The Flannan Islands are a group of several small islands, located about 30 km in front of Gallan Head / Lewis Island. The mean position is given as 58N17 and 06W40. There are 7 main islands and about 45 rocks and islets. This group is also known as The Seven Hunters, a name which was given in the 16th century. The both major islands are Eilean Mor and Eilean Tigre, about 600 by 350 meters in area and rising to 87 meters near its northern end. On this point a 12 m high light is situated.
Most of the islands early history lies in the dark. In the 8th century the Flannan Group was saide to be in private use of a rich family living on Lewis. When the outern islands of the Hebrides were occupated by the Vikings, Irian Monks flowed to the Flannans and built up a church an a monastery, dated to 990. In this time the today known name was given after the name of the monastery 'St. Flannan Monastery'. In the 16th century, now the monastery was sayed to be abandoned, the Flannan Islands became a part of the privat imperium of the McLeods Clan. Since the mid of the 1970's the Flannan's are in the hand of the National Trust of Scotland.
Stories of mountainous seas and the incredible power of giant waves were nothing new to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses who puzzled over the mysterious dissapearance of the three keepers on the Flannan Isles lighthouse. The bodies of the trio were never found, but over the years, fuelled by superstition and a macabre poem, the mystery has become a sinister legend.
I learned it as a ghoulish "bed time"story. But the report prepared by the Commissioners makes the simple assumption that the three probably left the cliff-top tower to secure gear dislodged by the storm and had been caught by a freak roller which had swept them to their deaths.
Yet there were hints of a supernatural presence even in the report of Superintendant Robert Muirhead who described how the iron railings which stretched from the crane platform right up the tramway to the lighthouse "had been displaced and twisted in a manner difficult to believe unless actually seen."
The more imaginative minds saw the twisted ironwork as a satanic symbol - the Devil's calling card - left to register his displeasure with lighthousemen who cheat him out of his potential harvest of shipwrecked mariners.
Their presumed deaths were not the only tragedy to strike the lighthouse, according to Wilfred Wilson Gibson's poem. Describing the search for the men, Gibson's Victorian melodrama relates: "As we listened in the gloom, Of that forsaken living-room, A chill clutch on our breath, We thought how ill change came to all, Who kept the Flannan Light, And how the rock had been the death, Of many a likely lad, How six had come to a sudden end, And three had gone stark mad, And one, whom we had known as a friend, Had leapt from the lantern one still night, And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall."
Before the Flannan lighthouse was built, the chain of Atlantic-lashed isles lying 20 miles west of Lewis had taken their toll of shipping, including, it is said, one of the smaller vessels from the much-dispersed Spanish Armada. In times past the string of seven isles were known as the Seven Hunters because of their reputation in claiming ships.
Because the cliffs were so high, and the location of the Flannan Light so far back from the actual cliff-edge, the building was spared the worst of the weather. It was quite a popular station, despite the bareness and remoteness.
When the steam yacht Hesperus, one of Northern Lighthouses service vessels delivering relief crews and stores dropped anchor off Eileen Mhor on December 26, the islet on which the lighthouse stands, the master knew it was not a mere technical problem. For the day was clear and the sea was disturbed only by gently rolling waves.
There was no one outside on the upper rail waving a greeting as normally happened. A rocket was fired to alert whoever was on watch but there was no response. Relief keeper Joe Moore was put ashore but within a short time he was back aboard, ashen faced and relating his dreadful discovery that the ligthouse was empty.
Buoymaster Allan Macdonald and two seamen climbed to the lighthouse and found everything in order, the paraffin lantern filled and ready for lighting. On a slate was chalked the barometric reading and temperature for December 15, 1900.
Also on the slate was the time when the lantern should have been extinguised that day. But it had not been lit on December 14, so whatever had befallen the men, it had happpened before lighting up time that day. Official estimate of the actual time of the tragedy was put at 2pm.
That seems to fit in with the poem's verse: "We only saw a table spread, For dinner, meat and cheese and bread." There had certainly been evidence of a storm that day. A lifeboat which had been roped to railings 70 metres above sea level had been torn free as had a heavy box of ropes tied alongside it.
The three keepers were all experienced men. James Ducat, the principal keeper was a veteran and Tom Marshall and Donald McArthur seasoned seamen. If all three had rushed out at the same time why had they not all taken time to put on seaboots and oilskins? This prompts the question: "Why had one gone out in shirt-sleeves - his outer jackets were all found in the lighthouse - and another in oilskins?" And if they were really working under pressure why had one of them taken the time to close and secure the entrance gate to the lighthouse?
But the most fascinating question of all is posed in Superintendant Muirhead's response to Captain Harvey, master of the Hesperus. Harvey telegraphed Muirhead: "Poor fellows, they must have been blown off the cliffs." Muirhead responds: "I have considered the possibility of the men being blown away by the wind but as the wind was westerly I am of the opinion that had it caught them it would have blown them UP the island (away from the cliffs) and I feel certain that they would have managed to throw themselves down before they reached the summit or brow of the hill." He says he must conclude a freak wave picked them up and washed them over the cliffs.
Records of keepers provide a list of perverse doings by stormy seas. On Unst lighthouse, a door 70 metres above the sea and near the top of the pillar light was broken open by the force of the waves. The Bell Rock, another Scottish pillar lighthouse, had its lantern room flooded by a freak wave. And at ground level, Wick's harbour breakwater is the most impressive example of wave power. Its 2,500-ton stretch of reinforced masonry was lifted off its foundations during a storm at the turn of the century.