The Mystery Of The Flannan Isles Lighthouse
In December of 1900, three Lighthouse Keepers stationed on a remote group of islands in the North Atlantic vanished without leaving trace. The question in everyone's mind is whether their disappearance was the result of a freak accident or was there something more sinister at work? In this post, we analyze the still unresolved mystery of the Flannan Isles.
Joseph Moore's Visit to the Isles
There was a sharp intake of breath from the ship's crew as the looming specter of Eilean Mor emerged from the mist. The towering cliffs of the small islet were an imposing sight to behold, no matter how many times one encountered them. Beneath their feet, the vibration of the engine seemed to dampen as the vessel slowed its approach.
Standing at the prow, a lone figure kept his eyes fixed on the lighthouse jutting from the summit of this brooding landmass, which was little more than a silhouette beneath the veil of fog. That, in itself, was a concern. In these conditions, it should have been lit. The man's name was Joseph Moore, a Lighthouse Keeper from the Isle of Lewis. It had been six long days since he had received orders from the Northern Lighthouse Board to return to his post at Eilean Mor. He had hurriedly made his way to the harbor at Breasclete, where the Hesperus had been waiting to take him to the nearby Flannan Isles, but poor weather conditions had prevented them from sailing until this morning.
For him, the journey had been an anxious one. He'd spent the majority of the trip in deep thought, pacing fore-and-aft across the ship's deck. Any attempts to engage him in conversation had been met with little more than grunts or nods and he had refused any breakfast, taking only a few mugs of coffee for sustenance.
The reports had clearly troubled him. As soon as he had heard about the lighthouse having been dark since the 15th of December, he'd had an unshakeable feeling in the pit of his stomach that something had gone terribly wrong. It was not a possibility he was quite ready to accept. The three men stationed on the islet rising from the waves in front of him were not just his colleagues. They were his friends.
As the ship approached the east side of the island, an ominous atmosphere descended over the scene. The Flannan Isles had a haunting loneliness to them at the best of times, somewhat punctuated by the fierceness of the seas around them. But on this morning, as the Hesperus came about, there was something else in the air, something not quite right.
Captain Harvie had noticed immediately that the ensign was not flying on the flagstaff. And when Joseph Moore had also made the point that none of the provision boxes had been put out to be restocked and that there was no welcoming party from either of the men he had been sent to relieve, the eeriness was suddenly amplified beyond words. Three long blasts on the ship's foghorn split the air as Harvie attempted to notify the lighthouse keepers of their arrival.
When this failed to elicit a response, he ordered that the crew set off a signal rocket from the deck below, but still there was no reply from the three men. Save for the crushing of waves against the cliff faces and the cawing of seagulls overhead, an oppressive silence hung over the island in front of them, which sat heavy in the heart of Joseph Moore. A short time later, a crewman by the name of McCormick approached him. He explained that the captain had ordered the two of them to take the ship's launch across to the east landing and to report their findings. As the relief keeper made his way towards the waiting boat, he couldn't have known it at the time, but he was about to step into one of the world's most haunting and enduring mysteries.
Every day across the globe, people go missing in their thousands. Thankfully, most turn up alive and well. For others not so fortunate, their remains are often found weeks, months or even years later, having perished through misadventure or foul play. But every so often there are cases in which the missing individuals are never to be seen or heard from again. They simply disappear into the vastness of the world.
Vanishings like this occur in both urban and rural settings, but in either case there are often more obvious explanations. After all, there are plenty of sinister people with sinister motives, just waiting to take advantage of any given opportunity. But what about more isolated incidents, such as one where a group of individuals stationed on a remote uninhabited and almost inaccessible island, miles away from the evils of the world, simply vanish without trace?
Superintendent Robert Muirhead
On the evening of the 7th December 1900, almost three weeks before the Hesperus arrived at the Flannans, Superintendent Robert Muirhead stepped off the east landing of Eilean Mor and climbed into his waiting launch. Having shook hands and bid farewell to his colleagues, he now headed out to a larger steam vessel anchored offshore, which would take him back to the mainland.
As his small boat made its way over the choppy waters, he looked back at two of the three men he had left behind. They were 43 year-old James Ducat, and 28 year-old Thomas Marshall, and they were stood on the east landing waving to him. The third man, 40 year-old Donald MacArthur, was atop of the cliffs towering above them, manning the lighthouse as procedure dictated. It was strictly forbidden to leave the light unattended at any time and so he could not join his colleagues in waving off their supervisor. As Muirhead raised his hand to wave back, not once did the thought cross his mind that he would be the last person to ever see any of these men again, for when the relief vessel arrived 19 days later, they were nowhere to be found.
The Flannan Isles, a group of seven small islets situated some 20 miles west of the Outer Hebrides and Western Scotland, were to be the setting of this strange disappearance. The islands themselves were named after the 7th Century Irish Priest, St. Flannan, and for as long as anyone could remember, they had remained uninhabited.
The settlers on the neighboring Isle of Lewis and the rest of the Hebrides always viewed this bleak and deserted group of craggy rocks with great superstition. Many fishing boats and merchant vessels had foundered there over the years and although the Hebrideans often ferried sheep to graze on the Flannan's lush turf, they believed it was very unlucky to spend a night there.
The History of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse
During the 1890s, the Northern Lighthouse Board decided to construct a lighthouse on Eilean Mor, the largest of these seven islets. It took four years and building work was constantly hampered by the tempestuous nurse of the wild Atlantic Ocean, which made it very difficult to land supplies. Nevertheless, the lighthouse was completed and went into operation on the 7th of December, 1899. It had no wireless communication and the only way of contacting the mainland was through the use of visual signals, which could be seen by the Hebrides on a clear day. The lighthouse itself would have been operated by up to three men at a time, with the fourth keeper on shore rotating in as relief.
The mystery began on the night of the 15th of December 1900, when a sudden squall broke out in the vicinity of the islands. The first signs of anything amiss came when the captain of an American steamer, the SS Archtor- making its way from Philadelphia to the port of Leith in Edinburgh-passed close to Eilean Mor just before midnight and noticed that the lighthouse was eerily dark. This was something almost unheard of for an operational rock station like the one on the Flannans and was reported when the ship reached its destination 3 days later.
Even so, although a dark lighthouse was considerable cause for alarm, no immediate action could be taken due to the harsh weather. The Hesperus was due to set sail on the 20th of December, carrying fresh supplies and the relief keeper, Joseph Moore. But because of the unfavorable conditions, it wasn't able to set out until dawn on boxing day, the 26th. As Moore and McCormick reached the east landing, Moore instructed his colleague to wait below whilst he made his way up the steps leading to the plateau where the lighthouse stood.
The Disappearance of the men
Moore called out to the three men as he negotiated the steep incline, but there was no reply. Upon reaching the lighthouse, he found the entrance gate to the compound and main door both closed. Inside, nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary. The lamps were cleaned and refilled, the beds were unmade as if the men had just awoken, the washing up was done and there were cold ashes in the grate. After his initial observations, he spotted an overturned chair in the kitchen and then noticed that all the clocks had stopped, which only added to his concerns.
Returning to the Hesperus, Moore relayed his findings to the captain, then made his way back up to the lighthouse with more men in the hopes of conducting a wider search. At the east landing, everything had been intact, but the west landing provided considerable evidence of damage caused by recent storms. A box at 110 feet above sea level had been smashed and its contents strewn about. Iron railings were bent over; the iron railway by the path was wrenched out of its concrete housing and a rock weighing more than a ton had been displaced above that.
On top of the cliff at more than 200 feet above sea level, turf had been ripped away as far as 10 meters from the cliff edge. Further investigation revealed that the keepers had kept their log until 9 a.m. on the 15th of December and their entries made it clear that the damage had occurred before their disappearance. The only other considerable piece of evidence was that two sets of oilskins were missing, only one set of the outdoor gear remained by the entrance, suggesting that one of the men must have ventured outside without wearing his protective clothing.
This was surprising considering the severity of the weather on the date of the last log entry, and especially during a harsh North Atlantic winter. Of the keepers themselves, there was no sign, either inside the lighthouse or anywhere else on the island. They had simply vanished. Moore and three volunteer seamen remained behind to attend the duties of getting the lighthouse back up and running, whilst the Hesperus returned to the shore station of Breasclete.
From there, Captain Harvie sent a telegram to the northern Lighthouse Board dated 26th of December 1900, stating " A dreadful accident 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 crane or something like that."
Whatever the cause of the keepers' mysterious disappearance was, several embellishments have been added over the years, such as the classic "Half-eaten Meal", which was supposedly found on the keepers' kitchen table. This is common in so many vanishing tales, but in this case is a complete fabrication. Even the overturned chair has been called into question, with no mention of this in the original accounts.
The Clocks and the Notes
The clocks being stopped is another aspect for many looking for something out of the ordinary, but there is nothing even remotely strange about this fact. All clocks of that era had to be wound in order to continue ticking away. With no one around to do this, they inevitably cease to function. Another point of contention are the log entries, which are listed as follows: "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 on the 12th: "Storm still raging, wind steady, Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passing sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. Donald MacArthur crying. December 13. Storm continued through night, Wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. MacArthur praying."
Later on the 13th: "Noon, grey daylight. Me, Ducat and MacArthur prayed." There was no log entry on the 14th. The final entry was supposedly choked on a piece of slate, which would normally have been transferred to the logbook at a later time. "December 15, 1 p.m. Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all."
These entries would have made for disturbing reading, if not for the fact that they are mostly fictitious. The reports on the weather are probably true, but the comments regarding the keepers mental states do not make any sense when considering the context. A northern Lighthouse board logbook is an official process-bound document. It is not a diary for an employee to record his personal thoughts, especially regarding the other members of the team. It seems rather odd to suggest that Marshall would have written such statements about James Ducat. Ducat was Marshal's superior and it would have been today's equivalent of an employee writing on an office message board or official report that their boss was in a foul mood.
Had the men survived, the Northern Lighthouse Board would have rightly asked Marshall to explain why he had written such personal remarks. The comment about MacArthur crying is also completely out of character, as he had a reputation for being a tough old Seadog. In fact, all three men were highly seasoned and rather hardy. It was a prerequisite for the job, so the idea of them cowering beneath a violent storm, which they would have been more than used to as it was a common sight around the Flannans, is an insult to their memory.
Finally, there is no mention of the damage recorded at the west landing, which was present in the original logbook entries according to Joseph Moore. The source of these false editions has been traced back to an American pulp magazine published in 1921, many years after the incident took place. This was perhaps a harmless attempt by the publication to add more entry to the mystery, but it has ultimately become confused with fact.
In any case, no bodies were ever found. No other clues were uncovered and we can only speculate as to what really happened on those windswept isles in that cold December, during the last year of the 19th century.
Theories and speculations about the Flannan Isles Lighthouse
Theories have ranged from the mundane to the extreme, with the most fantastical mentioning sea monsters, boats filled with phantoms, kidnapping by foreign spies and even alien abduction. There are two or three more rational explanations, however, and one of these involves the occasional keeper Donald MacArthur. It has been suggested that despite the log entries being fictitious, MacArthur's mood at the time was highly irritable. He wasn't a full-time lightkeeper and was used to spending only a few weeks on station at a time.
At the Flannans, he was covering for an assistant lightkeeper by the name of William Ross, who was on long-term sick leave and who, incidentally, would quite literally drop dead in the light room of the Eilean Glas Lighthouse 16 months to the day after the tragedy at Eilean Mor. As a result, MacArthur had already spent most of October, all of November and the beginning of December on the Flannans by the time Superintendent Robert Muirhead visited them on the 7th of that month.
The fact that a superintendent took the trouble to visit the keepers at such a remote station in the middle of December is quite unprecedented and suggests that he did so because there were issues brewing between the men. It is highly likely that Muirhead made the trip to calm the situation and assure MacArthur that he would be relieved on the 20th by Joseph Moore. In MacArthur's eyes though, this simply translated that he would have to spend yet another two weeks away from his family.
It is not hard to imagine what may have transpired from this situation. Some have suggested that MacArthur possibly suffered a bout of cabin fever and took the lives of Marshall and Ducat. He then threw their bodies and himself from the cliffs rather than face the consequences of his actions. There was little if any evidence of any kind of struggle inside the lighthouse, so if this line of thinking is to be taken seriously, it would require that MacArthur lured the other two men to their deaths whilst outside.
One of the most prominent theory suggests that the men were swept away by a freak wave. It postulates that Marshall and Ducat had gone to secure some of the damaged equipment at the west landing, leaving MacArthur to man the lighthouse. A box containing mooring ropes and other essential items was apparently wedged in a fissure on the cliffs at 110 feet and it is thought that one of the men got into trouble trying to retrieve it. The other man who was with him then rushed back to the lighthouse seeking assistance from MacArthur, and as they worked to rescue their colleague, all three of them were taken unawares by a freak wave.
Whilst this is probably the most convincing explanation, it is not without its flaws. First of all, it is clear from the log entries that the disappearance occurred in the late afternoon on the 15th. In the years since, many lightkeepers have questioned why Ducat would have left it and retrieve the box of supplies, especially with the fading light and deteriorating weather conditions. They agree that any lightkeeper worth their salt would have carried out this task in the morning.
Ducat had more than 20 years of experience to call upon and was, by all accounts, one of the best lightkeepers in the service, so why would he have unnecessarily risked his life and those of his subordinates when the west landing was being hammered by 30 to 40 foot waves and the wind was building up to just below storm force?
Speaking of the wind, a relatively new theory put forward by Keith McCloskey in his book, The Lighthouse, suggests that a vortex may have been responsible. Many lightkeepers who served on the Flannans will attest to just how strong the winds can get on those isles, with some of them describing how they had been lifted off their feet and carried through the air for quite a distance. Because the Eilean More Lighthouse is constructed on sloped ground, the wall around the complex is lower on the westside than at ground level in front of the winch house, which means it offers no protection from westerly winds and causes something of a wind tunnel effect through this narrow passageway.
McCloskey postulates that high winds on the afternoon of the 15th of December may have caused shutters or doors around the complex to bang and slam and that two of the men donned their oilskins and ventured out to remedy the situation. As soon as they turned the corner from the living quarters into the area immediately in front of the winch house, a high wind may have carried them over the low wall and then straight over the 200-foot cliffs to the north of the lighthouse, which are only 15 to 20 feet away.
He goes on to say that the third man may have gone out to investigate when his colleagues did not return, not bothering to put on his oilskins as he wouldn't have been outside for too long, only to turn the corner and suffer the same fate. But if this is the case, why didn't any other lightkeepers stationed on the Flannans throughout the subsequent years also succumb to this strange weather phenomenon? Surely, it wasn't so unique that it only ever occurred once?
The riddle of the Flannan Isles has been an endless source of fascination, one which has inspired stories, films, poems, songs and even an opera, but the whole truth may never be known.
Something about the mystery of these three men isolated at the edge of the civilized world and surrounded by the vast and hostile Atlantic Ocean not only sends a chill up the spine, it tugs at the heartstrings. They left their families with a promise that they would return over Christmas, but instead they were never seen again.
James Ducat was married, with four children, MacArthur, married with two and whilst Marshall was single at the time of the disappearance, he must have sired children at some point in his life as there are descendants of his alive today. There would be no closure for their loved ones, only heartbreak and confusion.
The lighthouse itself remained manned and without further incident up until 1971, when it became fully automated. It is still in operation to this day and the isles are now only visited occasionally for maintenance purposes. Over the years, the islands never could quite live up to their cursed reputation, as nothing out of the ordinary ever took place there again, but the mystery of Eilean Mor lives on, perhaps forever more. In closing, we leave you with the words of Superintendent Robert Muirhead, who, in his official report of the 8th of January, 1901, said of the keepers: "I visited them as lately as 7th of December and have a melancholy recollection that I was the last person to shake hands with them and bid them adieu."