The Curious Disappearance of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers – A Scottish Mystery
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. (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.
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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. (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.
Moore became increasingly worried about his fellow keepers and, returning with help, he searched the lighthouse from top to bottom. He also checked and discovered that the light was in working order.
When Moore returned to the ship he told the captain of the disappearance and what he encountered within the lighthouse. The captain ordered Moore to return to light the lamp. Three volunteers offered to stay with Moore and provide an even more thorough search of the small island the next morning.
The captain headed to the nearest telegraph station, on the Isle of Lewis, and there he sent a message to his employer, the Secretary of the Northern Lighthouse Board in Edinburgh: “A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans...”
The Evidence at the Lighthouse and on the Island
Before turning to the hypotheses on what may have caused the disappearance of the three men, some of the facts discovered in the search for the lighthouse keepers should be noted.
- All three of the men who vanished were experienced at their work, and Ducat had even been chosen as the lead keeper during the construction of the lighthouse. Ducat also had lived on Eilean Mor for 14 months, so he was well aware of the possible weather conditions.
- Ducat and Macarthur were married men and Marshall was single. Ducat often told his family that the conditions at the highly exposed lighthouse on Eilean Mor were dangerous and he had to be persuaded to stay at his job.
- The construction of the lighthouse took four years, not the two that were planned for it, due to delays caused by rough seas around the Flannan Isles and harsh weather.
- In his report of the events, Moore stated that he noted that the kitchen door was the only one he could open to enter the lighthouse, the outside gate was closed, the fire had not been lit for “some days,” and everything within the lighthouse was in “proper order.”
- When he searched the island with the volunteers they noted that on the western landing there had been storm damage at some point: “The iron railings of the trolley tramway had started from their foundations and broken in several places and the box containing the mooring ropes had vanished, despite having been firmly wedged into a crevice and then anchored.”
The tramway to the lighthouse. The lighthouse keepers used this until the 1960s. (CC BY SA 2.0)
- Robert Muirhead, the superintendent in charge of the lighthouse confirmed Moore’s account, adding that the dishes had been washed and the kitchen cleaned. He also wrote that the crane platform above the western landing was fine, but that a life buoy had also disappeared. After he examined the ropes he asserted that “it was evident that the force of the sea pouring through the railings had, even at this great height (33.5 m/110 ft. above sea level), torn the life buoy off the rope.” Muirhead saw that the morning’s work on the lamp had been completed, but it had not been lit after that.
- Captain Harvie believed that the men went missing on the 20th of December. He based his claim on the stopped clocks and a great storm that took place all over the western coast on that date.
- The logbook had been completed by the lighthouse keepers until December 15, around noon.
- In 1920, an American magazine published the following as the final entries: Dec. 12: Gale, north by north-west. Sea lashed to fury. Stormbound 9pm. Never seen such a storm. Everything shipshape. Ducat irritable. 12pm. Storm still raging. Wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passed sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. Macarthur crying. Dec. 13: Storm continued through night. Wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. Macarthur praying. 12 noon. Grey daylight. Me, Ducat, and Macarthur prayed. Dec. 15: 1pm. Storm ended. Sea calm. God is over all. – However, some have claimed these entries are just a sensationalist hoax. It is interesting to note that the keepers also supposedly skipped the entries for December 14 in these entries.
- Secondary sources of the time said that the weather on the 15th of December was “calm.” The Captain of the Archtor, confirmed that the weather near the Flannan Isles was “clear, but stormy.”
- Two of the men’s coats were missing, but one (Macarthur’s) remained on a peg beside the door.
What Happened to the Lighthouse Keepers?
One possible reason for the men’s disappearance comes in the form of one man falling from the steep and slippery landing steps while trying to retrieve a crate during the storm, and the other two following suit in a botched rescue attempt. This explanation explains the fact that the box with the mooring ropes was missing, but does not explain why two of the men were outside in the weather with their coats, but one was not. It also does not help that none of the bodies have been recovered.
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Landing steps on the southwest corner of Eilean Mor, Scotland. (CC BY SA 2.0)
Another hypothesis states that the men simply choose to seek “greener pastures” or perhaps adventure as they hopped on a passing boat, taking them far from the harsh winter climate of the island. It is also possible that, for some reason, the men were taken aboard a boat without their permission. The ordered lighthouse can support the first but not the second idea here. The coat issue arises again in this scenario. There is also the question of if the two men would have chosen to leave their families.
There are many who lean toward the idea that two of the men were killed by the third, who followed his devious act with suicide. If the logbook entries are real, it would suggest that times were tough on the island leading up to the last entry. However, the validity of the entries has been brought to light very well by Mike Dash, who suggests strongly that they were a hoax.
With the superstitious notions surrounding Eilean Mor, it is not too surprising that some have suggested that the three lighthouse keepers were “abducted” (or worse) by the island’s short and mystical inhabitants or by a UFO. This idea is probable to some, possible to others, and unthinkable to many, depending on their point of view.
A rogue or “freak” wave, is one of the more popular modern hypotheses to explain the missing men. The phenomenon of an extremely large wave suddenly appearing and sweeping the men from the island may be founded in the fact that the weather of the time was said to be “calm, but stormy” and, according to Alasdair Macaulay, a researcher of the mystery: "I have heard about a woman at Crowlista in Uig who had been hanging out her washing on that day” when she saw a giant wall of water coming in from the west so “she apparently ran back to the house as this large wave hit the shore. Her washing and washing line were said to have been swept away." This too is difficult to ascertain, both with the hard evidence and the contradictory nature of the details of the day’s weather.
Be their story washed away by the sea or by time, the mystery of the lighthouse keepers remains just that, a mystery.
Featured Image: The Eilean Mor lighthouse, Scotland. Source: CC BY SA 2.0
By: Alicia McDermott
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Jacobs, T.M. (2005). The Mysterious Disappearance of the Flannan Islands Lighthouse Keepers. http://www.lighthousedigest.com/Digest/StoryPage.cfm?StoryKey=2267
Jack, A. (2013). The Missing Men of Eilean Mor. http://albertjackchat.com/2013/02/18/the-missing-men-of-eilean-mor/
Johnson, B. (n.d.). The Eilean Mor Lighthouse Mystery. http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/The-Eilean-Mor-Lighthouse-Mystery/
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Merritt, M. (2014). Three lighthouse keepers vanished without trace on Boxing Day 1900... now a new clue could. http://www.express.co.uk/scotland/475203/Three-lighthouse-keepers-vanished-without-trace-on-Boxing-Day-1900-now-a-new-clue-could