Light's Out at Flannan Isle

The lighthouse was constructed between 1895-1899 by George Lawson of Rutherglen. It was a challenging and dangerous undertaking. But it was completed and lit on December 7th 1899.

 

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Myth had always surrounded Flannan Isle, it’s been said, as you sail near it’s shore, you can feel it’s presence, you could feel it pull you closer and you could hear it’s call. The only ones known to regularly visit would be the Sheep Herders. They had a name for Eilean Mor, “The Other Country”
 

They believed it to be populated by elves, spirits, fairies and other supernatural beings. The Herders, as well as other fisherman had “Special” Rituals. One ritual known was they would remove their hats and turned sunwise after coming ashore. It was also long believed that if you did not follow the rules of the “Little People” you would never leave alive and the many who have disappeared were said to have fallen victim to these spirits.

While these are just myths, one of the keepers assigned to the island, took them to heart. He requested not to be sent, stating that Eilean Mor was “Not the most suitable place for a man with a young family” as if he had a premonition of what was to come.

But away the three men were sent to man the lighthouse, and according to the logbooks, everything at first seemed to be running smoothly. It wasn’t until December 15th, when a passing ship noticed that the light wasn’t on at the lighthouse that the mystery began.

A short storm broke out near the islands, the crew of a passing ship called the Fairwind saw that there was no guiding light coming from the newly built Lighthouse, they were angry and disturbed. Another ship called the Archtor also saw that the light was out and reported it when they docked at Oban, but nothing was done about it at the time.

Maybe the authorities thought it was best to wait a few days, since a relief ship was due to sail to the Isle on the 20th. But, due to severe weather, the Hesperus didn’t make it to the isle until the 26th.  Something seemed wrong as the lighthouse came into view, and when it was discovered that the keepers had disappeared, Captain Harvey returned to port and sent a telegraph to the Lighthouse board


Telegraph From Captain Harvey
“A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island.

Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.

Night coming on, we could not wait to make something as to their fate.

I have left Moore, MacDonald, Buoymaster and two Seamen on the island to keep the light burning until you make other arrangements. Will not return to Oban until I hear from you. I have repeated this wire to Muirhead in case you are not at home. I will remain at the telegraph office tonight until it closes, if you wish to wire me.”

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There were rumors about what happened to the three keepers, that they might have been lured to their deaths by the sprits of the hundreds of fishermen and freightermen who were lost to the sea off the shores of the isles. That they heard calls for help, and while they were coming to aid those calls from those long dead, that they died themselves.

Another rumor was that one of the keepers murdered the other two. That he threw them, then himself off the cliffs. Unfortunately, when the investigating party located the Keepers log book. Nothing was answered, it just caused more questions.
 

“December 12. Gale north by northwest. Sea lashed to fury. Never seen such a storm. Waves very high. Tearing at lighthouse. Everything shipshape. James Ducat irritable”

Followed later that day by:

“Storm still raging, wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passing sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. Donald McArthur crying”.

 “December 13. Storm continued through night. Wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. McArthur praying”.

Followed later by:
“Noon, grey daylight. Me, Ducat and McArthur prayed”.

On December 14th no entry was made in the log and on December 15th the final entry was made which read only:

“December 15. 1pm. Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all”
 

It was a mystery, because no one knew these men to either cry nor pray due to bad weather. These were strong men of the sea, who grew up on the coast of Scotland. Something else had to of had them scared. What was also worrisome, was there were no reports of bad weather in the area on the 12th, 13th and the 14th of December.  While the weather was said to have been “Calm, but stormy” it wasn’t the magnitude of what was described in the Logbook. But one thing was for sure; regulation was broken. One man was to stay at the lighthouse always. But, with one of the oilskins left behind. He must have heard something that made him leave in a hurry.

Still some believed the ghost stories, one of the Investigating party, who was required to remain at the lighthouse for two days before relief keepers could man the light; During the night, above the sound of the sea and wind, he claimed to hear men’s voices calling out to him. He was convinced that it was the lost souls of the Lighthouse keepers.

 

The official report was that the men were washed away to sea. Superintendent Muirhead also added:

Superintendent Muirhead:

“I visited them as lately as 7th December and have the melancholy recollection that I was the last person to shake hands with them and bid them adieu”.

Even though that was the official word on what happened. The disaster at Flannan isle is still one of Scotland’s greatest mysteries, save one other mystery that happened almost 100 years earlier.

Lighthouses did not always have three keepers. Until the early nineteenth century, two was all that was needed. Until a horribly incident happened at a smaller lighthouse to the west of St David’s peninsula in South Wales

The two keepers, Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffiths, were known to argue regularly. So, when Griffins died in a freak accident Howell, fearing that he might be accused of murder, decided to keep the body, tied to the outside railing. The coffin Howell made was destroyed by the wind, leaving the body fully exposed. The arm fell in such a way that, moved by the wind, it gave the impression to passing vessels that the dead man was beckoning. When relieved the surviving keeper was unrecognizable, having gone mad. But, that’s a story for another time
 

Poem of Flannan Isle Written by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

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