Flannan Isles Lighthouse

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Flannan Isles Lighthouse
St. Flannan's Cell and Flannan Isles Lighthouse - geograph.org.uk - 623920.jpg
The lighthouse on Eilean Mòr. The Chapel of St Flannan can be seen on the slope to the right of the lighthouse.
Flannan Isles Lighthouse is located in Outer Hebrides
Flannan Isles Lighthouse
Outer Hebrides
Location Eilean Mòr
32 kilometres (20 mi) west of Lewis
Western Isles
Coordinates 58°17′17″N 7°35′16″W / 58.2881°N 7.5879°W / 58.2881; -7.5879Coordinates: 58°17′17″N 7°35′16″W / 58.2881°N 7.5879°W / 58.2881; -7.5879
Year first constructed 1899
Construction masonry tower
Tower shape cylindrical tower with balcony and lantern attached to 1-storey keeper's house
Markings / pattern white tower, black lantern, ochre trim
Height 23 metres (75 ft)
Focal height 101 metres (331 ft)
Current lens 3rd order clamshell Fresnel lens
Light source solar power
Range 20 nautical miles (37 km; 23 mi)
Characteristic Fl (2) W 30s.
Admiralty number A4028
NGA number 3912
ARLHS number SCO-084
Managing agent

Northern Lighthouse Board[1]

Heritage category B listed building Edit this on Wikidata

Flannan Isles Lighthouse is a lighthouse near the highest point on Eilean Mòr, one of the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. It is best known for the mysterious disappearance of its keepers in 1900.


The remains of the Flannan lighthouse railway as of 2012. This view is looking approximately west-south-west from the lighthouse. The site of "Clapham Junction" is just visible at left centre.

The 23-metre (75 ft) lighthouse was designed by David Alan Stevenson for the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB). Construction, between 1895 and 1899, was undertaken by George Lawson of Rutherglen at a cost of £6,914 inclusive of the building of the landing places, stairs, railway tracks etc. All of the materials used had to be hauled up the 45-metre (148 ft) cliffs directly from supply boats, no trivial task in the ever-churning Atlantic. A further £3,526 was spent on the shore station at Breasclete on the Isle of Lewis.[3] It was first lit on 7 December 1899.

The purpose of the railway tracks was to facilitate the transport of provisions for the keepers and fuel for the light (paraffin, at that date; the light consumed twenty barrels a year) up the steep gradients from the landing places by means of a cable-hauled railway. This was powered by a small steam engine in a shed adjoining the lighthouse. A track descended from the lighthouse in a westerly direction and then curved round to the south. In the approximate centre of the island it forked by means of a set of hand-operated points humorously dubbed "Clapham Junction"; one branch continued in its curvature to head eastwards to the east landing place, on the south-east corner of the island, thus forming a half-circle, while the other, slightly shorter, branch curved back to the west to serve the west landing, situated in a small inlet on the island's south coast. The final approaches to the landing stages were extremely steep. The cable was guided round the curves by pulleys set between the rails, and a line of posts set outside the inner rail prevented it from going too far astray should it jump off the pulleys. The cargo was carried in a small four-wheeled bogie.[4]

In 1925, the lighthouse was one of the first Scottish lights to receive communications from the shore by wireless telegraphy.[5] In the 1960s, the island's transport system was modernised. The railway was removed, leaving behind the concrete bed on which it had been laid to serve as a roadway for a "Gnat" – a three-wheeled, rubber-tyred cross-country vehicle powered by a 400cc four-stroke engine, built by Aimers McLean of Galashiels. This had a somewhat shorter working life than the railway, becoming redundant in its turn when the helipad was constructed.[6]

On 28 September 1971, the lighthouse was automated. A reinforced concrete helipad was constructed at the same time to enable maintenance visits in heavy weather. The light is produced by burning acetylene gas and has a range of 17 nautical miles; 20 miles (32 km). It is now monitored from the Butt of Lewis[7] and the shore station has been converted into flats.[8]

Mystery of 1900[edit]

Other than for its relative isolation, the lighthouse would be relatively unremarkable, were it not for the events which took place just over a year after it was commissioned.


Flannan Isles Lighthouse

The first hint of anything untoward on the Flannan Isles came on 15 December 1900. The steamer Archtor on passage from Philadelphia to Leith passed the islands in poor weather and noted that the light was not operational. The ship suffered the misfortune to run aground on Carpie Rock in the Firth of Forth [9] some time after passing the lighthouse and after the struggle to save the ship, the fact of the lighthouse light being unlit was not reported on arrival at Oban for some time, the ship's master, Captain Holman, being distracted by the damage to his ship, and the procedures for dealing with her on arrival in port. The island lighthouse was manned by a three-man team (Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald MacArthur), with a rotating fourth man spending time on shore. The relief vessel, the lighthouse tender Hesperus, was unable to set out on a routine visit from Lewis planned for 20 December due to adverse weather and did not arrive until noon on Boxing Day (26 December).[7] On arrival, the crew and relief keeper found that the flagstaff was bare of its flag, none of the usual provision boxes had been left on the landing stage for re-stocking, and more ominously, none of the lighthouse keepers were there to welcome them ashore. Jim Harvie, captain of Hesperus, gave a strident blast on his whistle and set off a distress flare, but no reply was forthcoming.

A boat was launched and Joseph Moore, the relief keeper, was put ashore alone. He found the entrance gate to the compound and main door both closed, the beds unmade, and the clock stopped. Returning to the landing stage with this grim news, he then went back up to the lighthouse with Hesperus's second-mate and a seaman. A further search revealed that the lamps were cleaned and refilled. A set of oilskins was found, suggesting that one of the keepers had left the lighthouse without them, which was surprising considering the severity of the weather on the date of the last entry in the lighthouse log. The only sign of anything amiss in the lighthouse was an overturned chair by the kitchen table. Of the keepers there was no sign, neither inside the lighthouse nor anywhere on the island.[7][10]

Moore and three volunteer seamen were left to attend the light and Hesperus returned to the shore station at Breasclete. Captain Harvie sent a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board dated 26 December 1900, stating:

A dreadful accident has happened at the Flannans. The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the Occasional have disappeared from the Island... The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane.[7][10]

The men remaining on the island scoured every corner for clues as to the fate of the keepers. At the east landing everything was intact, but the west landing provided considerable evidence of damage caused by recent storms. A box at 33 metres (108 ft) above sea level had been broken and its contents strewn about; iron railings were bent over, the iron railway by the path was wrenched out of its concrete, and a rock weighing more than a ton had been displaced above that. On top of the cliff at more than 60 metres (200 ft) above sea level, turf had been ripped away as far as 10 metres (33 ft) from the cliff edge. The missing keepers had kept their log until 9 a.m. on 15 December, however, and their entries made it clear that the damage had occurred before the disappearance of the writers.[7][11]

Speculations and misconceptions[edit]

No bodies were ever found and the loneliness of the rocky islets may have lent itself to feverish imaginings. Theories abounded and resulted in "fascinated national speculation".[12] Some were simply elaborations on the truth. For example, the events were commemorated in Wilfrid Wilson Gibson's 1912 ballad Flannan Isle.[13] The poem refers erroneously to an uneaten meal laid out on the table, indicating that the keepers had been suddenly disturbed.

Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table spread
For dinner, meat, and cheese and bread;
But, all untouch'd; 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.[14]

However, Nicholson (1995) makes it clear that this does not square with Moore's recorded observations of the scene, which state that: "The kitchen utensils were all very clean, which is a sign that it must be after dinner some time they left."[7][15]

Other less plausible rumours ensued—that one keeper had murdered the other two and then thrown himself into the sea in a fit of remorse (which is likely not the case, simply because the keepers only had to work together for short amounts of time, and none of the men reported any psychotic behaviour); that a sea serpent (or giant seabird) had carried the men away; that they had been abducted by foreign spies; or that they had met their fate through the malevolent presence of a boat filled with ghosts—and the baleful influence of the "Phantom of the Seven Hunters" was widely suspected locally.[7]

Northern Lighthouse Board investigation[edit]

Northern Lighthouse Board Ensign

On 29 December 1900, Robert Muirhead, a Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) superintendent, arrived to conduct the official investigation into the incident.

The explanation offered by Muirhead is more prosaic than the fanciful rumours suggested. He examined the clothing left behind in the lighthouse and concluded that James Ducat and Thomas Marshall had gone down to the western landing stage, and that Donald MacArthur (the 'Occasional') had left the lighthouse during heavy rain in his shirt sleeves. He noted that whoever left the light last and unattended was in breach of NLB rules.[7] He also noted that some of the damage to the west landing was "difficult to believe unless actually seen".[13]

From evidence which I was able to procure I was satisfied that the men had been on duty up till dinner time on Saturday the 15th of December, that they had gone down to secure a box in which the mooring ropes, landing ropes etc. were kept, and which was secured in a crevice in the rock about 110 ft (34 m) above sea level, and that an extra large sea had rushed up the face of the rock, had gone above them, and coming down with immense force, had swept them completely away.[16]

Whether this explanation brought any comfort to the families of the lost keepers is unknown. The deaths of Thomas Marshall, James Ducat (who left a widow and four children), and Donald MacArthur (who left a widow and two children) cast a shadow over the lighthouse service for many years.[13]

Later theories and interpretations[edit]

The westernmost of the Flannan Isles: Eilean a' Ghobha and Roareim with Brona Cleit in the distance

Christopher Nicholson offers an alternative idea for the demise of the keepers.[7] The coastline of Eilean Mòr is deeply indented with narrow gullies called geos. The west landing, which is situated in such a geo, terminates in a cave. In high seas or storms, water would rush into the cave and then explode out again with considerable force. Nicholson speculates that McArthur may have seen a series of large waves approaching the island, and knowing the likely danger to his colleagues, ran down to warn them, only to suffer the same fate as well.[17] This theory has the advantages of explaining the over-turned chair, and the set of oilskins remaining indoors,[7] although perhaps, not the closed door and gate.[18]

Haswell-Smith (2004) attributes the origins of the theory to Walter Aldebert, a keeper on the Flannans from 1953 to 1957. Aldebert believed one man may have been washed into the sea, that his companion rushed back to the light for help but that both would-be rescuers also were washed away by a second freak wave.[18]

McCloskey (2014) states that a fight broke out near the cliff edge, by the West Landing, between the three Keepers started by the allegedly volatile Macarthur and the three fell to their deaths.[19]

The event remains a popular issue of contention among those who are interested in paranormal activity. Inevitably perhaps, modern imaginations speculate about abduction by aliens.[12] A fictional use of this idea is the basis for the Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock.[20] The mystery also was the inspiration for the composer Peter Maxwell Davies's modern chamber opera The Lighthouse (1979).[21] The British rock group Genesis wrote and recorded "The Mystery of Flannan Isle Lighthouse" in 1968 while working on their first album, but it was not released until 1998 in Genesis Archive 1967-75.[22] Angela J. Elliott wrote a novel which was published in 2005 about the disappearance of the lighthouse keepers, entitled Some Strange Scent of Death after a line from Gibson's poem.[23] The "haunted" islands and the lighthouse also feature heavily as a hideout for a villain in British author Manda Benson's novel Pilgrennon's Beacon.[24] In 2008, the New Zealand band Beltane wrote a song about the lighthouse and its mysterious disappearances on the album ...Through Darker Seasons.[25]

All the main theories are examined in the (Discovery) Science Channel The Unexplained Files Season 2 Episode 5

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Flannan Islands (Eilean Mor) The Lighthouse Directory. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 18 May 2016
  2. ^ Flannan Islands Northern Lighthouse Board. Retrieved 18 May 2016
  3. ^ "Flannan Isles Lighthouse " Northern Lighthouse Board. Retrieved 23 March 2008.
  4. ^ Atkinson, Robert (1949). Island Going. Collins. 
  5. ^ Munro 1979, p. 223.
  6. ^ "A Gnat on the Flannans". 2011-06-29. Retrieved 2013-06-24. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Christopher Nicholson (1995). Rock Lighthouses of Britain: The End of an Era?. pp. 168–79. 
  8. ^ Perrot, D. et al. (1995) p. 132.
  9. ^ https://canmore.org.uk/site/306416/archtor-caiplie-firth-of-forth
  10. ^ a b "Transcripts from documents related to the Flannan Isles mystery." Museum of Scottish Lighthouses/Wayback. Original retrieved 3 September 2008, Wayback version retrieved 7 December 2013.
  11. ^ Munro 1979, pp. 170–71.
  12. ^ a b Bathhurst (2000) p. 249.
  13. ^ a b c Munro (1979) p. 171.
  14. ^ Quotation from Nicholson (1995) p. 178.
  15. ^ Haswell-Smith (2004) nonetheless states: "A meal of cold meat, pickles and potatoes was untouched on the kitchen table."
  16. ^ Munro (1979) pages 170–71, although Nicholson (1995), Bathhurst (2000) and Haswell-Smith (2004) quote the same report using somewhat different language: "After a careful examination of the place.... I am of the 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 proximity of 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 that a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them, swept them away with resistless force.”
  17. ^ Haswell-Smith (2004) suggests these events are "very rare".
  18. ^ a b Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. pp. 329–31. ISBN 978-1-84195-454-7. 
  19. ^ McCloskey, Keith (2014). The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. History Press. ISBN 978-0750953658. 
  20. ^ "The Mystery of Flannan Isle" bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 23 March 2008.
  21. ^ "Opera: 'The Lighthouse' by Davies" New York Times. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  22. ^ "The Mystery Of The Flannan Isle Lighthouse (Demo 1968)". Yahoo.com. Retrieved 8 July 2008.
  23. ^ Elliott, Angela J (2005). Some Strange Scent of Death. Whittles. ISBN 978-1-904445-15-9. 
  24. ^ Benson, Manda, (2011) Pilgrennon's Beacon. Tangentrine. ISBN 978-0-9566080-2-4.
  25. ^ ...Through_Darker_Seasons Encyclopaedia Metallum. Retrieved 7 September 2011.


  • Munro, R.W. (1979). Thule Press, ed. Scottish Lighthouses. Stornoway. 
  • Keith McCloskey (2014) The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers History Press

External links[edit]