On 7 December 1900, Superintendent Robert Muirhead, of the Northern Lighthouse Board said farewell to his 3 lighthouse keepers, James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur.
They waved him goodbye as he stepped off the East landing at Eilean Mor onto his waiting boat to take him back to the mainland.
The 3 lighthouse men were starting their next shift for 3 weeks on the island, taking care of the lighthouse and ensuring safe passage for the ships that passed by the Islands on the West Coast of Scotland navigating the often stormy and tempestuous Atlantic Ocean.
What Robert Muirhead didn’t know at that time as he watched the three men head off into the distance was that he would likely be the last person to see them alive.
The story surrounding the Flannan Isles Lighthouse has been a story of wonder and mystery for over a hundred years, what happened there and why?
The Flannan Isles
Lying to the West of Scotland are the beautiful and mysterious Outer Hebrides, a group of islands each with their own identity.
The Flannan Isles, a crop of islands North West of Gallanhead in Uig stand just over 20 miles from the Isle of Lewis.
The islands, also known as the Seven Hunters are an outcrop of volcanic rock that have never been permanently inhabited. The largest of the Flannan Isles is Eilean Mor and is at the highest point in the group of Islands; its name means Big island.
The Flannan Isles are a bird sanctuary and as early as the 17th century it is known that the people of the Uig parish would go to the Flannan Isles, to graze their sheep and kill sea fowls for their feathers.
It has the ruins of a Chapel dedicated to St Flannan, a 7th century Irish Priest who preached on the Hebrides and after whom the islands are named. For many centuries, the islands have been viewed by the local communities as a place of mystery and superstition.
Building the Lighthouse
In the late 18th century, the Northern Lighthouse Board was created following several deaths at sea around the West Coast of Scotland where at times the seas can be treacherous and difficult to navigate.
In 1894, work on the lighthouse on Eilean Mor started. The 75-foot-tall lighthouse was designed by David Alan Stevenson (part of the famous Stevenson family, of which the writer Robert Louis Stevenson may be best known). Construction took four years and cost £6,914 (£815,000 today or Just over US$1million) inclusive of the building, of the landing places, stairs and railway tracks.
All the materials used had to be hauled up the 147 foot cliffs directly from supply boats, no trivial task in the ever-churning Atlantic. Such was the steep incline of the steps a small service railway was installed where a cable-supported rail car could be used to transport heavy goods to and from the landing platform.
The 140,000-candle powered lamp, that sat proudly atop a majestic white tower 275 feet above sea level, was lit for the first time on 7 December 1899. The guiding light shone brightly across the dark Atlantic waters providing security and safety to many sailors and ships captains.
The lighthouse was manned by four lighthouse keepers in rotation, with 3 men staying on the rock at any one time and the fourth getting shore leave every 3 weeks. Such were the difficult conditions and isolation that the men needed to have time off the island regularly.
For the first year of duty the lighthouse men carried out their lonely and hard work without incident.
In December 1900, the regular keepers were James Ducat, a very qualified lighthouse man with over 20 years of experience, 1st Assistant Keeper William Ross and Second Assistant Keeper Thomas Marshall. The replacement keeper was Joseph Moore.
In early December, William Ross was forced off the island due to ill health. With regular replacement keeper Joseph Moore not due for a further two weeks, Ross was replaced by 40-year-old occasional keeper Donald McArthur.
At that time, there was no wireless communication between Flannan Isle and Lewis on the mainland.
As was standard practice, the island was kept under observation from land where a telescope would be trained on Flannan Isle at regular intervals.
In case of emergency, the lighthouse-keepers could hoist a flag and assistance would be sent out to them. The lighthouse was often obscured by poor weather and there was no guarantee that the signal would be seen.
Night observations were also a matter of routine. The lamp was visible on the 7 December, but was obscured by bad weather on the following four evenings. It was seen again on the 12 December;after that it wasn’t visible for over a fortnight.
On the 15th December, an American Vessel, the SS Archtor was making its way from Philadelphia to the port of Leith in Edinburgh. The weather had taken a turn for the worse, there were heavy rains and gusting winds for most of the voyage. By late afternoon however, on the 15th, the storm had abated somewhat leaving fine clear skies above.
As the SS Archtor approached Eilean Mor a little before midnight on the 15 December, it noticed that the lighthouse beacon was not ablaze. This was very concerning to the ship’s captain; the light should always be working.
Intending to relay a message about the Lighthouse when it reached land, the SS Archtor continued its journey down the West Coast of Scotland. Sadly, it ran aground on the Carphie Rock, nr Anstruther on 17 December 1900; damaged but still able to steer it Captain Holman took the ship to the port of Leith where it had to undergo significant works. No message was passed on regarding the Flannan Isles Lighthouse.
See the attached SS Archtor wreck report for more details.
The relief vessel Hesperus, carrying fresh supplies and the relief lighthouse man Joseph Moore, was due to leave on 20 December but because of the terrible weather conditions he was held back until boxing day on the 26th.
As the Hesperus set sail and approached the islands it noticed that light was still not burning. When it was time for the next rotation the keepers would raise a flag for the incoming vessel but as Captain Harvie of the Hesperus scoured the island he couldn’t see the flag anywhere.
The Captain set off a distress flare and sounded the horn but there was no response. They were becoming more concerned when they noticed that there was no-one to meet them at the mooring on the East Landing, something that the men would always do.
Also, there would have been empty provision boxes there ready to be restocked but these were nowhere to be seen either.
The island was silent, the weather and squalling seagulls overhead adding to the eeriness of the situation. The Hesperus pulled up alongside the East landing and the captain asked Joseph Moore to head on up to the lighthouse to investigate further.
Joseph Moore set off up the steep cliffs towards the lighthouse. He noticed that the entrance gate was locked and the door to the lighthouse closed. As he first stepped inside the lighthouse, all was quiet but nothing immediately looked out of place. He called their names but there was no answer.
After entering the lighthouse, he found the kitchen door was wide open. There were cold ashes in the grate telling him that it had not been lit for some days.
The rest of the room was spotlessly clean. The dishes were done, beds unmade as if the men had just woken, the lamps were cleaned and but there was no sign of any of the lighthouse men.
He noticed the clocks had all stopped and that there was an overturned chair in the kitchen, giving him concern.
Hanging on the peg beside the door was one set of oilskins and wellington boots. Ducat and Marshall’s gear was missing but it was McArthur’s coat that was still on its peg. Why would one of the men have left without putting on his outer clothing, considering the very cold and harsh winter conditions here, this seemed almost unbelievable.
Joseph Moore returned to the Hesperus and told the Captain what he had found. He then took some more men back with him so that they could do a wider search and see if there were any clues as to what could have happened here.
Later Captain Harvie decided that Joseph Moore should stay with the buoy master Allan Macdonald and two seamen, Messrs.’ Campbell and Lamont to get the lighthouse up and running again and to investigate further.
Captain Harvie then set off immediately for Breasclete in Lewis. Once on the mainland he sent a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board saying
“A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island.
On arrival, there 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. Poor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.
Night coming on, we could not wait to make something as to their fate.
I have left Moore, MacDonald, Buoymaster and two Seamen on the island to keep the light burning until you make other arrangements.
Will not return to Oban until I hear from you. I have repeated this wire to Muirhead in case you are not at home.
I will remain at the telegraph office tonight until it closes, if you wish to wire me.”
As the men searched the island, they noticed that although the East landing seemed intact, albeit not ready for their arrival, the West landing showed signs of damage from recent storms.
The railway beside the path that was used to transport goods up the steep cliffs had been wrenched out of its housing, there were iron railings bent over and a box about 100ft above sea level had been smashed open.
The lighthouse men kept daily logs and the last entry was for 9am on 15 December 1900, it referred to the damage so this had obviously occurred before the men’s disappearance.
A few days later, The Northern Lighthouse Board sent Superintendent Robert Muirhead to investigate further. Muirhead confirmed Moore’s initial findings and pointed to a particularly heavy storm front that was believed to have hit the island during the time of the men’s disappearance as the most likely culprit.
A buoy that had been fastened to the railings 110ft up had vanished. As well, a large block of stone weighing upwards of a ton had been clearly dislodged by something before falling onto the path below.
Over the years, there have been many theories put forward about the missing lighthouse men and details have been added often for dramatic effect. Tales such as Joseph Moore finding uneaten meals on the table, this was not true and questions over the mental health of some of the men. Again, these are untrue, there is no evidence at all in the log books to suggest there was anything wrong with the men prior to their disappearance.
The log book entries only refer to the damage on the West landing.
Despite intensive searches and detailed investigations, the bodies of the three men were never found and no formal explanation has ever been fully confirmed for their disappearance.
Mysteries such as these will always bring fantastic theories to the surface such as murder; one of the lighthouse men became enraged and pushed the other two over and then threw himself in after them or abduction; that it was the evil spirits on the Island that took them. The answer was probably much simpler than that however.
In his report in 1901 to the Northern Lighthouse Board, Superintendent Muirhead believed that it was a freak wave that took them all out to sea. His thoughts were that two of the men must have gone out to secure some of the rigging in the harsh conditions, the 3rd man staying behind as was required (the lighthouse was never to be left unattended at any time.).
Did he see a large swell coming towards the other men from his higher vantage point and then run out to warn them and in doing so got caught up himself?
This would explain the rushed exit, overturned chair and lack of oilskins; he was in such a rush that he forgot to put them on.
If this were the case though, it does beg the question. Why was the lighthouse door closed (perhaps the wind could have done that, that is fair) but the gate being locked?
Also, these men were experienced lighthouse men, working in very harsh conditions for many years. How were they ‘surprised” by a large wave and why were the bodies never recovered anywhere – would they not have been washed ashore at some point?
These are questions that will never be answered but do remain and continue to make this an enduring tale of mystery and wonder to this day.
After the incident, the lighthouse remained manned until 1971 when it was automated and now the only visit to the island is for essential maintenance.
In 1912, Wilfrid Gibson published his famous poem, Flannan Isle. The piece wasn’t historically accurate but it did create a sense of danger and uncertainty which captivated audiences then and now.
Whatever happened on that fateful day, 3 brave men, James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur, The Flannan Isles Lighthouse Keepers or Wickies as they were affectionately known lost their lives doing a difficult and often lonely job that kept many thousands of ships and their sailors safe across the seas.
To listen to the Wonder Podcast episode – The Keepers – head on over to Wonder Podcast Season 1 Episode 7
Until Next Time – Have a great day!