Tag Archives: Flannan Isle

The Flannan Isle disappearances (4)

This is the fourth of a series of four blog posts about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers on Flannan Isle on December 15th 1900. If you feel that you need to read a previous blog post again, just search for “Flannan”.

We have now looked really quite thoroughly at what was, along with the sea serpent, one of the great mysteries of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Given that there are so many plausible theories, but no forensic leads, such as bodies to examine for injuries or marks on the skin, for mercury levels and so on, no absolutely 100% true correct answer will ever be possible. It’s just a case of finding a solution which explains all of the anomalies found by Joseph Moore as he explored the lighthouse and the rest of the island on December 26th 1900.

Having said that, I am the one writing this blog post and I may be the one to decide what the 100% true correct answer might be.

So….here’s the absolute 100% true correct answer…….

A researcher called James Love found out that Thomas Marshall had already been fined five shillings (0.25p) on another lighthouse, when his equipment was left out and washed away during a fierce storm. In modern money, £1 Victorian was reckoned to be between £116-£132. The fine of five shillings, therefore, was approximately £29-£33, and would probably have been increased for a second offence.

Marshall remembered, or was reminded, just before lunch on December 15th, that he had left equipment out yet again, and he put his sea-boots on to go down and put it away. James Ducat offered to come with him to help, and he put his own sea-boots on. The third man, Donald McArthur, had to remain behind because at least one person always had to be in the lighthouse. When they got back, he would start to prepare lunch.

There may have been a storm going on, but in my scenario, there didn’t need to be.  The sun set that day at around 4.00pm, so time was easily on their side.  Both of them were experienced men and they would have known immediately whether going down to the level of the landing stage was feasible or not. The two men took a very long time, though, and so Donald MacArthur, leaving his sea-boots behind, went out of the lighthouse in his shirt sleeves to see what was going on. At this point, he was not particularly panicking, which explains that the lighthouse gates and door were both closed.

And then suddenly, a gigantic wave hit the landing stage, surged up the cliff, and carried away the box where equipment was always stored, 110 feet above sea level. It immediately drowned Marshall and Ducat, busy far below on the landing stage, and also claimed Donald McArthur, who was just beginning to walk down the path to see where his colleagues were.

The wave may have been part of an approaching storm, or it could have been one of the “Freak waves” which have been discovered in recent years….

You can read the full account in Wikipedia but it begins with:

“Rogue waves (also known as freak waves, monster waves, episodic waves, killer waves, extreme waves, and abnormal waves) are unusually large, unpredictable and suddenly appearing surface waves that can be extremely dangerous to ships, even to large ones………. In oceanography, rogue waves are more precisely defined as waves whose height is more than twice the significant wave height, which is itself defined as the mean of the largest third of waves in a wave record.”

In 1985, the Fastnet Lighthouse off south western Ireland was hit by a wave of 157 feet (48 metres)

One wave was recorded in January 1995 in the North Sea about 100 miles southwest of the southern tip of Norway. It reached a maximum height of 84 feet (25.6 metres).

In 2000 the oceanographic vessel, RRS Discovery, recorded a 95 feet (29 metres) wave off the coast of Scotland near Rockall.

In 2013, a wave of 62 feet (19 metres) was recorded by a buoy between Iceland and Great Britain, off the Outer Hebrides. This cannot have been particularly far from the Flannan Isles. The wave was caused by 50 mph winds. So what does a 100 mph wind create?

I can’t give a reference but I’m sure that years ago I once read an account of a Scottish lighthouse which stood 200 feet above the sea having the turf rolled back by the waves:

I certainly read an account of stones from the sea bottom being lifted by waves and crashing against the windows of a lighthouse some 400 feet above normal sea level:

Such waves are certainly within the realms of possibility. Scientists have identified two regions where huge rogue waves may occur….the northern Pacific south west of Alaska and the North Atlantic to the north west of the Outer Hebrides. Of the two, the waves in the Atlantic tend to be bigger.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, that’s my solution to the Flannan Isle mystery. Now, I must see if there’s any sign of the postman…..

POSTSCRIPT

There is a fairly recent film about the Flannan Isle disappearances. It is  called “The Vanishing” and makes use of the events at the lighthouse to tell a tale of greed, violence and murder.

Here are the three lighthouse keepers. They look as if they are up to no good:

Overall, once you put to one side for the duration of the film, any serious explanations you may have of the mystery, this is an excellent thriller, well worth the cost of buying the blu-ray. But, let me say again, it is not a documentary, and makes no attempt to offer a serious, scientific, explanation of the keepers’ disappearance. The film has been made to entertain, and it certainly does that!!

 

 

 

 

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The Flannan Isle disappearances (3)

This is the third of a series of four blog posts about the mysterious disappearance of the three lighthouse keepers on Flannan Isle on December 15th 1900. Here’s a link to Post No 1. And here’s a link to Post No 2.

Last time, we looked at the report by the NLB inspector, Robert Muirhead, about the mysterious disappearance of these three men. This document makes very clear his ideas about an explanation of the mystery. He thought that the men went down to the West Landing  to secure equipment. They may have been at the box where the ropes and so on were kept (110 feet above sea level)….

They may even have descended to the landing stage, a very steep path with a very slippery area at the bottom…..

And then all three men were washed off by a gigantic wave…

Not everybody accepted Muirhead’s theorising about the men’s disappearance, but Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s description in his poem, of an overturned chair and an uneaten meal on the table was quite simply wrong. presumably poetic licence. No furniture or food had been touched at all.

The very best objections come from Keith McCloskey on his website. He poses questions which emphasise apparent flaws in the most popular theory of a huge storm.

Why did they go the West Landing to secure equipment so late in the day? The daylight would have been fading as it was mid-December.

Why did they leave it so long, as the weather was getting worse, not better?

James Ducat had 22 years of experience. Would he have jeopardised his life and that of the others, to walk down to a landing that was being hammered by winds and 30ft to 40ft waves?

Keith McCloskey favours the wind as a theory. He thinks that the men left the lighthouse to investigate a strange noise or a banging door, and a powerful wind, funnelled between the side of the lighthouse and the outer wall, picked the men up and blew them over the wall and straight over the 300 foot cliff only thirty feet away on the other side of the perimeter wall.

Keith quotes an interesting story which proves how strong the wind can be in these parts……

“Former NLB Light keeper Alistair Henderson (who weighed 16 Stones – 102Kgs) was once carrying a fridge between the Lighthouse and the station buildings at Rubh’Re when the wind lifted him, while he was holding the fridge, off his feet and blew him over and he landed several feet away.”

Rubh’Re is on the mainland, to the north east of the Isle of Skye, at the entrance to Loch Ewe.

Another theory has the keepers affected by the vapour coming from the mercury bath on which the Lens apparatus floated. Mercury does not affect everybody, but there may have been one man who went totally mad, ran out into the storm and was duly blown over the cliff into the sea, and so were the two unaffected men who chased after him.

At one time, there was a theory that the log book contained evidence of one man going mad and he could have killed the other two and then himself.  Later research by Mike Dash on behalf of the Fortean Times revealed that such evidence as there was was entirely forged after the event.

Theory No 36 depends on the fact that the cliffs of Flannan Isle are deeply incised with narrow gullies called “geos”.  The West Landing is right next to a geo which also has a cave at the very far end. It is possible that a large volume of water could fill the geo itself, and the cave, and then “explode out again with considerable force”, as one website said, washing the men into a raging sea.

Walter Aldebert  spent four years on Flannan Isle as a lighthouse keeper. His solution was an Occam’s Razor job, namely that one man may have been washed into the sea but then his companions, while trying to rescue him, were also washed away.

The remainder of the solutions definitely do not come from Occam or his razor.

A fight broke out near the edge of the cliff and the three men all fell off and died.

A ship arrived to take them away to a new life of heavy drinking and wild women:

They were abducted by foreign spies.

A sea serpent carried the men away:

A UFO carried the men away (with, apparently, one UFO for each man):

They were carried off by a boat filled with ghosts:

In actual fact, most local people believed the solution to the puzzle was supernatural. For centuries, this group of windswept islands had been called “The Seven Hunters” and they were commonly believed to be haunted by “The Phantom of the Seven Hunters”, a supernatural being who carried people off to who-knows-where. Flannan Isle was inhabited by St Flannan around 650 AD and pilgrims subsequently came to see his home, but only after removing their hats and turning 360° clockwise immediately after coming ashore. Here’s St Flannan’s little house, which would be worth £12,000,000 in the suburbs of London…….

In medieval times shepherds brought their sheep to Flannan Isle to graze in summer but none of these superstitious peasants would stay overnight. At that time there was a strong local belief that, hundreds of years before, in pre-Christian times  the island was where the pagan Picts took their dead and burnt them on funeral pyres:

For these reasons, in 1899-1900, it had actually been extremely difficult to find any men among the local population, willing to serve in the brand new lighthouse on Flannan Isle.

Joseph Moore, the first man on the island after the men disappeared, reported that he had felt a very strange and eerie feeling as he walked through the deserted lighthouse. And ever since the disappearance, the island has had “an overwhelming sense of melancholy”.

Next time, the correct answer that fulfils all the conditions. Who will have won a winter break on Flannan Isle?

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My Dad, Fred, and his favourite poetry (5)

When I was a little boy, my Dad, Fred, used to be a teacher at Hastings Road School in Gresley. Unfortunately excessive mining operations underneath the school led to its premature collapse.  My Dad is at the right hand end of the back row:

My Dad had to move to the Woodville Church of England Junior School, the school I attended, where, after a number of years, I finished up in his class, which was possibly Class 4. This is the school now.

One afternoon,  I can recall being one of the many children who were all so very frightened when my Dad read out to the fifty of us the narrative poem, “Flannan Isle”, by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, written in 1912. Here’s the author:

The Flannan Isles incidentally are pretty much as remote as you can get in Britain. The orange arrow is 553 miles from London, in a straight line, slightly less than London-Berlin:

On an unknown date in December 1900, the lighthouse on Flannan Isle suddenly failed to shine. A few days later, when a group of lighthouse men came to investigate, they found that the whole island was completely deserted. The three lighthouse keepers had completely disappeared.

Fred used to recite this poem regularly to his classes, and I can still recall how intriguing many of us found this true story, and how animatedly and at what great length we discussed all the possible reasons for the disappearance of those three unfortunate lighthouse keepers only sixty years previously. We were all convinced that the men had been magically transformed into seabirds,  an absolutely horrific idea for nine year olds in that more innocent age of the early 1960s. Anyway, here’s the first section:

“THOUGH three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steered 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 ail
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 neared the lonely Isle;
And looked 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 ghostly in the cold sunlight
It seemed, that we were struck the while
With wonder all too dread for words.
That sets the scene, although, initially, when I came back to this poem after 60 odd years, I was a little disappointed with the quality of the poetry. Gibson seems so often to add an extra phrase or an extra couple of words, when the poem would actually read better without them.
Anyway, a possible solution is hinted at by the description below of the three strange seabirds:
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 bolt-upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we neared, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.

Those three birds, guillemots or shags, were the very things that would go on to terrify a bunch of 9-year olds.

And still to ‘mazed to speak,
We landed; and made fast the boat;
And climbed 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 seemed 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-blistered lighthouse-door,
That gaped for us ajar.

 

As, on the threshold, for a spell,
We paused, we seemed to breathe the smell
Of limewash and of tar,
Familiar as our daily breath,
As though ‘t were some strange scent of death:
And so, yet wondering, side by side,
We stood a moment, still tongue-tied:
And each with black foreboding eyed
The door, ere we should fling it wide,
To leave the sunlight for the gloom:
Till, plucking courage up, at last,
Hard on each other’s heels we passed,
Into the living-room.
Actually, at this point, I might well retract what I said before. The further I went into the poem, the more I realised, that it is clearly meant to be slowly and deliberately declaimed out loud. Have a go. You’ll see what I mean. And sincere apologies, Wilf !
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table, spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;
But, all untouched; and no one there:
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come; and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat:
For at the table-head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor. We listened; but we only heard
The feeble cheeping of a bird
That starved upon its perch:
And, listening still, without a word,
We set about our hopeless search.
We hunted high, we hunted low;
And soon ransacked the empty house;
Then o’er the Island, to and fro,
We ranged, to listen and to look
In every cranny, cleft or nook
That might have hid a bird or mouse:
But, though we searched from shore to shore,
We found no sign in any place:
And soon again stood face to face
Before the gaping door:
And stole into the room once more
As frightened children steal.
Aye: though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men’s fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouched meal,
And an overtoppled chair.
And, as we listened in the gloom
Of that forsaken living-room—
A chill clutch on our breath—
We thought how ill-chance 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’d all known as friend
Had leapt from the lantern one still night,
And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:
And long we thought
On the three we sought,
And of what might yet befall.
Like curs, a glance has brought to heel,
We listened, flinching there:
And looked, and looked, on the untouched meal,
And the overtoppled chair.
We seemed to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought, on three men dead.
Hopefully, you made it this far. It is definitely a great poem to be declaimed out loud. But you’ve got to take it slowly and deliberately. If you stumble at the words, go back and give it another go.
And here’s the three birds that we children all thought the lighthouse keepers had been transformed into:

In the future, I hope to produce some blog posts looking at the possible reasons that the three men disappeared.

Portrait of Gibson borrowed from poeticous

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