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.