Thursday, June 29, 2017

Destination Flannan

Episode 6 in the Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Hebridean cruise - May 20 to 29, 2017

May 26: The morning forecast showed little improvement. The wind had calmed from the day before, but it can take days for ocean swell to subside. After some discussion we decided it would be worth motoring out west to see how the sea was acting. Even if we could not land, we might get a close look at the Flannans.

The Flannan lies 40 miles due west of Carloway, and after five hours of steaming we nosed into the fairly sheltered bay between Eilean Mor (the island with the lighthouse) and Eilean Tighe. 

Approaching the Flannans

The East Landing

East Landing - arrows point to the damaged rungs and steps
A look at the landing showed a moderate swell of one to two feet.  Mark lowered the inflatable and went to take a a closer look.  He came back a bit discouraged. The iron rungs that once allowed you to climb 15 feet from the sea to the landing platform were too corroded to use safely.

Mark had also inspected the cement steps that descend to the sea next to the landing. These, too, looked unusable, as the sea has worn them flat and covered them with a slippy carpet of kelp. There appeared to be no safe way ashore. 

Mark and Anna head to check out the landing
But there was still hope. Once he was back aboard I heard Mark say he had a cunning plan. Next thing I knew Mark and Anna were zipping back to the landing, armed with a ladder and sturdy length of rope.

Through binoculars we saw Anna leap ashore with the rope, and Mark soon followed.

Anna goes ashore with the rope
We watched as they carefully attached the rope to several iron stanchions embedded in the rock, the only remnants of handrails that have long since rusted away. It looked like we'd be going ashore.

Securing the rope

All ashore that's going ashore
Even with the rope, it would be a steep scramble to land. Five of us volunteered (happily) for shore leave and, one by one, we used the rope to steady ourselves as we inched up to where the cement steps were still intact. From there, 70 steep steps led up to the base of the old tram trackway

The tram, which was in use for 60 years, was a cart winched up to the lighthouse via a cable, and had been used to haul supplies from the two landings. There was a speaking-tube (air pipe) that allowed someone at the landing to tell a keeper up at the lighthouse when to start the winch. I've often wondered if the speaking-tube was how the men in the lighthouse were alerted there was a problem at the west landing back on that fateful day in December of 1900.

Old gearwheels that once drove the tram
They removed the rails in the 1960s, when the tram was replaced by a motorized buggy known as a Gnat. You can see a photo of the Gnat in action here.

Afoot on the Flannans
Once up onto level ground several of us a crawled inside the chapel. It’s a beehive cell of indeterminate age that, at some point, was altered into a chapel. It was here that Peter May had the protagonist of his novel Coffin Road find a body. Fortunately there were no signs of foul play inside the chapel, but outside the fowl were playing, as the island is home to a large puffin colony. 

Before visiting the puffins some of us wandered up to the lighthouse. It's an eerie, windswept place, where three keepers disappeared in 1900. You can find the story of their disappearance here.

Liz at the Light
Even more remarkable than the exhilarating landing and climb was seeing the puffins. Their burrows surround a set of old beehive cells, known as Bothan Clan 'ic Phail (the bothies of the Clan of the sons of Paul). These beautiful little structures have survived for centuries, and you can read more about them here. Unlike the puffins on Lunga, the Flannan puffins are not accustomed to tourists, and we had to keep our distance or they'd fly away.

West end puffin city

The farthest Flannans seen from the west end - we'd be there shortly

Our hour ashore seemed to fly by, and all too soon it was time to start back to the landing. But I had yet to climb to the cairn at the summit, something that had to be done. So I hurried to the top to find that Liz was already there, admiring the incredible view.

I think the puffins were glad to see us go as we returned to the landing. Going down the steep steps, with no handrail, and the sea directly below, was more exciting than the climb up. Especially the final stretch where, with the rope in hand, we made our way down the slippy slope to the waiting RIB.

Down to the rope
Back aboard I discovered Alan had launched a drone to fly a few circuits around the islands. Looking at the stunning footage made me wish I had a drone. I think the same thought occurred to Skipper Mark (we may be seeing more drone video in future trip reports).

Drone footage screen capture - Alan Brook

Drone footage screen capture - Alan Brook
Leaving the anchorage we encountered a rolling swell as we motored out to circle around the farthest Flannans to take a look at the gannetry on the amazing stacks and arches of Roareim.

The farthest Flannans

It was with a true sense of accomplishment that we left the Flannans in our wake. They gradually disappeared astern as we motored 40 miles south to find an anchorage near Scarista Beach.

Scarista Beach
It had been a memorable day in the Hebrides; especially as the odds of landing on the Flannans are extremely low. The reason for our success was the hard work, timing, and quick thinking of Anna and Mark. Without their extra effort we would not have gotten ashore.

You can see Alan Brook's video of the Flannans at the link below.


  1. David Gartside UKJune 29, 2017 at 11:34 AM

    Really enjoying your voyage, thanks

  2. Wow, this is fabulous! What fantastic photos and video. I can see the Flannan Islands from home (about 50% of the time) so it's great to view them close up.