Flannan Isles Lighthouse is located at the summit of the largest of seven islands on Eilean Mor (Big Isle), around 20 miles west of the Isle of Lewis.
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The first application for a lighthouse on Eilean Mor was made in 1853. It had become an increasingly important landfall for Atlantic shipping, yet it would be 1895 before work finally commenced.
In the first season, only three months of work was possible. Everything had to come by sea and was hoisted up a 150ft high sheer cliff. Two concrete landing stages were built, one on the east and one on the west side. Steps were cut up the face of the rock, and two tramways linking to the lighthouse were used to transport supplies. The tramways merged at “Charing Cross”, which must have been the most westerly set of points in Great Britain!
Flannan Isles Lighthouse was completed in 1899, designed by David Alan Stevenson, and first lit on 7th December. A severe gale lasted for four days, only a month after the light was first exhibited. Water came right over the island – the lighthouse has an elevation of 330ft! One of the cranes was washed away, and much damage was caused.
The accommodation here was quite small but only housed the keepers, as their families lived at the shore station at Breasclete. This was also constructed in 1899 at the same time as the lighthouse.
The first four families to live here were those of Principal Keeper James Ducat and Assistants William Ross, Thomas Marshall and Joseph Moore. The Occasional Keeper, Donald MacArthur, as a part-time keeper, lived close by but not at the shore station itself. The shore station was chosen for its proximity to Loch Roag, a sea loch providing safe anchorage for the lighthouse tender.
Initially, there was no radio communication to the lighthouse. An observer, Roderick MacKenzie, was appointed to watch for any signals from Gallan Head on Lewis, around 21 miles away. If the light was not shown, he had to report to Edinburgh as soon as possible.
There would have been little to report on the lighthouse’s history had it not been for the tragedy that happened only a year after it was first lit. The story is well documented, but this summarises what happened.
On 15th December 1900, the steamer Archtor passed the Flannans in poor weather. The Captain, noticing that no light was visible from the lighthouse, reported this on arrival in Oban.
Relief day for the lighthouse had been due on 20th December. However, a series of gales prevented the Lighthouse Board tender Hesperus from departing Lewis until six days later. By midday, on 26th December, she had anchored off the east landing. It soon became apparent that all was not well. The flag was not flying, the landing stage was not loaded with boxes, and more worrying, there was no sign of the lighthouse keepers. The relieving keeper, Joseph Moore, and a crew from the Hesperus went ashore to investigate. On entering the building, they found the kitchen door open, an unlit fire, and an overturned chair, signifying that the keepers may have left in a hurry.
They quickly searched the island, but there was no trace of the three keepers. Moore, Buoymaster MacDonald, and two other volunteers stayed on the island. Meanwhile, the Hesperus returned to Breasclete to send the Northern Lighthouse Board HQ an urgent message. From looking at log books and reports, the men had been missing for over a week. The last entry in the log book had been made on 13th December by PLK Ducat, along with notes made on 13th and 14th December, ready to be entered. It reported poor weather conditions. It is thought the keepers disappeared sometime on the afternoon of Saturday 15th December.
The following day, Moore and his three companions explored the island further. They found the eastern landing had been left as it had been on the previous relief day. However, at the western landing, a wooden box used to store ropes and crane handles had been wrenched away. Iron railings around the landing crane had also been bent. A large block of stone weighing over a ton had been moved, and the lifebuoy attached to the railings had been torn from its fixing. On 29th December, the relief party of Donald Jack and John Milne arrived to take over with Joseph Moore.
There have been many theories over the years as to what happened to the keepers on Flannan. Many of these have been embellished and exaggerated, with theories including abduction and murder. Later, another keeper fell to death from the gallery, and four men drowned when their boat overturned at the landing stage. Not surprisingly, people became highly superstitious about the island, and it was not a popular posting for keepers.
The most probable explanation for the disappearance in 1900 is that the keepers were washed away by a freak wave. Waves can crash into the deep gullies in the island’s sheer cliffs, causing air compression and making the waves explode. Whatever happened, their bodies were never found.
First Assistant, lightkeeper William Ross AK, felt guilty about the incident. He had been on sick leave at the time of the tragedy, and Donald MacArthur was on duty in his place. Of the missing keepers, James Ducat left a widow and four children, Thomas Marshall and Donald MacArthur both left a widow and two children.
As far back as 1899, when the Flannan Isles Lighthouse was first lit, thought had been given to extending rock-to-shore communication. In 1907 an experimental system was installed by the Marconi Company. Almost constant communication was kept despite the aerial being blown down and insulators covered in salt spray.
To alleviate the need for boat reliefs, in 1971, a helicopter pad was constructed on the island. This marked the start of automation, with the keepers being permanently withdrawn on 28th September 1971. The lighthouse’s operation was then monitored via telemetry at the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse.
In 1999 Flannan Isle Lighthouse was converted from acetylene gas to solar electric power with wind generators. Today the light flashes twice every 30 seconds.
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.
From the poem Flannan Isle by Wilfred Wilson Gibson.
The lighthouse also features in Peter May’s book Coffin Road, and if you read it, you might find out where the keys are kept – allegedly!