On this day in history : 26th December 1900 – The discovery is made that the keepers of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse have disappeared without a trace…. The mystery still remains unsolved today….

The lighthouse is to be found on Ellean Mor, one of the uninhabited Flannan Islands of the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland…. The islands were named for St. Flannan, a 6th century Irish Bishop who later became a saint…. Apart from the lighthouse, which is still in use today, the only other building to be found on the islands is a ruined chapel….

St. Flannan’s Chapel

On the 15th of December 1900 it had been noticed that there was no light shining from the lighthouse…. At the time it was manned by three keepers, James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and William MacArthur…. All were experienced, seasoned seafarers….

A ship, captained by James Harvey, was despatched to carry replacement keeper Joseph Moore to investigate what was going on…. When they arrived at the landing platform they were surprised to see nobody was there to greet them, as approaching visitors were always spotted well in advance…. The crew sounded the ship’s horn and sent up a flare to attract attention – but still nobody appeared…. There was no sign of life anywhere, not even the flag was flying from the flagpole….

Landing stage and pathway

Moore rowed ashore with a great sense of unease…. He could not help but notice the disarray at the landing area; a crate that housed ropes and equipment had been severely damaged…. He climbed the steep steps to the lighthouse – and found the door unlocked…. Just inside, where three sets of oilskins should have been hanging, he found just one set…. He ventured into the kitchen and discovered a chaotic scene…. A chair had been overturned and there were the remains of a meal which had obviously been abandoned half way through…. The kitchen clock had stopped…. Moore searched the rest of the lighthouse, the beds were unmade and the place was deserted….

Steps to the landing

He returned to the ship and a search of the island was organised – but there was nothing to be found…. A telegram was sent to the Northern Lighthouse Board : “A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the island”…. The message went on to say the accident must have happened about a week before and that the poor fellows must have been blown over a cliff or drowned trying to secure a crate of similar…. Whatever had happened it was assumed they had been claimed by the sea….

View over the islands

On the 29th on December the Board’s Superintendent, Robert Muirhead, arrived to investigate…. He knew the three missing keepers personally, as he had recruited them…. He initially found nothing else that Moore had not already discovered – but then he turned his attention to the lighthouse logbook and found some surprising entries…. One for the 12th of December read: “Severe winds the likes of which I have never seen before in twenty years” – this in itself was odd as there had been no reported storms in the area before the 17th…. The log went on to say that James Ducat had been very quiet and that William MacArthur had been crying…. Again this did not add up – the men were all tough, in fact MacArthur had a reputation for brawling…. All three were used to life in a lighthouse – and this particular one was brand new and the safest of the safe – so it was unlikely that any of them would have cracked…. The last entry on the 15th of December read : “Storm ended, sea calm, God is over all”…. It had also been noted in the log that the men had been praying….

There were many unanswered questions – not least why the men had broken one of the strictest rules of their employment…. On no occasion whatsoever were they to leave the lighthouse unmanned – one of them had to be inside at all times…. Yet, for whatever reason, all three of them had left it….

There was much speculation as to what had happened…. Had they gone mad? Had one of them murdered the other two? Was it a sea monster that had taken them – or were they abducted by aliens? Was it the supernatural? Had they absconded to a better life? We shall never know…. The most plausible explanation is perhaps that two of them went to secure the storage crate on the landing platform – seeing his mates in trouble the third went to try and help them, only for all three to be swept away by a freak wave…. No bodies were ever found….

Over the following years future lighthouse keepers at Flannan reported strange goings on…. They told of voices crying out the names of Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald MacArthur…. Considering the experience of these three lighthouse keepers – and the apparent calmness of the sea before their disappearance – maybe it is only these ghosts who will ever know what really happened….

Flannan Isles Lighthouse, 1912 postcard – Image credit : CartoonPeril2011 via Flickr

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