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Behold the Hebrides
A Western Outpost


FAR in Western seas, where the winds and the rains of the Atlantic hold high carnival amid a wildness and an eerie solitude that is broken only by the dashing of the breakers against the base of the great and venerable cliffs that descend perpendicularly to the ocean, and by the noisy intrusion of the feathered visitors that come up from the sea, lie the ‘Seven Hunters,’ as the Flannan Isles were termed long ago.

The renowned chronicler who accompanied some islesmen there on a fowling expedition rather over-estimated the distance seaward of the Flannans when he wrote that the ‘Seven Haley Iles lye fifty myle in the Occident seas fra the coste of the parochin Vye in Lewis (Parish of Uig) towarts the west north-west,’ because they are really situated within about twenty-two miles of Gallon Head.

Though we know from ancient records dating back to the fifteenth century that the Flannan Isles were uninhabited at that time, there is ample evidence to prove that, at all events in early Christian times, when the Irish Church took the lead in sending its emissaries to the very remotest corners of Scotland, these islands were peopled by a colony of monks, for some very interesting ecclesiological remains are still to be seen, though they are naturally in a somewhat weather-beaten and decayed condition.

At any rate, there was a large enough settlement there to justify the reputation for sanctity with which for many centuries these isles were associated. Buchanan, who calls them Insuloe Sacroe, ascribes the earliest remains to the Druids.

On one of the Flannan Isles the ruins of a very old chapel are still in a fair state of preservation. The ancient Gaelic writers named this chapel Teampull Beannachadh, meaning the House of Blessing; and from its structure there would appear to be little doubt that it was originally the cell of some Columban hermit. Indeed, the entire aspect of the place—its wildness, its inaccessibility, its solitude—reminds one very much of Skellig Michael with its little beeskep-shaped dwelling-places and its tiny oratories.

The Flannan Isles were long noted for their pasturage, which in the olden days supported a large number of sheep. Sheep. An early historian tells us that there were ‘infinit wyld scheipe therein quhilk na man knawes to quhom the said scheipe apperteines within them that lives this day of the country-men’; and we read that it was customary at certain stated times of the year for MacLeod of Lewis, to whom the islands belonged, to send a number of his clansmen to the Flannans, for MacLeod ‘huntis and slayis maney of thir scheipe.’ The same source informs us that ‘the flesche of thir scheipe cannot be eaten be honest men for fatnesse, for ther is na flesche on them, bot all quhyte lyke talloune and it is verey wyld gusted lykeways.’

Although Martin, in his Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, which he wrote towards the close of the seventeenth century, does not mention the actual hunting of sheep, he acquaints us with the fact that the pastures of the Northern-Hunters, as the mariners of his day called the Flannan Isles, maintained a considerable number of sheep.

The Flannans are of further interest to us in that some very quaint and remarkable customs were observed there by those who visited these islands for the purpose of fowling. In the olden days a small party of men from Lewis were accustomed once a year to set out for these islands, and to return with large quantities of seabirds and their eggs, together with quills, down, and feathers, all of which they collected among the dangerous rocks and cliffs, and at great personal risk. We are told that, if they happened to be sailing with an east wind and the direction of the wind suddenly changed to the west, they would not attempt to effect a landing, but would instantly make for home again, even though they might be within fifty yards of the landing-place.

Then, Martin tells us that, if the crew should include in its number any apprentice, who was inexperienced in the recognised methods of fowling, and ignorant of the ancient, but essential, observances with which it was associated, it was necessary that he be placed under the supervision of some member of the fowling party who would instruct him as to how he should conduct himself when on this hallowed soil. We are further informed that the crew scaled up the cliff from the wonted landing-place by means of a wooden ladder, which was held in position by a huge stone in order to prevent it from slipping back into the sea. When the fowlers had made the customary deisul, and had thanked God for having conducted them in safety to the islands, they removed their upper garments and approached the aforesaid chapel, where they engaged in prolonged prayer and meditation. It was considered a most heinous crime for any member of the crew to kill a bird before every one of the party had climbed the ladder; and the killing of a fowl by a stone was looked upon as ‘a great barbarity, and directly contrary to ancient custom.’

Among these early seamen the use of certain words was strictly forbidden while their stay on the Flannans lasted; and, in consequence, the designating of a number of familiar things by their proper names was regarded as an inexcusable and unforgivable breach of etiquette. For example, water was called Burn, not Visk (Gaelic, uisge); a rock was termed Cruey (Gaelic, cruaidh, meaning hard); and they referred to the seashore, not as cladach, but as Vah (uamh, a cave).

In accordance with other curious laws observed while on a visit to these islands, no one was permitted to take home with him any sheep-suet: neither was any member allowed to appropriate or eat anything without the cognisance of the remainder of the party.

Martin remarked that in his time the sheep of the Flannans were very fat: we learn from the passage already quoted that another annotator a hundred years earlier found cause to complain of their leanness.

But it must have been a grand sight to watch the expedition returning to the shores of Lewis in a boat overladen with sheep, fowls, fish, eggs, down, and feathers!

Around the lonely Flannan Isles there clings an unsolved mystery, because at the beginning of this century there occurred an incident for which no satisfactory explanation has ever been given. There had been a violent storm in the Atlantic; and for many long nights no light appeared from the lighthouse on the Flannans. At first it was thought that the light had been obscured by the dense sea-fogs which had accompanied the storm: but, as the fogs cleared away, no light shone.

Now, about the tenth day the tempest had subsided somewhat, and the relief steamer went to the Flannans in her regular course of rotation in order to effect the relief that was now due. When she reached the Flannans, however, the crew was surprised to find that the usual landing-flag was not hoisted; and, though the steamer’s whistle was sounded repeatedly and a rocket fired, no keeper appeared.

After a little difficulty the relieving keeper was got ashore, and he hurried up the zigzag pathway, which led to the lighthouse, to find that the door was closed—probably to keep the lobby dry as the winds and rains were usually battering against it—and that there was no one in the living-room. So he hastened back to the landing-stage with the information that there was no one on the island. Some of the boat’s crew were then put ashore in order to carry out a thorough investigation. High and low the lighthouse was ransacked, and the whole island was searched—every nook and crevasse of it—but there was no sign of a living soul; neither were any human remains discovered.

The mystery has never really been properly solved, though several suggestions have been put forward as to what actually may have happened. The conclusion come to was that the crane or derrick at the west landing-place, which, when not in use, was lowered and lashed to the rocks, was in danger of being carried away, and that the three lighthouse men, having gone down to make it more secure, were swept right off by a huge sea that without any warning dashed over them. It is almost certain that at the time of the accident they had their oilskins and jack-boots on, because these were never found. And on the living-room table there stood a meal prepared; and on the floor beside it there lay an overtoppled chair. Both of these facts strongly suggest that an emergency had arisen, and that the men had suddenly rushed out to cope with it. In the meantime the relieving keeper and some members of the ship’s crew remained to keep the light burning until new arrangements were made.

The further facts that everything in the lighthouse was afterwards found in perfect order, and that the time of the last entry in the log-book seemed to have been made shortly before the hour at which the tragedy is supposed to have occurred, tend to bear this out.

A year or two ago I chanced to be on a visit to Ness Lighthouse, at the Butt of Lewis; and, while I sat chatting with the keeper in the lantern-room, that, with the great tower below it, seemed to sway dizzily in the gales that came out of the cold, uninviting north, suddenly the loud buzzing of a wireless receiver began. It was the men on the lonely Flannans ringing up to say that all was well there; and in return we transmitted to them the time signal.

And, as the night fell, I waited long in that lantern tower until the flash from the lighthouse on the Flannans came streaming across the sea. And through my mind there passed another flash—the flash of that tragedy; and I remembered

Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who
thought of three men dead.


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