We are especially interested in automated lighthouses as tourism businesses at the moment. This means that even when on holiday in a faraway area in the extreme south west of Scotland, a community-run lighthouse attraction that radiates success stops us in our TellTale tracks.
We spent a large part of the last year working on interpretation strategies and plans for The Great Lighthouses of Ireland, a new signature experience created by the Commissioners of Irish Lights. Along with the rest of the Genesis team we put a lot of thought and planning, and many visits to lighthouses, into developing the plan. We learned a lot about lighthouses and their history and, yes, maybe inevitably, we fell in love in them.
Our work was about meshing the visitor experience with the new Great Lighthouses of Ireland brand. This meant embedding heritage into the experience of staying in the lighthouse-keepers’ cottages, creating top quality storykeeper tours lead by local people and, where space permitted, creating new exhibitions (with Tandem as the designers implementing our plans).
Lighthouses are tricky. They are life-saving working buildings – that brings constraints and makes security a very serious issue. They were built for two or three fit men to move about in, they contain tight spaces, steep, narrow and difficult stairs and vertiginous (or exhilarating depending on your viewpoint) balconies. They were not designed as visitor spaces.
We spent a lot of time thinking about how many people could be in a tower at once and the supervision needed. We came to very similar conclusions to the managers of the Mull of Galloway Lighthouse. Given the many constraints that lighthouses present it is not surprising that the lighthouse at Galloway has come up with some similar solutions.
Lighthouses also tend, by their very nature, to be in isolated and remote areas, often in stunning coastal landscapes. The drive down the peninsula reminded us of the drive down other peninsulas – to Hook Lighthouse in County Wexford or to Fanad Head in Donegal. We were delighted to see that the Mull of Galloway Lighthouse team were capitalising on this; on the day we were there there was a classic art club meeting there, making the most of the venue and the drive to it and adding a point of interest for other visitors. A nice piece of diversification which sparked ideas we might take back to Ireland.
Obviously lighthouses are great places to look at the sea. Our interpretation for the Great Lighthouses of Ireland holiday cottages made great play on this drawing attention to watching everything from clouds, to shipping to wildlife. Great activities we thought for a holiday. Our visits to Mizen Head in West Cork and to Fanad Head were particularly memorable for seeing gannets and porpoises; we saw them again at the Mull of Galloway.
Even more interestingly, like at West Light, Rathlin Island (Antrim) the Mull of Galloway Lighthouse is closely linked to a RSPB reserve best known for its breeding seabird colony. At the Mull of Galloway we could see a matured version of this relationship with both elements fused into the ‘Mull of Galloway Experience‘ with well integrated interpretation. The interpretation in the (very good) RSPB Mull of Galloway visitor centre echoed our plans for Rathlin so closely that we hoped the RSPB had had the wit and co-ordination to save costs by sharing the graphics.
Visiting the Mull of Galloway reminded us of our work on bringing the Great Lighthouses of Ireland into being but also that they are at the beginning of a journey. The Mull of Galloway Lighthouse is further down the road, a road that for them has included a community buy-out of the land around the lighthouse and all the buildings except the (still operational) tower.
This struck us as an extremely impressive example of a genuinely community led and managed tourism initiative. Their plethora of awards, including a four star Visitor Attraction award from the Scottish Tourist Board, suggested others agreed with our assessment.
It was clear that this project and the community behind it has many useful lessons and experiences to share about developing and running a lighthouse attraction. We were lucky enough to have conversations with both Maureen the Chair (doing a stint of guiding at the top of the tower) and Alison their marketing person during our visit. We looked across the Irish Sea to the location of Blackhead (County Antrim) a short gannet flight over the water hatched a hope of linking our lighthouse friends in Ireland with this project. The Stranaer – Larne Ferry would be a suitably nautical connection. We will see.