The Unsolved Vanishing At The Flannan Isles Lighthouse

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By: Alex Postrado

What Happened To The Missing Keepers Of The Flannan Isles Lighthouse?

The island of Eilean Mòr is — indeed — one of the most interesting parts of Scotland.

Despite having St. Flannan’s 7th century-built chapel, this Outer Hebrides isle is believed by many to be a land, influenced by something paranormal.

Due to this, some people used to call Eilean Mòr “the other country“.

And as a place widely assumed to be haunted, for a very long time, the remote isle remained uninhabited — only frequented by herders and their sheep by day, while left devoid of occupants by night.

Well, except for the people stationed at the Flannan Isles Lighthouse.

Atop the highest peak of Eilean Mòr sits a lighthouse.

A lighthouse that witnessed a particular incident that was dubbed as one of the greatest mysteries the Atlantic has ever seen.

Until today, this incident — which took place near the end of 1900 — remains the event that ultimately puts Eilean Mòr on the map.

Involving the sudden disappearance of three lighthouse-watching men, look into the mystery of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse.

The Flannan Isles Lighthouse

Standing at 75 ft, the Flannan Isles Lighthouse was designed by a man, named David Alan Stevenson, for the Northern Lighthouse Board back in the late 1800s.

However, it was only around 1895 when the construction was initiated.

The man-in-charge to oversee that was George Lawson of Rutherglen. And together with his team — and a budget of £1,899 — they successfully finished the lighthouse by the year 1899.

It was December 7, 1899, when the dark sky of Eilean Mòr was first lit by the Flannan Isles Lighthouse.

Back then, lighthouses still had to be physically manned. In fact, it was only around the 1970s when the Flannan Isles Lighthouse was automated.

And with the challenge of the cold, treacherous waters, as well as the sporadically stormy weather striking the island, the Northern Lighthouse Board needed the help of some of the most experienced lighthouse keepers out there.

Among the names were James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, Donald McArthur, Joseph Moore, and William Ross.

The men took weeks-long shifts. And each time, at least three of them were required to stay on the island, while the others prepared to relieve them after about two weeks.

During the first half of December 1900 — just a year after the lighthouse was completed — it was Ducat, Marshall, and McArthur who were assigned to keep watch.

At first, everything went smoothly. However, they had absolutely no clue about the tragedy that was coming their way.

The Great Disappearance of 1900

The first indication that something wasn’t quite right arose the time transatlantic steamer Archtor passed Eilean Mòr, on the night of December 15, 1900.

On the way from Philadelphia to Leith, the crew of the steamer noticed that the light was off at the Flannan Isles Lighthouse. Three days later, after reaching land, the abnormal occurrence was reported to the Northern Lighthouse Board.

Other passing ships, however, claimed that the light was on the night prior.

The news eventually got to Captain James Harvey of the vessel Hesperus, who was tasked to bring the relief crew — including Joseph Moore — to the island by the 20th of December.

Unfortunately, due to adverse weather, the trip was delayed until noon on the 26th.

The relief crew was expecting to see all three keepers:

Ducat, the Principal; Marshall, the 2nd Assistant; and McArthur, the Occasional Keeper — present as a substitute for William Ross, the supposed 1st Assistant, who, at that time, was on sick leave.

Contrary to that, though, upon arrival, Harvey and the group immediately felt that something was off.

The Flagstaff was empty, no preparation at the landing dock was made, and weirdest of all, no one greeted them at the shore.

Harvey tried blowing the ship’s whistle to catch the attention of any of the three keepers. He even fired a flare. Still, no one answered.

At that moment, they were already starting to suspect that the keepers might be nowhere near — or worse, gone. But they kept on looking, hoping they were wrong.

Shortly after, Moore found that both the gate to the compound and the main door of the quarters were closed.

Moreover, in the bedroom, the beds were unmade. And in the kitchen, only the meal for dinner was left untouched, the kitchenware was spot-free, and the clock had — at least, for some time — stopped.

Further inspecting led to the discovery of a set of oilskins — suggesting that one of the keepers probably left the lighthouse without them.

To add to the confusion, a coat — assumed to be McArthur’s — was found still in the room.

Questions then started rolling in:

Why would anyone leave their coat inside, in the middle of December?

And where on earth are the three lighthouse keepers?

Investigating the Mysterious Incident

The men of the Hesperus continued their search all over the island and at last — after some time — they stumbled upon clues as to what could possibly have happened to the keepers.

While the east landing remained intact, the west showed multiple signs of damage.

Iron railings were found bent over, the turf had been “ripped up from the tops of the cliffs“, massive rocks were scattered, and a supply box, situated over 100 ft above sea level had been wrecked — with its contents strewn everywhere.

In spite of all that, Ducat, Marshall, and McArthur still weren’t seen anywhere.

This prompted Harvey to then send a telegram to inform the Northern Lighthouse Board of the situation at hand, saying that all three lighthouse keepers on the Flannan Isles seemed to have vanished into thin air.

Harvey’s best guess was that the men probably have been “blown over the cliffs” or “drowned trying to secure a crane“. And he thought that the grim accident likely happened about a week earlier.

That timeline was supported by the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, which declared the disappearance to have taken place on December 15, 1900.

On December 29, Northern Lighthouse Board superintendent Robert Muirhead spearheaded the official investigation into the Flannan Isles Lighthouse incident.

Flannan Isles Lighthouse, 1975

Muirhead, who personally knew all three keepers, thoroughly examined all details left at the scene — concluding that it was indeed McArthur’s coat that was left inside the lighthouse on their last day.

Meaning, he likely left the premises on shirtsleeves, despite the cold weather.

Furthermore, Muirhead pointed out that leaving the lighthouse unattended was against the NLB rules. All three keepers certainly knew about that, so it was just believable that what happened on the day they went missing could probably be something that was extremely out of the ordinary.

It was known that Ducat had a wife, along with four children. Similarly, McArthur had a family of three.

And whether or not Muirhead’s findings eased the pain felt by the families the keepers had left behind, no one could tell.

Speculations Over the Years

With no bodies found, it became easy to understand why theories about the disappearance at Flannan Isles started circling around.

Some rational, some quite over-the-top even for the time — these speculations ran rampant.

And eventually, people began talking about how the three keepers were either snatched by large seabirds, swallowed by a mythical sea serpent, spirited away by fairy folks, turned into birds by a curse, taken away by foreign spies, or abducted by the undead crew of a ghost ship.

Over time, the list of possible explanations for the lighthouse mystery only expanded.

A logbook was even said to be found, containing entries supposedly written by Marshall around the days before their disappearance.

It allegedly indicated how on December 12, severe winds — the likes of which he has never seen before — struck Eilean Mòr; on the 13th and 14th, the storm was still raging, and it was only on the 15th that everything went calm.

It was also noted in the entries that during the fit of the storm, they were all praying — apparently scared for their lives — despite the fact that they were all experienced lighthouse keepers.

Moreover, McArthur was also claimed to be crying during the purported ordeal, even though most people knew him as someone who is ill-tempered and doesn’t really show a sensitive side.

Strangest of all, there was no storm reported around the mentioned dates on both Eilean Mòr and nearby islands.

But, this specific claim was only somewhat laid to rest when Welsh researcher Mike Dash revealed that the said logbook wasn’t real and was only a later addition to the already existing story.

Case Solved?

In 2015, over 100 years since the Flannan Isles Lighthouse incident happened, author John A. Love penned a book, titled A Natural History of Lighthouses.

In there, with the help of all available records, Love gave the most plausible reason for the famed disappearance — it allegedly had something to do with Marshall’s equipment.

Flannan lighthouse keepers
What really happened?

Love found out that Marshall had previously been fined five shillings after failing to prevent his equipment from getting washed away during a previous storm. At that time, an amount like that would’ve been pretty helpful — especially, for a struggling man, like Marshall.

And so, it would be reasonable why Marshall probably had chosen to secure his equipment first, before his safety.

Love argued that it is likely that Ducat tried to help him and McArthur had to stay at the lighthouse due to the regulations. But, upon seeing either a greater danger approaching or his companions taking too long to return, McArthur hurried to rescue them, even leaving his coat behind — only to end up with the same bleak fate as his fellow keepers.

To this day, no one can prove what really happened to Ducat, Marshall, and McArthur.

Some say that they might have run away and started new lives. Some believe that they fell to their death and drowned by the west landing.

While others tend to look at the reputed volatility of McArthur — saying that he might have killed his colleagues, then jumped to his death afterward.

Though that theory could add a level of viciousness to the narrative, we could only guess what really happened.

Still, in the years following the tragic incident at Flannan Isles, other keepers claimed to hear strange voices, shouting the names of Ducat, Marshall, and McArthur.

Were those the screams of the three keepers, themselves? Or the ghosts of them?

Apparently, no one ever came to know and the mystery of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse remains open for those who dare to solve it.


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