Tag Archives: Northern Lighthouse Board

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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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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