In 1900 three lighthouse keepers vanished from a remote, featureless island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. The lighthouse was in good order and the log showed no sign of trouble, but no trace of the keepers has ever been found. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore the conundrum of the men’s disappearance — a classic mystery of sea lore.
We’ll also ponder the whereabouts of Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday, admire Esaw Wood’s quest for a wood saw that would saw wood, and wonder why drinking a glass of water might necessitate a call to the auto club.
Sources for our segment on the Flannan Isles lighthouse:
Christopher Nicholson, Rock Lighthouses of Britain, 1983.
“The Mystery of Flannan Isle,” Northern Lighthouse Board, retrieved June 18, 2014.
Mike Dash, “The Vanishing Lighthousemen of Eilean Mór,” Fortean Studies 4 (1998).
Sources for the story about Robert Louis Stevenson’s bequest of his birthday:
Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Graham Balfour, Works, Volume 24, 1905.
Elmo Scott Watson, “Famous Writer Gave Most Unusual ‘Christmas Gift’ in All History,” Ironwood [Mich.] Times, Dec. 23, 1938.
“Inherits Birthday,” Sherbrooke [Quebec] Telegram, Jan. 11, 1934.
Here’s the deed:
Vailima, June 19, 1891.
I, Robert Louis Stevenson, Advocate of the Scots Bar, author of The Master of Ballantrae and Moral Emblems, stuck civil engineer, sole owner and patentee of the Palace and Plantation known as Vailima in the island of Upolu, Samoa, a British Subject, being in sound mind, and pretty well, I thank you, in body:
In consideration that Miss Annie H. Ide, daughter of H.C. Ide, in the town of Saint Johnsbury, in the county of Caledonia, in the state of Vermont, United States of America, was born, out of all reason, upon Christmas Day, and is therefore out of all justice denied the consolation and profit of a proper birthday;
And considering that I, the said Robert Louis Stevenson, have attained an age when O, we never mention it, and that I have now no further use for a birthday of any description; …
And in consideration that I have met H.C. Ide, the father of the said Annie H. Ide, and found him about as white a land commissioner as I require:
Have transferred, and do hereby transfer, to the said Annie H. Ide, all and whole my rights and privileges in the thirteenth day of November, formerly my birthday, now, hereby, and henceforth, the birthday of the said Annie H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise, and enjoy the same in the customary manner, by the sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats, and receipt of gifts, compliments, and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors;
And I direct the said Annie H. Ide to add to the said name of Annie H. Ide the name Louisa — at least in private; and I charge her to use my said birthday with moderation and humanity, et tamquam bona filia familia, the said birthday not being so young as it once was, and having carried me in a very satisfactory manner since I can remember;
And in case the said Annie H. Ide shall neglect or contravene either of the above conditions, I hereby revoke the donation and transfer my rights in the said birthday to the President of the United States of America for the time being:
In witness whereof I have hereto set my hand and seal this nineteenth day of June in the year of grace eighteen hundred and ninety-one.
Robert Louis Stevenson.
Witness, Lloyd Osbourne,
Witness, Harold Watts.
To Ide Stevenson wrote, “Herewith please find the Document, which I trust will prove sufficient in law. It seems to me very attractive in its eclecticism; Scots, English, and Roman law phrases are all indifferently introduced, and a quotation from the works of Haynes Bailey can hardly fail to attract the indulgence of the Bench.”
A bizarre coincidence: Just before we recorded this episode I discovered that Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, David Alan Stevenson, designed the Flannan Isles lighthouse! I’d had no inkling of this in planning or writing the episode; the two stories are set literally a world apart.
“The Story of Esaw Wood,” by W.E. Southwick, from Carolyn Wells’ 1918 anthology Such Nonsense!:
Esaw Wood sawed wood.
Esaw Wood would saw wood!
All the wood Esaw Wood saw Esaw Wood would saw. In other words, all the wood Esaw saw to saw Esaw sought to saw.
Oh, the wood Wood would saw! And oh, the wood-saw with which Wood would saw wood.
But one day Wood’s wood-saw would saw no wood, and thus the wood Wood sawed was not the wood Wood would saw if Wood’s wood-saw would saw wood.
Now, Wood would saw wood with a wood-saw that would saw wood, so Esaw sought a saw that would saw wood.
One day Esaw saw a saw saw wood as no other wood-saw Wood saw would saw wood.
In fact, of all the wood-saws Wood ever saw saw wood Wood never saw a wood-saw that would saw wood as the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood would saw wood, and I never saw a wood-saw that would saw as the wood-saw Wood saw would saw until I saw Esaw Wood saw wood with the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood.
Now Wood saws wood with the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood.
Oh, the wood the wood-saw Wood saw would saw!
Oh, the wood Wood’s woodshed would shed when Wood would saw wood with the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood!
Finally, no man may ever know how much wood the wood-saw Wood saw would saw, if the wood-saw Wood saw would saw all the wood the wood-saw Wood saw would saw.
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening!