Mystery of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse
How Three Experienced Lightkeepers Vanished Without a Trace
“A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island.”
Telegram from Captain Jim Harvie of relief ship Hesperus, reporting accident at Flannan Islands Lighthouse. December 26, 1900.
Joseph Moore climbs the stairs of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse to tend to the light. He’s familiar with the role and has dutifully cared for lighthouses before. But never under these circumstances.
He was intended to be the relief lighthouse keeper for three men: James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur, who had been keeping the Flannan Isles Lighthouse since December 7th, 1900. It was now December 26th, and things were anything but ordinary.
The first clue that something was wrong was found when the steamer ship Archtor passed by on December 15th and noticed the light was not on. A lighthouse keeper wasn’t likely to neglect their duties, especially one as important as guiding sailors passing by the rocky coast. An accident in these cold waters, north of Scotland, would be disastrous.
The relief ship Hesperus, captained by Jim Harvie, was expected on December 20th, but due to poor weather conditions could not arrive until December 26th. Word had gotten around that the Flannan Isles Light was out, and the Northern Lighthouse Board had dispatched the Hesperus to investigate and bring relief.
As the Hesperus approached the lighthouse, it followed proper protocol. The ship’s horn was blown and a warning flail was sent up. This time, unlike usual, no response was received from the lighthouse keepers.
Upon mooring on Eilean Mor, largest of the Flannan Isles, and home to the lighthouse, relief keeper Moore knew something was amiss. Walking from the landing platform to the lighthouse, Moore felt an “overwhelming sense of foreboding”. Something was not right.
The Flannan Isles Lighthouse, built 150 feet above sea level, was new. Construction had just completed in 1899. Despite being a remote and rocky island, the island of Eilean Mor was less that 30 miles from the Isle of Lewis. Flannan Isles Lighthouse keepers knew that they were within view of the Isle of Lewis and had been instructed to raise a flag in case of emergency and a rescue boat would be sent.
Mysterious Clues on the Flannan Isles
Upon reaching the lighthouse, Moore found the following suspicious clues that something unfortunate had occurred.
- The door to the lighthouse was left unlocked.
- Hanging was one oil skinned coat, worn by lighthouse keepers to keep them warm and dry in the cold, damp weather. The other two were gone. It is believed that the one coat remaining belonged to McArthur.
- A clock hanging on the kitchen wall had stopped.
- At the kitchen was an untouched meal (or half eaten depending on the source).
- A chair at the kitchen table had been overturned.
- The kitchen pots and pans had been cleaned and the kitchen was neat.
- The keepers’ beds were unmade
- In the fireplace, there was no sign that a fire had been made for at least a week, despite the cold December weather.
Moore reported back to Captain Harvie of his findings. After sending a few sailors more to investigate, he left Moore and a few others to man the lighthouse. Captain Harvie returned the Hesperus to port, and reported the findings. In a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board, Captain Harvie said:
“Poor fellows, they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that”.
On December 29th, Northern Lighthouse Board Superintendent Robert Muirhead arrived at the lighthouse to conduct a more thorough investigation. Upon examining the exterior of the lighthouse and the surrounding landing platforms, Muirhead found the following which he reported:
“The lamp was crimmed, the oil fountains and canteens were filled up and the lens and machinery cleaned, which proved that the work of the 15th had been completed. The pots and pans had been cleaned and the kitchen tidied up, which showed that the man who had been acting as cook had completed his work”
“Everything at the East landing place was in order and the ropes which had been coiled and stored there on the completion of the relief on 7 December were all in their places and the lighthouse buildings and everything at the Stations was in order.”
However, on the west landing place:
“The iron railings round the crane platform and from the terminus of the tramway to the concrete steps up from the West landing were displaced and twisted. A large block of stone, weighing upwards of 20 cwt [about 1 ton], had been dislodged from its position higher up and carried down to and left on the concrete path leading from the terminus of the tramway to the top of the steps.”
“A life buoy fastened to the railings along this path, to be used in case of emergency had disappeared, and I thought at first that it had been removed for the purpose of being used but, on examining the ropes by which it was fastened, I found that they had not been touched, and as pieces of canvas was adhering to the ropes, it was evident that the force of the sea pouring through the railings had, even at this great height (110 feet above sea level) torn the life buoy off the ropes.”
Also, on the cliff, 200 feet above sea level, the grass had been torn back up to 33 feet from the cliff edge.
His conclusion was that the men were on duty at least until the evening of December 15th and perhaps Ducat and Marshall may have gone out to secure equipment for a storm, but never returned. McArthur went to find them and suffered the same fate. The men were blown over the cliffs or drowned.
Case closed right?
A log kept by the keepers had unusual entries dated between December 12th to December 15th that have sparked rumors since.
- Log Entry: Dec 12th – Marshall recorded that a giant storm with severe winds like they had never seen before had hit the island. He observed that Ducat was unusually quiet, and McArthur began crying.
- Log Entry: Dec 13th – The storm was still raging, the men gathered together and prayed.
- Log Entry: Dec 15th – The storm was over, and everything was calm.
Unfortunately, these entries raise more questions for us than answers.
Ducat, Marshall, and McArthur were all experienced lighthouse keepers. They likely wouldn’t have been this rattled by a storm while safe in the lighthouse. Besides, McArthur was known to be a tough fighter and experienced mariner, him crying due to a storm would be very uncharacteristic by all reports.
If the storm ended on the 15th, stated by the log entry on that date, why were there no entries regarding anyone disappearing during the storm? When could the disappearances have occurred if not during a storm?
Stranger still, there were no reported storms in the area on December 12th, 13th, or 14th of 1900. Keep in mind that the Isle of Lewis was near and populated. A storm this powerful would have been reported. There are no records of any storm until at least December 17th.
Further, only the west side of the island was damaged, with winds strong enough to rip up iron railings and move one-ton boulders. The eastside was undamaged. Ropes were still coiled as they had been.
However, we cannot prove that these log entries even exist. There are reports that these log entries were published in a magazine in 1920, but the Northern Lighthouse Board has no copies of the original logbook. There is no way to verify that these log entries even existed.
So, we’re left with no evidence of a storm, and no logbook from the time to give us a firsthand account.
Let’s talk theories. What have people speculated in the past 122 years?
- Sea monsters. Always a solid option in maritime history. Maybe our missing lighthouse keepers were eaten by some kind of sea creature.
- Maybe a giant sea bird carried them away?
- Perhaps they gave up on the difficult life of a lighthouse keeper, got in a boat and decided to start over.
- What if one of the many ghost ships we hear rumors of took them away?
- Could foreign spies have kidnapped them?
- Maybe an alien abduction.
Or reeling ourselves back into the realm of possibility, perhaps there was conflict. For anyone who has seen 2019’s The Lighthouse, it is understandable that the harsh and remote conditions of an uninhabited island could push men to the breaking point. Could the men have gotten into a fight, leading to an accident that caused their demises? Could we be looking at a murder suicide? We have no evidence, and unfortunately are left to speculation.
It sounds like maybe Muirhead was right. Our lighthouse keepers were washed away by a storm.
But there is no record of a storm during the dates that we believe they were to have disappeared.
Could a freak giant wave have struck the island and washed the men to sea?
Despite the fact that freak waves are rare, why would all three men have been away from their post at the same time, when rules of the time strictly prohibited that.
Further, no body has ever been found. One would expect it to wash ashore, however we have no concrete evidence to answer our questions.
In 1971, the Flannan Isles Lighthouse was fully automated and no longer requires a permanent lighthouse keeper. Since that time, the island has remained mostly uninhabited with the exception of occasional visitors. Fortunately, that means no one else would be subjected to the harsh weather conditions and extreme isolation that early lighthouse keepers would have faced.
Unfortunately, with all the time that has passed, and no new evidence available to us, this mystery will likely remain unsolved. Could this be a natural weather phenomenon for the time? Or is there more than meets the eye?
- BP Perry. “The Flannan Isle Mystery: The Three Lighthouse Keepers Who Vanished.” Sky HISTORY TV Channel, https://www.history.co.uk/articles/the-flannan-isle-mystery-the-three-lighthouse-keepers-who-vanished.
- envirozentinel63, P. by: (2018, February 6). When Three isn’t a crowd: The mystery of Eilean Mor. ASPire. Retrieved August 26, 2022, from https://sentinel63.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/when-three-isnt-a-crowd-the-mystery-of-eilean-mor/
- The mysterious disappearance of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. Historic UK. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2022, from https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/The-Eilean-Mor-Lighthouse-Mystery/
- Transcripts from documents related to the Flannan Isles mystery. The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2022, from https://web.archive.org/web/20090106151351/http://www.lighthousemuseum.org.uk/history/FlannanIslesdocuments.htm
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