An excursion to the Flannan Isles

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   Text © Copyright November 2012, Chris Downer; licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence.
Images also under a similar Creative Commons Licence.


Introduction

While planning a few days on Harris and Lewis, I looked into whether visits were made to the Flannan Isles, and found one operator, who cruised there once a year, had chosen the exact date that I wanted in 2012.

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 oclock.

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 ones 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 islands

The islands are separated into three main groups.

The largest islands are in the northeast group, situated mainly in [NA7246]. These include Eliean Mr, the largest of the Flannans and home to the lighthouse; Eilean Tighe, its smaller neighbour; and several smaller rocky islands such as Lmh an Sgeir Mhir and Lmh a Sgeir Bheag which are sandwiched between the two.
1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright
1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright

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.
1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright
1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright

And finally, the farthest west group stands mainly in [NA6946]. The largest island here is Roaiream, while the tallest is Eilean a Ghobha. Brna Cleit, the westernmost Flannan Isle, completes the main trio here.
1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright
1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright


NA7246 : Flannan Isles: a view of all the islands by Chris Downer

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 Mr - although the cruise visited in the opposite order.

Soraigh and Sgeir Toman

These islands, along with Sgeir Righinn to the south, are three islands which are set very much as if they were once a complete landmass.
NA7245 : Flannan Isles: Soraigh from a distance by Chris Downer NA7245 : Flannan Isles: between Soraigh and Sgeir Toman by Chris Downer NA7245 : Flannan Isles: western tip of Soraigh by Chris Downer NA7245 : Flannan Isles: seals on Sgeir Toman by Chris Downer

Roaiream, Eilean a Ghobha and Brna Cleit

Roaiream stands 52m above sea level and is the largest (but not highest) of the western group of Flannan Isles. As well as being a breeding ground for gannets, it has some rather spectacular natural arches. Eilean a Ghobha is a couple of metres higher than Roaiream and is lumpier and rounder. The westernmost of the islands is Brna Cleit, which I do not appear to have photographed in any great detail. (I had travelled without a map and was not au fait with gridsquare boundaries!)

An overview of all these western islands:
NA6946 : Flannan Isles: Roaiream and neighbours by Chris Downer

Roaiream:
NA6946 : Flannan Isles: natural arches on Roaiream by Chris Downer NA6946 : Flannan Isles: natural arches on Roaiream by Chris Downer NA6946 : Flannan Isles: arches and gannets on Roaiream by Chris Downer NA6946 : Flannan Isles: a multitude of gannets by Chris Downer NA6946 : Flannan Isles: a gannet parent and chick by Chris Downer NA6946 : Flannan Isles: Roaiream from the west by Chris Downer
NA6946 : Flannan Isles: Eilean Mòr from beyond Roaiream by Chris Downer NA6946 : Flannan Isles: small natural arch on Roaiream by Chris Downer NA6946 : Flannan Isles: north side of Roaiream by Chris Downer NA6946 : Flannan Isles: Roaireams north cliff by Chris Downer NA6946 : Flannan Isles: seals at Roaiream by Chris Downer NA6946 : Flannan Isles: a seal pops up by Chris Downer

Eilean a Ghobha and Brna Cleit:
NA6946 : Flannan Isles: south side of Eilean a Ghobha by Chris Downer NA6946 : Flannan Isles: Eilean a Ghobha viewed through a gap by Chris Downer
NA6846 : Flannan Isles: rounding Bròna Cleit by Chris Downer NA6846 : Flannan Isles: Bròna Cleit from between Roaiream and Eilean a Ghobha by Chris Downer

Eilean Mr and neighbours

Eilean Mr

The chief island of the Flannans is Eilean Mr, which rises to 88m above sea level and contains numerous objects of human activity over the centuries. Most obvious is the lighthouse and its associated infrastructure, with railway-track links to the two landing stages and, representing more modern-day modes of transport, a helipad. There are also relics of a much more distant age.

Before we look at these items in detail, lets have a look at some general views of, and over, the island.
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: approaching Eilean Mòr by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: Eilean Mòr and Eilean Tighe from the west by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: gannets follow us towards Roaiream by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: Eilean Mòr from the south by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: a gull flies past by Chris Downer
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: eastern end of Eilean Mòr by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: mayweed on Eilean Mòr by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: view towards Roaiream by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: the sloping top of Eilean Mòr by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: the lighthouse from the north by Chris Downer
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: northern side of Eilean Mòr by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: small rock off Eilean Mòr by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: deep inlet on Eilean Mòr by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: southward view from the lighthouse by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: western end of Eilean Mòr by Chris Downer
NA7247 : Flannan Isles: northern slopes of Eilean Mòr by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: cliffs near the landing stage by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: cave in Eilean Mòr by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: north face of Eilean Mòr by Chris Downer

Eastern landing stage

There are two landing stages on the island. One is towards the southwest of the island and I understand it is far less straightforward to disembark and ascend than from the southeast landing, which is the one we used.

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 45 slope, and there is no barrier between the steps and a plunge into the sea!
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: landing stage steps by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: departing Eilean Mòr by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: a landing craft arrives by Chris Downer
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: landing stage and path by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: not an exercise in elegance by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: steps to the eastern landing stage by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: approaching the eastern landing by Chris Downer

The railway trackbed

Built at the same time as the lighthouse, in the mid-1890s, the railway tracks are a prominent feature of the island, conspicuous by their concrete casing which today forms the path to the lighthouse from the landings.

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.
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: path from the landing stage by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: looking down on the landing stage by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: railway trackbed heading to the eastern landing stage by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: steep path to the top by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: a view down the trackbed by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: southwest from the lighthouse by Chris Downer

From the junction of the tracks, the other branch of the railway heads to the western landing:
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: railway trackbeds diverge by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: the railway swings from the west by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: the end of the line by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: the railway tracks ascend steeply by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: view over the railway towards Soraigh by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: the railway heads for the lighthouse by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: the railway and steps to the west landing by Chris Downer

There is also a separate path to the western landing, by way of narrow concrete steps:
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: steep steps by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: I think Ill stop here by Chris Downer And here is the helipad: NA7246 : Flannan Isles: helipad below the lighthouse by Chris Downer

The lighthouse

The 25m-high lighthouse was built in the 1890s, stands close to the highest point of the island, and was first lit on 7 December 1899. The cost of construction, 6,914, included the railway tracks and landing stages.

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 ships 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.
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: the lighthouse from the sea to the south by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: the lighthouse by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: a man surveys the view by Chris Downer
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: lighthouse plaque by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: close-up of the lighthouse by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: lighthouse and northern cliffs by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: lighthouse and cliffs by Chris Downer

The chapel, the cairn and the shielings

In the centre of the island stands the little chapel, dedicated to an Irish monk, St. Flannan, after whom the islands themselves are also named. It is a simple, single-celled drystsone building with a single entrance in its western end.
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: St. Flannans chapel by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: chapel and helipad by Chris Downer

Further west, and situated on a northern promontory only a metre lower than the islands 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.
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: the cairn by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: cairn and Roaiream view by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: detail of cairn inscription by Chris Downer

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 dont 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.
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: old shieling by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: the lighthouse through a hole in the wall by Chris Downer

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!
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: puffin burrows by Chris Downer I saw quite a number of puffins in flight but not from a suitable vantage point to capture them on camera.

Eilean Tighe and outliers

Neighbouring Eilean Mr, Eilean Tighe is the second biggest of the Flannans and many seals and birds are to be seen around its shore or on its rocks.
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: view over several of the islands by Chris Downer NA7346 : Flannan Isles: view over Eilean Tighe towards Lewis by Chris Downer NA7346 : Flannan Isles: eastern end of Eilean Tighe by Chris Downer NA7346 : Flannan Isles: seals on Eilean Tighe by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: shags on the rocks by Chris Downer

Standing in the narrow channel between Eilean Mr and Eilean Tighe are two smaller islands, Lmh an Sgeir Mhir and Lmh a Sgeir Bheag...
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: waves at the foot of Làmh an Sgeir Mhòir by Chris Downer NA7246 : Flannan Isles: Làmh a Sgeir Bheag by Chris Downer

... while a number of smaller outlying rocks, many unnamed, complete the group.
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: rock to the west of Eilean Mòr by Chris Downer

Information on visiting

I booked my trip with Seatrek (website: LinkExternal link ). While many of their cruises, to St. Kilda and Scarp, for example, are run to a timetable published on their website, the Flannan cruise is not, so I had to contact them to check. (One man on my trip said hed rung them, they said theyd not set the date yet, so he asked them to coincide it with his holiday!)

The cost (in 2012) was 90, with 45 payable at the time of booking. The remainder was taken on arrival at their harbourside office. If the weather prevents departure, an alternative cruise or refund is offered.

The trip sails from the harbour at Miavaig, on the road to Timsgarry.
NB0934 : Miavaig: the harbour by Chris Downer 1:50,000 Modern Day Landranger(TM) Map © Crown Copyright

There are other operators which also offer cruises to the Flannans. From memory, there is at least one sailing from Leverburgh, Isle of Harris.

Here is a final view of the islands before they go out of view as we round Gallan Head on the return to harbour.
NA7246 : Flannan Isles: a final distant view by Chris Downer
KML
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