Flannan Isles Mystery Born
These days most lighthouses around the world are operated by automatic machinery, but for many years their lights were tended by lighthouse keepers, an isolated existence. The job, even where several men were involved, must have been a lonely and at times scary one; the spots where lighthouses are built so often cut off from the world and battered by the elements of storm and sea.
Several true tragedies have occurred on British lighthouses over the years that add to the mystique of their world. On November 27 1703 the Eddystone Lighthouse was swept away with its crew and designer, who happened to be present to effect alterations to the structure. But the creepiest episode is surely that which occurred at of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides in the winter of 1900.
The Flannan Isles Lighthouse was completed in 1899, its light keeping ships from the seven rocks that comprise the group some 20 miles west of the Isle of Lewis. On December 15 1900 a passing American steamer the Archtor noted the light was not working, and reported the fact when it put in to Oban . Storms kept the relief vessel due to arrive on December 20 from putting to sea, so it was only on December 26 that a party arrived to investigate, and to take off one of the three keepers, bringing the fourth member of their little team to replace him.
No response came when a whistle and flare were used to get the lighthouse crew’s attention. And when the boat party reached the lighthouse nobody was found there. Two sets of oilskins were missing, but the compound gate and lighthouse door were closed. Heavy damage was found at 34m above sea-level, and turf had been ripped away a further 26m higher. A chair was overturned in the living quarters, but the rest was tidy, with no signs of violence. The log had been kept at 9:00am on December 15.
The official report suggested a freak wave had swept all three men to their doom, though why one was without his oilskins was not explained, and at no time should all three have been away from the light. A multitude of other theories, some serious, others imaginative, have been proposed over the years. Among the imaginative are the idea of a giant bird snatching the men; a sea-serpent feeding on them; one of the keepers going mad and murdering his colleagues before drowning himself; and resident ghosts claiming the men.
Even the more scientific ideas are far from mundane: a king wave coming out of nowhere to wash the men away; seas filling caves on the rock rushing out again without warning, again sweeping the men to their deaths; or that an accident to one man thrown into the waters led to his fellows dying trying to rescue him.
Like the Mary Celeste, the mystery remains unexplained and in all likelihood inexplicable. The stuff of fireside stories with a wee dram to lubricate the tongue.
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