The Flannans – finally!

For the past three years we have been holidaying in the Outer Hebrides, based on Lewis or Harris, with a chartered boat lined up and ready to take us, and a number of other hill/island baggers out to the Flannan Isles. All three times the trip has been cancelled due to poor sea conditions.

Eilean Mòr lighthouse

The Flannan Isles lie 32km west of Lewis and, as you can imagine, are subject to some pretty wild seas at times. Having spent so many years waiting to get out there, a part of me thought it might never happen. But then we saw the forecast for last week, which coincided with what had become our annual holiday to the Western Isles. Sunshine, virtually no wind. It was looking promising and even more so when we received a message to say that our boatman, Seumas Morrison of Sea Harris, was confident that we would make it out there. Landing, though, would be another matter entirely…

Of course, my priority was landing on Eilean Mòr, the main island, which boasts the famous lighthouse (more on that shortly). The group we were with, including Bob, were also interested in landing on the other seven islands (or lumps of rock, in some cases) that make up the Flannans. The sea looked nice and calm on the morning we headed out. None of us expected to be able to land on anything other than the main island, and we weren’t even sure about that one!

east landing
The east landing on Eilean Mòr

After an hour and 40 minutes on the boat we approached Eilean Mòr. Quite quickly we realised that a landing would definitely be possible, although we’d need to time it right to avoid getting wet feet. Very kindly, Bob had taken along a rope and he joined a couple of others as the first group to land, which then gave him time to set up a rope/handrail to help the rest of us. We arrived at the east landing, which very helpfully still has many of the steps intact. A clear path then took us up and in a big, sweeping route around to the lighthouse. The path followed what would have been the tracks (removed now), which would have taken the supplies up to the lighthouse. Apparently the interchange point between the tracks going down to the east landing and the west landing – which they would change manually – was known affectionately by the keepers as “Clapham Junction”.

Eilean Mòr lighthouse

The lighthouse sits beautifully at the top and there’s a real awe-inspiring feel about the place, possibly helped by its remoteness and how challenging it is to get to. Slightly off the path to the right as you walk up is the old chapel (known locally as the “dog kennel” apparently, which says a lot about its size!) As you walk up, the helipad is just behind the chapel.

On such a calm day, it was difficult to imagine how wild it could be out there, although the state of the west landing area suggests the severity with much of what was put in place for the keepers’ landings, including the steps, having been washed away.

It is easy, before visiting the island, to view it solely as “the one from which the keepers went missing”, but visiting the island gives you the opportunity to see it for what it actually is, which is a beautiful structure, built in (what must have been) a challenging location that now makes for a very special place. There is a feeling you get on these islands off of the west coast of Scotland that I haven’t experienced anywhere else – possibly, in part, due to the low number of visitors to these islands. Hyskeir is another example as is the Eigg lighthouse on a small island to the south east of Eigg. It’s isolation, but the beautiful kind that soothes the soul. It probably helps that I’ve been to them on calm, sunny days!

west landing.JPG
View of the west landing on Eilean Mòr

Descending down the path and back on to the boat went smoothly with our “handrail” in place! We then went on to get those more adventurous members of the group landed on all of the other islands, which I sat back, viewed the Eilean Mòr lighthouse from various angles and watched one of the boatman successfully catch numerous coalfish and some fair-sized pollock. It was all very relaxing.

Later in the week, we grabbed the opportunity to visit the exhibition and memorial dedicated to the three keepers lost from Eilean Mòr in 1900. For those not aware, on the 15th December a vessel passing by noted the light did not appear to be operating. When a boat was sent on 26th of that month (after being delayed by the weather from 20th) for the changing of the keepers, the first man onto the island reported that none of the three keepers were to be found. There are numerous stories about what could have occurred, including a poem that took a little artistic licence with the story. The most likely story, in my opinion, is that one or two of them got into some trouble at the edge of the island and the other went to help resulting in all three being lost to the sea. It’s a very sad story and the exhibition and memorial pay tribute to them.

The lighthouse exhibition in Breasclete

The exhibition, titled ‘Waiting for darkness to fall’, opened in April at Breasclete Community Hall and is open daily from 2-4pm. The community of Breasclete chose to develop the exhibition and memorial as it is in the village that the lighthouse’s shore station was based (it is still there now and stands out clearly from the rest of the buildings. A picture can be found in one of my previous posts). It features descriptions of the Flannan Isles, the building of the lighthouse, what is known about the disaster and the aftermath. A great deal of information has been pulled together for the exhibition, including excerpts about the island from various publications, weather reports from the time the keepers went missing, newspaper cuttings following the loss of the keepers, and pictures of the development, building and launch of the memorial, which is located just half a mile down the road, next to the water’s edge.

We spoke to a very friendly gentleman from Breasclete Community Association who was on hand to chat to visitors and he informed us that there are a number of potential plans in the pipeline to ensure the exhibition can remain permanent and expand upon it. He said that they hope to introduce visits out to see the island itself by boat or helicopter at some point and also look for a more permanent home for the exhibition. I had read online that there has been some talk about the community purchasing the shore station and using the building as a home to information about the lighthouse and the missing keepers.

The Flannan Memorial in Breasclete

Of course, we also had to visit the memorial. It really is a lovely piece of work. The artist James Crawford of Garynahine has carved the shape of the lighthouse out of sandstone and it sits on top of a Lewisian Gneiss rock shaped like Eilean Mòr. This stone is on a bed of smaller stones with beautiful sandstone block-work around the edge. A bronze wave appears to the left of the island, the wave heading straight for it. A plaque features on the front with the names of the three keepers: James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald Macarthur. I’ve included a couple of  extra pictures below of the finer details.

Having the opportunity to see both the island and lighthouse as well as the exhibition and memorial in the same week was a real treat. I feel very lucky to have been able to do so. 🙂



North and South England: the old and the new

On a recent trip to the Isle of Wight to see my family we made the most of the fact that we were driving almost the full length of the UK by stopping off to bag one new lighthouse for me and re-visit another. Comparing these two gives some idea of the variety of places and structures that I have often encountered when visiting lighthouses. That’s part of the joy of it, that some lighthouses are fairly reserved and serve their purpose with minimal fuss, while others are shouted about and bellow “look at me”!

Beaulieu River Millennium Beacon

I’d been aware for a while that there was a lighthouse near Lepe Beach at Beaulieu, not far from Southampton, and we had a bit of time to spare before our ferry so decided to head over that way. The lighthouse here is one of the newest in the UK, having only been erected in 2000 (it’s official name is the Beaulieu River Millennium Beacon). A local committee was formed to address the concerns over navigating from the Solent into the river and they finally made the decision to build the lighthouse to resolve this, as well as marking the start of the new millennium. There is a detailed history of the lighthouse and why/how it was installed in an article originally published in the Leading Lights journal. The article can be viewed online here. It may not be the most majestic and inspiring of buildings, but it is much closer in appearance to a traditional lighthouse than many of those that have been installed in more recent years (particularly the “flat pack” lighthouses that can be seen in parts of Scotland now). The land that the lighthouse sits on is within the grounds of Lepe House, which is privately owned, meaning that access to the tower is restricted. So I had to settle for a view from the roadside and small pebble beach just in front of it. It’s close enough though.

Souter lighthouse

Our second lighthouse was not only in an entirely different part of England, but also completely different in appearance. I had first visited Souter lighthouse, to the south of South Shields, on my original tour in 2012 and then again while in the area a few years ago. Both times I’d managed to miss it while it was open though. This time, while heading back north, we made sure to pay a visit when we could get inside. It is a distinctive lighthouse from the outside and very well maintained. The fog horn, alongside the lighthouse, makes for a particularly dramatic picture.

Souter lighthouse was the first in the world to be purpose built to run on electricity. You can access the light room in Souter lighthouse at your own leisure, which was great for us as it meant our three-year-old could climb to the top, counting the steps, at his own speed. This was the first time he’d climbed up the final ladder to reach the light room and also the first time our daughter had been into the light room of a lighthouse.

Souter foghorn

It’s a great building to wander around. After the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1988, it was bought the The National Trust. They have clearly done a lot of work on it, including maintaining the rooms (and keepers cottage) as they would have been when it was a manned lighthouse.

The Leas is also a wonderful area for strolling around. As well as the stunning scenery, there are interpretive panels along the coastline describing how the area has changed over the years, with Whitburn Colliery and the associated creation and demise of the Marsden community. It really is an interesting place, which satisfies a number of interests. So, if you enjoy lighthouses, geology, history, nature, coastal walks, or just a fun day out for the family then it’s a perfect choice if you’re in the area 🙂