Friday, September 11, 2009



I've always been fascinated by unsolved mysteries and remember being intrigued as a child when told about the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a lighthouse in Scotland many years before. All memories of that tale slipped firmly into the back of my mind though until I came to live here and was reminded of the strange events that occurred at the Flannan Isles light in December 1900.
The first picture, which I took last Sunday morning, was photographed from a distance of about twenty miles, from the West coast of Lewis near Mangersta. The lighthouse itself is positioned on the highest point of Eilean Mor, the larger island on the right of the photo and can just about be seen if you are able to expand it on the computer.
The Flannan Isles lighthouse was designed by David Stevenson, built by George Lawson of Rutherglen and was lit for the first time in December 1899. Building it must have been an extraordinary achievement because all of the materials used were hauled up the 150 foot cliffs from moving boats in the turbulent seas below.
The lighthouse, landing stage, stairs and railway tracks cost a total of £6914, no mean sum over a hundred years ago. An additional £3526 was spent on building the shore station at Breasclete, Lewis, shown in the second photo. The lighthouse was manned by three keepers at all times with a rotating fourth keeper who did regular relief duty and like the other keepers, lived at the shore station in between stints on the light. The Breasclete shore station has been maintained in lovely condition and since becoming redundant in 1971 when the light was automated, has been converted into a block of flats.
I digress, so back to the tale. On 15 December 1900, about a year after the Flannan Isles light was commissioned, a ship steaming past the Flannans saw that the light was not operational and reported this when they berthed at Oban. Poor weather prevented the relief lighthouse tender Hesperus from leaving Breasclete pier immediately, but the boat eventually reached the lighthouse at noon on 26 December, when the relief keeper was put ashore. He found the beds unmade, the clock stopped and no sign of any of the three keepers. With the aid of a seaman and the second mate of the relief boat, the relief keeper made a thorough search throughout the lighthouse and immediate surroundings but could find no trace of the missing men. The lighthouse lamps had been cleaned and refilled and the only untoward finding was an overturned chair in the kitchen.
Later on 26 December, the Hesperus returned to Breasclete on Lewis, leaving behind the relief keeper and three volunteer seaman to operate and maintain the lighthouse. The Captain of the Hesperus sent the following telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board that day:
"A dreadful accident has happened at the Flannans. The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the Occasional have disappeared from the island. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to rescue a crane or something like that."

The fate of the Flannan Lighthouse keepers remains a mystery to this day and every now and again, a new explanation or theory emerges. The official investigation at the time concluded that the most likely occurrence was that all three keepers were outside of the light trying to secure a box in which ropes were kept, when they were hit by extra large waves which struck them with immense force and swept them away.
The poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson wrote a poem entitled Flannan Isle about the disappearance of the keepers. It's too long to print here, but well worth searching it out on the internet.
All well here just now. The temperature is dropping by the week and we've already had some ferocious winds which prevented the ferry leaving the harbour one day earlier this week. I'm off on my holidays in the morning, so it will be about three weeks before the next blog.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


The tourists have almost gone now, although there are still a few people in camper vans parked up in remote places, enjoying the mild weather. This has been a bumper season for visitors, probably because of the big reduction in ferry fares this year. Most of the camper van owners behave reasonably and considerately but for some reason, one of them decided to park in my driveway one night last week without a by your leave to me. I only find out he was there when I went to work early the following morning. He told me that he thought he could park anywhere in the Western Isles, so I gave him one or two suggestions.

No problems at the Towers this week. The car is behaving itself again and the mackerel are biting once more. The weather is changing rapidly and there is a definite Autumnal feel descending on the island. Even so, there are still plenty of flowers on the roadside verges, including the bright, cheerful and poisonous Ragwort, the striking orange Crocosmia and pretty blue Scabious.

I now spend more and more time working in Uist and Barra, which means that the croft is not getting as much attention as I would like and bits of it, especially the garden ground, are beginning to look decidedly scruffy. I'm very pleased to have my neighbour's sheep grazing the land, which keeps it in reasonable order, but I do need to replace quite a lot of fencing in the near future to keep it secure and stop it looking derelict. My plans to have a lovely tidy and productive croft with my own sheep and polytunnels seem as far away now as they did a couple of years ago when I moved into the house.
The problem is that the day job is taking up so much time that it's severely interfering with my original scheme to lead a fulfilling and reasonably self sufficient life. Widespread Sabbath Observance here also means that there are only six days available to work outside and five of those are spent away earning a living. I suppose I could have anticipated this when I came to live here, so mustn't grumble.
I'm not proud of my next revelation, but I have to confess that I do spend some time working in the shed with the door closed, on Sundays. I take the view, rightly or wrongly, that as long as I'm not offending my neighbours by making any noise or working on the land, It's my business what I do inside. I wouldn't dream of hanging washing out or gardening, but I do like pottering inside the shed, which is crammed to the gunwhales with rubbish and needs much sorting out. Lots of the junk in there is left over from the house renovation and a few months ago, I discovered Freecycle. This is an online facility where you can advertise goods you have surplus, or seek items that you want. No money can change hands for goods that are offered or sought and the whole idea is that stuff you don't want goes to somebody who does want it, rather than to the landfill site. I've managed to pass on an old stove, a desk and lots of building bits recently and am now beginning to see some daylight in the shed. A few more Sundays and with a bit of help from Freecycle, the shed will be usable again. There are branches of Freecycle all over the UK and maybe round the world for all I know.
I would rather spend my life ferreting about in the shed and growing things in polytunnels, but my full time work is still enjoyable and important to me and it's not an unsatisfying existence by any means. Still, I quite look forward to having more free time in retirement, which is probably a few years away yet.
I do enjoy living in such a beautiful place and whilst It's difficult to manage the croft productively just now, I can't imagine moving somewhere else unless circumstances change drastically.
Also, the house has developed a warm, welcoming and homely feel to it in the year since the renovation was finished and is a pleasure to live in.

In the last blog, I mentioned that some rich bloke had isolated himself on the small island of Scaravay in the Sound of Harris, in an attempt to withdraw himself from a forty year cigarette habit. He was planning to stay in a tent or a bothy for a month but someone has just told me that the weather has defeated him and driven him home early. I really would like to know if he has given up the fags, so feel free to let me know. I can't find anything recent about him on the internet.