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The Ballad of Fang Rock

At the end of Horror of Fang Rock, the Doctor turns to Leela, and tells her that someone will probably write a poem about what they thought happened at Fang Rock. As if to prove this, he begins to recite a poem, The Ballad of Flannan Isle by Wilfred Gibson. The entire poem is reproduced here. The events of Horror of Fang Rock occurred about 1909. The collection of poems, in which this one appeared, called Fires, was published in 1912, three years later. Terrance Dicks wrote Horror of Fang Rock based on the poem; perhaps the only time this has been done. The lines that the Doctor quoted in the closing scene of the serial are marked.


THOUGH three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steered under the lee we caught
No glimmer through the night.

A passing ship at dawn had brought
The news, and quickly we set sail
To find out what strange thing might ail
The keepers of the deep-sea light.

The winter day broke blue and bright
With glancing sun and glancing spray
While o'er the swell our boat made way,
As gallant as a gull in flight.

But as we neared the lonely Isle
And looked up at the naked height,
And saw the lighthouse towering white
With blinded lantern that all night
Had never shot a spark
Of comfort through the dark,
So ghostly in the cold sunlight
It seemed that we were struck the while
With wonder all too dread for words.
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 cormorant or shag-
Like seamen sitting bolt-upright
Upon a half-tide reef;
But as we neared they plunged from sight
Without a sound or spirt of white.

And still too mazed to speak,
We landed and made fast the boat
And climbed the track in single file,
Each wishing he were safe afloat
On any sea, however far,
So it be far from Flannan Isle;
And still we seemed to climb and climb
As though we'd lost all count of time
And so must climb for evermore;
Yet all too soon we reached the door-
The black sun-blistered lighthouse door
That gaped for us ajar.

As on the threshold for a spell
We paused, we seemed to breathe the smell
Of limewash and of tar,
Familiar as our daily breath,
As though 'twere some strange scent of death;
And so yet wondering side by side
We stood a moment still tongue-tied,
And each with black foreboding eyed
The door ere we should fling it wide

To leave the sunlight for the gloom:
Till, plucking courage up, at last
Hard on each other's heels we passed
Into the living-room.

Yet as we crowded through the door
We only saw a table spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread,
But all untouched and no one there;
As though when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat,
For at the table-head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor.

We listened, but we only heard
The feeble cheeping of a bird
That starved upon its perch;
And, listening still, without a word
We set about our hopeless search.
We hunted high, we hunted low,
And soon ransacked the empty house;
Then o'er the Island to and fro
We ranged, to listen and to look
In every cranny, cleft or nook
That might have hid a bird or mouse:
But though we searched from shore to shore
We found no sign in any place,
And soon again stood face to face
Before the gaping door,
And stole into the room once more
As frightened children steal.
Ay, though we hunted high and low
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men's fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place
But a door ajar and an untouched meal
And an overtoppled chair.

And as we listened in the gloom
Of that forsaken living-room-
A chill clutch on our breath-
We thought how ill-chance came to all
Who kept the Flannan Light,
And how the rock had been the death
Of many a likely lad-
How six had come to a sudden end
And three had gone stark mad,
And one, whom we'd all known as friend,
Had leapt, from the lantern one still night
And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall-
And long we thought
On the three we sought,
And on what might yet befall.

Like curs a glance has brought to heel
We listened, flinching there,
And looked and looked on the untouched meal
And the overtoppled chair.

We seemed to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle
Who thought on three men dead.

Wilfred Gibson
Fires 1912

Extract taken from The Complete Works of Wilfred Gibson in the Auckland University Library. (The book was autographed by Gibson himself.)

The marked quote also appears on page 126 of the Target novel of this serial, and Wilfred Gibson is not credited with the poem's extract in the publication details of the book. Both serial and novel were written by Terrance Dicks.

This item appeared in TSV 3 (October 1987).

Index nodes: Fiction, Horror of Fang Rock
Reprinted in: Flashback Vol. 1