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Flannan Isle Lighthouse Disappearance

Updated on September 24, 2016
Location of the Flannan Isles
Location of the Flannan Isles

In December of 1900, the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland were home to one of the most infamous unsolved mysteries of the last century and a half. On a prominent rocky outcropping of the isle of Eilean Mor, located 20 miles west of Lewis, stands a 75 foot – tall lighthouse which was constructed between 1895 and 1899. The lighthouse in question, aside from being located in an unusually remote and isolated location, is rather unremarkable. Yet, the still unexplained disappearance of the facility’s three man crew, in the year following its placement into service, has made this particular lighthouse one of the most iconic structures of its kind.

Locals to the area, known as Hebrideans, have always been very superstitious about Eilean Mor. It is thought to be cursed place. “They observed such practices as removing your hat and upper clothing, and turning in a sunwise direction, when arriving there.” And while indigenous people utilize the island as grazing land for their livestock, they believe that spending the night on the isle would be exceedingly unlucky. As a result, outside of the 70 years during which the lighthouse was manned, the wind-swept isle has been uninhabited. Perhaps, such a place was meant to remain desolate.

While the actual date of the disappearance cannot be ascertained, the first suggestion of something out of the ordinary was reported on December 15th, 1900. On that day, the cargo steamer Archtor - while following a route from Philadelphia to Leith- reported that the beacon of the tower was not lit. Given the fact that the weather at the time was very poor, concerns were immediately raised.

Remarkably, though the unusual situation was immediately reported upon the Archtor’s arrival in Oban, no prompt action was taken. To further cool the opportunity for warm clues, a subsequent trip by the lighthouse relief vessel Hesperus, slated to begin on December 20th, was delayed by continued inclement weather. Finally, arriving on Boxing Day (December 26th, 1900), the crew of the Hesperus was greeted by additional unsettling evidence.

No standard was to be seen on the flagstaff. None of the provision boxes were present at the staging area to receive the necessary re-stocking. But the more ominous absence was of the lighthouse crew itself. There was no member of the crew present to greet the visiting craft, as was customary.

Traditionally, the crew of a lighthouse consisted of four men. Three at a time, who were residents of the structure, while the fourth stayed on the mainland shore across the channel from his lighthouse. Yet, on this regrettable occasion, the relief keeper and the crew of the Hesperus were met with no evidence of life. The three resident keepers: Thomas Marshal, James Ducat, and Donald MacArthur were nowhere to be found.

“A boat was launched and Joseph Moore, the relief keeper, was put ashore alone. He found the entrance gate to the compound and main door both closed, the beds unmade, and the clock stopped.” Upon his discovery, Moore returned to the Hesperus to report his findings. Subsequently, further discoveries made by Moore and a crewmate of the relief vessel upon returning to the island suggested an abduction…or a hasty retreat. The oilskins were left behind, which was odd considering the weather conditions which had existed recently. A chair was left overturned by the kitchen table. However, the lamps within the lighthouse had been cleaned and refilled, indicating no expectation of an imminent absence. Yet, no sign of the men was found either in the lighthouse, or on the island.

The captain of the relief ship, after leaving relief keeper Moore and three volunteers from his own crew to tend the signal beacon steamed to the shore station at Breasclete; and sent the following telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board:

“A dreadful accident has happened at the Flannans. The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the Occasional have disappeared from the Island... The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.”

The theory hastily conceived by Captain Harvie did concur with the environmental conditions that he encountered. While the eastern port of the island conveyed no damage from the recent severe weather, the western landing place was another matter.

Recent maelstroms had bent iron rails surrounding walkways; and had completely wrenched long stretches of the railway from its concrete. A crate resting at an incredible 108 feet above sea level had been destroyed, and its contents strewn about. At a considerable distance beyond the mangled handrail, a rock weighing more than a ton had been displaced. Additionally, turf had been torn from the surface of a nearby cliff which towered 200 feet above sea level! All of this striking damage gave credence to the captain’s hypothesis of an exceptionally enraged sea swallowing up the three keepers, while in the midst of a desperate attempt to repair equipment.

The log book kept by the three ill-fated men suggests that this possible explanation for their unexplained disappearance might be accurate…to a point.

“ ‘December 12. Gale north by northwest. Sea lashed to fury. Never seen such a storm. Waves very high. Tearing at lighthouse. Everything shipshape. James Ducat irritable’.

Later that day: ‘Storm still raging, wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passing sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. Donald McArthur crying’.

‘December 13. Storm continued through night. Wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. McArthur praying’. Later: ‘Noon, grey daylight. Me, Ducat and McArthur prayed’.”

While there was no entry dated December 14th; the entry for December 15th casts the already tragic event into the murky uncertainty of conjecture. “December 15. 1pm. Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all”. This final entry discovered seems to indicate that the fearful storms had passed, and the men were at ease. So, if the threat had passed; what happened to these experienced lighthouse keepers?

The official Northern Lighthouse Board investigation (conducted by Superintendent Robert Muirhead) concluded that massive and unexpected waves had swept the three men away, as they attempted repairs to the storm-damaged western dock. While this conclusion is plausible, the calm weather during the days immediately following December 15th was not conducive to such mammoth waves forming.

Other theories put forth to explain the mystery focus on an unwilling departure from the lighthouse, not on conducting a voluntary mission.

Explanations adhering to this premise include abduction by foreign spies, and a double murder after which the perpetrator had committed a guilt-based suicide - after killing his comrades. In addition, legendary, though never officially documented, “evidence” (such as unusual specimens of seaweed purportedly discovered on lighthouse stairs and the cubby hole where the log book was kept) has given rise to supernatural explanations for the keepers’ vanishing.

The more fanciful of the suggestions include a sea monster (or “giant sea bird”) which carried the keepers away.

Another paranormal explanation notes eyewitness reports: “It has even been speculated that a long-boat full of ghosts were seen heading to the islands on the night the light went dark. Some have said that the long-boat full of ghosts may in fact have been the three lighthouse-keepers rowing furiously away.” Ostensibly, a ghost ship shanghaied the men- making them unwilling and eternal crew members.

The ubiquitous “alien abduction” theory also has resurfaced as a possibility. This hypothesis was even used as the premise for an episode of the BBC series Doctor Who entitled: “Horror of Fang Rock,” which aired on September 3rd, 1977.

This tale of this particular mystery has also found its way into other entertainment genres. The chamber opera “The Lighthouse” (1979); a song titled: “The Mystery of Flannan Isle Lighthouse” (1968) by the rock band Genesis; along with various novels and poems have all utilized this peculiar event as inspiration for their creation.

While the true fate of the vanished lighthouse keepers will never be known, their disappearance has taken on a life of its own, in folklore and legend…and made a lasting impression on western culture. The sea keeps its secrets. And, disappearances at sea seem to have an added air of mystery and allure. Perhaps, that extends to disappearances in close proximity to the sea, as well.

What happened to the Lannan lighthouse keepers?

See results
The Lost Lighthouse Keepers
The Lost Lighthouse Keepers
The Lighthouse on Eilean Mor
The Lighthouse on Eilean Mor

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    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 8 months ago from United States

      Very interesting story my friend. Many possibilities here aren't there. whonu

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