Reflections on the mystery of the vanished lighthouse keepers

18th February 2011 at 00:00
Pupils at an East Lothian primary shone new light on an old puzzle during a trip to the National Archives

How would you feel if you were a lighthouse keeper, sent to relieve your workmates, only to find them all missing in what becomes one of the great Scottish mysteries of the 20th century? Ask P6 pupils at St Gabriel's Primary in Prestonpans, East Lothian, who experienced this as part of the National Archives of Scotland's "The Flannan Lighthouse Mystery" workshop.

An education officer sets the scene and pupils take part in acting out the story. A rope symbolises the lighthouse, in effect highlighting how little personal space they had. Evidence is filtered out bit by bit and the children stop every so often to examine original documents and sources.

Last year, 22 primary schools and three secondary schools attended workshops run by the National Archives of Scotland. Now in its third year, its education programme runs workshops up to Higher history level as well as providing a Glow version for schools too far away to travel to Edinburgh.

At St Gabriel's, the story of the Flannan Lighthouse is usually covered as part of the drama course, but this year class teacher Lindsay Kennedy decided to wait until after the workshop. Instead, they prepared by listening to the Genesis song The Mystery of the Flannan Isle Lighthouse and discussing what it was about.

"Having them at the National Archives of Scotland, taking on the role, reading accounts and looking at evidence, they built up a picture and were more engaged," says Mrs Kennedy. "They got a lot more out of it than simply covering it in class."

Because the documents were written in old-style language, reading them took a bit of getting used to and the children had to learn to read a floor plan. But the fact that it was a real-life setting appealed.

Margaret McBryde, education officer at the National Archives of Scotland, says: "We use role play, acting, presentations, working in pairs and in groups. We keep them moving. We vary approaches, making it lively and interesting. We want them to be able to understand archives and the roles and relevance of history.

"For us, the remit is to provide access to primary sources to make it an enjoyable experience. We have taken adult material and made it accessible to P4-7s. Because it is a mystery, it gives them opportunities to use primary sources."

While the four men who went missing are central to the story, archivists have also researched what happened to the men who discovered them missing, the lighthouse keepers who arrived to take over. Unsurprisingly, none wanted to remain on the Hebridean island. Pupils are told the stories of what happened afterwards, and of the path these men's careers took.

Mrs Kennedy says: "They were all in awe and, on hearing the story, they were fascinated. They tried to get to grips with what went wrong. Some went for supernatural explanations, but most went for logical conclusions. I was surprised. I thought more would go for ghost stories. Most thought it was an accident related to the weather."

The workshops are set up so that they are not learning about history, they are part of a mystery reliving the events of a hundred years ago.

"The kids love it," says Mrs McBryde. "They like being involved and they take control of the story. We play on the fact it is a mystery. The feedback is very positive, and we are constantly revising and reworking. We never deliver the same workshop two weeks running. We ask teachers for suggestions."

Back in the classroom and the workshop has provided a full two weeks of cross-curricular work. The children have delved into Scottish history, they have used it as an art theme, and they have taken the food allowances as a basis for some maths work.

With the majority of Scottish islands being off the west coast, island life is not a part of Scottish culture with which many of the children are familiar.

"Because of the part of Scotland we are in, the children are not all that aware of the islands or the way of life," says Mrs Kennendy. "This gave them a glimpse. It prompted a lot of discussions on Scotland and they now have a better understanding of Scottish geography, and of how people manage living far away.

"I didn't foresee this before: it helped them build up a picture of the past and of today."


The National Archives of Scotland runs two-hour workshops for primary and secondary schools. Topics include:

Scotland's Identity

The Treaty of Union, 1689-1740

Victorian Scotland

The Flannan Lighthouse Mystery

The Impact of the Great War

World War II: The Scottish Home Front

More workshops are being developed. They run from September to March each year. More information and further educational resources are available on the website:

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today