St Kilda is well-known as the isolated archipelago 40 miles (64 km) west of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland in
the North Atlantic Ocean. Following crop failures and illness, the remaining population of 36 people on the only inhabited island, Hirta, was evacuated in 1930. St Kilda became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 reflecting both its natural and cultural significance. However there is another much less well-known group of remote islands off the Outer Hebrides, which is the location of an enduring mystery which occurred in December 1900, when all three keepers of the lighthouse on an island there vanished without trace.
The Flannan Isles (or Na h-Eileanan Flannach in Gaelic) or Seven Hunters lie 20 miles (32 km) west of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Not as far out to sea as St Kilda, but further north. And since the automation of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse in 1971, no one has lived there, although the islands became a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1983. The lighthouse, and a ruined chapel dedicated to St Flannan, is on the largest island, Eilean Mòr (Big Isle).
The lighthouse was constructed for the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) between 1895 and 1899 near the highest point of Eilean Mòr at a cost of £6,914. All the materials in the building of the 75 feet high lighthouse had to be hauled 150 feet up cliffs from supply boats. The lighthouse was first lit on 7 December 1899. There was no wireless communication, the only form of communication being a series of semaphore-style balls on posts which could be seen from the Hebrides on a good day.
Other than its relative isolation, it would be little different from most of the lighthouses built off the coasts of Britain were it not for the events which took place just over a year after it was commissioned. In December 1900, the lighthouse was manned by a three-man team (James Ducat, Principal Keeper; Thomas Marshall, Second Assistant; and Donald Macarthur, Occasional Keeper), with a rotating fourth man (Joseph Moore), on leave on the Isle of Lewis.
On 15 December, the steamer Archtor on passage from Philadelphia in the United States to Leith near Edinburgh noticed as it passed the islands that the light was not working, and this was reported three days later on docking at Oban further south. The scheduled relief ship for the lighthouse, the Hesperus, which was based in Stromness in the Orkney Islands, had been due to visit on 20 December but it was delayed because of rough weather and did not reach Eilean Mòr until noon on Boxing Day, 26 December. When they arrived, ominously, none of the lighthouse keepers were there to welcome them ashore, the flag was not flying, and none of the usual provision boxes were ready on the landing stage for re-stocking.
When Joseph Moore was put ashore, alone, he found the gate and main door to the lighthouse compound closed, the beds unmade, the clocks stopped, and no trace of the keepers. He returned to the landing stage to tell the captain of the Hesperus, Jim Harvey, the bad news. Moore then carried out a further search with two of the crew. The lamps were trimmed and refilled, the lens and machinery had been cleaned, the washing-up had been done, and there were cold ashes in the grate. But a set of oilskins belonging to Donald McArthur was found suggesting that the keeper had left the lighthouse without them, which was surprising considering the severity of the weather. Other than that, an overturned chair by the kitchen table was the only sign of anything amiss in the lighthouse. Outside, on the rest of island, the three lighthouse keepers were nowhere to be found. They had vanished.
The Hesperus returned to the shore station on Lewis, leaving Moore and three volunteer seamen to attend to the light. Captain Harvey sent a telegram to the NLB on 26 December 1900, saying that ‘a dreadful accident has happened at the Flannans. The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the Occasional have disappeared from the Island. … The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.’
The men remaining searched every corner of the island. At the West Landing for boats, the recent storms had caused considerable damage. Iron railings were twisted, part of the iron railway by the path was wrenched out of its concrete, and a rock weighing over a ton had been dislodged. The turf on the top of the 200 foot high cliff had been ripped away from the cliff edge. However the final entry for the keeper’s log had been written up on a slate at 9am on 15 December for transferring to the logbook later on: ‘December 15. Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all’. It was clear that the damage had occurred before then.
As it had been noticed on the evening of the 15 December by the Archtor that the light had not been lit, the keepers must have disappeared sometime after finishing their work in the morning and before night-fall, which at that time of year would have occurred at around 4pm.
No bodies were ever found and the loneliness of the rocky islet lent itself to national speculation and excited imaginings. One of the verses in Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s 1912 ballad, Flannan Isle, refers to an uneaten meal laid out on the table and the keepers having 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 untouched; 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
However this does not fit with Joseph Moore’s recorded observations of the scene which stated ‘The kitchen utensils were all very clean, which is a sign that it must be after dinner some time they left.’ The full poem can be read here.
The press was full of implausible theories: that the ghost of St Flannan had been responsible; that a sea serpent had carried the men away; that they had been abducted by the Secret Service; or that they had met their fate through the malevolent presence of a boat filled with ghosts.
On 29 December, Robert Muirhead, an NLB superintendent, arrived to conduct the official investigation into the incident. He examined the clothing left behind in the lighthouse and concluded that James Ducat and Thomas Marshall had gone down to the western landing stage, and that Donald Macarthur (the ‘Occasional’) had left the lighthouse in heavy rain in his shirt sleeves. In his report of 8 January 1901, he stated:
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 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.
He felt it necessary to add that whoever had left the lighthouse last and unattended was in breach of NLB rules.
Robert Muirhead also noted the emotive quality of some of the entries in the log, such as ‘James Ducat irritable’ and ‘Donald McArthur crying’. These entries did not fit with what was known about the men. As for the final entry, Muirhead said that he knew all the men personally, and that he had never thought of any of them as particularly God-fearing. It has been suggested that the logbook entries may have been a hoax, though if this was the case, what was the motive?
The deaths of James Ducat (who left a widow and four children), Donald Macarthur (who left a widow and two children), and Thomas Marshall, cast a shadow over the lighthouse service for many years.
However Christopher Nicholson offers a different theory for the disappearance of the keepers in his book Rock Lighthouses of Britain: The End of an Era? The West Landing lies in Skiobageo, one of the many narrow gullies found on the coastline of Eilean Mòr. In high seas or storms, water would rush into the gully and then burst out again with considerable force. Nicholson speculates that Macarthur 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 succumb himself as well. This theory explains the over-turned chair and the set of oilskins remaining indoors, although not the closed gate and door. This theory may have been derived from Walter Aldebert, a keeper on the Flannans from 1953–1957. Aldebert who had photographed many of these waves, believed that one man may have been washed into the sea, that his companion rushed back to the light for help but they were both washed away by a second giant wave. In his book The Scottish Islands, Hamish Haswell-Smith says though this is plausible, such explosive waves are in fact very rare and for there to be two so close together would be extraordinary.
Whilst not many people will know of the mystery of the Flannan Isles, it has inspired a number of British composers and writers. The rock group Genesis, wrote and recorded The Mystery of Flannan Isle Lighthouse in 1968 (‘they say no one has ever come back from there’) and in a Doctor Who TV serial Horror of Fang Rock broadcast in 1977 an alien attacks the keepers of a lighthouse. The modern chamber opera The Lighthouse composed by Peter Maxwell Davies in 1979 is based on the story (the sounds of a foghorn, the sea swell, and sea birds permeate the piece), and Angela J Elliott dramatised the story in her novel Some Strange Scent of Death after a line from Gibson’s poem.
The final words of Superintendent Muirhead in his official report were ‘I was with the Keepers for more than a month during the summer of 1899, when everyone worked hard to secure the early lighting of the Station before winter, and, working along with them, I appreciated the manner in which they performed their work. I visited Flannan Islands when the relief was made so lately as 7th December, and have the melancholy recollection that I was the last person to shake hands with them and bid them adieu.’
More information about the Flannan Isles, the lighthouse and the mystery is on the Northern Lighthouse Board website here.