Mainland Great Britain's most northerly point is not, as usually thought, John o' Groats. It is actually the nearby Dunnet Head. And mainland Great Britain's westernmost point? Anyone suggesting it's somewhere in Cornwall is well wide of the mark. It is actually a rocky outcrop called Corrachadh Mòr, some three quarters of a mile south (and some 30-50 yards further west, depending on how you measure it) of Ardnamurchan Point, which forms the tip of a peninsula that extends like an accusing finger between the islands of Mull to its south and Eigg, Rum and more distant Skye to its north.
It takes a little effort to get to Ardnamurchan Point, whether from the Corran Ferry, 45 miles to the east, or from the A830 Fort William to Mallaig road before coming south through Acharacle and then heading west along the peninsula. The third alternative is by ferry from Tobermory on Mull to Kilchoan, the only significant settlement on Ardnamurchan.
Two of these alternatives involve driving at least 30 miles of single track roads to reach Ardnamurchan Point, and 30 more to return. For more information, visit our feature page on driving single track roads. As you travel west from Kilchoan to Ardnamurchan Point you increasingly feel you must be coming to land's end, but sightings of the lighthouse are at best fleeting in this rock strewn and bumpy landscape.
But while reaching this most western outpost of mainland Britain takes effort, being here is worth every ounce of it. Ardnamurchan Point is a wild, lonely, and stunningly beautiful place offering superb views of many nearby (and not so nearby) islands. You know you are getting close to the end of your journey when you come to a gateway in the road guarded by traffic lights, probably the only set within fifty miles. When these turn to green you proceed along a narrow stone-walled road and around a rocky hill: and ahead of you is Ardnamurchan Lighthouse.
The lighthouse first shone out to allow mariners to locate the point at night on 5 October 1849. It was designed by Alan Stevenson, one of the Stevenson dynasty of lighthouse engineers who between them were responsible for building 97 lighthouses in Scotland (and the Isle of Man) between 1799 and 1939. Alan was one of three brothers who followed their father and step-grandfather into the business, and he was the uncle of the most famous member of the family, and the one who, perhaps ironically, did not become an engineer: Robert Louis Stevenson.
The Ardnamurchan Lighthouse took three years to build, using pinkish granite quarried on the island of Erraid, off the tip of Mull. The 20 acre site had been purchased in 1845 for £1 per acre, plus a further payment of £58 to the landowner for disruption during the building works. Stevenson lighthouses have a certain family resemblance, but the buildings constructed at the foot of the Ardnamurchan Lighthouse had a more overtly Egyptian style than most. The lighthouse itself was not painted and retained the natural grey-pink colour of its granite.
The lighthouse was manned by two lightkeepers, who supplemented their income, and their food supply, by keeping cows and sheep on the surrounding site. This can be a turbulent place. A little over two years after it was built, 22 January 1852, the lighthouse was hit by a severe storm. Lightning strikes caused minor damage to the tower itself, while high seas sweeping across the promontory smashed the keepers' boat and washed away lengths of boundary wall and access road. The lighthouse was automated in 1988, and since 1996 the other buildings on the site have been in the care of the Ardnamurchan Lighthouse Trust.
The visitors' car park is next to the old stable block, now converted to house the reception for the lighthouse visitor centre plus a cafe and shop. The cafe has outdoor seating for those wanting to enjoy the views to the beach and bay to the south, but rest assured that it also has indoor seating for less glorious weather.
No visit to Ardnamurchan Point is complete without exploring the Lighthouse Trust's exhibition centre, and the lighthouse itself. Tickets, for just the exhibition or for the exhibition and the lighthouse, can be purchased in the reception, and from here it is a short walk up the hill to the former head keeper’s house. The near end of this, just beyond the old oil tanks, is home to the engine room and workshop, while beyond it are a series of exhibition areas covering this lighthouse, lighthouses more generally, and the geology and natural history of Ardnamurchan. Incidentally, the name is believed to come from the Gaelic Airde Muirchu, which translates as "point of the otters".
Ardnamurchan Lighthouse itself stands 36m high, and its top is 55m above sea level. Getting to the top requires climbing 152 steps, plus two ladders: the first to reach the room with the controls and access to the outside balcony, and the second to reach the light room itself. The views from the top are utterly magnificent, and best appreciated from the balcony, though access to this is weather dependent. The island of Rum is particularly prominent to the north, with Skye beyond it, but the views extend, on a clear day at least, to Barra, 50 miles to the north-west.
The light room itself comes as something of a surprise. We tend to have a fixed idea of the lights in lighthouses coming from large, multi-faceted Fresnel lenses. There is one at Ardnamurchan, but it is in the exhibition centre. What you find in the light room are two horizontal rows of what look like car headlights in a rotating housing that ensures the lighthouse's characteristic double flash rotating beam is maintained.
Those not wanting to climb the lighthouse can enjoy views that are nearly as good without doing so, with every chance of seeing a passing whale, dolphin or basking shark, or perhaps one of the otters that gave the peninsula its name. One of the best low level viewpoints is the bright red foghorn placed on a platform on the rocks below the lighthouse. Standing beneath its huge megaphone horn you may wonder what happens if it sounds. Don't worry: it's no longer operational. If the weather is poor, then there is an all weather viewing area beneath the front of the foghorn platform. And if you want to enjoy the views over a period of time, a keeper’s cottage at the foot of the lighthouse is available as self catering accommodation.