closer, noticed the old Northern Lighthouse Board emblem above the front door. I believe there are plans to create a memorial in Breascleit at some point in memory of the three lighthouse keepers that went missing from the Flannan Isles lighthouse in December 1900.
During our trip we stopped by Hebrides Arts, a beautifully located art gallery and cafe with some amazing work from local artists. While we were there we spotted a painting of a lighthouse with the title ‘Leverburgh lighthouse’, which surprised us as we weren’t aware of any lighthouses at Leverburgh, just beacons. The story associated with the picture was that the top section had blown off during a storm, leaving just the tower.
That evening we headed to Leverburgh pier and sure enough, just as the lady at Hebrides Arts mentioned, the tower was visible just across the water to the right. As we headed back up the road, we parked up at the side of the road and walked along to it across some, boggy in places, moorland. The tower turned out to be bigger than I’d imagined and Bob made a note of its coordinates as we hadn’t found it on any maps. Later in the week we spoke to Seumas Morrison, who runs Sea Harris and regularly goes out from Leverburgh pier. His take on it’s history was that the top section on the lighthouse was actually removed and not blown away.
Bob had a look back at some of his pictures from the area and found one from 2006 showing the lighthouse intact. A picture he had from 2012 shows the tower alone. There is very little information about this lighthouse online. I was pleased to find out about it though and to visit it during our holiday.
We were due to take a trip out to the Monach islands and possibly Hasgeir, which would have involved two new lighthouses for me, but sea conditions weren’t in our favour on this occasion, so they will be for another time. We did manage to make it to Taransay and Scarp though, and although there were no lighthouses they are still fantastic places to visit if you are lucky enough to be able to get to them.
I have only one lighthouse left to visit on Lewis and Harris now, Rubh’ Uisinis, which involves a lot more planning. I’m not sure I fancy the 10 mile+ walk out to it over bog land (and then there’s the return journey), so will need to think a bit more creatively about that one!
Finally, once we arrived back in Ullapool and began our journey home we took a minor detour as we noticed the van in front of us belonged to the Northern Lighthouse Board. We’d never seen one before so had to get a quick picture 🙂
Another day of lighthouses and tourist activities lay ahead of us on the Western Isles and, once again, the sun was out. We were intrigued to find out more about and visit the beach on which the Lewis Chessmen had been found centuries ago. On our way there we passed a merry band of scarecrows (or figures) at the side of the road that we had previously seen on our first day. We stopped to see them and I partook in some pretend drumming alongside the piper and accordion player.
We travelled on to Uig, spotting a couple of large sculpted chess men replicas on the way there, and arrived at the biggest beach I’ve ever seen. Although it’s not the widest beach, with the tide out it was quite a walk to reach the sea and we were cautious not to spend too long near the water’s edge in case the tide started coming in quickly as we’d have had a long way to run back to shore! We followed this walk up with a stop off at the museum and café in Uig. There was a little more information about the chessmen at the museum, but also some really interesting exhibit pieces showing what life was like for those living on Lewis in the past.
As always, Bob was looking for an opportunity to do some hill-bagging while we were there. His previous trips to the Western Isles had mostly comprised of travelling on to somewhere else or hillwalking so he was enjoying being a bit of a tourist for once. However, we couldn’t go to Lewis without bagging one of its hills. Reaching the top of the hill turned out to be a lot easier than though in the end as a road led us almost up to the top, so all we had to do was climb one set of steps before we reached the peak where there was some fantastic views of the surrounding area on Lewis and other islands nearby.
Knowing that the Callanish standing stones were a popular attraction on Lewis we decided to pay them a brief visit and return later that day when the tourists were gone. The weather had gone downhill slightly during the day, so we had a quick look around at the stones before heading for our very exciting next stop – the Butt of Lewis. We’d both seen some fantastic pictures and videos of the lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis with massive waves crashing up above the high cliffs there, but there was nothing of that on the day we visited. There is a real sense when you get there that you are at the end of the road and there’s not a lot between the cliffs there and Iceland, although we were surprised to see how close we were to Cape Wrath and, therefore, home! It was great to see another different style of lighthouse, which itself (in my opinion) doesn’t look dissimilar to a chess piece. It’s natural brickwork with no white paint in sight (on the tower anyway) made it stand out from the rest. We enjoyed wandering around the impressive coastline there for a while and seeing the huge cliffs, which seem to dwarf the lighthouse in places. I was surprised at how many people there were walking around, although it did look like there was at least one group of adventurers around and I imagine it might be one of those places where you would choose to start or end some sort of endurance challenge. On our return from the Butt of Lewis we stopped at the Eoropie Tearoom for a drink and I was delighted to see, just along the road that someone had some small handmade stone structures outside of their house, one of which was a lighthouse with an operational light – I’m very easily influenced by these things!
On our way back towards the Callanish standing stones we stopped off at a single standing stone a short distance off of the main road. We also decided, allowing the tourists to have fully disappeared from the standing stones, to stop for dinner at the Doune Braes Hotel where we had some amazing food. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Lewis. We then had free reign at the impressive Callanish standing stones when we arrived. It is a fantastic site with the cross-shaped layout of the stones and the circle in the centre. If only we were able to travel back in time to see its development!
Before we called it a night and headed back to the campsite in Siabost, we popped in to see Dun Carloway, an old broch tower (an Iron Age dry stone structure). Although it’s old, we were still able to climb some of the original steps and it was another example of a site that has clearly been well-maintained without it looking too well-maintained. The Western Isles are very good at that!
Friday was our final day in the Western Isles, but fortunately we had enough time to do some more exploring and, of course, bag some more lighthouses. However, we began our day with a visit to the nearby Norse Mill and Kiln – again here are more examples of two buildings that are very well preserved, but haven’t been turned into multi-million pound attractions. They’re actually very well-hidden and the laminated sheets of information about them are tucked away. Some really great handiwork must have gone into them originally, even if the roofs have needed a lot of work over the years to maintain their thatched look. Gearrannan Blackhouse Village was the final of our tourist stops for the trip where we found out more about cutting peat, weaving and the lives of those who used to live in the village. A really interesting place to visit and nice to see that they have kept some of the houses in the condition they were in back in the day, although some have been renovated as accommodation for visitors.
We had two more lighthouses to fit in before catching the ferry. The first was Tiumpan Head, which sits at the north east end of the Eye Peninsula to east of Stornoway. Visibility while we were there wasn’t particularly good and we didn’t hang around for long as the lighthouse cottages are now home to kennels and I knew Bob wasn’t comfortable with the continual barking of the dogs there. I see why it may be a good location for kennels full of barking dogs, but the noise did detract a little from the experience of seeing the lighthouse. As is the case with many others, Tiumpan Head lighthouse looks very similar to many of the others, which actually isn’t so common in the Western Isles as there appears to be no set “look” for the lighthouses there.
Our final stop before heading back was Arnish Point lighthouse. We’d seen it on the approach to Stornoway as we arrived on the ferry, so it was just a matter of finding it from the main road. After a little driving around and “trial by error”, we finally found a bit of a dirt track that seemed to lead in the right direction. Aside from a couple there walking their dog there was no one else around. Being on the other side of an industrial estate probably doesn’t make it such a frequented spot and it was clear on the approach to the lighthouse that the area hasn’t been used much in recent years. The lighthouse itself though has been well-kept (as many operational lighthouses are) and is a fairly squat little tower. It may not be far from the harbour, but it’s a very quiet little location, even if you do get the feeling that being there isn’t recommended.
The ferry journey back to Ullapool allowed us another glimpse of Arnish Point as well as Cailleach Head and Rubha Cadail lighthouses, as we’d seen on the outward journey. We’d arranged to stay at a B&B in Lochinver that night and I was incredibly glad of a real bed after camping for the week. The following day Bob was joining his fellow volunteers from the Assynt Mountain Rescue Team for the Sutherland Trail in 24 hours challenge fundraiser. They successfully completed the trial with Bob setting off on the first of his legs (his second was during the night) while I headed home. I then met the team the following morning just after the final group had reached the end in just under the 24 hour time limit. A great achievement!
So, that was our week on the Western Isles with a few trips further afield. We had been so lucky with the weather and seen some amazing places. We shall definitely be heading back there again in the future 🙂