The Disappearance of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers

St._Flannan's_Cell_and_Flannan_Isles_Lighthouse_-_geograph.org.uk_-_623920On December 26th, 1900, Boxing Day, the SS Hesperus arrived at Eilean Mor, one of the Flannan Islands off of the coast of Scotland. On board the tiny vessel, Joseph Moore was preparing to take up his duties as a replacement for one of the lighthouse keepers at the island’s lighthouse; which besides the remnants of an old shepherd’s chapel built tied to St. Flannan, the Eilean Mor lighthouse is the only structure on the largest of the Flannan Islands.

It is a steep, treacherous climb from the boat landing to the lighthouse, even with the use of a 160-step staircase that runs up along the 200-foot cliff. The very landscape of the island projects an eerie atmosphere; combined with the isolation and tales of supernatural occurrences, including old Scottish legends of a race of little people inhabiting the land, the Eilean Mor is certainly an ominous feature.

Normally, one of the lighthouse keepers on the island would come down to greet the boat coming ashore, and a flag would have placed in view of the ship, to alert the crew that their arrival had been noticed. Being only met by silence, Moore headed up the stairs towards the lighthouse alone. Captain James Harvey, stayed with the boat to await the arrival of the keeper who was to be taken back to the mainland. Instead, all that Harvey would take to the mainland was a message. One that would be forwarded to the Northern Lighthouse Board Headquarters in Edinburgh; the first few lines of the telegraph are as follows:

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.

There is a mix of accounts as to what Moore found at the top of the cliffs. Per some, he found that the door to the lighthouse was unlocked, by others, the door was locked. This discrepancy is rather small compared to other portions of the story, both fact and possibly fiction. Inside the entry way, two of the three oil skinned coats were missing, meaning that one of the men went outside without his gear. This would have been unusual; it was also against the rules of the Lighthouse Board for all of the lighthouse keepers to be outside at the same time. The description of the entryway has been verified in every account of the day that the lighthouse was found unoccupied by any living humans.

In the kitchen area, which this part may be a more dramatic re-telling that has developed over the years than the actual truth of the matter, there was an overturned chair and some half eaten food. Most historians who look back on the accounts believe that this version of the tale was a part of the media frenzy and stories told to add a higher level of dramatic flair to the tragic event. Also, all the clocks in the lighthouse had stopped, meaning that no one had wound them for several days before Moore’s arrival. Captain Harvey ordered a search of the 39-acre island, but no living soul was to be found.

The_lighthouse_on_Eilean_MorSeveral days later, the Lighthouse board’s superintendent came to the island. Robert Muirhead had known all three of the men personally as he was the one who had recruited the three for the positions of keepers. All that Muirhead found in the lighthouse that held any clue about the men was the log book. Quite possibly, it is what is written in the log book that forms one of the multiple theories as to what happened to the men. In the log, second assistant Thomas Marshall wrote that the island was hit with severe winds. The Principal Keeper, James Ducat had been ‘very quiet’ and William McArthur, the third assistant, had been crying. This entry was dated December 12th. As the one theory states, two of the men were the victims of murder, then the third committed suicide.

Considering that no one remarked upon seeing any blood or signs of a struggle, this theory is considered not a likely. These theories site the men’s extreme isolation as the cause of one of the three turning against his fellow keepers. Typically speaking, the factor of isolation causing disruptions in a person’s state of mind happen when they are placed in solitary confinement; documentation of these sorts of events are noted in prisons where the convicts had been in solitary confinement for a lengthy amount of time. In the case of the lighthouse, none of the three were completely, physically alone. Though it would explain the peculiar notes in the log on the 12th that stated that one of the keepers had been quiet and another crying; as far as the stories go, McArthur would not have been one to breakdown over a storm.

There is another log dated on December 13th, noting that the storm was still over the island and that the three men were praying. On the following day, there is no entry. Then the final mark is on December 15th, to state that the storm was over. It was also on the 15th that a passing ship noted that the light on the lighthouse was not lit.

The conclusion of the investigation by the Northern Lighthouse Board was that all three of the men were swept out to sea by a rogue wave. This was based on the evidence of ropes strewn about by the landing platform. The ropes should have been in a brown crate that is situated seventy feet above the platform. Despite this being stated as the “official” and most likely cause of the disappearances, it is not without issue. For one, the only way that the men could have been taken out to sea by an obscure wave is if all three were down on the platform. Once again, this would have been against the regulations of the Lighthouse Board. When this is combined with the evidence that only two of the men were wearing their heavy outdoor wear, would imply that the third man ran out quickly to help the other two. For a calm day, there seems to be little reason for the third man to rush down to the platform. Quite certainly, no wave would have been able to touch the lighthouse since it is 215-feet above sea level. If the other two men had been washed out to sea by a wave, then what happened to the third? Was he too taken unsuspectingly by a wave?

According to those on the mainland and the Isle of Lewes, the seas were calm. However, this does not mean that calm seas in one location mean the same in another. Where one side of a town may have rain, another may have sun. During the rough storm that plagued the men in the middle of December, the mainland was relatively dry. By meteorologically accounts of this time period, the weather was not anymore unusual than any other December.

There are some that still question as to why the bodies were never found. Surely if they had been taken by the ocean, they may have washed up somewhere? This could simply be explained that the current took them in a different direction from the land; for there are many victims of the ocean, from both the sea and shore who were never seen again. The wave report also does not explain how three experienced men could have been so careless and unsuspecting of the dangers around them.

None of the other theories surrounding the disappearances of the men prove any more probable. There are claims of alien abductions, sea monsters, that a giant bird carried the men off, that all three decided to jump into the ocean to commit suicide, or that they boarded a passing ship. Some are not willing to reject the idea that the men’s disappearances were not supernaturally related and that the island claimed their souls. After all, the lighthouse had only been in operation since December 7, 1899, a year before the event. As a few of the older generation can tell you, there are certain unspoken rules apply to the Flannan Islands; they are to be respected by any and all visitors. If one breaks the rules, then they will have to bear the consequences, whatever they may be.

References:

Johnson, B. (2014, January 1). The Eilean Mor Lighthouse Mystery. Retrieved March 13, 2015, from https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/The-Eilean-Mor-Lighthouse-Mystery/

(2013). Missed in History: Disappearance at Flannan Isles [Radio series episode]. In Stuff You Missed in History Class .Tracy V. Wilson .

Merritt, M. (2014, January 1). Three lighthouse keepers vanished without trace on Boxing Day 1900… now a new clue could. Retrieved March 13, 2015, from https://www.express.co.uk/scotland/475203/Three-lighthouse-keepers-vanished-without-trace-on-Boxing-Day-1900-now-a-new-clue-could

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