On 7 December 1900 Robert Muirhead , superintendent of the Northern Lighthouse Board, inspected the lighthouse, shook hands with the three experienced keepers James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur, and wished them a pleasant stay. Waving, he returned by boat to the waiting ship which brought them. It was the last time he or anyone else would ever see them, alive or dead.
What happened to these three lighthouse keepers who vanished without a trace from the Eilean Mor Lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides ten days before Christmas?
Eilean Mor (Big Isle) is the largest (about 43 acres in size) of the Flannan Islands, a group of seven tiny uninhabited islands about 20 miles (32 km) west of the large Isle of Lewis. They are also known as the Seven Hunters.
The other six isles are Eilean Taighe (House Isle), Soray (Eastward Isle), Sgeir Tomain, Eilean a’Ghobha (Isle of the Blacksmith), Roaireim (which has a natural rock arch), and Brona Cleit (Sad Sunk Rock).
There are only two structures on the Eilean Mor: an old stone chapel built by Irish bishop St Flanna in the 6th century, and the lighthouse built in 1899.
The island has had a bad reputation for many centuries. No one has lived there permanently for over a thousand years, since the time of St Flannan and his Celtic flock. Shepherds sometimes brought their sheep across to graze on the island but would never stay the night as they feared the spirits they believed lived on the island.
Construction on the 74-foot (22.5 m) high lighthouse began in 1895 and was ready for use in December 1899. It had an 140 000 candlepower beam flashing twice in rapid succession every 30 seconds to guide vessels safely on their way around Cape Wrath and on to Pentland Firth. It was only a year old when it became a sole witness to an enduring and tragic mystery.
The construction of the lighthouse took twice as long as the originally planned two years due to adverse weather conditions and rough seas.
On Saturday 15 December 1900, the steamer Archtor , on its way from Philadelphia to Leith, passed Flannan Islands in poor weather conditions and noticed that the lighthouse beacon was not operational. Captain Holman communicated this oddity by wireless to Cosmopolitan Line Steamers HQ. The CLS HQ somehow overlooked reporting this to the Northern Lighthouse Board, thus no action was taken at this stage to discover the cause.
After the men were left alone on the island, the lighthouse would be observed by telescope from Gallen Head on Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. In the event of any emergency the keepers were instructed to raise a flag, following which a rescue boat would immediately be dispatched to Eilean Mor. But the observer, Roderick McKenzie, failed to notice anything amiss.
This observation system had serious shortcomings. The lighthouse beam was seen on 7 December, and then again on the 12th, and even then just barely visible as the islands were hidden by thick mist and cloud during the keepers’ sojourn on the island. Thus in poor conditions it would be almost impossible for any meaningful communication between Eilean Mor and Isle of Lewis, as a distress signal would be practically invisible.
The relief ship, the lighthouse tender Hesperus was due to arrive at Flannan Isles from Lewis on 20 December but adverse weather conditions prevented her from departing until Wednesday 26 December, Boxing Day. Among those aboard was Joseph Moore, the replacement keeper. They arrived at the island at noon. Before they even anchored they suspected something was seriously amiss. Captain Harvie blew his ship’s horn and sent a warning flare to attract the attention of the three keepers, according to usual procedure, but the only response was an ominous silence and the occasional cry of a sea bird.
Moore set off in a small rowboat to the island. He climbed the steps to the lighthouse, 150 feet (46 metres) above sea level, with a dreadful sense of foreboding as to what he would discover. He found the entrance gate and the main door of the lighthouse complex closed. Steeling himself against what he might discover inside, he opened up to find beds unmade and the kitchen clock stopped. The kitchen also revealed an overturned chair and the remains of a half eaten meal. But there was no sign of his three colleagues.
Returning to the Hesperus, still anchored offshore, he reported his discoveries as well as the grim news that there was no trace of the three keepers.
He returned to the island accompanied by the first mate and another seaman. They discovered that the lamps were duly cleaned and refilled, and also found one set of oilskins. This implied that one of the men must have left the lighthouse in a great hurry without his oilskins.
The flagstaff was short of its flag and the provision boxes were not set aside for restocking. There was no sign of a fire in the grate being made for a week or so despite the cold December weather.
Thereafter Captain Harvie sent the following telegram to the HQ of the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) in Edinburgh:
A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island.
Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.
Night coming on, we could not wait to make something as to their fate.
I have left Moore, MacDonald, Buoymaster and two Seamen on the island to keep the light burning until you make other arrangements. Will not return to Oban until I hear from you. I have repeated this wire to Muirhead in case you are not at home. I will remain at the telegraph office tonight until it closes, if you wish to wire me.
The entire island was combed for any trace of the three keepers or any evidence of their fate. One storehouse had been washed clean away and some stored ropes were snagged on a crane 70 feet above sea level. Iron railings next to the path had been bent and wrenched from their concrete bed. A rock weighing over a ton had been displaced. On the top of the cliff, 200 feet (60 m) above sea level, turf had been ripped away as far as 33 feet (10 m) from the cliff edge. The entries in the logbook indicate that this damage was sustained before the disappearance of the writers, and would explain why they were all in such a state of anxiety before the apparent calm of the 15th.
Robert Muirhead arrived at the island a few days later. He had recruited all three missing men and was shocked at the recent events. His investigation began with an inspection of the lighthouse logbook.
Returning to the logbook, the entries in the log indicated unusual and indeed extreme weather conditions. The entry for 12 December, written by second assistant Thomas Marshall, reported severe winds, the likes of which they had never seen before. He wrote that the tough third assistant Donald McArthur had been crying.
The log for the 13th recorded continuing gale force winds and that all three men had been praying for the storm to stop.
Dec. 12: Gale, north by north-west. Sea lashed to fury. Stormbound 9pm. Never seen such a storm. Everything shipshape. Ducat irritable. 12pm. Storm still raging. Wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passed sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. Macarthur crying. Dec. 13: Storm continued through night. Wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. Macarthur praying. 12 noon. Grey daylight.
Me, Ducat, and Macarthur prayed. Dec. 15: 1pm. Storm ended. Sea calm. God is over all. – However, some have claimed these entries are just a sensationalist hoax. It is interesting to note that the keepers also supposedly skipped the entries for December 14 in these entries.
The above log entries were published by an American magazine in 1920 and have been dismissed by some as a fabrication and not authentic. The NLB doesn’t have copies of the original logbook. According to their website, the documents regarding the incident are held by the National Archives of Scotland but do not include the logbook.
The final mysterious entry, written on 15 December, simply says: “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.”
Suddenly the last entry reports calm weather. What happened in the early afternoon that fateful Saturday? Did the storm suddenly return unexpectedly? Maybe two of the men left the lighthouse to fetch the supplies and were swept away by a freak wave, while the third man, McArthur, rushed out without his oilskins to warn them of an impending peril? Why did all three men leave the lighthouse, when the Lighthouse Board’s rules strictly prohibit this?
What was the meaning of that last cryptic phrase? Was the writer aware that death, or perhaps another fate altogether, was close at hand and wish to supply some kind of clue? Or was the last sentence simply acknowledgement that their prayers for the storm to stop had been answered?
Strangely, there were no storms reported in the adjoining areas for the 12th, 13th or 14th. Storms were only reported from the 17th onwards, which had prevented the Hesperus from leaving timeously. There’s no evidence of extreme weather on Isle of Lewis on those dates, unless the weather in the Flannans was extremely localized.
So, was the severe and ominous damage at the western landing from the storms the logbook reported on the 12th-14th, or only after the 17th when the storms reported in the area struck?
Muirhead’s chief theory was that the men had tried to retrieve the fallen crate and were swept away by a freak wave. Such freak waves, caused by a combination of high winds and treacherous currents, are uncommon but have occasionally been encountered. In 2001 the ship Caledonian Star was hit by a 30 metre freak wave which smashed windows and cut the power.
Freak waves are uncommon, but are observed from time to time and they could certainly be dangerous, although it is strange that all three men should have been caught unawares by such a phenomenon, especially as one of them was supposed to remain at the lighthouse at all times.
A recent theory is that the men were drowned at the western landing, which terminates in a cave in a narrow gully (geo). Chief keeper Ducat and second assistant Marshall may have been at the western landing. McArthur may have seen large waves approaching and run down without his oilskins to warn them, only to be swept away himself. But is it really likely that three experienced lighthouse keepers would have allowed themselves into such a predicament? They would have perfectly aware of any potential dangers (Ducat had spent fourteen months on the island during final phases of thelighthouse construction) and surely not left the security of the sturdy lighthouse during the height of a storm, except in an emergency. They would surely have waited the storm out before venturing outside.
If they had gone to the relief of a vessel in trouble offshore, there would surely be some evidence of such a vessel, but nothing like that was reported.
If the men were indeed drowned by a freak wave or storm surge, why did not one of the three bodies ever get washed up on shore? Unusual currents may have prevented this, especially if they were sucked into an underwater cave.
Captain Harvie believed the men only disappeared on 20th December, since there were severe storms in the area on that day, as well as the date the clock stopped. But the logbook was only completed up to 15 December. Clocks usually go for quite a number of days after being wound up.
Alternative theories, all highly unlikely ones, include:
- That the three men decided the island was too cold and inhospitable and to start a new life elsewhere, and so boarded another ship and left for good. But all of these men were highly dependable. Two of them were married with families, and wouldn’t likely do such a thing;
- Abduction by a ship containing foreign spies or kidnappers: another far-fetched theory since there were no wars on at the time;
- Abduction by spirits or otherworldly beings; (given the island’s ominous reputation)
- Abduction by UFOs. (This theory may explain a few of the inexplicable disappearances of people all over the world over the years, and has an outside chance at being the solution…)
- One of the men went crazy and murdered the other two, and subsequently committed suicide by jumping into the ocean.
Several lighthouse keepers over the next few decades reported hearing strange voices on the wind, calling the names of the three missing men. This can be attributed to the lively imaginations of men on duty on a lonely and forbidding uninhabited island, translating the haunting calls of the petrels or puffins into ghostly human voices.
The lighthouse was fully automated in 1971, and thus no longer needs to be manned, so the island remains uninhabited with only the odd visitors stopping over to explore the island and the ancient ruined chapel.
The islands were proclaimed a Site of Special Scientific Interest in December 1983.
The mystery of Eilean Mor may never be explained after all these years, and so it remains in the dossier of unsolved mysteries. We can speculate but in the absence of any fresh data we may hit and miss. The restless sea might know what happened that fateful Saturday, but she keeps her secrets buried deep in her watery bosom for all time.