Uninhabited, storm-tossed, rocky outcrop – tick! Scene of deadly shipwrecks – tick! Supposed lair of local deity of death – tick! Tévennec lighthouse has all the credentials for a haunting and it looks the part spectacularly well too.
The French used to name some of their most isolated beacons “hells” (just to the west of Tévennec is Ar Men lighthouse, “the hell of hells”). Lonely and dangerous, they were hellish to man. Tévennec doesn’t quite fit the classification as a hell light, but it has one of the worst reputation all French lighthouses.
The French authorities made a slip when they built the lighthouse in 1875, putting it in the class of lights that could be manned alone.
Henri Guezennec was the first keeper of the flame. He went mad, apparently driven insane by ghostly voices chanting “kerz-kuit, kerz-kuit” in Breton, the local language, a French cousin of Welsh. The voices were saying "leave here" he said. His replacement suffered the same fate.
They put two-man crews on the island in 1893, and of the first pair one died.
A year-long time limit was put on duties on the lonely island, where waves three-times destroyed the keeper’s cottage in the century after it was built.
By 1897, the authorities decided that keepers could take their wives to the isolated posting. Still five years was the longest anyone could stick at the job. One keeper died, leaving his wife to salt his corpse to preserve it while she waited for help to come. Other stories of unexplained mayhem include the death of a child, and a man falling onto a knife – as you do – in the terrifying tower.
A priest exorcised the place, but it was still a daunting location, and finally technology won the day. In 1910, the lighthouse of Tévennec was automated, and remained empty until 2011 when Marc Pointud and his colleagues from the National Society for Heritage, Lighthouses and Beacons set about renovating the buildings to turn the rock into a home for a sturdy-hearted artist.
So where are the voices that drove the keepers mad coming from?
Some now point to underground caves and fissures on the island. The strong Atlantic tides push water and air through them causing all sorts of strange sounds.
There could be other explanations though. Tévennec had a black reputation long before the French authorities used it to keep sailors safe.
The natural tides of the area – an important shipping route for thousands of years – will push any unguided craft onto the rocks around Tévennec. It’s been the site of many a shipwreck.
When the British blockaded French ports during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the dangerous route past these rocky islands was one possible escape route. The Séduisant, on its way to support anti-British rebels in Ireland, was just one of the warships that sank. Hundreds of men are said to have drowned or died on the isolated rock, and locals say their voices are those that can be heard calling.
Even today, the waters are dangerous. In 2006, two men died while fishing here. Their boat was discovered undamaged two days later.
The further back you look, the more frightening Tévennec becomes. In local folklore it is the home of death himself!
Ankou is a Breton name for death’s earthly persona, and he has been said to live on Tévennec, waiting for souls to be delivered to him in ghostly craft.
There are many stories of Ankou, some linking him to Biblical stories, others that say the role is taken on for a year by the last person to die each year in each parish – a sort of round robin grim reaper.
There are various descriptions of Ankou, none of them pleasant and usually involving black cloaks, hats that mask his face, a creaking death carriage and a mournful wail.
Lighthouse preserver Marc Pointud hasn’t been put off by all this, and in June 2015 he set out to spend 60 days on Tévennec. Typically of the place’s history, his first attempts were delayed by bad weather and he will now be there through October and November. We can only wish him well.
Canoeists paddling around the island.
Man to spend 60 days at Tevennec.
Artist Marc Pointud arrives at the island.
Some storm footage including Tevennec.