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The Eilean Mor Mystery
One of my favorite historical mysteries is the disappearance of the lighthouse keepers of Eilean Mor (or Eilan More) - meaning "Big Island" in Gaelic. With its 39 acres, Eilean Mor is the largest of the Flannan Isles, rising 288 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, on the west coast of Scotland. It was here that in 1895 a 75 foot high lighthouse was constructed, since 1899 sending out a warning beam to sailors 25 miles out at sea. In 1971 the light was automated, replacing the three-man crew stationed there to tend the 140,000 candlepower lamp. Seventy years earlier, this crew of the Eilean Mor lighthouse, had been at the centre of the perfect mystery...
Eilean Mor ViewsClick thumbnail to view full-size
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Storm ended, sea calm, God is over all...
On December 15, 1900, the steamer SS Archer noted that the light was not operational. Captain Holman reported the outage by wireless to the Cosmopolitan Line Steamers headquarters, but CLS failed to notify the authorities. Local residents also had noticed that the light had stopped burning.
Three men were working in the lighthouse of Eilean Mor: James Ducat, Donald McArthur and Thomas Marshall. The weather being very bad, it took the regular relief ship Hesperus 12 days before it could make the crossing to investigate what had happened on the deserted island. Observing that the usual relief flag was not flying and the landing was empty, the captain sounded the whistle and shot a signal flare - without any response. Relief keeper Joseph Moore then rowed ashore in the dinghy. It was December 27, 1900.
Moore found the gate and the outside door to the keepers’ quarters closed, while inside the kitchen door was open. The lighthouse was perfectly calm, with the lamps ready to be lit and a half eaten meal of salted mutton and potatoes on the kitchen table. An upturned chair lay on the floor alongside the table. The fire was cold, the clock had stopped. And there was no trace of James Ducat, Thomas Marshall or Donald McArthur.
Moore returned with four members of the crew of the Hesperus to conduct a full investigation. His team discovered that Ducat and Marshall must have left the lighthouse fully kitted-out against the elements: their sets of oilskins and boots were missing, together with a toolbox. The third set of oilskins, belonging to McArthur, was still hanging on the hook.
The west landing had been hit by bad weather, with iron railings being bent and a life buoy ripped from its mountings. A stone weighing over a ton had been displaced... but there was still no trace of the lighthouse keepers, no sign of what could have happened to them. The shouts of Moore and his men reverberated eerily across the rock and the Hesperus' foghorn boomed out repeatedly over the sea, without any reply.
The final entries in the log were mysterious and puzzling:
Dec 12th: 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): Storm still raging, wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passing sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. McArthur crying.
Dec 13th: Storm continued through night. Wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. McArthur praying. (Later:) Noon, grey daylight. Me, Ducat and McArthur prayed.
On December 14th there was no entry and on December 15th there was only this single last line: "Storm ended, sea calm, God is over all."
A telegram was sent to the Northern Lighthouse Board Office: "A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans... The three keepers have disappeared, there was no sign of life to be seen on the island."
The Highland News ran the headline: "Flannan Islands Disaster: Another Mystery of the Deep!"
The Phantoms of the Seven Hunters
Investigators were puzzled as to what had terrified the men. On the island of Lewis, less than 20 miles away, there had been no storms of any sort during those days in mid December. Ducat had over 20 years of lighthouse experience and Marshall and McArthur were seasoned mariners.
All kinds of explanation have been put forward. Some of the wilder theorists have claimed that the man were seized by a gigantic bird, octopus or squid... or they turn the Flannan Isles tragedy into a UFO abduction case. Others thought one of the men had gone mad, killing the others before throwing himself into the sea. Maybe they ate something that drove them out of their minds; there were rumours that a strange "seaweed" was found.
The Fairwin was in the area on the night that the light had gone out and the crew said they had seen "a ghostly longboat"; the three men who where rowing the boat were dressed in heavy raingear and had faces with "the color of bone". The crew of the Fairwin called out to the men in the boat and blasted the horn, but there came no reply.
This story fueled the already existing belief that Eilean Mor was haunted. The Flannan Islands had been marked by superstition from the time they were named for the obscure Saint Flan. It was said that the “Phantoms of the Seven Hunters” so resented the intrusion of the lighthouse that they lured the men over the cliff to their death...
As a matter of fact, Ducat did not want to be stationed at Eilean Mor. He seemed to have had some sort of a premonition and said it was "not the most suitable place for a man with a young family". To survive on the island, the lighthouse keepers were required to raise and slaughter their own sheep and poultry, catch their own fish and grow their own vegetables. They had not much contact with the mainland, and with three men confined to small quarters for lengthy periods, personalities indeed can clash.
The last person had left the quarters in a hurry, but had taken the time to close the outside door and the gate. Ducat had noted with chalk on a slate the weather conditions, state of supplies, barometric and thermometer readings, and the time of extinguishing the light: December 15, by dawn. That morning's routine duties had all been performed, so it seemed that doom befell the keepers in the late forenoon, before lunch time.
The investigators concluded that it was McArthur who left in a hurry, knocking over the chair, after Ducat and Marshall had gone out to check the security of the equipment at the west landing. It was possible that McArthur observed a series of exceptional waves approaching. He dashed out to warn Ducat and Marshall... and all three men were washed out to sea.
But, in such a violent storm, would three experienced keepers have ventured outside... for any reason at all? A lighthouse should not be left unmanned... and if McArthur run out in an emergency, why did he then botter to close the door and the gate? Moreover, the furious gale that was pounding the Flannan Islands on December 12th and 13th had calmed considerably on the 14th. On the other hand, rogue waves several feet high following Atlantic storms were not uncommon...
Amidst all these mysteries, one thing is certain: 70 years passed without further incident, until in 1971 the light was automated and there was no need anymore for lighthouse keepers...