Sunday, October 30, 2005
The dark, lonely, mysterious outpost of the Flannan Isles lighthouse...
Lighthouses attract stories. Whether its their isolation, their oddity, or their relationship with shipwreck and disaster, there's barely a lighthouse in the world that hasn't got some creepy and curious history, some tale of hauntings or sea monsters.
The difference with the lighthouse on the wild Flannan Islands, in north west Scotland, is that its eerie story is 'true'. Just over a century ago, something peculiar really did happen here: a 'disappearance' which remains one of the most mysterious ever recorded in Britain.
The Flannan Isles lighthouse was built in 1899, on the tallest of seven rocky islets. It is situated 15 miles west of the Outer Hebrides. For ten years the lighthouse was happily staffed by a three man crew, rotated every fortnight.
On 7 December, 1900, Head Keeper James Ducat arrived at the lighthouse to commence another two week shift. His First Assistant and Second Assistants joined him; temporarily alongside was Robert Muirhead, the Superintendent of Lighthouses.
Muirhead's job was to check things were OK. This occasion was no different: after his technical inspections were over, Muirhead chatted with the three keepers, and discussed various improvements. Then he climbed aboard the relief vessel, and set off for Lewis, leaving the lighthouse in safe hands, or so he thought. He was the last person to see any of the keepers alive.
Soon after Muirhead's visit, an unusually tenacious mist rolled in from the cold Atlantic. The sea-fog totally enveloped the isle and its lighthouse, and kept the lighthouse invisible from distant Lewis, at least by day.
Thankfully, the light from the lamp was easier to make out during the night. The lamp was visible, for instance, on the evening of December 7, but was obscured by severe weather on the following four evenings. It was seen again on the 12th December; then another fortnight passed with no confirmed sighting.
All this was worrying, but not so unusual as to cause panic. But then, on the 15th December, the steamship SS Archtor was sailing in the vicinity of the Flannan isles. Just before midnight, Captain Holman looked out from the deck of his steamer, expecting to see the reassuring flash of the Flannan Isles light, so near that no fog could obscure it.
There was no light.
Still the alarm button was not pressed. After all, the relief vessel from Lewis would be arriving at Flannan Island on the 21st. As it happened, another savage run of weather delayed this vessel, the SS Hesperus, for a further five days.
As the Hesperus finally approached the tumbling seas around Flannan, on Boxing Day, the captain looked out. What normally happened on such occasions was that a flag would be flown from the lighthouse, to show that the boat had been spotted by the keepers. Then the lighthouse crew would come out onto the rocks, ready to help the men from the Hesperus, who would manfully row to the island in a dinghy.
This time, no dice. Watching from the Hesperus, Captain Harvie saw no flag, and no sign of the men living on the island. He gave orders to blow the steam whistle - but it was met with silence.
There was now little choice. Two seamen, Joseph Moore, and Jim McCormack, climbed from the Hesperus onto the dinghy, and rowed ashore. As McCormack lashed the dinghy to the harbour rings, Moore went up to check on the Station, with a rising sense of disquiet.
The outer door to the lighthouse was locked. But Moore had a set of keys, so he opened the door for himself. As he scanned the scene inside, it became obvious the place was deserted. There was no sign of anyone. The clock on the wall had stopped. There was also no fire in the freezing grate. A meal had been prepared - but was uneaten. Upstairs, the beds were empty.
Alarmed, Moore hurried back to the Hesperus, where he explained to his cap'n that the crew were AWOL. At this point a thorough search of the island was conducted. They even went into the booming sea caves.
They found nothing. The original crew had inexplicably vanished.
At a loss, the Hesperus sailed back to Lewis. There, a telegram was sent to the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners, informing them of the strange disappearance.
Meanwhile, on Flannan Isle, the remaining crew from the Hesperus, left to tend the abandoned lighthouse, were conducting an even more thorough and painstaking search. This time a picture of events began to emerge.
It seemed that everything had been running smoothly on the island, up to a point. The Head Keeper's log showed that there had been a mighty storm on the 14th. A storm that, by the next morning, had blown itself out. There the log ended. Whatever had happened to the three men, it must have started that afternoon - the 15th.
On the 29th, Superintendent Muirhead sailed from Lewis to the fateful Flannans, to make an official investigation. His report is the most detailed account of the state of the island at that time.
Muirhead's conclusions were tragic, but prosaic. The great Atlantic storm on the night of 14th December had clearly caused substantial damage. The jetty was bent out of shape and the railings were battered. So powerful were the waves and surges, great rocks had been dislodged and hurled about, and ropes had become snared on a temporary crane fully 70 feet above sea level.
Confronted with this evidence, Muirhead therefore concluded that all three men had left the lighthouse in order to secure the station's equipment, following this terrible storm. One by one they had taken waterproof oilskins and boots from the lighthouse (Muirhead knew this because the kit was missing); the last one had apparently locked the outer door behind him. Then, Muirhead believed, an unexpectedly large wave had crashed over the top of them. The wild Atlantic had swept the three men to their deaths.
Case closed? Not at all. Ever since Muirhead's report, many questions have been raised. There were serious oddities in the story: such as the discovery of an unused set of oilskins, which indicated that one of the men went out of the lighthouse without protective clothing. Why? When the others didn't? Most notably, why on earth did any of them lock the door?
Furthermore, these 'natural' explanations for the disaster ran contrary to a rigid lighthouse-keeping rule: this insisted one man stay in the lighthouse to guard the lamp, come what may. It was unheard-of for this rule to be broken.
Finally there was the storm. The log said that the keepers had calmly waited out the tempest. Yet the meal had been left uneaten - as if they had rushed out. And if the storm had blown itself out - why were they wearing their oilskins? The whole thing was very confusing, more confusing than Muirhead's report indicated.
But perhaps Muirhead had a reason for being a little glib. Trinity House didn't want rumours of weirdness putting off any replacement keepers - there were enough who were already freaked by the events on Flannan. Of those men on the Hesperus, who landed on Flannan on that spooky Boxing Day, several were soon to take emergency leave, or even retire - so unsettled were they by the strangeness of the 'Flannan disappearance'.
So what did happen on the Flannans that day? Since the vanishing, many competing theories have sprung up: the men were kidnapped by slavers or pirates; a sea-monster dragged the trio to a watery grave; a much later theory claimed that the men were abducted by aliens.
The only problem with these theories is that they are entirely devoid of evidence. But there is one other sinister and unsettling theory that does hold up rather better. This theory depends on the history of lighthouses driving men mad.
Let's look at some of those other stories. That of the Solva lighthouse in Pembrokeshire, Wales, is a classic example. This small lighthouse was completed in 1776. In 1780 one of the keepers Thomas Griffith died during a storm. Because the other keeper did not want to be suspected of murder, he hung the body of his colleague outside the house, rather than hurling it into the sea.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sight of a bloodied cadaver swinging outside the window every morning had a deleterious affect on that other keeper, Thomas Howell. He became severely distressed. However he could not be taken off the lighthouse, for two whole months, because of the weather. When the authorities belatedly sent relief, the new keepers found Howell running around the lighthouse in a frenzy. He had gone completely mad.
Similar horrors occurred in the St Simons lighthouse, in Georgia, USA. According to local newspaper reports, in 1880 the keeper and assistant keeper had been alone together for several weeks. One evening they began fighting over a chicken supper. Eventually the assistant became so incensed, he murdered his colleague. Like poor Thomas Howell, this assistant had to be taken from his lighthouse in a straitjacket, although he later recovered and confessed.
And what about the Little Ross lighthouse in Scotland? In August 1960, two keepers were stationed on the island, Hugh Clark, a former postman from Dalry, and Robert Dickson, a 24 year-old ex-sailor.
A few weeks after the keepers were both installed, Clark's body was found by a passer-by, in the lighthouse. It was riddled with rifle wounds. Dickson was nowhere to be seen. However, a nation-wide hunt tracked him down to Yorkshire, where he was arrested. Months later, Robert Dickson was charged with the murder of Hugh Clark. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang - four days before Christmas. In the event, Dickson was reprieved - but he slit his own throat in jail, apparently driven insane by the horrors of his crime. The reason for the murder was never fully established. Perhaps there wasn't one.
Finally, there is a notorious tale from Australia. In early 1950, Herbert Yates and girlfriend Rita arrived at remote Tasman Isle Lighthouse. The isolation quickly got to Yates, and he was transformed from a relatively normal young man into a drunken monster that constantly menaced his young partner. The woman's terror was heightened by Yates' formidable arsenal of weapons, including abbatoir knives and a marksman's rifle.
Then a young assistant keeper, Bob Tregenza, arrived at the remote outpost. He protected Rita, and the two began a passionate but clandestine affair. Eventually, the inevitable happened. Yates discovered the pair in an embrace; he slaughtered them in cold blood with the butchers' knives before turning a gun on himself.
All in all, the history of lighthouses is a tapestry of madness and murder. So, taking into account these stories, what can we say really happened on the Flannan Isles on those stormy days of 1900?
For weeks the Flannans had experienced unusual isolation and confinement, in the great storm. This was followed by long days of deep fog, cutting the lighthouse off from all contact. It is far from inconceivable that this intense isolation tipped one of the keepers into psychosis.
If one man did run amok, his lunacy might have led to the deaths of the others in various ways. Maybe he tried to kill the second member, and when the third crewman intervened, they all ended up in the sea. Perhaps he stabbed the others to death, and then dumped their bodies over a cliff. And then he locked the door for a final time, before hurling himself off the rocks. It's a chilling and bizarre image, but it does answer the questions better than any other theory.
It's also an image that somehow fits the dangerous world of the Flannan Isles. Even today this place has a deathly atmosphere. When you watch the seabirds wheel against a leaden sky, around a lonely and very deserted lighthouse, its difficult not to experience a shudder of dread and despair.
Posted by sean at 2:39 pm