Posts Tagged ‘lighthouse’

What are the furthest points north, south, east and west in Britain? Are they worth a visit? How easy are they to get to? In the first of four posts, I go to the northern-most point in Britain. And as getting there is quite a challenge in itself, I won’t tell you where it is straightaway.

ms hjaltland, ms hrossey, northlink ferries, shetland isles

Although the MS Hjaltland and the MS Hrossey are each 7,434 tonnes, the Shetland Islands Council is looking at the need for larger ships with more capacity and which would be better able to withstand the frequently choppy waters of the North Sea.

You can start by getting a train to Aberdeen which is on the north-east coast of Scotland. If you happen to live in Penzance in Cornwall at the other end of Britain you could catch the 08.28 train which will get you into Aberdeen at 21.55, a distance of 722 miles. Incidentally this is the longest single train journey in Britain. Southbound you don’t have to change, but northbound you have to change at Edinburgh. At Aberdeen you board the overnight ferry to Lerwick, capital town of the Shetland Isles. The ship will either be the MS Hjaltland or the MS Hrossey of NorthLink Ferries, each being 7,434 tonnes. The ferry sails at 19.00 (17.00 if the ferry goes via the Orkney Isles) and docks in Lerwick at 07.30 the next morning. It’s 224 miles (or 195 nautical miles). But to make sure of a good nights sleep, there are modern ensuite cabins or comfy reclining sleeper beds.

If you’re in a hurry though, there’s a choice of three or four flights a day from Aberdeen airport, five miles north-west of the city, to Sumburgh airport, 20 miles south of Lerwick, and the flight takes an hour and a quarter.

Lerwick is 600 miles almost due north of London as the crow flies. Bergen in Norway is 223 miles due east and is closer to Lerwick than Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, which is 301 miles south. The Arctic Circle is 400 miles further north. Owing to its northerly location, Lerwick, which has a population of 7,500, gets only 5 hours and 49 minutes of daylight at the winter solstice. In contrast, daylight lasts 18 hours and 55 minutes at the summer solstice. For a period of time in the summer, the nights never get completely dark with dark blue elements remaining in the sky.

shetland islands, archipelago, lerwick, unst

The Shetland archipelago forms part of the division between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east. Of the 100 or so islands of Shetland, 16 islands are inhabited.

Next you have to get to Unst, the furthermost north island of the Shetlands and which has a population of 652. This involves two car ferry crossings, one of 20 minutes from Toft on Mainland (the name of Shetland’s largest island) to Ulsta on the island of Yell, then a 10 minute ferry from Gutcher on Yell to Belmont on Unst. The 55 miles by road and ferry takes about two and half hours, but there’s no quicker way. There was an airport on Unst, at Baltasound, the main settlement on the island, but this was mothballed in 1996 when flights to the offshore oil rigs were centred on an airport on Mainland. Baltasound is home to the most northerly Meteorological Office weather station in the United Kingdom, as well as the most northerly Post Office.

From the ferry at Belmont it’s a 12 mile drive north on the A968 through Baltasound to Haroldswick, the Viking centre of Unst and home to the Unst Heritage Centre, Valhalla Brewery, and Shetland Distillery Company, and then north-west on the B9086 to Burrafirth and Hermaness. The road is now single track with passing places. The B9086 ends at Burrafirth but a minor road continues to the car park and visitor centre for the Hermaness National Nature Reserve (NNR). The visitor centre is in the former shore station for the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse (see below).

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flannan isles, isle of lewis, outer hebrides, scotland, atlantic ocean

The Flannan Isles are 20 miles west (to the left) of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

St Kilda is well-known as the isolated archipelago 40 miles (64 km) west of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland in the North Atlantic Ocean. Following crop failures and illness, the remaining population of 36 people on the only inhabited island, Hirta, was evacuated in 1930. St Kilda became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 reflecting both its natural and cultural significance. However there is another much less well-known group of remote islands off the Outer Hebrides, which is the location of an enduring mystery which occurred in December 1900, when all three keepers of the lighthouse on an island there vanished without trace.

The Flannan Isles (or Na h-Eileanan Flannach in Gaelic) or Seven Hunters lie 20 miles (32 km) west of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Not as far out to sea as St Kilda, but further north. And since the automation of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse in 1971, no one has lived there, although the islands became a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1983. The lighthouse, and a ruined chapel dedicated to St Flannan, is on the largest island, Eilean Mòr (Big Isle).

eilean mòr, flannan isles, lighthouse, atlantic ocean

A huge inlet on the north side of Eilean Mòr looking east towards the lighthouse. The walk to the lighthouse up the slope on the right is steep, but it is insignificant compared with these cliffs. © Chris Downer/Creative Commons Licence

The lighthouse was constructed for the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) between 1895 and 1899 near the highest point of Eilean Mòr at a cost of £6,914. All the materials in the building of the 75 feet high lighthouse had to be hauled 150 feet up cliffs from supply boats. The lighthouse was first lit on 7 December 1899. There was no wireless communication, the only form of communication being a series of semaphore-style balls on posts which could be seen from the Hebrides on a good day.

Other than its relative isolation, it would be little different from most of the lighthouses built off the coasts of Britain were it not for the events which took place just over a year after it was commissioned. In December 1900, the lighthouse was manned by a three-man team (James Ducat, Principal Keeper; Thomas Marshall, Second Assistant; and Donald Macarthur, Occasional Keeper), with a rotating fourth man (Joseph Moore), on leave on the Isle of Lewis.

On 15 December, the steamer Archtor on passage from Philadelphia in the United States to Leith near Edinburgh noticed as it passed the islands that the light was not working, and this was reported three days later on docking at Oban further south. The scheduled relief ship for the lighthouse, the Hesperus, which was based in Stromness in the Orkney Islands, had been due to visit on 20 December but it was delayed because of rough weather and did not reach Eilean Mòr until noon on Boxing Day, 26 December. When they arrived, ominously, none of the lighthouse keepers were there to welcome them ashore, the flag was not flying, and none of the usual provision boxes were ready on the landing stage for re-stocking.

When Joseph Moore was put ashore, alone, he found the gate and main door to the lighthouse compound closed, the beds unmade, the clocks stopped, and no trace of the keepers. He returned to the landing stage to tell the captain of the Hesperus, Jim Harvey, the bad news. Moore then carried out a further search with two of the crew. The lamps were trimmed and refilled, the lens and machinery had been cleaned, the washing-up had been done, and there were cold ashes in the grate. But a set of oilskins belonging to Donald McArthur was found suggesting that the keeper had left the lighthouse without them, which was surprising considering the severity of the weather. Other than that, an overturned chair by the kitchen table was the only sign of anything amiss in the lighthouse. Outside, on the rest of island, the three lighthouse keepers were nowhere to be found. They had vanished. (more…)

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