The Eilean Mor lighthouse, Scotland.

The Curious Disappearance of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers – A Scottish Mystery

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The Flannan Isles, located in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, are a set of small and uninhabited rocky islands with a curious history. One of the islands, Eilean Mor, was the setting of a great historical mystery – the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in 1900. To this day, a concrete explanation for the strange event remains elusive.

The Setting: The Lighthouse and Island of Eilean Mor

Since the automation of the lighthouse in 1971, the Flannan Isles have been without permanent residents. The Isles get their name from a 7th century Irish saint of the same name who is said to have built a stone church (one of the few man-made structures still found today) on the island of Eilean Mor. The Flannan Isles are located 32 km (20 miles) from their closest neighbor, the Isle of Lewis.

Steeped in fantastical tales of hauntings, Eilean Mor (meaning Big Isle) is the largest of the Flannan islands, despite its modest size of 17.5 acres (7.1 hectares). The first and most populous inhabitation of the island is from the days of St. Flannan and his followers of the Celtic church. Shortly after they abandoned the island, it received a long-standing reputation as an unlucky place full of dangerous spirits. The superstitious tales of Eilean Mor involve beings such as giant birds and little men, as well as the haunting the St. Flannan and his “flock.” The stories were enough to keep shepherds (not to mention most other people), from spending the night there.

Nonetheless, the lack of inhabitants could have increased the ghostly presence on the island, as several ships apparently found the rocky Flannan Isles difficult to navigate when less than ideal conditions struck. To prevent this, a 22.6 meter (74 foot) lighthouse was completed in 1899 to improve the passage.

An 1898 map of the Flannan Isles.

An 1898 map of the Flannan Isles. ( Public Domain ) The Eilean Mor lighthouse was created at the tallest point of the island following several shipwrecks.

Signs of the Disappearance of Macarthur, Ducat, and Marshall

The lighthouse keepers of Eilean Mor had a relatively easy, though lonely job for the time and worked in shifts with three men on and one enjoying two weeks off at all times. However, the three men who may have met their fate on the island, James Ducat (43), Donald Macarthur (40), and Thomas Marshall (28), may have disagreed about the ease of their work.

Shortly after the one-year anniversary of the lighthouse’s completion, something changed on the quiet little island. Captain Holman of the steamer Archtor, who was passing by the area on route to Leith, Scotland, on December 15, noticed that the lighthouse’s lamp was not shining. He sent a wireless to the Cosmopolitan Line Steamers (CLS) headquarters to report the outage but, as Lighthouse Digest reports “CLS failed to notify the Northern Lighthouse Board because “other more pressing matters caused it to escape from memory.””

To make matters worse, Roderick MacKenzie, who was also responsible for checking on the light from the Isle of Lewis, did not even notice the light was out.

The situation became more perilous as only days before what should have been the end of the three men’s shift, bad weather came to the islands. This delayed the arrival of the fourth attendant who was going to replace one of the men on December 20, but could not make the trip until things cleared up on December 26.

Search for the Vanished Men

On December 26, 1900, Captain Jim Harvie was supposed to be bringing relief to the lighthouse in the form of the fourth attendant, Joseph Moore. As he approached the island he noted there was something off, as the “relief flag” was not flying and no one was anxiously awaiting their arrival at the landing of Eilean Mor. He sounded the whistle and shot a flare to try to catch the lighthouse keepers’ attention, but the island remained silent. Thus, Moore was sent ashore to investigate.

The ruins of the St. Flannan church down the slope from the famed lighthouse on Eilean Mor, Scotland.

The ruins of the St. Flannan church down the slope from the famed lighthouse on Eilean Mor, Scotland. ( CC BY SA 2.0 ) Moore would have had to pass the church to reach the lighthouse.

Upon entering the unlocked lighthouse, he immediately knew that something was wrong. Inside he found that no fire was lit to ward off the damp coldness, the beds were unused, and the clocks had stopped.


Justbod's picture

Fascinating - thank you! Love mysteries and, as we'll probably never know the truth of it, that’s what it will probably remain.



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Did anybody bother to check the bathroom?

Tsurugi's picture

I wonder if there is a submerged sea cave entrance somewhere on the island? If they did fall into the ocean during the storm, their bodies could have ended up inside the cave, which is why they never washed up anywhere.

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