Photographing the Ruvaal Lighthouse: How Country Life’s photographer went the extra mile — or 175 miles — for the perfect image

Among the many beautiful features in Country Life's 29 July 2020 issue — guest edited by The Princess Royal — is the article about the garden at the astonishing Ruvaal lighthouse. Getting the pictures to illustrate it proved to be something of an epic for photographer Andrea Jones.

If you aren’t able to get to a shop to pick up this week’s special issue of Country Life, you can buy a single issue here if you’re in the UK or here if you’re overseas.

The Ruvaal Lighthouse — sometimes called the Rhuvaal Lighthouse or, most prettily, the Rubh’A’Mhail Lighthouse — sits atop a rocky cliff on the barren, north-eastern tip of Islay, in the isles off Scotland’s rugged west coast.

It’s a miracle not just of Victorian engineering, but also of gardening: Suzanne Cobb has worked miracles to create a charming and beautiful garden in this astonishingly rugged landscape, which can only be reached by boat (and then only when waves and tides play ball) or via a two-hour trek across boggy, barren landscape.

So when Princess Anne put it forward as the garden she’d most like to see featured in her 70th birthday guest edited issue, Country Life’s team had to find a photographer who’d be able to get there and do it justice. The person who agreed to take on the challenge was award-winning garden photographer Andrea Jones, who defied stormy seas, torrential downpours, hours at sea and stringent adherence to lockdown rules in order to get the images.

Looking east from the sea to Ruvaal Lighthouse, with the Paps of Jura in the background. Photograph: Andrea Jones/Country Life Picture Library

Recommended videos for you

‘I’ve been on shoots in Brazil, the Outback, all over the world, and yet this was probably the hardest place to get to,’ says Andrea — despite the fact that her journey began from Girvan, seven miles from her home.

With none of the ferries operating, Andrea had to hire a boat — a 12m rib named Glenapp Castle, with skipper Roddy Leitch and crewman David Bova — which would become her home for a couple of days. She and the skipper spent a few weeks checking the weather until a decent-looking window appeared. That was the prompt for the trip to begin, leaving Girvan early in the morning in order to make it to Islay by early afternoon.

Skipper Roddy Leitch and crewman David Bova with The Glenapp Castle rib at anchor off the shore with view to Jura at sunrise. ©Andrea Jones

‘The weather going out was utterly foul,’ says Andrea. ‘The Mull of Kintyre is treacherous at the best of times, but with the sea as it was all I could do to stop myself being sick.

‘We had a terrifying close call as we rounded the Mill of Kintyre too — a vast piece of timber suddenly appeared in the waves, coming straight for us as we crested a huge wave. All we could do was gasp in horror — thankfully it missed us by a few inches.’

The Glenapp Castle’s wake. ©Andrea Jones

Thankfully, the trio made it in one piece, just in time for the sun to come out as Andrea recce’d the garden and prepared her gear. which all had to be landed in a tiny dinghy since the rib couldn’t get into the lighthouse’s harbour.

‘The weather was lovely by the time we got there,’ says Andrea. ‘Overnight it was a beautiful sunset and sunrise — though we were inundated with midges.’

The Glenapp Castle with views to the ‘Paps of Jura’. ©Andrea Jones

After the sun set Andrea had to return to the boat to sleep (‘Normally the owner would have been happy to put me up in the lighthouse, but social distancing rules meant I couldn’t’ Andrea explains), before returning to the island before 5am to take the sunrise pictures. The crew weren’t so lucky: they slept only in shifts, with one of them needed to keep watch on the anchor throughout the night.

Glenapp Castle rib at anchor off the shore with view to Jura at sunrise. ©Andrea Jones

The drama wasn’t quite over. As Andrea was finishing up, a huge storm blew up incredibly quickly, with simultaneous thunder and lightning crashing around both the lighthouse and the boat. Thankfully it blew over before too long, and the trip back proved idyllic: plentiful sea birds flying all around, a school of porpoises swimming close to the boat, and a beautiful stop-off at Ailsa Craig, the famous bird sanctuary visible from all along the Ayrshire coast.

Ailsa Craig, not a volcanic plug but a ‘pluton’, sits 8.6 miles off the Ayrshire coast, and is home to tens of thousands of seabirds, from gannets to puffins. ©Andrea Jones

Thankfully, the weeks of preparation, the 175-mile round-trip during two days aboard and the tireless efforts of Andrea and the crew all involved paid off. The pictures of this astonishing spot — first visited by Princess Anne 25 years ago in her role as patron of the Northern Lighthouse Board — are truly breathtaking.

You can read the full article (and see all the pictures) about the Ruvaal Lighthouse garden in the 29 July 2020 issue of Country Life, while you can see more of Andrea’s picture at her website and Instagram page.