Sule Skerry: Part One

From Orcadian Papers (1905)

With contributions from James Tomison, lighthouse keeper.


Vernon Hill The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry 1912

Long before the advent of a lighthouse on the island the late Mr Joseph Dunn, naturalist, who for a number of years acted as curator of Stromness Museum, was in the habit of making periodical visits to Sule Skerry, in company with other gentlemen, to collect wild birds and wild birds’ eggs, many of which were placed in the Museum. On several of these occasions a local steamer was chartered, and at other times a sailing vessel was employed to convey the excursionists to and from the island. In more recent years the collection in the Museum has been largely increased through the kindness of Mr Tomison in sending ashore from Sule Skerry, whenever opportunity offered, birds to complete the collection.

The position of Sule Skerry is put down as 59 degrees 4′ 45″ north latitude, and 4 degrees 24′ west longitude. It is 32 1/2 miles from Hoy Head (near Stromness), and 33 1/2 miles from Cape Wrath, the nearest land to it being Fairaird Head in Sutherlandshire, 30 3/4 miles distant.

The island lies in the open ocean, right in the track of vessels trading round our rock bound coasts, as well as that of the many sail plying between British and foreign ports. The extreme length of the island is 900 yards, or a little over half a mile. as the coast line is very irregular, running out in long narrow points, it is difficult to convey to the reader’s mind a correct idea of its breadth. The greatest breadth, taken at right angles to its length, is 450 yards, but at one point it is less than 100 yards from sea to sea. Right round is a border of jagged rocks, which, owing to the low level of the island, is swept by the Atlantic billows and is consequently entirely bare, presenting a very uninviting appearance to anyone contemplating an evening walk.

Inside this border and beyond the reach of the heaviest ocean billow, there is a considerable deposit of mossy soil, ranging from two or three inches to over four feet deep, which in summer produces an abundant crop of rough grass affording excellent feeding for goats and rabbits. The total superficial area is about 35 acres, of which about 12 acres are covered with soil. At different parts there are basins which being full of salt water look like little inland lakes. The centre of the island is its highest part, attaining  a height of 45 feet and here, surrounded by vegetation, the lighthouse stands.

There are two goes or landings at Sule Skerry , one lying east and the other S.S.E.which in ordinary weather afford tolerably safe landing places, for should one prove inaccessible, the other would in all probability be quite safe of the relief to being made. There are occasions, however, when neither of these landings can be used on account of stormy weather, and it is then that a more exciting method of relieving the lighthouse keepers has to be resorted to.

At such times a derrick about 24 feet in length is used, the lower end of which is fixed into the rock , while it is supported at an angle of about 45 degrees over the cliff by stays and by an arrangement of blocks and tackle the supplies for the lighthouse are raised out of the boat which lies at a safe distance from the rocks, to the summit, whence they are removed to the lighthouse. In like manner also is the light keeper whose turn it is to go on duty landed  and he very frequently gets a thorough wetting in his passage from the boat to the shore.

Of the two landings mentioned that to the east – in the smaller goe- is preferred where there is a small concrete pier and a crane which is more easily worked than the one at the other goe. At the latter a landing can only be effected by means of an iron ladder set up against the side of the goe.

Rails are laid from the landings to the base of the tower and on these trucks laden with the stores landed from time to time are drawn. The east landing is at the mouth or entrance of a goe formed by the action of the sea cutting through strata softer than the surrounding rocks. This goe lies nearly east and west and in two places it has tunnelled underneath the rocks. This tunnel at one time may have been of considerable length but a process of decay seems to have been going on and doubtless it will ultimately vanish. At present it consists of what might be called two bridges about twelve feet broad. Soft strata seem to run across the island at this place for exactly opposite, the sea is boring its way through and although the two goes are not yet joined there is no doubt in the distant future this union will take place.

Sule Skerry

Sule Skerry South Landing Sule Skerry is a remote island off the north coast. This photo shows the South landing place. The railway was used for transporting stores to the lighthouse. The bogie shown was hauled by a winch powered by a stationary engine. The lighthouse was manned when this photo was taken but is now automatic. Sule Skerry South Landing cc-by-sa/2.0 – © david glass –


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