Today I braved the wind and walked the four miles from Bird Observatory at the south end of the island to the lighthouse at the north end. The sea was very rough with huge waves rolling into the shore. I was very glad of a coffee when I reached the warmth of the lighthouse visitor centre and sat chatting to Helen, who works there and makes felt sheep that are sold in gift shops around the islands. She was working on a chess set of North Ronaldsay sheep and as we spoke she was busily felting small tufts of wool into sheep shapes. We talked about the seals and how I had seen them playing in the waves yesterday and Helen told me that she had often had the experience of being watched by the seals; as she walked along the beach she would become aware of heads bobbing around in the water close by. When she turned to look they would stop and look away or disappear but she would become aware of them following her when she began to walk again she said it was like playing Grandma’s Footsteps at school.
I had arranged a tour of the lighthouse at 1pm so I spent some time looking around the archive and museum displays at the visitor centre while I waited. I was fascinated by the dedication of the lighthouse keepers in the face of the harsh conditions they faced living often in remote locations or even on rock lighthouses far out to sea with coffin planks in the storage room in case of fatality.
I was met by Billy at 1pm and followed him up the 176 steps to the top of the tower. It was elating to be stood so high up, so precariously, in the windy conditions. Of course it was perfectly safe, the strong railing and watchful eye of Billy meant there was no danger of falling over the edge but I felt a strange exhilaration standing on a small ledge over 40 meters from the ground while the wind whipped around me. He told me of the dangers that the waters around the island held for ships; the Seal Skerry and the Reef Duke, and how the original lighthouse with its static beacon actually lured ships onto the rocks as they thought it was a ship at anchor so assumed the passage was safe. The new lighthouse built by Thomas Smith and his step son Robert Stevenson (grandfather or Robert Louis Stevenson) and was turned on in 1789. It is the tallest land based lighthouse in the UK and flashes a white light every 10 seconds; a signal that is unique to North Ronaldsay so that sailors could navigate by the lights in heavy fog.
As Billy finished his story his pointed out the Reef Duke as the waves were crashing on this otherwise invisible reef; I was suddenly reminded of the dream I had a few nights ago and could vividly imagine a ship in trouble in these wild conditions. Suddenly the exhilarated feeling was replaced by vertigo. I felt dizzy looking out across the island and was glad to retreat into the comforting enclosed tower. When my feet were firmly back on terra firma I thought ahead to the flight I would be taking in the afternoon and hoped my vertigo would not return.
Luckily it didn’t and the view from the plane on the flight back to Kirkwall was stunning.