On 15 December 1900, lighthouse keepers James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur noted the last entries on the slate at Flannan Isle Lighthouse. Shortly afterwards, they disappeared and were never seen again.
Over 100 years later, the events of the disappearance still remain a mystery, and interest in the little Scottish island of Eilean Mòr has never waned. Theories about the disappearance have abounded, with everything from sea monsters to ghost ships being blamed for the disaster. In 2019, a film based upon the story called The Vanishing was released.
So, what was the Flannan Isle mystery, and what happened to the 3 lighthouse keepers there more than a century ago?
A passing ship first noticed that something was wrong
The first record that something was amiss on the Flannan Isles was on 15 December 1900 when the steamer Archtor noted that the Flannan Isles lighthouse wasn’t lit. When the ship docked in Leith, Scotland, in December 1900, the sighting was reported to the Northern Lighthouse Board.
A lighthouse relief vessel called Hesperus tried to reach the island on 20 December but was unable because of poor weather. It eventually reached the island around midday on 26 December. The ship’s captain, Jim Harvie, sounded his horn and set up a flare in the hope of alerting the lighthouse keepers. There was no reply.
The house was abandoned
Relief Keeper Joseph Moore set out on a boat, alone, to the island. He found the entrance gate and main door of the compound closed. Climbing the 160 steps up the lighthouse, he discovered that the beds were unmade, the clock on the kitchen wall had stopped, the table was set for a meal that remained uneaten and a chair had been toppled over. The only sign of life was a canary in a cage in the kitchen.
Moore returned to the crew of Hesperus with the grim news. Captain Harvie sent another two sailors ashore for a closer inspection. They discovered that the lamps had been cleaned and refilled, and found a set of oilskins, suggesting that one of the keepers had left the lighthouse without them.
The log was in order, and recorded poor weather conditions, while entries about the wind speed at 9 am on 15 December were written on the slate and ready to be entered into the log. The west landing had received significant damage: turf had been ripped up and supplies destroyed. However, the log had recorded this.
The search party scoured every corner of Eilean Mòr for clues about the fate of the men. However, there was still no sign.
An investigation was launched
An investigation was launched on 29 December by Robert Muirhead, a Northern Lighthouse Board superintendent. Muirhead had originally recruited all three men and knew them well.
He examined the clothing in the lighthouse and concluded that Marshall and Ducat had gone down to the western landing to secure the supplies and equipment there, but were swept away by the severe storm. He then suggested that McArthur, who was wearing only his shirt rather than oilskins, followed them and similarly perished.
The keepers venturing out into the storm can probably be explained by Marshall, who had previously been fined five shillings – a significant amount of money for a man in his job – for losing his equipment in a previous storm. He would have been keen to avoid the same thing happening again.
Their disappearance was officially recorded as an accident because of the bad weather, and the lighthouse’s reputation was tarnished for a long time afterwards.
There was wild speculation about the disappearances
No bodies were ever found, and national and international press went wild with speculations. Bizarre and often extreme theories included a sea serpent carrying the men away, foreign spies abducting them or a ghost ship – known locally as the ‘Phantom of the Second Hunters’ – capturing and murdering the trio. It was also suspected that they had arranged for a ship to secretly ferry them away so they could all start new lives.
Suspicion fell upon McArthur, who had a reputation for being bad-tempered and violent. It is speculated that the three men could have had a fight upon the western landing which resulted in all three falling to their deaths from the cliffs. It was also theorised that McArthur murdered the other two, then threw their bodies into the sea before killing himself.
There were also reports that the logs had strange entries in Marshall’s hand, which stated that the weather was the worst he’d experienced in 20 years, Ducat was very quiet, McArthur had been crying and that all three men had been praying. The final log entry was reportedly on 15 December and said: ‘Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all’. A later investigation later revealed that no such entries had ever been made and were likely falsified to further sensationalise the story.
It is almost certain that the truth about the Flannan Lighthouse Mystery will never be uncovered, and today it remains one of the most intriguing moments in the annals of Scottish seafaring history.