The Disappearance of the Eilean Mòr Lighthouse Keepers

The Flannan Isles, also known as the Seven Hunters, are a small cluster of islands twenty miles west of the Outer Hebrides. The only permanent structures on the islands are a tiny stone chapel and the Flannan Isles lighthouse, both located close to the highest point on the largest island of Eilean Mòr. Long since automated and no longer manned, the lighthouse is most well-known for the strange disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in 1900.

Surrounded by strong tides and heavy swells that make landing on the islands difficult, the Eilean Mòr lighthouse was constructed between 1895 and 1899 to ward ships away from the hazardous rocks around the Flannan Isles. Alongside the 23-metre tower itself, a cable-haul railway was built to transport the barrels of paraffin used for the light from the dock to the lighthouse. It first became operational on 8th December 1899, manned by three full-time lighthouse keepers; Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald MacArthur, alongside one part-timer who rotated on and off the island on supply ships.

The three missing lighthouse keepers (L-R) Thomas Marshall, Donald MacArthur and James Ducat. Image: History Press

Almost exactly a year later, on 15th December 1900, the steamer Archtor noted in its ship’s log that the light at Eilean Mòr had not been lit despite treacherous weather. They reported their observation to authorities in Leith three days later, and the lighthouse tender Hesperus was charted to investigate. Relief lighthouse keeper Joseph Moore accompanied them back to Eilean Mòr.

On arrival, the crew observed that no flag was flying and that none of the supply boxes that normally would be stacked on the dock for resupply were to be seen. Normally at least one lighthouse keeper would cheerfully greet the arrival of supplies and a welcome opportunity for fresh conversation, but this time the landing stage was deserted. Moore rowed ashore and made the short walk up to the lighthouse itself.

He found the door to the lighthouse unlocked. Inside, the beds were unmade and half-eaten food sat on the kitchen table. One chair was overturned, and the kitchen clock had stopped. None of the lighthouse keepers were found, even when the rest of the crew of the Hesperus joined Moore on shore and thoroughly searched the island. Two of the keeper’s oilskins were missing from their pegs near the door, meaning that a pair of them had the time to don their waterproofs before leaving. It also suggested that one of them didn’t.

The headquarters of the Northern Lighthouse Board, George Street, Edinburgh. Image: Emoscopes

The ship’s captain sent a telegram back to Northern Lighthouse Board Headquarters in Edinburgh, stating that there had been an accident on Eilean Mòr and that all three keepers were missing. He believed that the signs found in the lighthouse meant that the keepers had been absent from their posts for around a week. Further searching found considerable storm damage to the landing on the western side of the island, including a box of supplies that had been smashed open. The iron railway had been ripped out of the concrete it was set in, iron railings had been bent and turf had been ripped away.

A wide number of theories were presented in newspapers and perodicals at the time after the story became well-known. Many Hebrideans associated the islands with supernatural dangers. A chapel had been constructed on the islands in the 6th century by an Irish bishop who would later become St Flannan. Shepherds had long used the islands to graze their sheep during daylight, but had refused to ever remain on the islands once night had fallen, believing it a cursed place haunted by the ghosts of Flannan’s congregation, alongside tales of both small folk and giant birds inhabiting the island. Various news reports and articles suggested that any of these supernatural entities could have been responsible for the disappearances, while others went with other outlandish theories including kidnap by a foreign power, alien abduction or the men disappearing to start a new life. However, an official investigation by the Northern Lighthouse Board Headquarters presents us with two reasonably plausible explanations.

The chapel said to have been constructed by followers of Saint Flannan with lighthouse is background. Image: Geograph.org

On arrival at the island, Board Headquarters superintendent Robert Muirhead found a number of strange entries in the lighthouse log. On December 12th, three days before the Archtor reported the tower unlit, second assistant keeper Thomas Marshall wrote that the island was being battered by a storm worse than he had seen in 20 years. He recorded that colleague and principal keeper James Ducat had been quiet and morose and that third assistant Donald MacArthur had been reduced to tears by the storm. Colleagues that knew MacArthur found this notably uncharacteristic of the man, an experienced seaman with a reputation for fighting. The following day’s entry read that the storm had continued and that all three men had been reduced to praying for their survival. Again this seemed uncharacteristic, as all three were experienced keepers who knew full well how the lighthouse was impervious to storms. A final entry, dated the 15th December, read simply ‘storm ended, sea calm. God over all’.

Alongside the log, Muirhead’s investigation found that likely Marshall and Ducat had left the lighthouse after donning their oilskins, leaving MacArthur to man the light. For the third man to leave the building and leave the light unattended was a serious breach of rules, but MacArthur appeared to have left the lighthouse, without his protective waterproofs, shortly after. Muirhead also noted that there had been no reports of storms between the 12th and 15th of December anywhere nearby.

The observation regarding the oilskins tallies well with the most popular explanation, that Marshall and Ducat had got into difficulties when attempting to either secure the landing stage against the storm, or possibly retrieve the supply crate that had been found smashed at the western landing, subsequently ending up in the water. MacArthur had then attempted to aid his colleagues before being swept away himself. The location of the western landing, close to a sea cave that could act as a funnel and create unpredictable bursts of water than could catch a man unawares may have played a role in one or all of the men losing their footing.

The Eilean Mòr lighthouse

This is likely the most plausible explanation, but some members of the Board Headquarters remained unconvinced. All other logs in the area reported calm weather and seas over the three days where the Eilean Mòr logbook recorded the worst storm in memory. Many believed that the three men, particularly Ducat, were too experienced to have been caught out by the weather, however bad it was. No bodies were ever found. Given the strange entries in the lighthouse log, the other possible explanation was that on of the men, most likely MacArthur, had suffered a break from reality or gone into a rage and killed the other two, before jumping into the sea himself, or that the three men had fought on the dock and all ended up in the water.

The true explanation for the disappearance of the Eilean Mòr lighthouse keepers will likely forever remain a mystery. While the island is now deserted after the last lighthouse keepers left in 1971, before then keepers had reported hearing strange voices on the wind during stormy weather, with some suggesting they had heard either the men’s names or distant calls for help.

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