Flannan Isles Lighthouse is a lighthouse near the highest point on Eilean Mòr, one of the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. It is best known for the mysterious disappearance of its keepers in 1900.
The first record that something was untoward on the Flannan Isles was on 15 December 1900 when the steamer Archtor, on a passage from Philadelphia to Leith, noted in its log that the light was not operational in poor weather conditions. When the ship docked in Leith on 18 December 1900, the sighting was passed onto the Northern Lighthouse Board. The relief vessel, the lighthouse tender Hesperus, was unable to sail from Breasclete, Lewis as planned on 20 December due to adverse weather; it did not reach the island until noon on 26 December. The lighthouse was manned by three men: Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald MacArthur, with a rotating fourth man spending time on shore.
On arrival, the crew and relief keeper found that the flagstaff had no flag, none of the usual provision boxes had been left on the landing stage for re-stocking, and more ominously, none of the lighthouse keepers were there to welcome them ashore. Jim Harvie, the captain of the Hesperus, attempted to reach them by blowing the ship’s whistle and firing a flare but was unsuccessful.
A boat was launched and Joseph Moore, the relief keeper, was put ashore alone. He found the entrance gate to the compound and main door both closed, the beds unmade, and the clock stopped. Returning to the landing stage with this grim news, he then went back up to the lighthouse with Hesperus‘ second-mate and a seaman. A further search revealed that the lamps were cleaned and refilled. A set of oilskins was found, suggesting that one of the keepers had left the lighthouse without them, which was surprising considering the severity of the weather on the date of the last entry in the lighthouse log. The only sign of anything amiss in the lighthouse was an overturned chair by the kitchen table. There was no sign of any of the keepers, neither inside the lighthouse nor anywhere on the island.[
Moore and three volunteer seamen were left to attend the light and Hesperus returned to Lewis. Captain Harvie sent a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board dated 26 December 1900, stating: A dreadful accident has 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 a crane.
On Eilean Mòr, the men scoured every corner of the island for clues as to the fate of the keepers. They found that everything was intact at the east landing but the west landing provided considerable evidence of damage caused by recent storms. A box at 33 metres (108 ft) above sea level had been broken and its contents strewn about; iron railings were bent over, the iron railway by the path was wrenched out of its concrete, and a rock weighing more than a ton had been displaced. On top of the cliff at more than 60 metres (200 ft) above sea level, turf had been ripped away as far as 10 metres (33 ft) from the cliff edge. The missing keepers had kept their log until 9 a.m. on 15 December. The entries made it clear that the damage had occurred before their disappearance.
Speculation and conjecture
No bodies were ever found, resulting in “fascinated national speculation” in newspapers and periodicals of the period. Implausible stories ensued, such as a sea serpent (or giant seabird) had carried the men away; they had arranged for a ship to take them away and start new lives, they had been abducted by foreign spies; or they had met their fate through the malevolent presence of a boat filled with ghosts (the baleful influence of the “Phantom of the Seven Hunters” was widely suspected locally). More than ten years later, the events were still being commemorated and elaborated on. The 1912 ballad Flannan Isle by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson refers erroneously to an overturned chair and uneaten meal laid out on the table, indicating that the keepers had been suddenly disturbed. However, in a first-hand account made by Moore, the relief keeper, he stated that: “The kitchen utensils were all very clean, which is a sign that it must be after dinner some time they left.”
On 29 December 1900, Robert Muirhead, a Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) superintendent, arrived to conduct the official investigation into the incident. Muirhead had originally recruited all three of the missing men and knew them personally.[
Muirhead’s examination of the lighthouse log book revealed some highly unusual entries. On December 12, Thomas Marshall wrote of “severe winds the likes of which I have never seen before in twenty years”. He also reported that James Ducat had been ‘very quiet’ and Donald MacArthur had been crying. MacArthur was a veteran mariner with a reputation for brawling, and thus it would be strange for him to be crying in response to a storm. Log entries on the 13th of December stated that the storm was still raging, and that all three men had been praying. This was also puzzling, as all three men were experienced lighthouse keepers who knew they were in a secure structure 150 feet above sea level and should have known they were safe inside. Furthermore, there had been no reported storms in the area on the 12th, 13th and 14th of December, meaning the entries documenting the storm were either made up or the storm was highly localized.[ The final log entry was made on the 15th of December, stating ‘Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all’.
He examined the clothing left behind in the lighthouse and concluded that James Ducat and Thomas Marshall had gone down to the western landing stage, and that Donald MacArthur (the ‘Occasional’) had left the lighthouse during heavy rain in his shirt sleeves. He noted that whoever left the light last and unattended was in breach of NLB rules. He also noted that some of the damage to the west landing was “difficult to believe unless actually seen”.
From evidence which I was able to procure I was satisfied that the men had been on duty up till dinner time on Saturday the 15th of December, that they had gone down to secure a box in which the mooring ropes, landing ropes etc. were kept, and which was secured in a crevice in the rock about 110 ft (34 m) above sea level, and that an extra large sea had rushed up the face of the rock, had gone above them, and coming down with immense force, had swept them completely away.
Whether this explanation brought any comfort to the families of the lost keepers is unknown. The deaths of Thomas Marshall, James Ducat (who left a widow and four children), and Donald MacArthur (who left a widow and two children) cast a shadow over the lighthouse service for many years.