THE DISAPPEARANCE of three light keepers from the Flannans in December, 1900, has ever been a matter of speculation and mystery with many, especially with the local people who knew them and were familiar with the Flannans.
Donald Macarthur, the occasional watch-keeper replacing the regular one who was ill, was of Breasclete stock, an ex-regular army man and tailor by trade(Domhnall Calum Sheoc of 26 Breasclete). Being of above average intelligence, and with ideas well ahead of his time, he was held in great respect locally and his advice and counsel were often sought.
The Free Presbyterian church was in the process of construction at the time the tragedy occurred and it was Donald Macarthur who supervised the local labour engaged on the work: Project Manager we'd call him today. I heard from one of the workmen, in later years, that as he was on his way to the pier to make what was to be his last trip to the Flannans, Donald Macarthur set down his hand-luggage by the road, came over to the men at the church and gave them directions as to what he wanted done until he returned in a month's time. Tragically there was to be no return-and other hands had to complete the church.
Keeper of the Light
In this photo taken some fifty years ago the road down from the village passes the Flannan Isles Shore Station (left foreground); the next two houses, with chimneys, were not there in 1900, but the small dark second building on the right of the road is the Free Presbyterian church that Donald was building. The road can be seen continuing straight on, then finally turning left to the pier
He was married to an English girl, which in itself was very unusual then and again points to the singular character of the man. His wife became the local nurse and was extremely popular in the neighbourhood. She even made a credible attempt at learning Gaelic and could make herself understood. Her peculiar accent and mixture of words was a source of great amusement, yet something that endeared her more than ever to people . She had one child, "Calum na Nurs" on whom she understandably doted and her constant refrain, "What will happen to Dòcher?" (his nickname) is still remembered.
The tragic manner of her husband's death, together with the alienation she must have felt in a strange land, proved too much for her and she returned South where at least she would be amongst her own people.
There has been, and still is, much speculation as to how the tragedy happened and apart from relating what I heard from Niall Beag (Macarthur, 29 Breasclete), I don't intend to add to it. Perhaps if I establish Niall Beag's credentials (they were many) his "version" of events will carry more weight. Niall Beag, a rugged Islander who served King and Country, Church and State, acquitted himself with distinction wherever he played a part. He had hands-on experience at the lowest rung of the ladder on all aspects of life.
He lost an uncle in the boating tragedy of the 1870s, within sight of the Flannans (watch this space in later months for an account of this). One of his earliest jobs was as one of the work force who built the Flannans. Anyone familiar with Francis Thompson's fine book on St. Kilda and other outlying Hebridean islands may see Niall Beag in one of the plates, along with a number of the local men (including Iain a' Phiobair and his horse, Aonghas Dubh of Marcasdal with his dog, and the Callanish blacksmith) taking their ease in what appears to be a haven of paradise. It was no such thing. The work was arduous as well as dangerous; it was no place for the faint-hearted. Apart from an hourly rate of pay there was a piece-work scheme by which one was paid so many pence for every bag of cement you could carry from the shoreline up to the actual lighthouse site.
Niall Beag maintained that the men, having rushed out to secure N.L.B. property, were swept away by what he termed "muir cùl". I cannot remember his explanation of how the conditions causing this muir cùl arose. It would seem that when there is an east to west heavy momentum of sea for a succession of days and the wind changes to the opposite direction, you have, in the early stages of the change, the might of the wind opposing the fury of the ocean, leading to the treacherous condition of the "muir cùl".
There are many relevant factors vis-à-vis conditions of employment set at the time. which one would need to consider when speculating about what really happened. Keepering on the Flannans was in its infancy (the lighthouse had opened only a year before) so that regulations, later introduced for the safety of the men, were not in place. There was, too, the high expectation, excessively high, the Northern Lighthouse Board held regarding the safe-guarding of their property. It was alleged by one of the descendants of the men lost that stern strictures issued at the time by the N.L.B. about the care of equipment may very well have influenced the men in taking imprudent action.
There was, too, however, the dedication of lighthouse keepers to their job and everything pertaining to it. Donald Macarthur, with an ex-army man's trained sense of duty, was no whit behind his colleagues, Principal Keeper Ducat and Assistant Keeper Marshall, in his response to duty.
It is against this background then, that these men's action must be judged. When they were confronted with a situation to which they clearly perceived it their duty to respond, they did so instantly. They could quite justifiably have sat down within the security of the tower having their meal, while N.L.B. property was swept away before their eyes, but they chose to act. Let us hope that their inspiring devotion to duty is remembered all the while the Flannan Isles figure in the annals of our island's history.
*Donald John Macleod, one-time Breasclete harbourmaster, had his own views on the disappearance of the three men in 1900, largely arising from a very bad experience he had on one of his stints as "occasional" keeper. One of his colleagues had a mental break-down and the other had a bad dose of flu, which left him to do all the work and keep the watch for three or four days until the "Polestar" could come from Stromness via Breasclete with assistance. Since keeping the watch required constant attendance of the light and its mechanisms this must have been quite exhausting. He was also quite frightened for his life and that of his flu-struck colleague as the other keeper threatened violence and had to be tied up part of the time to keep him under control. He always thought that something of this nature may have happened to those who disappeared as it was said that one of the men did have some mental instability and that a few days of such problems could have driven them all metaphorically and literally over the edge.
For official records, go to the main Northern Lighthouse Board web site, www.nlb.org.uk, and click on "historical information"