“As we grew closer to the isle, a sense of foreboding washed over me. Through my glass I could see the lighthouse flag wasn’t hoisted and the provision boxes were not out to be restocked. The keepers, who traditionally welcomed the arriving ships were nowhere to be seen. The captain sounded the ships whistle, but there was no response. Then he sent up a rocket, but no one showed.
We lowered a launch and I rowed ashore, arriving at the lighthouse I found the main compound gates closed, the lighthouse door as well. The feeling of foreboding was greater now, as I approached the house. There was no sign of the keepers inside, the only thing amiss was an over turned chair next to the kitchen table. As if someone had left in a hurry. I rowed back to the ship as fast as I could and shouted “Captain! the Keepers have Disappeared.””- Moore
If you are lost at sea, it is your hope to sea that beacon of light in the distance, then you that you are now safe from harm. But who would have thought, that the keepers of the lighthouse, would be the ones that needed to be kept safe from harm.
Too many souls have been lost on the rocks of Flannan Isle, which locals also know as the Seven Hunters. So it was decided that something needed to be done.
The lighthouse was constructed between 1895 and 1899 but George Lawson of Rutherglen. It was a complicated, and dangerous undertaking, but it was completed and first lit on December 7th 1899.
Myth had always surrounded Flannan Isle, it’s been said as you sail near it’s shore, that you can feel it’s presence, and you could hear it’s call. You could feel it pull you closer. The only ones known to regularly visit would be the sheep herders and 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 know was they would remove their hats and turn sun wise 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. 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 sheep 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 not guiding light coming from the newly built lighthouse. They were angry and disturbed.
Another ship called the “Archter” 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 release 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 when the keepers had disappeared, Captain Harvey had returned to port and sent a telegraph to the Lighthouse Board.
“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 fellas, they must have 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, McDonald, Buoy master, and two seaman 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 that you are not at home. I will remain at the telegraph office tonight until it closes. If you wish to wire me. “
There were rumors about what happened to the three keepers, that they might have been lured to their death by spirits of the hundreds of fisherman and freighter-man who were lost to the sea off the shores of the Isle. They 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.
Excerpt from Logbook:
“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”.
Later that day: “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”.
Later: “Noon, grey daylight. Me, Ducat and McArthur prayed”.
On 14 December there was no entry made in the log, and on December 15th a 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 have had them scared. What was also worrisome, was there were no reports of bad weather in the area, on the 12th, 13th or 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 oil skins 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 keeps could man the light. It was during the night that above the sound of the sea and the wind, he claimed hear men’s voices calling out to him. He was convinced that it was the lost souls of the lighthouse keepers.
The official report stated that ropes were strewn all over the rocks. Ropes which were usually held in the brown crate 70-feet above the platform on the supply crane. Perhaps the crate had been dislodged and knocked down and the lighthouse keepers were attempting to retrieve them when an unexpected wave came and washed them out to sea.
This was the first and most likely theory, and as such Moore included it in his official report to the Norther Lighthouse Board. The Lighthouse Board found it hard to believe especially since the nearby Isle of Luis reported seeing the light in the distance. If there had been terrible weather it would have been obscured from view.
Superintendent Muirhead also added at the end of his report:
“I visited them as lately as 7th of December and have the melancholy recollection that I was the last person to shake hands with them, and bid them adieu”
The lighthouse disaster continues to bewilder and captivate the imagination of everyone who hears the tale. It made it’s way into popular culture in 1912, when Wilfred Wilson Gibson published a poem called “Flannan Isle” and while it’s not historically accurate, the haunting and suspenseful poem inspired all who heard it.
“Though three men on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steer’d under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night!
A passing ship at dawn had brought
The news; and quickly we set sail,
To find out what strange thing might all
The keepers of the deep-sea light.
The winter day broke blue and bright,
With glancing sun and glancing spray,
As o’er the swell our boat made way,
As gallant as a gull in flight.
But, as we near’d the lonely Isle;
And look’d up at the naked height
And saw the lighthouse towering white
With blinded lantern, that all night
Had never shot a spark
Of comfort through the dark,
So ghastly in the cold sunlight
It seem’d, that we were struck the while
With wonder all too dread for words.
And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds–
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag–
Like seamen sitting bold upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we near’d, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.
And still too mazed to speak,
We landed; and made fast the boat;
And climb’d the track in single file,
Each wishing he was safe afloat,
On any sea, however far,
So it be far from Flannan Isle:
And still we seem’d to climb, and climb,
As though we’d lost all count of time,
And so must climb for evermore.
Yet, all too soon, we reached the door–
The black, sun-blister’d lighthouse door,
That gaped for us ajar.”
Lighthouses did not always have to have three keepers. Until the early nineteenth century, two was all that was needed. Until a horrible incident happened at a smaller lighthouse to the west of the Saint David Peninsula in South Wales. The two keepers, Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith were known to argue regularly. So when Griffith 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 to them.
When relieved of duty the surviving keeper was unrecognizable, having gone completely mad. But, that’s a story for another time…