Eilean Mòr is a small island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, one of the Flannan Isles, also known as the Seven Hunters. Apart from its lighthouse keepers it was completely uninhabited when, in December 1900, all three of them – Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald MacArthur – were discovered to have vanished without trace.
Many stories with varying degrees of plausibility emerged to explain the men’s disappearance, including that a sea serpent or a giant seabird had carried them away; that they had arranged for a ship to take them away and start new lives; that they had been abducted by foreign spies; or that they had met their fate through the malevolent presence of a boat filled with ghosts. The official investigation by the Northern Lighthouse Board concluded however that the men were probably swept away by a rogue wave while attempting to secure some equipment.
The first indication that something was abnormal on Eilean Mòr was on 15 December 1900, when the steamship Archtor, on a passage from Philadelphia to Leith, noted in its log that the light was not operational in poor weather conditions. When the ship docked in Leith on 18 December 1900, the sighting was passed on to the Northern Lighthouse Board. A relief vessel, the lighthouse tender Hesperus, was unable to sail from Breasclete, Lewis, as planned on 20 December owing to adverse weather, and did not reach the island until noon on 26 December.
On arrival, the crew of the Hesperus found that the flagstaff had no flag, none of the usual provision boxes had been left on the landing stage for re-stocking as usual, and none of the lighthouse keepers were there to welcome them. The relief keeper, Joseph Moore, was put ashore to investigate, and found the entrance gate to the compound and the main door closed, the beds unmade, and the clock unwound. After returning to the landing stage, he went back up to the lighthouse with Hesperus’s second-mate and a seaman. A further search revealed that the lamps had been cleaned and refilled. A set of oilskins was found, suggesting that one of the keepers had left the lighthouse without them, but there was no sign of any of them inside the lighthouse or anywhere else on the island, and no bodies were ever recovered.
A search of the island revealed considerable damage at the west landing. A box 33 metres (108 ft) above sea level had been broken and its contents strewn about; iron railings were bent over, the iron railway by the path was wrenched out of its concrete, and a rock weighing more than a ton had been displaced. On top of the cliff at more than 60 metres (197 ft) above sea level, turf had been ripped away as far as 10 metres (33 ft) from the cliff edge.
Northern Lighthouse Board investigation
On 29 December 1900, Robert Muirhead, a Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) superintendent, arrived to conduct the official investigation into the incident. Muirhead had recruited all three of the missing men and knew them personally.
Muirhead examined the clothing left behind in the lighthouse and concluded that Ducat and Marshall had gone down to the western landing stage, and that McArthur had left the lighthouse during heavy rain in his shirt sleeves; he noted that whoever left the light last and unattended was in breach of NLB rules. He also noted that some of the damage to the west landing was “difficult to believe unless actually seen”.
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 feet [34 metres] 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.
The story resulted in “fascinated national speculation” about the disappearance of the lighthouse keepers. Flannan IsleBallad by the English poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, an imaginative account of the unexplained disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in December 1900., a 1912 ballad by the poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, added a completely fictional reference to an overturned chair and uneaten meal laid out on the table, suggesting that the keepers had been suddenly disturbed.
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table spread
For dinner, meat, and cheese and bread;
But, all untouch’d; and no-one there,
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come, and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat,
For at the table head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor.
But in his official statement the relief keeper Moore stated that “The kitchen utensils were all very clean, which is a sign that it must be after dinner some time they left.”
Over time, a story developed about the existence of unusual log book entries, supposedly having Marshall writing on 12 December that there were “severe winds the likes of which I have never seen before in twenty years”. He also is said to have reported that Ducat had been “very quiet” and Donald McArthur had been crying. McArthur was a veteran mariner with a reputation for brawling, and thus it would be strange for him to be crying in response to a storm. Log entries on 13 December were said to have stated that the storm was still raging, and that all three men had been praying. But they were all experienced lighthouse keepers who would know that they were in a secure structure 150 feet (46 m) above sea level, and were in no danger inside. Furthermore, there had been no reported storms in the area on 12, 13 or 14 December. The final log entry is said to have been made on 15 December, stating “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all”. But an investigation by the historian and author Mike Dash for the Fortean Times concluded that the logbook entries were fictional later additions to the story.
The coastline of Eilean Mòr is deeply indented with narrow gullies called geos. The west landing, which is situated in such a geo, terminates in a cave. In high seas or storms, water rushes into the cave and explodes out again with considerable force. McArthur may have seen a series of large waves approaching the island and, knowing the likely danger to his colleagues, ran down to warn them only to be washed away with them in the violent swell. Recent research by James Love discovered that Marshall had previously been fined five shillings when his equipment was washed away during a huge gale. It is likely, in seeking to avoid another fine, that he and Ducat tried to secure their equipment during a storm and were swept away as a result. The fate of McArthur, although required to stay behind to man the lighthouse, can be guessed to be the same. Love speculates that McArthur probably tried to warn or help his colleagues and was also swept away. This theory also has the advantages of explaining the set of oilskins remaining indoors and McArthur’s coat remaining on its peg, although perhaps not the closed door and gate.
Another theory is based on the first-hand experiences of Walter Aldebert, a keeper on the Flannans from 1953 to 1957. He believed one man may have been washed into the sea but then his companions, who were trying to rescue him, were washed away by more rogue waves.
The disappearance of the lighthouse keepers was the inspiration for the 2019 film The Vanishing.