At any time of year, but especially at Christmas, there’s something ghostly and enticing about the solitary and desolate world of lighthouses. In today’s Christmas story, Sally Spedding revisits the true mystery of the Flannan Isle lighthouse to transport us to an eerie tale of disappearance and loss.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES by Sally Spedding
Though three men dwelt on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steered under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night.
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson
14.32 p.m. Sunday 18th December 1983.
Jack Tennant, along with two other travellers from Oban encumbered with bird-watching gear, scrambled through the rising tide until his boots met the sunken remains of Eilean Mor’s concrete walkway.
His salted eyes scanned the rock face awaiting him, and he cursed that those granite steps leading upwards still hadn’t been restored. Given that this home to the Flannan Island Light was still a major curiosity, he’d make that omission priority on his Gaelic Heritage agenda.
Snow in the wind as he watched the black inflatable that had deposited the three of them on this lonely spot, speed back to the Western Rose. Time to psych himself up for the climb ahead, he told himself, aware of hesitation behind him.
“’Ha’ ye seen the mist comin’ down?” Panted the bigger man called Hamish MacLeod. “And soon this snow will be settling. I’m nae goin’.”
“Ye’ll be as swift as a prayer reaching our Lord.” The other twitcher, Iain Massie, tapped Jack’s shoulder. “See how our expert here does it…”
Jack blinked. No-one had ever called him that before. Even his remit with Gaelic Heritage ensured he stayed a Jack of all trades, master of few. But what about those failed relationships littering his past? According to his latest ex, he’d been a myopic, selfish husband and mostly absent father to their one child, Bonnie. So, yes, an expert, but in neglect.
He glanced back at the two men still deliberating as to who’d follow him; their cagoule hoods drawn tight under their chins. Dammit, he’d only met them on the quayside at Oban just three hours ago. They were neither his mates nor relatives. His destination was his own business, and for Gaelic Heritage’s bold plan here, he needed a clear head and space to think.
The mist crept closer. The snow thicker. Their dinghy would be back within the hour.
“Let‘s move,” he said, whereupon the fat guy elbowed his way past and began to climb, embracing the rock as if it was some long-lost lover.
“I’ll show ye,” he gasped, his ample butt inching away above Jack’s head. “An’ if I dinnae make it, put on me stone ‘He tried’. OK?”
Silence, save for those shrieking gulls hovering over the Western Rose.
“You next,” Jack gestured to Iain re-tying a boot lace. “But keep an eye on him.”
15.03 p.m. The exact time his daughter had entered the world. And today, always too near Christmas, was her fourth birthday. He’d planned to find something from Eilean Mor for her to wonder at when she was older. To remind her of the man he tried to be.
The rising wind hit his back as he trailed the birdwatchers, expecting at any moment to break Hamish’s early fall. But no. The climb progressed, accompanied by hymns not heard since he was a lad over in Erskine. Hamish the wheezy bass, Iain a passable baritone. And him? It just felt good to listen as the three of them entered the thickening mist that had devoured the sky. The singing stopped, replaced by two heavy breaths.
“Ye heard ‘boot the mystery?” Iain called back at him, giving Hamish’s huge rear a helpful shove with his head. “The three lighthouse keepers who vanished into thin air?”
“’Twas no mystery,” rasped Hamish. “We all know they was gay. Fell out as tae who should bend over. Offer tae be the stank…”
Jack refrained from being drawn yet again into that eerie world of rumour that had fixated him for years. As a bairn, he’d often prayed for the lost souls of Mr. McArthur, Mr. Marshall and Mr. Ducat. Willing their safe return to wherever their homeland had been. Perhaps nearby Hirta on the St Kilda archipelago, deserted for over fifty years. Perhaps Lewis…
Just five years out of university, he’d never dreamt his first trip to the notorious lighthouse would be to gauge its potential as an artists’ and writers’ retreat. His ambitious plans safe in his pocket.
Both his companions followed each other up and over. Their voices fading in the vapour. It was then Jack noticed his watch. The time still 15.03 p.m. Odd that, he thought before re-adjusting his rucksack for the final effort to the top. Then he realised with a jolt, that separation from those two might mean missing the only trip back to Oban that day. And meanwhile, that snow was settling.
Once he reached the plateau at the top, he used his thumb nail to prise open the watch’s back and jiggle its two tiny batteries. No joy. He looked up. Hamish was pissing into the wind. His cider-coloured spray rebounding to speckle his shell-suited shins. Jack glimpsed his uncut cock, pale as veal. Turned away from this unexpected intimacy.
“What’s the time?” he asked. “My watch is kaput.”
Hamish zipped up, checked his wrist.
“So’s mine.” He tapped the glass face. Fiddled with the winder. “It’s me faither’s. Perfect from the day he died… How weird…”
Jack saw Iain slap his more macho model against his arm. His too, had stopped.
“C’mon, c’mon,” the man grumbled. “What‘s up wi’ ye?”
Meanwhile, mist and sea fret was thickening, choking their talk. Jack felt even lonelier than when he’d first split from Bonnie’s mother. His boots beginning to slip.
Then bells, he was sure of it. Faint at first, coming it seemed, from in front of him. Yet there’d never been a kirk on this particular island – let alone a community big enough to fill it. Too late to ask Iain and Hamish if they could hear them too, or if they might meet up somewhere. They’d gone, and now he found himself on springy grass whose puffin burrows trapped the toes of his boots, almost causing him to fall.
All at once, something gripped his left arm. A disembodied hand, gnarled and old.
“Hamish? Iain? You there?” He called out.
According to the Western Rose’s captain, the three of them were Eilean Mor’s only visitors that day. December wasn’t the best month to see the Seven Hunters – those rocky lumps making up the Flannan Islands. Even his Gaelic Heritage boss hadn’t called them that… Odd he’d forgotten the guy’s name…
Jack tried to free himself, but the grip tightened until sharp nails – or were they talons – reached his skin.
“Who the hell are you?”
Again, no answer.
Smells of sweat and damp met his nose. The vapours thinned to reveal an old man wearing a whitened, tartan beret pulled low over his forehead. His grizzled moustache and beard had overgrown his lips, while his black, sealskin waistcoat and coarse, woollen shirt and even coarser trousers, seemed oddly out of date. Barefoot too, with both big toes abnormally long and curled.
The lighthouse was suddenly too close, looming upwards, far larger than any photographs had suggested, with a stone-built basement just visible below ground level. He struggled again, but the strength that held him surely wasn’t human.
“Mind the step.” Was all this strange man said.
Jack’s research on those three who’d vanished one autumn day in 1900, had included the hardy St Flannan and his tiny chapel. All this from a comfortable Glasgow office was one thing. Being pushed towards its undersized opening, another. Even the bells had stopped. He thought of Bonnie’s gift. Tried to head-butt The Beard out of his way, and for a moment, the man’s hold on him loosened. But just as Jack seized his chance, a short-arse sporting a wooden crucifix, humming a hymn Jack recognised from the climb, took his place.
“Sinners repent the Lord is nigh… ”
To judge his erring flock from high…”
Dead fulmars lay stinking near the chapel’s opening, as five other men stood around its inner stone wall, their overgrown fingernails clasping battered black Bibles. Jack also noticed their identical clothing, their big toes at least two inches longer than his. But why? What for?
The Beard, blocking out what light there was from the makeshift doorway, picked up a Bible from a nearby stool and held it for Jack to lay his right palm on it. He saw four blood spots staining his yellow cagoule’s sleeve. The skin beneath each puncture, raw, hurting.
“Name?” The Beard demanded.
“Donald Melhuish.” His old schoolteacher and hero.
A kick met the back of his left leg. He spun round to see a face he recognised, lit by a gloating smile.
“Can ye confirm yer business here, Mr Tennant?” It was Iain giving him no time to react. His dialect far stronger than before; an unruly beard where he’d earlier been clean-shaven.
“I’ve already bloody told you.”
“We dinnae tolerate swearing.”
Iain snatched the plans from Jack’s pocket. Waved them aloft.
“Be warned, mae freins. This stranger wants artists and writers crawling all over St Flannan’s sacred hame… ”
The recent boat trip flashed through Jack‘s mind. The two bottles of beer apiece, knocked back for Dutch courage. Yes, his tongue had loosened about his job, but his companions had shown no apparent interest. Just stared out to sea…
“These people hae morals and ideologies offensive to oors,” Iain went on. “We be the parliament from Gallan Head. Strict Sabbatarians. Now dae ye understand?” Their eyes met. Iain from a bygone age. Madness gleaming on his spittle.
“Nae tricks, Mr. Tennant. Nae tricks.”
Hamish lurked in the shadows, his stare as unforgiving as the rest. A full moustache beneath his nose, and that same gut strained not a cagoule zip but waistcoat buttons. Iain indicated the dead fulmars. Their twisted necks, the dark shit drying on their feathers.
“The na h-Eileanan Flannach is whaur we make oor living. God’s full bounty ours alone. Ye’d put all tha’ at risk…”
“Nothing’s been ratified yet.” Jack looked from one to the other for the faintest show of support. “It’s all in the air, for Chrissake. Just an idea… ”
“Nor dae we tolerate blasphemy.”
The Beard weighed in, like the other man, still holding his arm.
“What gives ye the right to sully oor homeland with yer schemes? Yer disrespect. Unless ye repent, ye’ll join those damned souls of Ducat, McArthur and Marshall… ”
Jack felt his bowels move.
“You killed them?”
“Aye. For burning a light on the Sabbath,” said one.
“For buggery,” said another.
“For stopping the wrecks.” Said a third.
“Repent, repent,” urged Hamish. “Unless ye want their fate.”
Crucifix man released his grip. Jack felt his own arms grow stiff. He had a hunting knife in his rucksack, but when he tried to reach it, he couldn’t. His blood was cooling, followed by the strangest sensation of his nose being pulled forward from his face. In shock, he saw the end of it growing to become black, pointed.
Not the only change…
Hamish and Iain were pulling off his cagoule, his jumper then his boots, flinging them aside before tearing the denim from his legs. Then he saw what had once been his feet… Nor was his scream a human scream.
The Beard stood aside from the opening, letting him graze his wings and the top of his head as he faced freedom.
Above the snow-covered ground now, with the gull hordes scattering beneath him, and the mist risen to reveal a fine, clear day. In his mind’s eye, came his young daughter waving just like the last time he’d seen her.
He’d promised her a gift…
It didn’t take long to find one and afterwards, the easterly wind bore him and the brown hare still struggling in his beak, towards the cliffs and a churning, indigo sea.
And as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds –
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag –
Like seamen sitting bolt-upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we neared, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound or spurt of white.
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson