Flannan Isle, St.Kilda, and ‘Coffin Road’
In 2012, on a Round Britain cruise, I passed close to the Flannan Isles and to St.Kilda. This was, for me, meant to be the highlight of the cruise, as I had in the past read so much about both these remote places – the outermost islands of the Outer Hebrides – St.Kilda in fact being the furthest west point of the whole British Isles. Unfortunately, the weather, as is often the case in those parts, was not good. The sea was rough and the islands shrouded in mist. I did manage a few photographs of St.Kilda, covered in mist and seabirds, but that was it. . .
Flannan Isle has held the most interest for me ever since, way back in my school days, just about my first introduction to narrative poetry was through the re-telling, by Wilfred Wilson Gibson, of the story of the three missing lighthouse men in his poem ‘Flannan isle’. The story, for those not familiar with it, has echoes of the story of the missing crew of the ‘Mary Celeste’.
The Flannan Isle lighthouse was constructed in 1899 by David and Charles Stevenson. Just a year later, when investigating why the light was not lit, 3 men landed on the isle but could find no trace of the 3 lighthouse keepers. Although the table in the lighthouse was set with food, and although the rules of procedure insisted that one man should always remain in the lighthouse, no trace of any of them was ever found. The full story is recounted in Gibson’s poem, which can be read at:
I have always remembered the emotive last verse:
‘We seem’d to stand for an endless while, Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle, Who thought on three men dead.’
The whole story was brought vividly back to me when I recently read Peter May‘s 2016 book, ‘Coffin Road’. Gripping from the very beginning, It is a top-quality read – the best book I have read for a long long time.
‘A man is washed up on a deserted beach on the Hebridean Isle of Harris, barely alive. He has no idea who he is or how he got there. The only clue to his identity is a map tracing a track called the Coffin Road.’
Flannan Isle itself, and the story of the three lighthouse men, are central to the story. There is a very strong plot and, as well as being a first-class thriller, the story has a cogent environmental message concerning the dangers of science being exploited for profit unrestrained by ethics. As in others of his books, Peter May brings the Hebridean landscape to vivid life in all its rugged beauty, as well as realistically conveying the wildness of both the Hebridean sea and its weather.
I also learnt a lot about Bees from ‘The Coffin Road’ !!! I thoroughly recommend it.