The Mystery of Flannan Isles Lighthouse

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The Lighthouse at Flannan Isles

Flannan Isles Lighthouse is a 75-foot lighthouse between 1895 and 1899, near the highest point on Eilean Mòr, one of the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. The purpose of this construction was to warn ships of the treacherous rocks. There was a landing for ships and a small railway line built to bring heavy supplies to the lighthouse. Around Christmas of 1900, 3 of the keepers mysteriously disappeared!

The Mystery!

The first hint of anything strange came on 15 December 1900.

On December 15, 1900, The steamer Archtor was on its way from Philadelphia to Leith. The weather was rough as it passed the islands. The crew of the ship noted that the light was not operational.

Steamer from the 1900’s

The ship, some time after passing the lighthouse ran aground on Carpie Rock in the Firth of Forth. After the ship was rescued, it continued on its way to Oban. Due to the troubles the captain had with his ship, it was not some time until it was reported that the lighthouse was not working.

The island lighthouse was manned by 3 men out of a team of 4. 1 man would spend time on the mainland and the shift was rotated. Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald MacArthur were on duty at the time.

The lighthouse crew

The lighthouse tender Hesperus, that supplied the light was unable to set out on a routine visit from Lewis planned for 20 December due to the weather and did not arrive until noon on the day after Christmas.
On arrival, the crew and relief keeper found that the flag was missing from the flagpole, and strangely, none of the lighthouse keepers were there to greet them. Jim Harvie, the captain of Hesperus, gave a loud blast on the ship’s whistle and set off a distress flare, but no one answered.

Hesperus

The Search

A boat was launched and Joseph Moore, the 4th man of the team, was put ashore alone. He found the entrance gate to the compound and main door both closed, the beds unmade, and the clock stopped, due to not being wound.

The lighthouse in 1900

Returning to the docks with his news, he then went back up to the lighthouse with some of the crew from the ship. They found that the lamps were cleaned and refilled. A set of oilskins(rain weather gear) was found, suggesting that one of the keepers had left the lighthouse without them, which was unusual considering the severity of the weather mentioned in 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 the keepers anywhere on the Island.

The Investigation

Moore and three volunteer seamen were left to attend the light and Hesperus returned to the shore station at Breasclete. 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.

No bodies were ever found and the loneliness of the rocky islets may have lent itself to feverish imaginings.

Plenty of Theories!

Some of the theories suggested

  • One keeper washed over the cliffs and the other 2 drowned tried to save him
  • One keeper murdered the other two and then threw himself into the sea in a fit of remorse
  • that a sea serpent (or giant sea bird) had carried the men away
  • Abducted by foreign spies
  • they had met their fate through the presence of a boat filled with ghosts

A more simple explanation came from Robert Muirhead, a Northern Lighthouse Board superintendent:

On 29 December 1900, he arrived to conduct the official investigation into the incident. He found severe damage to the western landing. He concludes:

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.

We will probably never know for sure what happened. The lighthouse today is automated and no keepers live there.

The lighthouse today
The old rail line

Photo credits
Marc Calhoun
Chris Downer
JJM
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