Marooned all alone in the Atlantic Ocean are Scotland’s Flannan Isles, a very small and profoundly lonely archipelago that is isloated evey by the standard of the Outer Hebrides with which they are associated. The ‘isles’ are more like islets: seven small islands surrounded by a dozen or so outcrops of breccia rocks poking above the surface of the ocean that, all amassed, add up to 58.87 ha (145.5 acres) in area. The two largest islets are in the northeastern section of the archipelago: Eilean Mòr (‘Big Isle’) and Eilean Taighe (‘House Isle’). Eilean Mòr is not only the largest of the islets but rises the farthest above the sea at 88 m (289 ft) in elevation. No trees here, the ground stripped of large plants by North Atlantic winds save for hardy grasses. The closest point of land is 32 km (20 mi) to the east on the Isle of Lewis.
Source: Huxley_slides, http://www.flickr.com/photos/66542060@N08/6822331964/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.
An 1898 map of the Flannan Isles (click to expand, 5712 x 3504).
The islets of Roaireim (with its rock arch) and Eilean a’ Gobha in the western portion of the archpelago display the eroded, barren condition of much of the Flannan Isles. Source: M. Calhoun, http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/112844. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.
Though known from ancient times (the isles were commonly known as the ‘Seven Hunters’), the battered isles do not appear to have been inhabited by any great number of people at any time. Prior to the construction of the first lighthouse in 1899, the only edifices found to have existed on Eilean Mòr were a ruined chapel and bothy (an outbuilding used for shelter) known as the Bothies of Clan McPhail; the chapel was dedicated to Saint Flannan, an Irish saint of the 7th century based out of the province of Munster (a few ruins of crofters’ houses exist on Eilean Taighe). Since the mediaeval era, crofters from Lewis have also used the larger isles during summers to graze sheep and harvest the eggs of seabirds. Sailors occasionally were shipwrecked against the rocks of the islands, often dying of starvation or exposure before help could arrive. The only permanent inhabitants here are the many seabirds which nest here, and rabbits that are the descendants of those brought later by lighthouse keepers.
The Flannan Isles Lighthouse on Eilean Mòr with the ruins of St. Flannan’s chapel. Source: JJM, http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/623920. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.
In the 1703 book A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland by the writer Martin Martin (Màrtainn MacGilleMhàrtainn), the highly ritualised nature of the pilgrimages made by people from Lewis to the chapel are described as such:
To the north-west of Galen-head, and within six leagues of it, lie the Flannan-Islands, which the seamen call North-hunters; they are but small islands, and six in number, and maintain about seventy sheep yearly. The inhabitants of the adjacent lands of the Lewis, having a right to these islands, visit them once every summer, and there make a great purchase of fowls, eggs, down, feathers, and quills. When they go to sea, they have their boat well manned, and make towards the islands with an east wind; but if before or at landing the wind turn westerly, they hoist up sail, and steer directly home again. If any of their crew is a novice, and not versed in the customs of the place, he must be instructed perfectly in all the punctilioes observed here before landing; and to prevent inconveniences that they think may ensue upon the transgression of the least nicety observed here, every novice is always joined with another, that can instruct him all the time of their fowling: so all the boat’s crew are matched in this manner. After their landing, they fasten the boat to the sides of a rock, and then fix a wooden ladder, by laying a stone at the foot of it, to prevent its falling into the sea; and when they are got up into the island, all of them uncover their heads, and make a turn sun-ways round, thanking God for their safety. The first injunction given after landing, is not to ease nature in that place where the boat lies, for that they reckon a crime of the highest nature, and of dangerous consequence to all their crew; for they have a great regard to that very piece of rock upon which they first set their feet, after escaping the danger of the ocean.
The biggest of these islands is called Island-More; it has the ruins of a chapel dedicated to St. Flannan, from whom the island derives its name. When they are come within about 20 paces of the altar, they all strip themselves of their upper garments at once; and their upper clothes being laid upon a stone, which stands there on purpose for that use, all the crew pray three times before they begin fowling: the first day they say the first prayer, advancing towards the chapel upon their knees; the second prayer is said as they go round the chapel; the third is said hard by or at the chapel; and this is their morning-service. Their vespers are performed with the like number of prayers. Another rule is that it is absolutely unlawful to kill a fowl with a stone, for that they reckon a great barbarity, and directly contrary to ancient custom.
It is also unlawful to kill a fowl before they ascend by the ladder. It is absolutely unlawful to call the island of St. Kilda (which lies thirty leagues southward) by its proper Irish name Hirt, but only the high country. They must not so much as once name the islands in which they are following by the ordinary name Flannan, but only the country. There are several other things that must not be called by their common names, e.g., Visk, which in the language of the natives signifies Water, they call Burn; a Rock, which in their language is Creg, must here be called Cruey, i.e., hard; Shore in their language, expressed by Claddach, must here be called Vah, i.e., a Cave; Sour in their language as expressed Gort, but must be here called Gaire, i.e., Sharp; Slippery, which is expressed Bog, must be called Soft; and several other things to this purpose. They account it also unlawful to kill a fowl after evening-prayers. There is an ancient custom by which the crew is obliged not to carry home any sheep-suet, let them kill ever so many sheep in these islands. One of their principal customs is not to steal or eat anything unknown to their partner, else the transgressor (they say) will certainly vomit it up; which they reckon as a just judgment. When they have loaded their boat sufficiently with sheep, fowls, eggs, down, fish, &c., they make the best of their way homeward. It is observed of the sheep of these islands that they are exceeding fat, and have long horns.
I had this superstitious account not only from several of the natives of the Lewis, but likewise from two who had been in the Flannan islands the preceding year. I asked one of them if he prayed at home as often, and as fervently as he did when in the Flannan Islands, and he plainly confessed to me that he did not: adding further, that these remote islands were places of inherent sanctity; and that there was none ever yet landed in them but found himself more disposed to devotion there, than anywhere else. The Island of Pigmies, or, as the natives call it, the Island of Little Men, is but of small extent. There has been many small bones dug out of the ground here, resembling those of human kind more than any other. This gave ground to a tradition which the natives have of a very low-statured people living once here, called Lusbirdan, i.e., pygmies. (16-17)
Source: M. Calhoun, http://www.flickr.com/photos/66542060@N08/6968557773/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.
It is the not remoteness of the location, or the mediaeval bothies, but the modern 23 m (75 ft)-high lighthouse on Eilean Mòr that the Flannan Isles are best known for. Commissioned in 1896 and completed in December 1899, all of the supplies needed to construct the lighthouse were hauled from the supply boats at the landing point by hand up a 45 m (148 ft) cliffside.
The steps leading from the lighthouse to one of just two (relatively) safe portages on Eilean Mòr. Source: JJM, http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/633245. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.
Source: C. Downer, http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3204860. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.
Once the lighthouse was completed, because of the steep grade of the steps leading to the facility it was necessary to build a small concrete railway connecting the two landings to the lighthouse in order to get supplies to the lighthouse keepers and to transport the kerosene (paraffin) fuel necessary to keep the light going. A cable-stayed rail car, powered by a steam engine kept in a shed adjacent to the lighthouse was used on these tracks until the 1960s, when the rails were removed and the concrete railbed was converted into a roadway serviced by a three-wheeled all-terrain vehicle known as a Gnat. The Gnat was removed from service in 1971, when the lighthouse became automated, ending 72 of human occupation on Eilean Mòr. A helipad was constructed on the islet at the same time in order to maintain the now acetylene-based light, which can be seen from 32 km (20 mi) away.
The lighthouse in 1912 as seen on a postcard.
Just a single year into the lighthouse came its most infamous moment, one that has led to years of speculation and mythmaking. A ship passing by the Flannan Isles on 15 December 1900 noticed that the light was not operational. Although this was reported right away, due to inclement weather it was not until 26 December that a relief ship was able to arrive at the lighthouse. It was apparent something was amiss when none of the three lighthouse keepers were there to greet the boat, no response was received after the ship’s horn blew, no supplies were left on the landing stage, and no flag was raised on the flagpole. A member of the landing party sent ashore found no one present on the island, and also found that all of the clocks had stopped inside the lighthouse. Inside, all of the beds were made, the blinds were on the windows, and the cutlery was cleaned.
The culprit causing the keepers’ disappearance was likely a massive rogue wave. Further investigation the next day revealed damage to the railings alongside the cable railway, which had been broken in several places. The box stored at the west landing containing the mooring ropes had disappeared despite being wedged into a crevice and anchored. The final report from the Northern Lighthouse Board, completed the following week, determined that an abnormally large and powerful wave had likely come up and swept away the keepers while they were attending to the box. Modern investigation suggests that the event likely occurred on the early afternoon of 15 December. Still, the ensuing years didn’t prevent people from creating their own myths about the incident: the men were literally blown away by high winds; one of the keepers went mad and killed his co-workers before killing himself; the men were abducted by aliens (the latter myth was probably aided in growth when a 1977 episode of Doctor Who referenced the incident). The myth of a half-eaten meal and unmade beds left behind can be directly attributed to the poetic licence taken by the poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson in his 1912 poem, Flannan Isle.
Dash, M. (1998). The Vanishing Lighthousemen of Eilean Mór. Fortean Studies 4. Available at http://mikedash.com/assets/files/Vanishing%20Lighthousemen.pdf. Accessed 9 August 2013.
Humphries, J. (2011). A Gnat on the Flannans. Scottish Islands Explorer, 29 June 2011. Available at http://john-humphries.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/gnat-on-flannans.html. Accessed 9 August 2013.
Martin, M. (1706). A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (2nd ed.). London. Available at http://archive.org/stream/descriptionofwes00mart. Accessed 9 August 2013.
Northern Lighthouse Board (2009). Flannan Islands. Available at http://www.nlb.org.uk/ourlights/history/flannan.htm. Accessed 9 August 2013.