Humanity prides itself on its knowledge and fortitude. We’ve mastered our environment, created advanced technology, and have explored nearly every patch of the planet. This is probably why we love a mystery, especially when it comes to missing persons. People vanish without a trace for no apparent reason and are never heard from again.
Those left behind, who are tasked with making sense of the disappearance, are left grasping for answers. But in some cases, like the sudden and puzzling disappearance of three men from a remote island in the north sea more than 100 years ago, there are no easy answers, only troubling questions.
A Lone Light In The Dark
The Hebrides are a group of islands, an archipelago divided into groups of inner and outer islands. They include a smaller chain known as the Flannan Isles, known for rough seas and jagged rocks that threaten navigation.
To help guide ships away from the rocky shores, Scotland’s northern lighthouse board began construction of the Flannan Isles lighthouse on the island of Eilean morin 1895. The lighthouse at Eilean Mor cast its first light on the gray waters of the North Atlantic on December 7, 1899. Just a year later, the vanishing occurred.
In December of 1900, the Flannan Isles lighthouse was manned by three men, Donald MacArthur, James ducat, and Thomas marshall. The men worked in shifts, rotating with a replacement lighthouse keeper who would take one of the men’s posts when the biweekly supply ship arrived with provisions.
On December 15, 1900, the crew of the archtop steamship traveling from Philadelphia to Edinburgh reported that the lighthouse at Eilean Mor was inactive during bad weather. The northern lighthouse board was made aware of this consequential problem when the Archtor made port on December 18. The board ordered an immediate investigation and dispatched a relief vessel.
An Empty Island
Due to stormy weather, it took the relief vessel Hesperus more than a week to reach the shores of Eilean Mor. When the Hesperus arrived the day after Christmas, there was no sign of the three lighthouse keepers.
The western landing was damaged by the storm. No flags were flown on the dock or the lighthouse.
The ship’s captain, James Harvie, ordered assistant lighthouse keeper Joseph Moore to search the area. Moore had been headed to the lighthouse to relieve one of the staff and provide supplies but the usual rotation had been delayed because of the harsh weather surrounding the island.
After a thorough investigation of the lighthouse, surrounding buildings, and the island itself, Moore could find no trace of the missing men, even after firing a flare and calling for them while searching. Not long after, captain Harvie composed a telegram, which read as follows.
On our arrival here this afternoon, no sign of life was to be seen on the island. Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the station but found no keepers there. The clocks were stopped. And other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three keepers, ducat, marshall, and the occasional have disappeared from the island.
Captain Harvie also examined the scene after Moore and wrote further observations, noting essential equipment that was left behind or taken by the three keepers. Quote.
Now there is nothing to give us an indication that it was there the poor men lost their lives, only that Mr. Marshall has his sea boots on and oilskins. Also, Mr. Ducat has his boots on. He had no oilskin, only an old waterproof coat and that is away. Donald MacArthur has his wearing coat left behind him, which shows, as far as I know, that he went out in shirtsleeves.
Captain Harvey theorized that all three men left their posts simultaneously, which was against lighthouse protocol, and in his telegram provided a possible explanation for their disappearances. Quote.
Poor fellows. They must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.
One fact seemed certain. At some point, all three keepers left the safety of the lighthouse and never returned.
After learning of the strange disappearance, the northern lighthouse board would dispatch superintendent Robert Muirhead to the Flannan isles for an even deeper investigation. He submitted a full report on January 8, 1901, which seemed to corroborate the conclusions of captain Harvie.
The Last Word Of Doomed Men
However, the closer examination of the Eilean Mor lighthouse turned up clues that only deepened the mystery. Especially strange and noteworthy are the final and cryptic journal logs of Thomas marshall, the lieutenant of the station who wrote, quote,
December 12, gale north by northwest. Sea lashed to fury. Stormbound 9:00 pm. Never seen such a storm. Everything shipshape. Ducat irritable. 12:00 pm. Storm still raging. Wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship past sounding foghorn. Could see the lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. Macarthur crying. December 13. The storm continued through the night. The wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. Macarthur prayed. 12:00 noon. Grey daylight. Me, ducat, and MacArthur prayed. December 15. It’s 1:00 pm. Storm ended. Sea calm. God is overall.
And those are the last known words of the men of the lighthouse at Eilean Mor. These three men were known to be of strong fortitude and lacked fears or superstition, which makes these final log entries all the more puzzling. The final entry was logged on December 15, the same day the Archtor reported that the Eilean Mor lighthouse was dark during the storm. That means the men were still around during that storm but, for some reason, either let the light go out or were unable to relight it.
Stranger still was the state of the lighthouse upon discovery by joseph Moore. The kitchen was in complete disarray, furniture and chairs knocked over, and a half-eaten meal of mutton and potatoes left to rot on the table. But perhaps the most mysterious detail of all was that all the clocks in the station had stopped at the same time.
Why and how? was this the moment the trio vanished?
Such a phenomenon lends some credence to a supernatural explanation for the men’s disappearance. And there are certainly many more strange tales about this chain of islands.
The Island Of Little Men
The Flannan Isles, and particularly Eilean Mor, have a dark and occult history that stretches back hundreds of years. In the 18th century, piles of small bones were discovered on the island, earning it the nickname the island of little men, or the island of pygmies.
It was mentioned as such in the 1790 edition of the annual register of world events as a possible former home to the magical fairy folk, the elves, and sprites of Scottish lore.
British historian mike dash researched the Flannan isles disappearance in a piece titled “The vanishing lighthouse men of Eilean Mor.” In it, he cited a folklorist named Martin Martin who recorded strange events on the isles. The occupants of the nearby isles of lewis would sail to the Flannan isles during the summer, and using Eilean Mor for pagan rituals that martin described as such, quote,
when they are come within about 20 paces of the altar, they all stripped themselves of their upper garments at once and their upper clothes being laid upon a stone, which stands there on purpose for that use. All the crew prays three times before they begin fowling. On the first day, they say the first prayer, advancing towards the chapel upon their knees. The second prayer is said as they go around the chapel. The third is said hard by or at the chapel. And this is their morning service.
These ceremonies apparently continued on the Flannan Isles, possibly into the 18th century.
Taken By The Ghost
Other explanations for the disappearance of Donald MacArthur, James ducat, and Thomas marshall are rooted in the mythology and paranormal of the islands. The lands were primarily used for sheepherders, fishermen, who nicknamed some of the islands the other country, believing them to be populated by all manner of fantastical beings.
They used sacred rituals in an attempt to ward off any paranormal attacks and cautioned those who strayed to the islands that they would meet a horrible fate at the hands of its invisible inhabitants.
These include cryptids, creatures said to haunt the island and attack any poor soul on their path. Legends tell of giant seabirds that would stalk Eilean Mor for prey, birds large enough to devour a man whole or carry them off at night.
Other stories mention spirits that existed on the island before men ever set foot upon it. These would take victims into their realm, who would then vanish from the face of the earth. More recent theories postulate the trio was abducted by aliens, gobbled up by sea monsters, or kidnapped by ghosts. These legends haunt the Flannan islands in the Eilean Mor lighthouse to this day, with visiting ghost hunters claiming to have seen the restless souls.
Later lighthouse keepers stationed there have reported seeing the ghosts of Donald MacArthur, James ducat, and Thomas Marshall, hearing their damned whispers in the dead of night, forever doomed to remain on the island from which they vanished without a trace.
Taken By The Sea
Despite the puzzling disappearance and the folklore surrounding the islands, there are more grounded explanations for the vanishing of the lighthouse keepers. In his original report on the investigation of the disappearances, northern border lighthouse superintendent Robert Muirhead reached a rather routine conclusion.
The men had been washed to sea by a huge wave. He wrote, quote,
After a careful examination of the place, the railings, ropes, et cetera, and weighing all the evidence which I could secure, I am of opinion that the most likely explanation of the disappearance of the men is that they had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday 15 December to the proximity of the west landing to secure the box with the mooring ropes, et cetera and that an unexpectedly large roller had come upon the island and a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them had swept them away with resistless force.
In 2015, naturalist john love did extensive research on the case for his book a natural history of lighthouses. In it, he cited a fine the lighthouse keepers had received due to improper storage of gear during a previous storm.
Desperate to avoid another fine or worse, the keepers of the Flannan Isles lighthouse may have tried to secure the equipment amidst the terrible storm of December 1900. As love writes, quote,
Since it was not permitted for all three to abandon the lighthouse, only two of the men must have gone down to the landing to secure the gear. The third, Donald MacArthur, would have remained back in the lighthouse. But when his companions did not return, he would have been concerned for their safety, or else perhaps he saw a great wave approach and rushed to warn them.
In both cases, the conclusion is similar. Donald MacArthur, James ducat, and Thomas marshall broke protocol during the height of the storm and it cost them their lives when a rogue wave pulled them into the sea, a mundane but no less horrifying end.
Vanishing Into Nightmares
Though the true answer for the disappearance of the three lighthouse keepers on Eilean Mor may never truly be known, the mystery has and will continue to captivate imaginations. One of the earliest references to the disappearance is featured in the 1912 poem “Flannan Isle” by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, and which may have helped spread the word of the tale. Here’s a haunting excerpt.
We seem to stand for an endless while though still no word was said. Three men alive on Flannan isle who thought on three men dead.
Over the years, the story has inspired stage plays and has even been adapted to an episode of doctor who, “The horror of fang rock.” the 2019 film the vanishing is one of the most recent examples but surely not the last.
The film the vanishing offers a more grounded and somewhat thrilling explanation for the mysterious disappearance of the lighthouse keepers, a brutal criminal plot against the three men.
But what is the true answer? were the Flannan Isles lighthouse keepers swept out to sea by a rogue wave like the superintendent and john love theorized, or were those three lost souls taken by a force beyond our understanding, a force that could still haunt Eilean Mor to this day? one thing’s for sure. This tale of vanishing will continue to be passed down from generation to generation like so many mysteries of the sea.
So what do you think? is there a logical explanation for the vanishing that occurred at the Flannan isles or could the truth be something beyond our reckoning?