The Radio 4 programme "But Found No Keepers There" explored the story of Flannan Isle mystery commemorated in the poem by Wilfrid Gibson. The Flannan Isles are a small island group in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, approximately 32 kilometres (20 miles) west of the Isle of Lewis; it is the remote edge of the British Isles, and a place often beset with violent storms, and high waves that dash against the lighthouse, which has been automated since 1971.
Gibson's poem is the best known account of the mystery of 1900, when three keepers vanished from the lighthouse. It begins by setting the scene:
Hough three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steer'd under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night!
When the crew arrive, the narrator recounts how they saw the deserted scene in front of them:
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table, spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;
But all untouch'd; 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 on the table-head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor.
We listen'd; but we only heard
The feeble cheeping of a bird
That starved upon its perch:
And, listening still, without a word,
We set about our hopeless search.
We hunted high, we hunted low,
And soon ransack'd the empty house;
Then o'er the Island, to and fro,
We ranged, to listen and to look
In every cranny, cleft or nook
That might have hid a bird or mouse:
But, though we searched from shore to shore,
We found no sign in any place:
And soon again stood face to face
Before the gaping door:
And stole into the room once more
As frighten'd children steal.
Aye: though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men's fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouch'd meal,
And an overtoppled chair.
And, as we listen'd in the gloom
Of that forsaken living-room--
O chill clutch on our breath--
We thought how ill-chance came to all
Who kept the Flannan Light:
And how the rock had been the death
Of many a likely lad:
How six had come to a sudden end
And three had gone stark mad:
And one whom we'd all known as friend
Had leapt from the lantern one still night,
And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:
And long we thought
On the three we sought,
And of what might yet befall.
Like curs a glance has brought to heel,
We listen'd, flinching there:
And look'd, and look'd, on the untouch'd meal
And the overtoppled chair.
We seem'd to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought on three men dead.
It is a brilliantly atmospheric poem, and gives a haunting picture of this remote lighthouse, where some disaster befell the crew, so quickly that they left their last meal in haste. Unfortunately, as the Radio 4 programme showed, it was almost completely wrong in several important ways.
The toppled chair, which keeps repeating as a refrain, and the untouched meal, were almost certainly not in place. On the contrary, the very detailed and speedy investigation found dishes washed, no signs of meals, no toppled chair, and backtracked on the daily tasks to determine when disaster had struck. The relief keeper had observed that "The kitchen utensils were all very clean, which is a sign that it must be after dinner some time they left."
Robert Muirhead, an Northern Lighthouse Board superintendent, who was sent in to investigate, noted this, and examined the clothing left behind in the lighthouse, and the damage to the west landing. He concluded that:
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 110 ft (34 m) 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.
Moreover, the 75 ft lighthouse was constructed for the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) between 1895 and 1899. When the keepers vanished in 1900, it had only just been put into service. Gibson's description of the fatalities, and the madness of other keepers, was almost certainly borrowed from other lighthouses where crews had been in service far longer; there is no record of any six dying, three going mad, or one jumping to his death.
What was the case was that the rules for having three keepers were introduced after it was found that the stress and deprivation could trigger resentment, and then irrational violence - "madness" - if there were only two keepers. In the programme, one keeper recounted how when he was in service on a lighthouse, one of his fellows had gone down with influenza, and his fellow keeper became increasingly resentful and hostile towards the sick man, as two had to do three men's work, with longer shifts, and increasing weariness.
But it is interesting to note how a myth can arise when the narrative poetic version comes to replace more prosaic facts in the popular mind.
It came to mind when chasing for the events reported in "The Lowestoft Journal", which mentioned:
Three people struck by lightning at Lowestoft air show. A teenager has been taken to hospital after being struck by lightning at the second day of the Lowestoft Seafront Air Festival. The 13-year-old boy was struck by lightning while watching the show at about 1pm and two other people standing close to him were also affected.
Another local news agency, reporting the incident at 2.55 pm the same day noted that:
A 13-YEAR-OLD boy has been struck by lightning at the Lowestoft Seafront Air Festival. It happened around 1.10pm this afternoon and the youngster suffered a minor burn.
But by the time the story was hitting the BBC news, and the national press were reporting on it, the time of the incident had changed to 1.13, and the other two spectators who were also hit had been airbrushed out of the story:
A 13 year old boy was struck by lightning at the Lowestoft Seafront Air Festival this afternoon. The incident happened at 1.13pm and the boy was cared for by the St John Ambulance Suffolk team and was quickly taken to the James Paget Hospital suffering a minor burn.
In fact, despite a headline suggesting the lightening struck the boy at 1.13pm
- Unlucky for some: Lightning strikes 13-year-old boy at 13:13 on Friday the 13th -
the Daily Mail exposed the source of the story - the time he was being treated, not the time he was hit.
The boy was struck at Lowestoft Seafront Air Festival today, Friday 13th, and it was only while the ambulance team was treating him that they noticed the time - 1.13pm.
Now, if he was struck around 1.10, anytime after that when he was being treated would have encompassed 1.13 - the only matter that is singular is the ambulance team noticing the time (and were they that concerned with looking at a watch at that point when they were actually attending to three people?). Even that part of the story sounds suspiciously made up - "the team" noticed, and no individual is named.
I suspect, that like the story of Flannan Isle, what will get into the public imagination, is that headline, and not the facts.
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