Flannan Isles

Infobox Scottish island |

celtic name=Na h-Eileanan Flannach
norse name=
meaning of name=Flannan Isles
area=50 ha over more than a dozen islands
area rank= 0
highest elevation=88 m on Eilean Mòr
population rank=
main settlement= Flannan Isles Lighthouse is the only habitable structure
island group=Lewis and Harris
local authority=Na h-Eileanan Siar
references= [General Register Office for Scotland (28 Nov 2003) " [http://www.gro-scotland.gov.uk/statistics/publications-and-data/occpapers/occasional-paper-10.html Occasional Paper No 10: Statistics for Inhabited Islands] ". Retrieved 9 July 2007.] Haswell-Smith (2004) pp. 329–31.]
The Flannan Isles (Scottish Gaelic: "Na h-Eileanan Flannach", [Mac an Tàilleir, Iain, (2003) [http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/vli/language/gaelic/pdfs/placenamesF-J.pdf "Placenames F-J"] (pdf) Edinburgh. Pàrlamaid na h-Alba. Retrieved 8 June 2008.] pronounced|nə helanən flˠ̪an̪ˠəx) are a small island group in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, lying approximately 32 kilometres (20 miles) west of the Isle of Lewis. They may take their name from St Flannan, the 7th century Irish preacher and abbot. The islands have been devoid of permanent residents since the automation of the lighthouse in 1971. Nicholson (1995) pp. 168–79.] They are the location of an enduring mystery which occurred in December 1900, when all three lighthouse keepers vanished without trace.


The islands are split into three groups. The main cluster of rocks, which lie to the north-east, include the two principal islands of Eilean Mòr (English:Big Isle), and Eilean Taighe (House Isle). To the south lie Soray (Eastward Isle) and Sgeir Tomain, while the main western outcrops are Eilean a' Gobha (Isle of the Blacksmith), Roaireim (which has a natural rock arch) and Bròna Cleit (Sad Sunk Rock). The total land area amounts to approximately 50 hectares (124 acres) and the highest point is 88 metres (288 ft) above sea level on Eilean Mòr. The geology is comprised of a dark breccia of gabbros and dolerites intruding Archaen gneiss. In pre-historic times the area was covered by ice sheets which spread from Scotland out into the Atlantic Ocean. After the last retreat of the ice circa 20,000 years BP, sea levels were up to 122 metres (400 ft) lower than at present and it is likely that the existing islands were part of a much larger land mass, although still separated from the Outer Hebrides by many miles of open water. Steadily rising sea levels would then have reduced the land remaining above sea level to its present extent. [Murray (1973) pp. 68–69.]

There are two possible landing places to the east and west for yachts visiting Eilean Mòr, although this can be hazardous given the regular heavy swells.


As the name implies, Eilean Taighe hosts a ruined stone shelter. Eilean Mòr is home to the lighthouse and a ruined chapel dedicated to St Flannan, which the lighthouse keepers referred to as the 'dog kennel' because of its small size. These ruined bothies were collectively described by the Ancient Monuments Commission as The Bothies of the Clan McPhail [http://www.nlb.org.uk/ourlights/history/flannan.htm "Flannan Isles Lighthouse "] Northern Lighthouse Board. Retrieved 23 March 2008.] or Bothain Chlann ‘ic Phaill. [http://www.innsegall.co.uk/guide/outliers/out_flannan.htm "Western Isles Guide Book: Flannan Islands] . Charles Tait photographic Ltd. Retrieved 23 March 2008.] It is not entirely clear which St. Flannan the chapel honours. It is likely that he was either the 7th century Abbot of Killaloe in County Clare or alternatively the half brother of the 8th century St Ronan who gave his name to the nearby island of North Rona. There was also a certain Flann, son of an Abbot of Iona called Maol-duine who died in 890, and who may have loaned his name to these isolated isles.

The archipelago is also known as 'The Seven Hunters', and in the Middle Ages they may also have been called the 'Seven Haley (Holy) Isles'. [Munro, Sir Donald (1594) "Description of the Western Isles of Scotland".] Martin Martin (1703) lists a number of unusual customs associated with regular pilgrimages to Eilean Mòr such as removing one's hat and making a sunwise turn when reaching the plateau. [Martin (1703) pp. 97–98.] It is possible that the saint or his acolytes lived on Eilean Mòr and perhaps Eilean Taighe as well. However, it is unlikely that there were permanent residents on the islands once the Celtic Church fell into decline in the Hebrides (as a result of 9th century Viking invasions), until the construction of the lighthouse and its occupation very shortly before the dawn of the 20th century.


The isles provide nesting for a population of seabirds, including Atlantic Puffins, Northern Fulmars, European Storm-petrels, Leach's Petrels, Common Shag and Black-legged Kittiwakes. There is a gannetry on Roaireim. From the late Middle Ages on, Lewismen regularly raided these nests for eggs, birds and feathers. There is a population of Rabbits, brought to the islands by the lighthouse keepers, [Murray (1973) p. 108.] and crofters from Bernera graze sheep on the most fertile islands. Minke and Pilot Whales, as well as Risso's and other species of dolphin are commonly observed in the vicinity.

The islands became a Site of Special Scientific Interest in December 1983. [ [http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/protect/sssi_02_03.pdf Scottish Natural Heritage list of SSSIs.] (pdf) SNH. Retrieved 28 December 2006.]


Designed by David Alan Stevenson, the 23 metre (75 ft) tower was constructed for the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) between 1895 and 1899 and is located near the highest point on Eilean Mòr. Construction 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 (150 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. It was first lit on 7 December 1899, by 1925 it was one of the first Scottish lights to receive communications from the shore by wireless telegraphy Munro (1979) p. 223.] and then automated on 28 September 1971. 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 32 kilometres (20 miles). It is now monitored from the Butt of Lewis and the shore station has been converted into flats. [Perrot, D. "et al" (1995) p. 132.] Other than its relative isolation it would be a relatively unremarkable light were it not for the events which took place only just over a year after it was commissioned.

Mystery of 1900

Flannan Isles Lighthouse

Location Eilean Mòr
convert|20|mi|km west of Lewis, Western Isles,
Tower height 23 m (75 ft)
Characteristics Two White Flashes every 30 seconds
Description White circular tower
Date established 1899
Date of present tower 1899
Date automated 1971
Current use Active aid to navigation
Engineer David Stevenson
Open to the public Grounds only. Landings by sea may be difficult.


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. This was reported on arrival at Oban although no immediate action seems to have been taken. The island lighthouse was manned by a three man team, 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). 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 the "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 the "Hesperus's" second-mate and a seaman. A further search revealed that the lamps were cleaned and refilled. A set of oilskins were found, suggesting that one of the keepers had left the lighthouse without them, which was surprising considering the severity of the weather. The only sign of anything amiss in the lighthouse was an overturned chair by the kitchen table. Of the keepers there was no sign, either inside the lighthouse or anywhere on the island. [http://www.lighthousemuseum.org.uk/history/FlannanIslesdocuments.htm "Transcripts from documents related to the Flannan Isles mystery.] Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. Retrieved 3 September 2008.]

Moore and three volunteer seamen were left to attend the light and the "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 must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to rescue a crane or something like that.

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 (110 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 over a ton had been displaced above that. On top of the cliff at over 60 metres (200 ft) above sea level turf had been ripped away over 10 metres (30 ft) from the cliff edge. However, the keepers had kept their log until 9 a.m. on 15 December and this made it clear the damage had occurred before the writers' disappearance. [Munro (1979) pp. 170–71.]

peculations and misconceptions

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".Bathhurst (2000) p. 249.] Some were simply elaborations on the truth. For example, the events were commemorated in Wilfrid Wilson Gibson's 1912 ballad, "Flannan Isle".Munro (1979) p. 171.] The poem refers to a half-eaten meal 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 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. [ Quotation from Nicholson (1995) p. 178.]

However, Nicholson (1995) makes it clear that this does not square with Moore's recorded observations of the scene which states that: "The kitchen utensils were all very clean, which is a sign that it must be after dinner some time they left." [Haswell-Smith (2004) nonetheless states: “A meal of cold meat, pickles and potatoes was untouched on the kitchen table.”]

Other rumours, such as that one keeper had murdered the other two and then thrown himself into the sea in a fit of remorse, 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 were less plausible. The baleful influence of the ‘Phantom of the Seven Hunters’ was widely suspected locally.

Northern Lighthouse Board investigation

On 29 December, Robert Muirhead, an 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 landing stage, and that Donald McArthur (the 'Occasional') had left the lighthouse in heavy rain in his shirt sleeves. (Whoever left the light last and unattended was in breach of NLB rules). He also noted that some of the damage to the west landing was “difficult to believe unless actually seen”.

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 15 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 convert|110|ft|m|abbr=on 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. [Munro (1979) pages 170-1, 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.”]

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

Later theories and interpretations

Nicholson (1995) offers an alternative idea for the demise of the keepers. 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 succumb himself as well. [Haswell-Smith (2004) suggests these events are "very rare”.] This theory has the advantages of explaining the over-turned chair, and the set of oilskins remaining indoors, although not perhaps the closed door and gate.

Haswell-Smith (2004) attributes the origins of the theory to Walter Aldebert, a keeper on the Flannans from 1953–1957. 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 were themselves washed away by a second freak wave.

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. A fictional use of this idea is the basis for the Doctor Who episode "Horror of Fang Rock". [ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A1061335#back1 "The Mystery of Flannan Isle"] bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 23 March 2008.] The mystery was also the inspiration for the composer Peter Maxwell Davies's modern chamber opera "The Lighthouse" (1979). [ [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A05E2DE1439F935A35752C1A965948260 "Opera: 'The Lighthouse' by Davies"] New York Times. Retrieved 8 October 2008.] 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. [ [http://music.yahoo.com/track/1082781 "The Mystery Of The Flannan Isle Lighthouse (Demo 1968)".] Yahoo.com. Retrieved 8 July 2008.] Angela J. Elliott wrote a novel about the disappearance of the lighthouse keepers. Published in 2005 it is called "Some Strange Scent of Death", after a line from Gibson's poem. [Elliott, Angela J. (2005) "Some Strange Scent of Death". Whittles. ISBN 978-1904445-15-9.]

ee also

* The Outer Hebrides of Scotland
* Wilfrid Wilson Gibson
* Peter Maxwell Davies
* Mary Celeste
* Missing persons
* List of people who have disappeared
* Rogue wave


*Bathhurst, Bella. (2000) "The Lighthouse Stevensons". London. Flamingo. ISBN 0006530761
*Harvie-Brown, J. A. & Buckley, T. E. (1889), "A Vertebrate Fauna of the Outer Hebrides." Edinburgh. David Douglas.
*Martin, Martin (1703) " [http://www.appins.org/martin.htm A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland including A Voyage to St. Kilda] " Retrieved 8 October 2008.
*Murray, W.H. (1973) "The Islands of Western Scotland." London. Eyre Methuen. SBN 413303802
*Munro, R.W. (1979) "Scottish Lighthouses". Stornoway. Thule Press. ISBN 0906191327
*Nicholson, Christopher. (1995) "Rock Lighthouses of Britain: The End of an Era?" Caithness. Whittles. ISBN 1870325419
*Perrot, D. "et al" (1995) "The Outer Hebrides Handbook and Guide." Machynlleth. Kittiwake. ISBN 0951100351


External links

* [http://www.innsegall.co.uk/guide/outliers/out_flannan.htm Guide to the Flannan Isles]
* [http://www.nlb.org.uk/ourlights/history/flannan.htm Northern Lighthouse Board information about Flannan Isles lighthouse]
* [http://www.nlb.org.uk/historical/flannans.htm Northern Lighthouse Board information about the disappearance of the keepers]
* [http://www.mikedash.com/investigations_eilean_about.htm The Vanishing Lighthousemen of Eilean Mór] Investigative paper based on primary sources

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