Bright in the dark: endeavour and the lighthouse (4 – End)

SE Lighthouse from sea gates4AA

There are two schools of thought on what to wear on a cycling summer day in which there is the possibility of a downpour, far from home…

The first (Plan A)  says you should put up with the weight and pack a good set of waterproofs. Then, as soon as the heavens open, stop cycling and put them on. The second (Plan B) says that, as long as the underlying temperature is warm-ish, there’s only so wet you can get, and you’ll soon dry, so why bother…?

Which was why, at about three in the afternoon of our cycling day on Tiree, and as a proponent of Plan B, I was standing alongside my bike, skin and metal drenched, looking back down the climbing valley road at the other man in our party (a follower of Plan A)  who was doing some sort of dance with what appeared to be a bright red ghost…

But, I digress…

The lone cow on the rocky outcrop as we were pedalling away from Hynish should have warned us. Still feeling euphoric from the previous two hours, I had dismissed the ‘You’ll be sorrrry’ cartoon that sprang to mind, Warner Brothers style, from my subconscious. Failing that, the vertical orientation of the seagull’s body in the photo above should have shouted a hint, but no… what looks obvious in hindsight, in the photos, was less so on the day.

So we pedalled on, and now, looking at the shots, I can see the blue sky ahead that we embraced and the darkening silver behind, that we ignored. The deluge wasn’t instant; those dark clouds took a while to arrive, while we cycled into the seeming blue. At least wary of the weather, we had a further destination in mind: Soroby. This hamlet is the site of a graveyard of considerable interest because it links the pilgrim island of Iona with Tiree.

Much of the graveyard is relatively modern, and many of the (well-tended) graves mark the tragic loss of life of a merchant ship in World War II. Many of the bodies were washed up on the beaches of Tiree and their identities never discovered. The beautiful epithet ‘Known to God’ marks their anonymous sacrifice.

But, a smaller and older part of the graveyard is believed to be the site of a monastery established by St Columba as an extension of the work of his first church on Iona, following his self-imposed exile from Ireland, where it is said he led a rebellion and started a war which resulted in ten thousand deaths. This was prior to his conversion to Christianity, which he then vowed to spread across the seas to Scotland. This man, loved and feared in equal measure it is said, also established a monastery on Tiree for ‘wayward monks’. If you’ll forgive the humour, it appears to have been a kind of early ‘Craggy Island’ as in the Father Ted series… This was known as Baithene’s Monastery, and was founded in 565 AD.

The ruins of that original monastery have never been found, though it is known that a church stood here from the 13th to the 19th centuries. However, one very important artefact remains: a double-faced stone cross from that early period of religious life on Tiree. It is known, now, as McLean’s cross, after the clan which ruled Tiree from 1390 to 1680, it is linked to the life of Anna McLean, who was the prioress of Iona from 1509 – 1543.

The cross has two sides: the first, with its raised boss at the centre of a ‘cross and spiral’ design, is Celtic. The reverse is in the form of a Latin Cross. It suggest an ancient piece, created when Christianity was well established, yet still in touch with its Celtic roots in these parts. One of the locals suggested it was 8th century, but we had no way of verifying this, and I can find no other reference to it.

Another artefact once shared this site: the cross of Anna McLean, herself, stood here (illustration above). On it , she is shown ‘disembowelling death’; an action that merits scholarly and philosophical attention. Only the shaft of the cross is recorded, and the original was removed from the island long ago. The inscription reads ‘This is the cross of Michael, Archangel of God. Anna, Prioress of Iona‘. I would imagine no-one knows the full story of how she came to be interred on Tiree, possibly her original family home. She must have been quite a woman…

Quietly, and deep in thought, we left Soroby, intending to double-back on ourselves a short distance and take the direct road over the spine of the island and to Tiree’s north coast.

We had cycled away from the wonderful village of Hynish knowing that the best part of the day was likely over. The sheer mental adventure of discovering the story of the Shore Station and the Skerryvore Lighthouse had provided a kind of peace; a sense of a day well spent; and yet we were only a quarter of the way around the island of Tiree.


And then the dark clouds behind us caught up with the broken blue sky in front and the deluge hit. With a hissing of dark, low clouds, the threatened storm began. The rain was so intense that we abandoned any thought of climbing the hill towards the north coast. Instead, we fled back to the only point of refuge we knew – our morning cafe at Balemartine – and ran from the front car park into its inviting interior.

Henrietta had more sense than to be waiting for us, this time, and the staff of the Balemartine Cafe laughed in warm mirth as four wet cyclists abandoned their machines near the door and fled into the cafe’s warm interior.

“It can be verra unpredictable, the weather here,” said the lady owner of the cafe, studying our dripping state and clearly happy that the formal restaurant section was now full of decently-dressed weekend diners. She coughed gently and pointed to the coffee lounge where we had taken our late breakfast. “Will your usual table suffice?”

It did… and the humour helped; assisted by tea and cake, twice, as the building seemed to shake under the wrath of the storm god. You can feel very vulnerable in situations like this, when you’re thinly dressed, far from home, and more than slightly concerned whether the small plane from Glasgow could even get through the teeth of a highland storm like this…

And the figure jumping up and down in the red rain-suit. it was Paul, of course – the other husband in the party. After another hour in the cafe we felt duty bound to try again, despite the rain. Halfway up the road to the north coast, we abandoned any attempt at further travel. We were strung out in a line on the saturated hill. The ladies were a few hundred metres ahead of me. As group leader, and the most experienced cyclist, I was keeping a watchful eye on Paul, fighting a red ghost in the driving rain and not having the heart to tell him that the ladies had written the day off and decided we all needed to get back to the airport where we would at least be warm and, eventually, dry again.

It took us about thirty minutes to get back to Tiree Airport. We did, eventually dry off and get warm again. The plane, did get through. We did get back to Glasgow. None of the bad weather mattered, we had a wonderful day full of adventure.

It’s our turn to assemble on of these, next year. I’ll keep you posted…

Thank you, Tiree.

©Stephen Tanham

Previous posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two

Part Three

Steve Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye school of Consciousness. His personal blog is at

©Copyright Stephen Tanham, text and pictures. Re-use with permission.

Bright in the dark: endeavour and the lighthouse (3)

SE Lighthouse from sea gates4AA

Something had happened when we decided to approach the strange village by walking along the beach and coming to it via the old but grand harbour, with its mighty blocks and sea-gates. It was only later that we realised that what we had, inadvertently, photographed in the far distance was the focus of the whole story.

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You could relate it to one of my favourite Gurdjieffian pastimes: stopping the world. This technique requires a degree of stealth and an ability not to be embarrassed by the unusual – and your part in it! Stuart and I once caused such a moment of presence by each turning around from our table (shared with a very amused Sue) in a cafe and facing the opposite way (outwards). We were not trying to be irritating, just to do something unusual. The people we were sharing the cafe with took it in good part and assumed we were doing something humorous, possibly for a bet.

On that day we had stopped after a few seconds; we had no desire to prolong it, simply to create the experience, good-naturedly, as an extension of the serious conversation we were having.

There is something about the silence generated that tells you you've got it right. It doesn't have to be in public, but there's something about that arena that generates a feeling that something else is watching…

As we walked – the wrong way – through the harbour gates and into the strange village of Hynish, I had that same feeling…

The name 'Stevenson' was on a plaque by the harbour wall. It rang a bell. I remembered a Robert Louis Stevenson as the author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped; and had the idea that he might also have written The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; but I didn't think he built harbours…

What I didn't know was that the name Stevenson was that of a family of gifted and determined eighteenth century Scottish engineers, and that the uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson the author was a man named Alan Stevenson, and that what he and his father – Robert Stevenson – accomplished was the reason for the strange village of other-worldly buildings on this remote corner of the Scottish island of Tiree.

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The view from the harbour was of a set of what looked like cottages, with a tower to their left.

The tower was related to that view out to sea; the cottages were the modern home of the Skerryvore Lighthouse Museum, which had been established by the Hebridean Trust and lovingly restored and re-established over the past ten years to protect a vital piece of Scotland's history.

Scotland's past

To understand the importance of Hynish and Tiree to Scotland's past you need to understand the way Glasgow developed in the 18th century. From a purely personal perspective, Glasgow has always been my favourite city, north of the border, because I have family there and it was the scene of many happy holidays in my teens – one of them involving my first long motorbike ride (in the pouring rain!). To find, all those years later, that Glasgow's early success as an international city had justified what happened at Hynish was a thrilling discovery.

Following the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland was free to trade, on equal terms with England, with the New World. Lucrative cargos of rice, tobacco, cotton, sugar and rum could now be imported to the Union via the deep estuary of the River Clyde. James Watt's 1760s invention of the steam engine also made Glasgow the most important exporter of manufactured good to the colonies. However, Between 1790 and 1844 more than thirty ships were known to have been wrecked in the area off the western edge of the inner Hebrides, as they fought the seas to enter and leave the Clyde.

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In 1814 an Act of Parliament was established to survey and fund the construction of an offshore lighthouse on the obstructing and deadly skerry.

The Skerryvore rocks, located just off the bottom left edge of the map, above, were ten miles west of Hynish and the father and son team appointed to survey, design and build this enormous undertaking was Robert and Alan Stevenson. Work began on the construction of the lighthouse in 1738.

Our cycle ride had stumbled on the Shore Station that was built to support the construction of the Skerryvore Lighthouse – ten miles offshore. Later, a more makeshift station on the Skerryvore rocks, themselves, was constructed. As an indication of the severity of the weather, the latter, comprising a three storey structure for supplies, managers and thirty workers, was completely destroyed by a storm in November 1838. It was redesigned and built again in time for the following spring – the workers having agreed to stay and work on the rock through the winter!

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The most complex part of the lighthouse was its clockwork revolving light, which, incredibly, amplified the wicks of only four oil 'lamps' and projected them across the deadly darkness. The key to this optical power was the use of the latest Fresnel multi-part lenses, which Alan Stevenson commissioned from the French Fresnel brothers in 1840. The eight lenses were (and are) only the size of dinner plates, but could project a bright beam over thirty miles!

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The lighthouse went operational in 1844 and the Shore Station was converted for use as living quarters for the shift of lighthouse keepers and their families.

Today the lighthouse is automatic, and it is controlled remotely from Edinburgh. The entire structure of Stevenson's design has remained in near-continuous operation since its commissioning.

Without the museum you would never know that the line of waves breaking far offshore, marks one of the world's engineering marvels, nor the reason for the existence of this strange and haunting place where so much happened, but which is no so quiet…

Despite the weather, our  day had brightened. We wondered if we dared hope for a continuation of our good fortune?

To be continued..

An aside…

I was very moved by our visit to Skerryvore and wrote a poem for my personal blog Sun in Gemini. It is reproduced, here.

The Skerryvore Light

In tiny Hynish's western shore

Where gentle waves now kiss the sand

The resting seas recall the names

Of they who built the Skerryvore

Forgotten in the passing nights

Unknown to most, of even few

Who chance on Hebridean soil

And stumble on the wreck of lights

For ears a story here in stone

Which value engineers of night

Of iron and glass and fearsome seas

That rivals any ancient tome

Not shifting sands or limestone frieze

No Pharaoh wise, nor Mayan king

Have ever dared to light the night

With giant tower upon the seas

In deep of howling winter's night

I'll sit upon my writer's keys

And 'Stevenson' will be the word

The image: glass infused with light

So come from history, taking bow

From we who sail on greatness past

We bow to you, who built our age

Forgotten on the quiet sands of now

©Stephen Tanham

Previous posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two

Steve Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye school of Consciousness. His personal blog is at

©Copyright Stephen Tanham, text and pictures. Re-use with permission.

Bright in the dark: endeavour and the lighthouse (2)

SE Lighthouse from sea gates4AA

‘Surreal’ is an often used word and does its best to convey a moment, usually quite fleeting, in which there is both a heightened sense of ‘being there’ and another feeling of strangeness. The two come together and we feel vaguely uncomfortable that something for which we have no real words envelopes us.

This state of consciousness is described in more detail in the Silent Eye’s consciousness course as being a temporary cessation of the ‘filters’ that cloud our experience of the seemingly ordinary world. A better word for the experience is ‘present’, as in present to what’s real.

In truth, nothing is ordinary, and reality is seeing that

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Our first ‘present’ moment of the day happened when we carefully bypassed Henrietta and entered the sanctuary of the Farmhouse Cafe in Balemartin. My first post in this series, last week, resulted in several offers to adopt Henrietta, the bike guardian, so I reproduce, above, the photograph of her doing her day-job. I don’t think she’s available for adoption…

The impending storm had quickened our minds, in the way that survival does, and, with the first of the rain driving at the windows, we found we had entered an establishment that had just opened. The staff – four quite young people – looked at us as though we had camped outside overnight, falling through the door, in desperation, the minute they unlocked it. I suppose we looked a bit alien in our bright cycling gear.

For a short while, we had the place to ourselves. The interior was plain but functional, as though it were half a farmhouse, which I suspect it was. The staff had the air of close family and riends, with at least three daughters on duty. Life on Tiree revolves around tourism and farming, with everyone helping out for both. Everyone we met on the island was very friendly, though you could detect a certain island manner.

The cafe owners had a proud display of rosettes for their competition cattle. We were about to ask when a group of eight or so people arrived for an early lunch, closely followed by another, even larger group! It was Saturday and restaurants are scarce on Tiree. We could see why all the family were employed, as the place went from empty to full in about five minutes.

We had planned to have a coffee and, perhaps a piece of cake to keep our strength up. But, with the rain lashing at the windows, we consoled ourselves with a longer-lasting choice of some delicious soup and local bread, and wondered if our day’s adventure had ended before it had really begun…

The downpour continued and we were forced to add some cake and a second pot of coffee to the mix before we stepped out into a dripping Balemartine. The saddles were sodden but a few minutes of emergency finger-wiping restored them to a usable condition. Ominously, the sky had not brightened, and we wondered if we were wise to leave the relative safety of the cafe.

That sense of leaving ‘for an uncertain destination’ has always seemed to be at the heart of mysticism, too. The familiar is safe, but the dark skies of the unknown landscape can just as easily brighten to the beauty of the beyond, when the possible storm is observed to be a shallow and passing thing. The ‘inner quietness’ of such a spiritual moment was mirrored in our journey as we crested the next hill.

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Before us was a line of beautiful beaches, but that wasn’t what took our eye. Beyond the beaches was what looked like an old military base. We had only a basic map and no idea what the landscape offered, though we knew the island was relatively flat. The little map of the road showed we were travelling into a dead-end, so all we had to do was keep pedalling and we’d get there.

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The traditional Highland longhorn, grazing by the beach. The coat was shorter than I’d seen before. Perhaps they are trimmed for the summer, or maybe there is natural shedding? Assistance gratefully received…

Wild flowers, some of them quite exotic, were abundant by the sea. On the little meadow in front of this beach we even found a few wild orchids.

And then the road came to a fork, with the dark cluster of buildings ahead. We decided to approach by the seaward track, leaving the bikes parked by a wall. We had been told there was no crime on Tiree, so we could leave them as we liked – even without Henrietta to guard.

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The wild beauty of Tiree – with a prophetic glimpse of a dark rock on the horizon

Wonderful things happen when you choose an unusual path to an envisioned goal. In this case the approach we made for ourselves, along the edge of the sea, brought us to a most dramatic vista.

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It was obviously a harbour, with the ability to seal off the flow of the tide so that some kind of vessel could be maintained. The sea was calm on our day, but we could envisage how violent it might be in the depths of winter. But what had been its purpose?

The ‘dark village’, apparently constructed of the same stone, and at the same time, as the dock, seemed quite deserted, yet was, or had been, very important in Tiree’s past. What was this ‘ghost town’ on our tiny island?

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We climbed up onto its walls to get a glimpse of the whole complex of buildings from this perspective.

The answer would teach us as much about the city from which our flight had begun, only three hours prior, as the island of Tiree, itself… Despite the ever-threatening weather, it was becoming a very magical day.

Because we had entered from the sea, we still had no idea what the dark village was, nor why it had ever justified such a grand and robust harbour.

The answer was a lesson in Scotland’s history and a revelation of something quite astonishing in its scale and importance. It was also a lesson in how we take for granted the ‘giants’ on whose shoulders we ‘stand’ as Newton said.



To be continued…

Previous posts in this series:

Part One,

Steve Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye school of Consciousness. His personal blog is at

©Copyright Stephen Tanham, text and pictures. Re-use with permission.