The Flannan Isles are maybe the most remote of Scotland’s outlying islands. They sit in the Atlantic Ocean, 20 miles out from Lewis, adrift from the mainland and from the rest of the world, and have only been sporadically populated over the past centuries. Perhaps it’s no surprised that some of the people who did live there would end up being immortalised in a mysterious, and quite creepy mystery.
The Flannan Isles Lighthouse sat on Eilean Mor (the ‘Big Isle’), first lit in 1899 to provide warning of this rocky outcrop for ships across from America and Canada. Barely a year into it’s usage it was manned by three very experiened lighthouse keepers – Thomas Marshall, who wrote the official log which is always discussed in tellings of the mystery; James Ducat, the senior member of the team, and Donald MacArthur, who had the bad luck to be covering for another keeper who was on sick leave at the time. They were chosen because of their experience, and because the difficulties of the site were very apparent.
It was a steamer called the Archtor, nearing the end of it’s trip from Philadelphia to Leith that noticed something wrong. The captain had taken this route previously, and knew there should have been two quick bursts of light every 30 seconds from the paraffin lamp at the top – there was instead, complete darkness. It was 15th December 1900, and the Archtor continued on it’s voyage, where in the Firth of Forth it ran aground, meaning the inactive lighthouse at Eilean Mor was not reported to the authorities.
On Boxing Day of the same year a relief ship, called Hesperus, carrying supplies for the three keepers at the Flannan Lighthouse arrived at the island for a scheduled stop. Unusually, they were not met by any of the three men, who lived their life by rotas intended to keep the torch burning at all times, and were known to always meet the supply ships when they docked. A horn was sounded and a distress flare fired over the island, but there was still reply. Then a relief keeper called Joseph Moore was sent on land to investigate. There he found a few mysterious or unusual things – but not any of the three lighthouse keepers.
Moore had noted that the gate which allowed entry into the courtyard of the lighthouse (which contained the base of the tower, and the living quarters of the keepers) was closed, as as the door into the main living area. Here, he found nothing out of the ordinary, save for a remaining waterproof coat, which the owner surely would have taken if they were heading outside. Moore lit the lamp again and maintained it overnight, and the next day himself and a few other men searched the island. The captain of the Hesperus returned to Lewis, where the nearest means of communication was (there was no telegraph connection on Eilean Mor, just a smaller lamp they could light which would alert a watcher on Lewis if they needed to make contact) and sent a message to the National Lighthouse Board – “a dreadful accident has occurred at the Flannans”.
Much of the mystery around Eilean Mor comes from what Moore supposedly found upon his arrival, but as Mike Dash’s essay The Vanishing Lighthousemen notes (this is probably the definitive account of the story), much of the eerier finds were either willingly or mistakenly fabricated. One of the most commonly repeated, that there was food half-eaten and a tipped over chair, as if tossed aside in a frantic hurry or brawl, were added as details to sensationalize Wildfred Wilson Gibson’s epic poem based on the disappearance, published in 1912. Similarly there was a claim that beds were left unmade, but the official report carried out by the NLB (which began on the 29 Decemeber that same year) reported nothing of the sort, and that the living quarters were in generally good and well-kept shape.
The same thing goes for the official log, in which Marshall makes a point to note that Ducat is ‘very quiet’ and that MacArthur ‘was crying’. While this is usually seen as an indication of foreboding on behalf of the men, it was in fact, Dash argues quite convincingly, a hoax, started in a 1929 issue of True Strange Stories, an American pulp magazine, and subsequently picked up in a report by Vincent Gaddis, a writer on the paranormal who also wrote on the Bermuda Triangle. The log was intended merely to act as a place to note weather conditions and statuses of the lighthouse on a regular basis, rather than as a diary with personal information on your co-workers.
So with those elements discarded, the mystery becomes slightly less eerie – but still, three experienced men disappeared, presumably suddenly, and still without a trace. Something made at least keeper abandon his post – NLB rules strictly state that the house is to be manned by at least one worker at all times. Plus, their bodies were never recovered, nor were any personal affects ever found which could indicate they ended up in the sea, denying any real change at a final closure.
And given that lack of closure, the hazy details, and the mysterious and wild location, it’s not really a shock they a variety of theories have washed ashore to explain what happened to Marshall, Ducat and MacArthur. Some of these are, while a bit more fun, really just fanciful – the theories of aliens (this actually served as a loose inspiration for a Doctor Who episode from one of the original series, The Horror of Fang Rock), massive sea creatures or birds appearing from the mist and sea spray to pluck the men and disappear them are never taken too seriously, given there is not even anything that you could argue is proof, even if you believe in the creatures themselves (hey, maybe it was our old friend the BGM on his holidays!)
Staying the paranormal lane for a second, stories have also popped up regarding the spiritual importance of the Flannan Isles. The only other structure on the island is a small stone chapel (called the kennel by lighthouse keepers due to it’s size) believed to have been built by, or in honour to, St Flannan, a 7th century Irish missionary and preacher who gave his name to the rock formation, and it’s believed that his spirit may still watch over the area. Like many small isolated islands cultures, stories and folklore would spring up around the Flannans, mainly from the people of Lewis who would occasionally visit to catch seabirds or their eggs, or to graze sheep. It’s said they would never stay on the island for long. There are also stories about ‘The Phantom of the Seven Hunters’ (Seven Hunters being the name for the seven islands that make up the Flannan) who were unhappy about the intrusion of modern life and outsiders into their home. However, none of the lighthousekeepers who lived there until it was automated in 1971 reported any issues, and the only other tragedy to befall the lighthouse was the death of a worker during construction.
Next up there is a theory that a passing ship allowed the men on board and they disappeared to start a new life – this seems unlikely given that all three were family men, and were used to the lighthousekeeping life by this point. The same goes for the similar story that claims a stranger landed on the island and murdered the men. There is no other landings noted in the log, no signs of violence or a struggle, and quite why anyone would sail out to a desolate rock to kill three men who are tough enough to live and work on that desolate rock, that is anyone’s guess.
Less fanciful, however, is the theory that one of the men, through a heated argument, or psychosis induced for any number of reasons, killed the two others, threw them into the sea, and then, consumed with remorse, hurled himself in after. While the men were all largely used to these types of working environments, and while they hadn’t been working together long, it’s not entirely implausible that something had increased tensions to a boiling point on the small, confined spaces of the island. However, a lack of signs of struggle again makes this difficult to buy.
I did, however, come across an interesting (and possibly apocryphal) story while researching this case that explains the origins of the three-man lighthousekeeper teams. There was an incident some years previously in Wales, where two keepers who were always at each other’s throats took charge of a beacon. One of the men died in a freak accident, and the other, fearing accusations of murder, didn’t burying him or report it, but tied the corpse to the railings of the lighthouse with rope. There the body decayed, and the high winds flailed a free arm, making passing ships think he was just friendly, and waving to them. When he was eventually found out, the other keeper had gone mad. So it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a sudden act of violence taking place, or an accident escalating into something darker. It’s even been suggested that something similar to the 1951 Pont-Saint-Esprit poisoning, where hundreds of people in a French village were affected by ergot poisoning as the result of rye bread made in a local bakers, took place, perhaps driving the men into some kind of psychosis. No real evidence has ever surfaced for this, however, and again the lack of a struggle is telling.
Which leaves us with the final, but most logical, and in my opinion most likely scenario – that they were all rushed from the island by a rogue wave. Reports from around the time of the tragedy, and for years afterwards from the subsequent keepers, said that the waves would often come over the edge of the cliff on which the lighthouse stood, and would sometimes even clause splatter on the window panes which surround the torch at the top of the tower, some 200ft up from sea level. The most common theory here, which explains the jacket left behind, is that one of the men was washed into the sea by a wave, possibly while out at a landing area with another. The survivor raced to get help from the third man, who left in too much of a hurry to grab his jacket, but those two were then themselves pulled into the water. The lighthouse was located fairly near a ‘geo’, a narrow gulley in the rock where water would enter and blast out of again very quickly. As to why they were out in the storm, or even that close to the water – they were experienced men, but in their short time on Eilean Mor may not have quite appreciated the extent of the ferocity that the sea around them could throw their way, and they may have still thought it was safe to go out.
People are naturally drawn to the story of the Eilean Mor lighthouse keepers – it’s one of those classic mysteries that will never likely be solved to any real satisfactory conclusion, and the distant and maybe slightly mystical location of the mystery invites all manner of interpretation. We have reached the point where a real mystery becomes folklore, as with St Flannan and the Phantom of the Seven Hunters before it. As the light of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse keeps on blinking, the story of Marshall, Ducat and Donald MacArthur will keep on being told.