Adam Mac

A Lighthouse Tale of Passing Moment


The Flannan Isles are scattered at the end of the world, at least from a Scottish perspective looking out to the west over the North Atlantic. Six hundred miles to the northwest is Iceland. Greenland is an additional 700 miles away, and Labrador is nearly 2,000 miles on the other side of the ocean. The seven islets and the multitude of skerries are part of an archipelago in the Outer Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland. It is a lonely place, and it is a stormy place. In the winter, the mountainous ocean waves and the gale force winds are bitterly cold and deadly.


In 1899, the lighthouse of the Flannan Isles became operational, it having been commissioned four years earlier to protect sailors and their cargo from the deadly rocks and reefs that had claimed the lives of so many in these frigid, treacherous waters where titanic gale-driven waves would smash wooden sailing ships to smithereens.


In December of 1900, the three keepers of the lighthouse were reported to have disappeared ... vanished with no trace that has been discovered to this day. Their disappearance remains a mystery, but there is no shortage of proffered explanations. The 2018 the British psychological thriller, The Vanishing, is the mariner's tale of stolen golden and murder teased from the known facts and folklore of the Eilean Mór disappearance. Nearly six score years earlier, a rescue party from the SS Hesperus (not Longfellow's ill-fated schooner shipwrecked on a snowy Atlantic night off Norman's Woe) telegraphed the Northern Lighthouse Board responsible for navigation along Scotland's craggy coastline that the island and lighthouse were deserted and concluded that the "[p]oor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that." This was Boxing Day 1900, 11 days after the lighthouse had been reported unlit by the Archtor steamer en route from Philadelphia to Edinburgh.


Drawing from the limited evidence at hand, the Board's investigation directed by  Superintendent Robert Muirhead concluded that the most likely explanation was that the lighthouse keepers "had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday, 15 December to the proximity of the West landing, to secure the box with the mooring ropes, etc and that an unexpectedly large roller had come up on the Island, and a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them had swept them away with resistless force."


Other accounts of varying believability include internecine and murderous strife among the 'wickies,' ghost ships of the Seven Hunters (a local name for the islands, which locals said 'hunted' ships), and alien abductions, but one that has failed to attract serious attention attributes the disappearance to the British-German arms race that was just taking off in the 1890s. The Imperial German Navy under Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz of the new German Empire was gearing up to challenge the naval supremacy of Britain whose own naval policy objective as of 1889 was to maintain naval superiority to the combined naval strength of its two closest rivals. During World War I, Tirpitz masterminded the strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare in order to project Germany's naval power beyond European waters in answer to the superiority of Britain's surface fleet.


In December 1900, a merchant vessel, commandeered by the Imperial German Navy, was reconnoitering the North Atlantic. At Eilean Mór it dispatched a dinghy to obtain fresh lamb and mutton knowing that lighthouse keepers on the remote western isles had to raise their own livestock. The German sailors encountered resistance but as they were armed the keepers were easily subdued. The animals were slaughtered and the fresh meat was taken to the ship along with the keepers, who were now prisoners. On boarding the German ship, the captain assured the keepers that they would be freed unharmed upon reaching the shores of Canada(1).


After setting course for Iceland, the ship lost communication with its port in Wilhelmshaven. It had disappeared in a mid-December North Atlantic storm of great fury and duration that caused much damage to Eilean Mór from bottom to top indicating seas upwards of 100 feet. Waves of that height would easily have swamped the German vessel. 


Records of the ship's disappearance are unreliable as the German Navy of the period was intent on keeping its mission secret for fear of inflaming anti-German sentiment in North America at a time when Germany's defences were not altogether sufficient to protect against being Copenhagen'ed by the Royal Navy.  And so the mystery of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse is in fact part of a much greater mystery—the disappearance of an unidentified German merchant vessel in 1900 somewhere in the vicinity of the Scottish Hebrides. 


Meanwhile, in the 21st century lighthouses are passing into obsolescence. While these sentinels on the coast entertain us with their histories and romance, they simply are not commercially mission critical. With technological innovations—computer automation and satellite-based global positioning systems, balance-sheet economics has rendered the lighthouse and its rough-hewn keepers cost-inefficient and superfluous notwithstanding the tens of thousands of lives saved, thereby hastening the end of part of our common history of the sea—the seafarers' beacon, mysterious, awe-inspiring, and hopeful.


Ironically, the same silicon-based technology that has facilitated the redundancy of lighthouses and their keepers worldwide saving governments high-profile yet paltry sums of money—the low-hanging fruit—has also enabled the modern pirates of finance to evade taxes by hiding their 'gold' in offshore accounts and behind tailor-made tax avoidance legislation, aided and abetted by their political servants and their retinue of money men. 


However, the announcement of the end of the lighthouse era may be premature as the vulnerability of satellite-based guidance systems to terrorist or state-sponsored cyberwarfare may produce a resurgence in the strategic value of lighthouses as global shipping will for the foreseeable future continue to be fundamental to the economies of Earth. And who knows but what the keepers themselves may return as the magic and mystery of the lighthouse are rekindled.

(1) Eighteen years later, as part of Germany's U-boat campaign in the North Atlantic, a German submarine off the coast of New Brunswick near the mouth of the Bay of Fundy sank the timber-laden Dornfontein, a four-masted schooner in the Canadian merchant marine that had just set sail for South Africa (a WWI ally, albeit somewhat reluctant after the Boer War) from its home port of Saint John. The Dornfontein crew were taken prisoner aboard the submarine and much to their surprise served blueberry pie from freshly-picked Nova Scotia blueberries. The Canadians were set afloat in dories after five hours on board the submarine and were picked up by the keepers of the Gannet Rock Lighthouse at the mouth of the Bay ... in good health save for the one sailor who was shot in the knee for refusing der Blaubeer-Streuselkuchen which he claimed—to his loss—was poisoned. Today, there are no longer any lighthouse keepers on Gannet Rock.