Transcript: 122. The Vanishing at Eilean Mòr Lighthouse | Scotland

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Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle | To keep the lamp alight,
As we steered under the lee, we caught | No glimmer through the night.”

A passing ship at dawn had brought |The news; and quickly we set sail,
To find out what strange thing might ail | The keepers of the deep-sea light.

The Winter day broke blue and bright | With glancing sun and glancing spray,
As o’er the swell our boat made way | As gallant as a gull in flight.

As, on the threshold, for a spell | We paused, we seemed to breathe the smell
Of limewash and of tar | Familiar as our daily breath,
As though ‘t were some strange scent of death | And so, yet wondering, side by side,

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.

We listened; but we only heard | The feeble cheeping of a bird | That starved upon its perch:
And, listening still, without a word, We set about our hopeless search.

We hunted high, we hunted low;
And soon ransacked the empty house;
Then o’er the Island, to and fro, We ranged, to listen and to look
In every cranny, cleft or nook

But, though we searched from shore to shore,
We found no sign in any place:

We seemed to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought, on three men dead.

This 1912 ballad by Wilfred Wilson Gibsonwas inspired by actual events that took place in the Flannan Isles off the coast of Scotland on the day after Christmas in 1900. A relief boat arrived with supplies at the Eilean Mòr Lighthouse, but there was no sign of its three keepers. It was like the earth had swallowed them whole.

Over time many theories have surfaced. But to this day, we still don’t know what happened to the three lighthouse keepers on this lonely rock-island, in the middle of the ocean, all those years ago…

>>Intro Music

The Flannan Isles are located 20 miles west from the Isle of Lewis, off the northernmost tip of Scotland, in the Hebrides {Heb-ruh-dees}. Eilean Mòr is the biggest of seven islets grouped together, also referred to as ‘the Seven Hunters’.

Although it is the largest the group Eilean Mòr with its egg-shape is less than a mile in diameter. It is isolated, surrounded only by scattered islands, mostly uninhabited. To the west is nothing but ocean for 2000 miles, where Atlantic reaches the North American shore.

In the 1890s, Eilean Mòr had no residents, apart from some birds and sheep. Locals from the Isle of Lewis had hunting rights on Eilean Mòr and went to collect eggs, feathers, and quills during summer. It was colloquially known as ‘the other country’ because more superstitious folks believed that the island had supernatural elements attached to it. Anyone who had ever ventured to the small island felt that there was something strange, something inexplicable on the island. It was home to many legends, like that of other-worldly entities who roamed the rocky landscape. Shepherds who took their sheep to graze on the island were too spooked to ever stay overnight. If injured sheep grazed the pastures of Eilean Mòr, their wounds healed miraculously.

No one ever lived on the island. There were remnants of a small chapel, built in the 7th Century by St Flannan, an Irish missionary-bishop. St Flannan used the chapel as a retreat and did not reside on the island permanently. The chapel imposed some strange rituals, like when anyone wanted to go inside and pray, they had to take off their shirts before crawling around the chapel on their knees. Only then could they go inside. There was a sense of respect for tradition, and no one questioned why things were the way they were on Eilean Mòr. If it was a shepherd or fowl hunter’s first time on the island, they were not allowed to explore by themselves, as a more experienced person was required to walk them through all the unique customs.

One of these customs was that you were never to mention the name of the islands (Flannan), but you could say the name of the country (Scotland). Likewise, there were rules about hunting fowl: a hunter was never to throw a stone at a bird, and hunting was not permitted after evening prayers. 17th Century historian, Martin Martin wrote about these customs and rituals, but there is no evidence that these strange customs were still in play in 1900.

Because of the treacherous waters and often stormy weather of the Hebrides, The Northern Lighthouse Board decided that Eilean Mòr’s location was ideal for a lighthouse. It was elevated and had a large inclined grassed area that could lead up the buildings at the highest point.

Construction of the lighthouse commenced in 1884 and took four years, instead of the projected two. The island had many steep rockfaces, as high as 150ft, and transporting supplies and building materials was no easy task. The weather was unpredictable, with strong gales forcing builders to stop construction from time to time. Because of the setbacks, the project also ran over budget, and an additional £4,000 was needed to complete the structure.

When it was all done, the 75ft lighthouse stood proudly on top of the highest point on Eilean Mòr. It rose an imposing 275ft above sea level. Visitors to the island could arrive at one of two landing spots: one to the east and one to the west. Captains would choose the safest option of the day, depending on the direction and strength of the wind. On top of a steep cliff face at each landing spot was a crane, to offload supplies and hoist it up to the lighthouse.

The lighthouse shone its first beams on the 7th of December 1898. The light at the top was as strong as 140,00 candles, with its beam visible to ships 24 nautical miles away. Keepers had no way to communicate with the outside world from the island, as radio-communication was not in use at the time.

As a form of back-up, The Northern Lighthouse Board (or NLB) offered Roderick MacKenzie £8 a year to keep an eye out. He was a gamekeeper on Gallan Head, located 17 miles to the south of Eilean Mòr. The lighthouse keepers could send signals by using poles with black discs on the balcony of the lighthouse. It would interfere with the light, and MacKenzie would know there was a problem. He was then supposed to contact the NLB who would send someone out. Keeping the lighthouse in working order was the main priority, and if there was a problem, it needed to be fixed as soon as possible. For the most part, the keepers would have been able to do repairs, so MacKenzie served as additional support. A year after the lighthouse shone its first beam, there had been no cause for concern.

The Eilean Mòr lighthouse was officially staffed by four men – of which three stayed on the island, and the fourth one rotated. During their time on the mainland, they resided in Breasclete on The Isle of Lewis, 20 miles away. Every two weeks the boat arrived at Eilean Mòr, bringing a fresh-and-rested keeper as well as supplies. So the longest someone would stay before going home, was six weeks without a break.

There was no way to leave the island, and if there were to be an emergency, the keepers needed the skill and grit to deal with it, until the next time the relief vessel came. Keepers had to be of a unique temperament, someone who could handle the solitary nature of the job, yet be a team player. Superintendent Robert Muirhead hand-picked the keepers for Eilean Mòr. Because it was a new station that still had to be established, only the best would do.

Moving up the ranks as a lighthouse keeper, you had to bide your time. The number of years’ experience a keeper had would place them higher up on the ladder. 43-year-old husband and father of four, James Ducat was brought in as the Principal Lighthouse Keeper. He had 20 years’ experience behind his name, having worked in lighthouses all over Scotland. He was appointed to the position before construction on the lighthouse was completed.

The first assistant keeper was a man called William Ross. However, in December 1999, he was sick and had to return to the mainland. 40-year-old tailor-by-trade, former soldier and family man, Donald MacArthur was brought in to help. He was an ‘occasional keeper’ – that is usually a person who lived locally and was trained as a keeper. The ‘occasional’ was on stand-by in case a nearby lighthouse needed an extra pair of hands. MacArthur was not very experienced, he had less than 30 days’ worth of training the year before, starting in January 1900.

The third person on Eilean Mòr in December of that year, was the Second Assistant Keeper, 28-year-old Thomas Marshall. He was a seaman who also had about four years’ experience in lighthouse keeping.

The fourth member in rotation, Joseph Moore, was on the mainland for his two weeks of reprieve. Regular staff rotation was essential, seeing as the isolation and dogged routine of a keeper was stressful and arduous. To give you an idea of how it worked: the ‘navigation light’ was lit at dusk and extinguished it at dawn. Someone had to be up the tower, manning the light the entire time. A rough schedule looked like this: person A would light it up at 6pm and stay there till 10 when person B took over. This shift ran till 2am and the third keeper would clock in from 2-6am. The one who did the early-evening change would come in and stay till dawn and put out the light and prepare it for the following night.

During daylight hours there was a short reprieve. However, this time was used to complete maintenance tasks to the buildings and the landing spots, making sure they were ready for the next supply vessel. Assistant lighthouse keepers (ALKs) took turns to cook and do minor chores like cleaning. The Principal Lighthouse Keeper (or PLK) took the lead, drew up the rosters and list maintenance jobs. On the days an ALK was the cook, he did not have to do any other jobs. Afternoons were used to catch up on sleep before the 4-hour roster for the night kicked in again.

It was always a highlight when the relief boat came. The Hesperus always brought fresh food and of course, another person to bring some variety to an otherwise mundane routine. Around midday on Wednesday, the 26th of December 1900 – The Hesperus, captained by James Harvey, arrived at Eilean Mòr. They were due to arrive on the 20th – about a week before. But due to inclement weather, the crew postponed the trip by a week.

The custom was to sound a steam whistle on arrival, and in a matter of seconds, the keepers would emerge from the lighthouse and make their way down to the landing beach. But something was not quite right on this icy winter’s day. No one came running. And there was no flag waving on the pole. Usually, empty boxes were waiting at the landing spot, as the keepers were keen for supplies, especially with the relief coming almost a week later than planned. But there was nothing.

The Hesperus crew waited a while and sounded the whistle a second time. After a couple of times, there was still no movement on the island, and Captain Harvey ordered his men to light a flare. Again, with no response from Eilean Mòr.

They cut a small boat loose and Joseph Moore, went ashore. He was confused as he made his way up to the lighthouse, dreading what he would find. Strangely, the entrance gate was closed. Moore then walked around to a door leading to the kitchen and storeroom, but that was also closed. The actual kitchen door was open, but no one was there. There was no fire – the primary source of heat in the building. In fact, the coals and ashes were cold, there had not been a fire for a while. He looked in the bedrooms, and all the beds were empty, just as they would have left it in the morning.

Moore returned to the kitchen and tried to make sense of everything. All pots and pans had been cleaned and packed away, so the cook on duty had completed his task. Strangely, all the clocks have stopped, making the place feel like it was frozen in time. Moore returned to the Hesperus and told the crew that the keepers were not inside. A couple of men were sent back with Moore, to search the rest of the island.

They went back to the buildings and up to the top of the lighthouse. This was as quiet and abandoned as the buildings below. The lamp was in working order and ready to be lit, which means they had prepared it for the night. The lightroom also had it blinds drawn – as they did during daytime hours. So, whatever happened to the keepers must have occurred before dusk.

In the common room, two pairs of waterproof jackets, or ‘oilskins’ were missing, one was still on its hook. With temperatures dropping to below zero, considering the chill factor, nobody would be outside without proper gear. The fact that one jacket was on its hook implied that two of the three men went out prepared, but what about the third? Also, two pairs of sea boots were gone. Moore said that they only wore the boots when they went down to the landing beaches, not at the top where the lighthouse was located. Had there been an accident of sorts down at the beaches? Were the men trapped? Injured? Or worse…

Moore and the Hesperus crew still could not find any sign of any of the men, so they took the search outside. The lighthouse was on the highest point of the island, and there was a good view of the surrounding terrain. The grassy hill that swept down to the landing beach was wide and open, it was easy to see that none of the men was there. The crew looked down the cliffs to see if the men had fallen down. But would all three have met with such an unfortunate ending?

All over the island were signs of severe destruction, there had clearly been a violent storm. The rail tracks that were laid during construction of the lighthouse had been pulled off the rocky surface. A large rock, weighing about a ton had shifted from where it was before. The searchers felt that there must have been an epic storm that swept over the island.

The only logical conclusion was that a large wave must have come and washed the men off the cliff into the tempestuous, icy cold ocean below. After many hours of looking around the beaches, they were confident that there were no keepers on Eilean Mòr – dead or alive. Captain Harvey went back to port and sent a telegraph 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 our 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 the 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.

Moore and the three volunteers Allan Macdonald, Campbell and Archie Lamont stayed behind, with Moore in charge, as he knew the lay of the land better than any of the others. Moore was understandably nervous to remain behind, but there was a lot of pressure on him to take charge, seeing as he was the only surviving member of the keeper-team. The group made sure things were up and running as soon as possible. They continued scouring the island, covering every square inch, looking for any clue as to what could have occurred.

The east boat landing showed no signs of damage. When the men made their way to the west side, they noticed a box containing fish tackle and mooring rope was no longer there. The ropes were scattered all over the rocks, and iron railings were no longer in place. It looked like a forceful wave had forced the fences out of position, twisting them and washing some of the pieces of iron away completely. The crane on top of the cliff was still standing. A lifebuoy fastened to the railing along the path to the top of the steps had been removed. However, the ropes that kept it in place was still secured – no one had touched it. Everything around it was intact, yet the conclusion was that the buoy was torn off from its spot by a rogue wave – this was 110ft above sea level. That is about ten storeys high. And nothing around it was damaged, the wave just neatly picked off the buoy.

The men were able to estimate when the keepers disappeared, by going through the keeper’s logbook. Everything of significance was recorded, such as daily thermostat and barometer readings. The log mentioned the damage to the west boat landing spot, so whatever had caused it, was not the same event as that caused the vanishing.

The last entry in the logbook was made on the 13th of December. Two days’ worth of notes were made on a slate, to be entered into the log. The entry on the 15th noted that the weather was terrible – heavy rain came every day. Even as far back as the 12th Marshall wrote that he had not seen such severe winds in 20 years.

Through time, more of the log entries were made public. The entries were strange and distressing, giving an insight into the mental state of the men. Marshall was the one who wrote the logbook entries. He said that, with the violent gusts of wind, Ducat had grown quiet and MacArthur had been crying. This seemed out of place for a tough and experienced former soldier like MacArthur. The entry on December 13th said:

“Storm continued through the night. The wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. McArthur praying. 12 noon. Grey daylight. Me, Ducat, and McArthur prayed.”

On December 15th Marshall wrote:

“Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.”

Keith McCloskey’s book, The Lighthouse – The Mystery of The Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers, challenges the validity of the logbook entries. They were first made public by American author Vincent Hayes Gaddis in his book, Invisible Horizons: True Mysteries of the Sea. He was the journalist who coined the term ‘Bermuda Triangle’. How the Eilean Mòr log book came into his possession, no one knows.

McCloskey argues that Marshall was the youngest and therefore the lowest in rank on ‘the rock’. In those days, writing negative comments about your superior would have had serious consequences. He would have risked losing his job. As a keeper, you were given a cottage in town on the mainland, and food was provided. Losing your job meant losing your home, so people took care not to anger their bosses. Marshall called Ducat ‘irritable’ ‘moody’ and ‘quiet’.

Joseph Moore’s official statement to the NLB noted that the log was completed with the information about the wind, what time they extinguished the light, what time the sun rose and readings of a thermometer and a barometer – there is no mention of the state of the keepers’ emotions, prayers or tears.

McCloskey also points out that none of the statements mentioned the uneaten food on the table, the overturned chair on the floor or the lone bird on a perch. This information surfaced in Wilfred Wilson Gibson’s poem ‘Flannan Isle’, and somehow it became part of the folklore of what took place on Eilean Mòr on that December day.

On the 29th of December the new lighthouse keeper, Milne, and a storekeeper named Jack were brought to the island to relieve Moore and the others. They only just managed to hold things together under the circumstances.

Nothing like this had ever happened in the history of the Northern Lighthouse Board. They had to prioritise an investigation into the matter and asked all vessels in the area to provide any information they had. Weather reports and log entries from other ships in the area noted the weather was clear and mild between the 12th and the 15th and storms only began on the 17th. Passing vessels said that the light was definitely shining on the 14th of December.

The cargo steamer Archtor under the command of captain Holmanwas the first vessel to notice that there was no light. They passed the island around midnight on the 15th. It was making its regular journey from Philadelphia to Edinburgh. There were big swells that night, and it was very windy, but it was clear. If the light was on, they would have seen it, no doubt. The lighthouse was new on the route, having gone into operation a year before. The captain felt uneasy, but before he could report it, his ship suffered problems of its own and ended up beached at Carphie Rock. The concerns about the lighthouse slipped his mind, as he had other issues to address.

Roderick MacKenzie, the gamekeeper from the island across the bay, reported that he could not see the lighthouse between 7 and 29 December. Through the fog, he was able to see the trusted light beaming on the 12th of December, however. But that was the last time. He asked both his sons to help him look, but they could also not see anything, yet he failed to get in touch with the NLB.

On the 20th of December, the whole of Scotland suffered severe gales, which almost wiped out the entire fleet of fishing vessels in Shetland. Eilean Mòr’s logbook made a note of a storm, one so bad that it ripped up the train tracks and moved heavy boulders, but it was over by the 15th. Was this simply the calm before an even bigger storm?

Superintendent of the Commissioners of Northern Lights, Robert Muirhead’s official report stated:

“I am of the opinion that the most likely explanation of this 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, etc and that an unexpectedly large roller had come up on 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.”

It seemed a freak accident had caused the lives of the keepers. It was a tragedy, but no other explanation made sense. Either a giant wave washed over the entire island, taking the keepers into the ocean below, OR a big gust of wind blew them off the island. Over the years, many theories came to light, as people tried to make sense of this unexplained event.

Ducat’s family recalled that he was hesitant to accept the job. He told Robert Muirhead that his wife and children needed him, and he felt the risk was too great. For someone with so much experience as a lighthouse keeper, this statement was strange. Why did Ducat think that working on Eilean Mòr would be more dangerous than any other lighthouse keeper position? Eventually, he took the post, as it was a great honour – he was hand-picked by Muirhead because he was a trusted and excellent keeper. In preparation, Ducat spent 14 months on Eilean Mòr before his official duty started, because he wanted to familiarise himself with the environment.

His daughter, Anna Ducat, recalled the last time she ever saw her father. Many years later, she told this story:

It was a lovely sunny day, and my brother Arthur and I were playing in the high walled gardens. My father came out of the house and picked each of us in his arms and gave us a kiss, then he walked very quickly away. We ran after him, shouting ‘Daddy, Daddy’ and he stopped at the road end and waited for us, picked each of us up again and gave us another kiss. I have always wondered if he had some kind of premonition that he would never see us again.”

One theory arose about an unannounced ship that passed Eilean Mòr. Perhaps it was in trouble, and the keepers went down to the landing beaches to guide them to safety, but then they either succumbed to the forces of nature. Or did a ship stop and take all men prisoner for some reason? Piracy was not very common around those parts, but of course, there is always a possibility.

A theory that gained a lot of traction was that of a murder-suicide after one of the keepers suffered a mental breakdown. The constant howling of the northern gales, paired with the relentless rotation of four-hour shifts would be enough to break most people. The murder-suicide theory speculates than an argument ensued, and one of the men killed the other two. Realising what he had done – did he end his own life by jumping into the sea?

Like most theories, one cannot discard this one. But there are questions. There were no signs of violence anywhere in the lighthouse. There was no blood, and nothing was out of place. But if one man killed the other two, why were two oil skins missing?

Another of this version of this theory could answer that question. The man said to have been responsible was the ‘occasional keeper’ and former soldier Donald MacArthur. The story was that he had suffered a ‘brainstorm’ (meaning that he snapped) and stormed outside without his weather-gear. The other two men donned their outdoor clothing, even the boots, as they didn’t know where he was headed. They then followed him, but then tragedy struck – an undefined disaster.

Theories that something mystical took place on Eilean Mór were also popular. These stories focussed on the strange energy that has always been associated with the island. The Outer Hebrides have been populated, although sporadically and sparsely for over five thousand years. Some signs of Iron Age settlements can be found and Viking invasions in the 9th century stamped Norse names onto some of the islands.

One legend alludes to a race of small people living on the island. 17th Century antiquarian, Martin Martin wrote about the discovery of small bones, appearing to be from humans, which made ancient explorers believe that a pigmy race inhabited the island. When the lighthouse keepers disappeared, people who believed in the legend, said that the pigmies turned the keepers into giant birds with their mystical powers. Were the three birds watching Joseph Moore as he arrived at the lighthouse on December 26th 1900, perhaps the three missing keepers? Only a handful of people believe this could be true.

One of the most plausible theories, however, came from Irish historian, Mike Dash, who wrote a comprehensive paper about the case in 1997. Based on information from Walter Aldebert, working as the lighthouse’s superintendent from 1953 to 1957, waves around Eilean Mòr could be monstrous, reaching heights of 200 feet. This was well above the west boat landing spot, so if the men were down there, they would have been in trouble. Remember, the highest point of the island, the top of the lighthouse was 275ft above sea level.

From the log, it is evident that the keepers had had a couple of stressful days with wild weather. On the morning of Saturday, the 15th, James Ducat had trimmed the lamp, oil fountains were filled up, and the light was ready to go. In the afternoon, the men had lunch together. After their meal James Ducat and Thomas Marshall most likely went outside to secure the rope that went from the lighthouse down the cliff. This was their lifeline. It was how the crew from the relief boat would make their way up the hill. MacArthur stayed behind to clean up. He washed the dishes, then sat down to finish his meal.

Meanwhile, one of the men working on the rope is swooped away by a rogue wave. The survivor ran back to the lighthouse to call MacArthur for assistance. In the rush of the crisis, he left without taking his weather jacket. When they reached the top of the cliff, another wave hit, taking both men into the bowels of the ocean.

Adlebert said that he was outside during a storm once because he was trying to get a photo of the large waves. According to Adlebert, he saw a coil of rope, that was too heavy to blow away, no matter how intense the wind was, be washed off a cliff by a wave, as if it was nothing. He felt that the wind would not have been strong enough to take three men down, but one mighty wave could well have been. But the men had to have been outside, as the kitchen door was open when Joseph Moore arrived and there was no water damage inside.

John Love, the author of A Natural History of Lighthouses, came to a similar conclusion. He reckons that seeing as though it was regulation that one keeper must remain in the lighthouse at all times, MacArthur stayed behind. In the time leading up to the disappearances, Thomas Marshall had been fined five shillings for negligence. He had left equipment out, and it was washed away during a storm. Like Dash, Love theorises that Marshall and Ducat went outside to secure the gear. Perhaps MacArthur saw a big wave come in from where he was standing in the lighthouse. He ran out to warn his colleagues, but he was too late, and they all ended up swept off the island into the ocean.

The Northern Lighthouse Board read all written reports and accounts, of Moore, Muirhead and others and seven months after the unexplained disappearances, announced that they decided to quote: take no further proceedings end quote. The final ruling was that all three keepers had perished due to a freak accident, a force majeure, like a giant wave or a powerful gust of wind. The fact that no bodies were ever recovered was not addressed.

One hundred years later, in 2000, the tragedy was commemorated, with a one minute silence observed by the Northern Lighthouse Board. The Film The Vanishing was released in 2018 and puts forward its own theory of what could have happened, but the truth is, we’ll probably never know. It is a solid portrayal of how the lightkeepers would have lived, and definitely worth watching if you are interested in this story. We can also strongly recommend Keith McCloskey’s book, The Lighthouse – The Mystery of The Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers.

Since 1971 the lighthouse runs without a keeper. These days it is only visited a couple of times a year for maintenance. Besides that, there is nothing on the island. Just birds and rabbits remain, as well as the unanswered mystery of what happened to the lighthouse keepers of Eilean Mòr on one cold and dark December day.

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