An excursion to the Flannan Isles
Great Britain 1:50 000 Scale Colour Raster Mapping Extracts © Crown copyright Ordnance Survey. All Rights Reserved. Educational licence 100045616.
The islands lie just over 20 miles to the west of the Isle of Lewis. My trip left Miavaig harbour at 10:30 on Saturday 18 August and returned at just after 5 o’clock.
We received confirmation by telephone the previous day, confirming that weather conditions were expected to be favourable. In fact, the crossing could not have been smoother and it was eminently comfortable standing for the whole of the journey, without fear of losing one’s footing. This despite driving through heavy rain from Tarbert to get to Miavaig - the showers cleared up just as I was pulling up at the harbourside. The return trip was even smoother.
The largest islands are in the northeast group, situated mainly in [NA7246]. These include Eliean Mòr, the largest of the Flannans and home to the lighthouse; Eilean Tighe, its smaller neighbour; and several smaller rocky islands such as Làmh an Sgeir Mhòir and Làmh a’ Sgeir Bheag which are sandwiched between the two.
In the next square south, all neatly contained within [NA7245], are a small set of islands, Soraigh being the largest, Sgeir Toman the highest, and Sgeir Righinn the other substantial island.
And finally, the farthest west group stands mainly in [NA6946]. The largest island here is Roaiream, while the tallest is Eilean a’ Ghobha. Bròna Cleit, the westernmost Flannan Isle, completes the main trio here.
Several of these islands have discrepancies in the spelling of their names, depending on which scale of map is consulted.
Below, we take a closer look at the three sets of islands, starting with Soraigh, moving on to Roaiream, and finishing at Eilean Mòr - although the cruise visited in the opposite order.
An overview of all these western islands:
Eilean a’ Ghobha and Bròna Cleit:
Before we look at these items in detail, let’s have a look at some general views of, and over, the island.
Even so, it is not just a question of a gentle stroll and great care needs to be taken on the hazardous steps. Some have worn away to nothing more than a 45º slope, and there is no barrier between the steps and a plunge into the sea!
The railways would have been used to winch supplies up from the delivering ships. This would have been hard work, especially given the gradient at the lower part of the routes.
In the 1960s, the rails were removed when a ‘Gnat’ was brought into use on the island - this was a three wheeled vehicle, fitted with rubber tyres, which was brought up the remaining concrete path by way of a winch and guide wire above.
The Gnat itself was redundant in September 1971, when the lighthouse was automated and lighthousekeepers no longer therefore resided on the island. At the same time as the automation, a helipad was constructed - with supplies no longer needed on a regular basis and only routine or emergency attention required. Nevertheless the path of the original railway tracks is still very much discernible, and on certain stretches the track and sleeper positions are gradually becoming infilled with grass or mayweed.
From the junction of the tracks, the other branch of the railway heads to the western landing:
There is also a separate path to the western landing, by way of narrow concrete steps:
And here is the helipad:
Disaster struck the lighthouse barely a year after its coming into operation. On 15 December 1900 a ship, the Archtor, passed in bad weather and noted that the light was not operational. This was reported on her arrival at Oban. A routine visit planned for 20 December was impossible due to the weather, and did not take place until Boxing Day. The lighthousekeepers were not there to greet them; provision boxes had not been laid out for replenishment; the flag was not flying; it was clear that something was amiss. There was no response to a blast on the ship’s horn.
On investigation, the west landing showed evidence of a great storm - broken boxes which were kept 30m up the cliff; railway tracks torn out of the concrete, turf ripped out over 10m from the cliff edge.
The keepers had kept their log up to 9a.m. on 15 December, suggesting that the mysterious disappearance occurred on that day. No bodies were ever found. It is assumed that two of the keepers were in the vicinity of that western landing and their colleague, learning of the impending storm, left the lighthouse unattended (this was against the rules), perhaps to warn the other two of the impending danger.
Further west, and situated on a northern promontory only a metre lower than the island’s highest point, a cairn was erected, presumably, on 30 October 1951 if we go by the inscription. It may, of course, be that the two named individuals inscribed the stone on the cairn which was already present.
Towards the western end of the island are two old shielings - shelters which would have been occupied by those tending to herds on the hillsides. To what extent that may have occurred here, I must admit I don’t know. One is particularly better preserved than the other - seen here with Roaiream in the background, and a view of the lighthouse through the little ‘window’ in the eastern side. These shielings probably became disused during the eighteenth century.
By the way, at this time of year, the western end of the island is absolutely overrun with puffin burrows. They are very hazardous underfoot and it would be easy to twist an ankle if care is not taken with each and every step. I imagine this would be one of the least convenient places in Britain to be taken injured!
I saw quite a number of puffins in flight but not from a suitable vantage point to capture them on camera.