Tag Archives: Flannan

The Flannan Isle disappearances (2)

This is the second 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”. If you need it, then here’s a link to Post No 1

Last time you had the list of what Lighthouseman Joseph Moore found during his search of the island on December 26th, and I promised that I would explain what they all proved. Well….

“clocks were stopped” and “fire was not lighted for some days” means whatever it was that happened, happened well before the Hesperus, and Joseph Moore, arrived at the island.

“the beds were empty just as they left them in the early morning” means that the disaster was an afternoon affair, probably in the late afternoon.

“The outside gate and two doors to the outside were closed” because the men left calmly.

“the light room was in proper order” means that everybody was doing their job properly and that it is unlikely the crisis was based on madness or violence. And whatever the problem was, it began and ended in much less than a day.

“Nothing appears touched at East Landing” means that whatever happened, it was probably not here, but at……

“the West side……… old box halfway up the railway has gone…the ropes got washed out of it, they lie strewn on the rocks….The iron railings on the footpath to the landing … broken in several places…the railing round the crane, and the handrail for making the mooring rope fast entirely carried away” means that it was highly probable that the West Landing was where all three men met their deaths.

Robert Muirhead, the NLB Superintendent, submitted his final report on the events of Flannan Isle on January 8th 1901. Details included in his report, as far as the West Landing was concerned, that……

“the crane was found to be unharmed….. the canvas was securely lashed round it……no evidence that the men had been doing anything at the crane.”

The West Landing is in the bottom left of the photograph below:

“The mooring ropes, landing ropes, derrick landing ropes and crane handles, and also a wooden box in which they were kept, in a crevice in the rocks 110 feet above the sea level, had been washed away… the ropes were strewn in the crevices of the rocks… they were all coiled up, no single coil being found unfastened.”

“The iron railings round the crane platform and from the terminus of the tramway to the concrete steps up from the West landing were displaced and twisted.”

“A large block of stone, weighing upwards of 20 cwt (one ton), had been dislodged from its position higher up, and carried down, and left on the concrete path leading to the top of the steps.”

“A life buoy fastened to the railings had disappeared….. on examining the ropes by which it was fastened, they had not been touched, and it was evident that the force of the sea pouring through the railings had, even at this great height (110 feet above sea level) torn the life buoy off the ropes.”

“Ducat was wearing sea boots and a waterproof, and Marshall sea boots and oilskins……..the men only wore those articles when going down to the landings”

“they must have intended, when they left the lighthouse, either to go down to the landing or the proximity of it.”

Here’s the extremely steep path down to the West Landing. Just beyond the right turn, if you stumble and fall, is a sheer drop to the rocks and the sea far, far below:

Robert Muirhead, the NLB Superintendent continued…..

” I am of opinion that the most likely explanation of the disappearance of the men is that they had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday, 15 December to the West landing, to secure the box with the mooring ropes, etc and that an unexpectedly large roller had come up on the Island, and a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them had swept them away with resistless force.”

“I have considered the possibility of the men being blown away by the wind, but, as the wind was westerly…….the more probable explanation is that they have been washed away as, had the wind caught them, it would, from its direction, have blown up the Island and I feel certain that they would have managed to throw themselves down before they had reached the summit or brow of the Island.”

Some of the distances between the lighthouse and the top of a three hundred foot sheer cliff down to the sea were extremely small. It would have been easy to have been blown off if the wind was particularly strong:

The second picture shows pretty much the same situation:

One interesting additional detail in the Superintendent’s report was that……..

“The Commissioners appointed Roderick MacKenzie, Gamekeeper, Uig, near Meavaig, to look out daily for signals that might be shown from Flannan Isle, and to note each night whether the light was seen or not seen. The light had not been lit from the 15th-25th December, so I resolved to see him on Sunday morning. He was away, but his two sons, aged about 16 and 18 – two most intelligent lads of the gamekeeper class, and who actually performed the duty of looking out for signals, I had a conversation with them, and I also examined the Return Book. From the December Return, I saw that the Tower itself was not seen, even with the assistance of a powerful telescope, between the 7th and the 29th December. The light was, however, seen on 7th December, but was not seen on the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th. It was seen on the 12th, but not seen again until the 26th, the night when it was lit by Moore.”

The lighthouse was around 23 miles north west of Uig which is on the northern edge of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. In those days there was no light pollution, so a lighthouse that distance away could be seen if conditions were favourable. I think that the telescope was at Gallan Head, the furthest and remotest place that the Orange Arrow has ever been. The locals, for example, did not speak English as their first language but Gaelic, a Celtic language related to Breton, Cornish and Welsh :

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The Flannan Isle disappearances (1)

On February 17th 2021, I published a blog post about one of my Dad’s favourite poems, “Flannan Isle”, by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, which was written in 1912. The poem concerned the mysterious disappearance of the three lighthouse keepers in December 1900. This strange incident has never been explained once and for all, and I was asked for my own ideas by a number of different people. Unfortunately, the subject proved so complex that I was unable to do it justice in fewer than four blog posts, although, on the other hand, I would argue that all four are as interesting as any that I have ever written.

So here we go……..

At midnight on December 15th, the steamship Archtor, nearing the end of its voyage from Philadelphia to Leith, passed the Flannan Isle lighthouse which was not showing a light. Instead of two quick bursts of light every 30 seconds, there was just darkness. Captain Holman, however, was unable to report this fact to the Northern Lighthouse Board, because the Archtor continued its voyage, but ran aground in the Firth of Forth. The NLB, therefore,  were unaware of the situation until their own supply ship, the Hesperus, made its usual regular visit to the lighthouse on December 26th.  The Master of the Hesperus, Captain Harvie, at the first opportunity, sent a telegram to the NLB. The significant elements can be read below:

“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 signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago.”

The “occasional” was a temporary replacement for a full time lighthouseman who was ill. His name was Donald McArthur. Donald was due to be replaced by Joseph Moore, the third Assistant Lighthouseman allocated to Flannan Isle, now recovered from his illness. Joseph was on board the Hesperus and Captain Harvie sent him ashore to search the island. Captain Harvie then reported to the NLB the two key things that Joseph found during his search of the lighthouse and the island….

“…. The clocks were all stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago.”

Here’s Joseph Moore:

 

Joseph Moore also wrote his own letter to the NLB though, about what he had seen during his search of the island:

“On coming to the entrance gate I found it closed. I made for the entrance door leading to the kitchen and store room, found it also closed and the door inside that, but the kitchen door itself was open………..

On entering the kitchen I looked at the fireplace and saw that the fire was not lighted for some days. I then entered the rooms in succession, found the beds empty just as they left them in the early morning.”

And………

“Mr McCormack and myself proceeded to the lightroom where everything was in proper order. The lamp was cleaned. The fountain full. Blinds on the windows etc.”

The island is so small that it could be searched in a very short time…..

“We traversed the Island from end to end but still nothing to be seen to convince us how it happened. Nothing appears touched at East Landing to show that they were taken from there. Ropes are all in their respective places in the shelter, just as they were left after the relief on the 7th.”

Both sides of the island were not the same though….

“On the West side it is somewhat different. We had an old box halfway up the railway for holding West Landing mooring ropes and tackle, and it has gone. Some of the ropes, it appears, got washed out of it, they lie strewn on the rocks near the crane. The crane itself is safe.

The iron railings along the passage connecting the railway with the footpath to the landing and started from their foundation and broken in several places (sic), also railing round crane, and handrail for making mooring rope fast for boat, is entirely carried away.”

Joseph Moore could also work out how the men were dressed…….

“Now there is nothing to give us an indication that it was there the poor men lost their lives, only that Mr Marshall has his seaboots on and oilskins, also Mr Ducat has his seaboots on. He had no oilskin, only an old waterproof coat, and that is away. Donald McArthur has his wearing coat left behind him which shows, as far as I know, that he went out in shirt sleeves. He never used any other coat on previous occasions, only the one I am referring to.”

Some of the evidence above is important. To end this blog post, I will write out some of the things discovered by the NLB and perhaps you can have a think about what they prove, or, indeed, disprove……..

The clocks were stopped

The entrance gate I found …..closed

The entrance door ….. found it closed and the door inside (as well)

The kitchen door itself was open

The fire was not lighted for some days

I found the beds empty just as they left them in the early morning

In the lightroom everything was in proper order. The lamp was cleaned. The fountain full. Blinds on the windows etc

Nothing appears touched at East Landing

Ropes are all in their places

And then there is that huge contrast:

On the West side……… old box halfway up the railway ….has gone……the ropes…… got washed out of it, they lie strewn on the rocks.

The iron railings …….with the footpath to the landing …….started from their foundation and broken in several places…..railing round crane, and handrail for making mooring rope fast……. entirely carried away.”

Mr Marshall has his seaboots on and oilskins, also Mr Ducat has his seaboots on. He had no oilskin, only an old waterproof coat, and that is away. Donald McArthur has his wearing coat left behind him which shows, as far as I know, that he went out in shirt sleeves.

Next time, I will show you the conclusions of the NLB Superintendent who also visited the island. He, like Joseph Moore, was well aware that the box constructed to keep all the ropes and other equipment safe was 110 feet above the sea.

 

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