The Flannan Isle Lighthouse

By John May

"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." 

- from Flannan Isle by Wilfrid Gibson 


Image copyright - The Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses operating as the Northern Lighthouse Board

On 7 December 1899, the Flannan Isles lighthouse first shined its 140,000 watts of candlepower 24 nautical miles out into the North Atlantic. Rising 275 feet above the raging Atlantic, the Flannan Isles lighthouse was a beacon to those ships passing through the Outer Hebrides. While a symbol of aid, only a year later, in December 1900, the lighthouse would be forever shrouded in tragedy as three lighthouse keepers simply vanished off the face of the earth. Over 100 years later, the Flannan Isles Lighthouse Mystery continues to enthrall and has been the subject of songs, poems, novels, and even an opera. For those who are fascinated with unsolved mysteries, the fate of the lighthouse keepers provides endless speculation.

The Flannan Isles are a bleak place and off the radar of most tourists. Lying west of the Outer Hebrides, 20 miles from the isle of Lewis, the islands are also known as the Seven Hunters. Tradition holds that the isles are named after St. Flannan, who preached in the Hebrides in the 7th century. The Flannan Isles lighthouse itself is located on Eilean Mòr, the largest of the Flannan Islands. Besides the lighthouse, the only other structure to be found on the island is a small ruined chapel, located just below the lighthouse, and dedicated to St. Flannan.

It was to this bleak, dreary island that the lighthouse tender Hesperus, transporting Joseph Moore, headed toward on the morning of 26 December 1900. Returning from a fortnight’s leave, Moore was on his way to resume his watch and relieve one of his colleagues. Part of a four man crew, the other three keepers who Moore believed awaited him on Eilean Mòr were the principle keeper James Duncat, second assistant Thomas Marshall, and Donald Macarthur, filling in for William Ross, who was on sick leave.

As the Hesperus’ longboat came along the landing place, Moore already had the feeling that something was amiss. Protocol dictated that the lighthouse crew was to fly a flag to show that those on the island had spotted the relief ship, in addition to assisting the incoming men with the offloading of supplies.

Captain Harvey, in command of the Hesperus, seeing no indication of life on the island, sounded a blast from the ship’s stem whistle. Receiving no reply, a rocket was fired. When still no reply came, Moore was landed upon the island and clambered up the hundreds of steps that led to the station.

Moore described his initial search of the living quarters in a memorandum dated 28 December:

“I went up to the lighthouse and on coming to the entrance gate I found it closed, I made for the entrance door leading to the kitchen and storeroom and found it also closed, and the door inside that. But the kitchen door itself was open. On entering, I looked at the fireplace and saw that the fire was not lighted for some days. I entered the rooms in succession and found the beds empty, just as they left them in the early morning.”

Convinced that something serious had occurred, Moore darted out of the lighthouse and made for the landing. After reporting the condition of the lighthouse to the Master of the Hesperus, Captain Harvey informed Moore he would have to go back to the lighthouse in order to keep the light working and to wait for other instructions. Three volunteers were then selected to assist him. Two seamen, Lamont and Campbell, along with the Buoymaster, Macdonald, were left on the island in order to ensure the light remained operational. Harvey returned to Breasclete, on Lewis, in order to notify the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners.

Moore’s first order of business upon returning to the island with the other three men was to make sure that the lamp was lighted. The next morning, the four men set out to perform a more thorough search of the island. Moore, in a report to the Northern Lighthouse Board dated Friday 28 December described the results of their search the day after they arrived on the island:

“The following day we traversed the Island from end to end but still nothing to be seen to convince us how it happened. Nothing appears touched at East landing to show that they were taken from there. Ropes are all in their respective places in the shelter, just as they were left after the relief on the 7th. 
On West side it is somewhat different. We had an old box halfway up the railway for holding West landing mooring ropes and tackle, and it has gone. Some of the ropes it appears, got washed out of it, they lie strewn on the rocks near the crane. The crane itself is safe. The iron railings along the passage connecting railway with footpath to landing and started from their foundation and broken in several places, also railing round crane, and handrail for making mooring rope fast for boat, is entirely carried away. Now there is nothing to give us an indication that it was there the poor men lost their lives, only that Mr Marshall has his seaboots on and oilskins, also Mr Ducat has his seaboots on. He had no oilskin, only an old waterproof coat, and that is away."

“Donald McArthur has his wearing coat left behind him which shows, as far as I know, that he went out in shirt sleeves. He never used any other coat on previous occasions, only the one I am referring to.”

In addition to making a thorough investigation of the island, Moore and the other men investigated the mandatory reports that were composed by the lighthouse crew. The Head Keeper, Ducat, up until 13 December, had conscientiously compiled accurate records. Draft entries were noted on a slate for the 14 and 15 of December, but after that the entries stopped. Moore also found that in the lighthouse the lamp was trimmed, the oil fountains filled, and the lens cleaned on the forenoon of the 15th. An investigation of the kitchen showed the pots and pans cleaned and put away, which showed that the man acting as cook had completed his work. When combined, this evidence seemed to prove that whatever had happened to the three men had most likely occurred on the afternoon of Saturday 15 December.

The superintendent of the Northern Lighthouse Board, Robert Muirhead (who had persuaded Duncat to take the job on the Flannan Isles light a year before), arrived on Eilean Mòr on 29 December. In a detailed report dated 8 January 1901, Muirhead described the results of his further investigation of the island:

“On the Thursday and Friday the men made a thorough search over and round the island and I went over the ground with them on Saturday. Everything at the East landing place was in order and the ropes which had been coiled and stored there on the completion of the relief on 7 December were all in their places and the lighthouse buildings and everything at the Stations was in order. Owing to the amount of sea, I could not get down to the landing place, but I got down to the crane platform 70 feet above the sea level. The crane originally erected on this platform was washed away during last winter, and the crane put up this summer was found to be unharmed, the jib lowered and secured to the rock, and the canvas covering the wire rope on the barrel securely lashed round it, and there was no evidence that the men had been doing anything at the crane. The mooring ropes, landing ropes, derrick landing ropes and crane handles, and also a wooden box in which they were kept and which was secured in a crevice in the rocks 70 feet up the tramway from its terminus, and about 40 feet higher than the crane platform, or 110 feet in all above the sea level, had been washed away, and the ropes were strewn in the crevices of the rocks near the crane platform and entangled among the crane legs, but they were all coiled up, no single coil being found unfastened. The iron railings round the crane platform and from the terminus of the tramway to the concrete steps up from the West landing were displaced and twisted. A large block of stone, weighing upwards of 20 cwt, had been dislodged from its position higher up and carried down to and left on the concrete path leading from the terminus of the tramway to the top of the steps. A life buoy fastened to the railings along this path, to be used in case of emergency had disappeared, and I thought at first that it had been removed for the purpose of being used but, on examining the ropes by which it was fastened, I found that they had not been touched, and as pieces of canvas was adhering to the ropes, it was evident that the force of the sea pouring through the railings had, even at this great height (110 feet above sea level) torn the life buoy off the ropes.”

After a careful examination of the island, Muirhead offered the Northern Lighthouse Board the most likely explanation for the men’s disappearance. On the afternoon of Saturday, 15 December, after taking their wet weather clothing and locking the entrance door behind them, the three men went down to the west landing in order to secure the store. According to Muirhead, while securing the box with the mooring ropes, “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.”

While few who have read all the accounts of the tragedy dispute the findings of Muirhead, some bizarre theories have been expounded to explain the disappearance. Some of the more extreme include: one of the keepers going mad and jumping off the edge of a cliff while being pursued by his comrades; the trio being abducted by aliens; the men being removed from the island by a passing ship; the men being scarified in an ancient sacrificial ceremony; and perhaps the most unbelievable, being turned into giant birds by the unseen forces that live on the island and do not tolerate intruders.

Although most of these theories are regarded as absurd, The Flannan Isles Lighthouse disaster continues to captivate the imagination of the public. The first example of the disaster made its way into popular culture in 1912, when Wilfrid Wilson Gibson published his poem Flannan Isle. While not historically accurate, Gibson’s haunting and suspenseful poem inspired both works of music and fiction that depict the disaster. For example, Gibson’s poem appears in the Doctor Who story, “The Horror of Fang Rock”. In addition, the tragedy has also been the subject of the Genesis song, “The Mystery of Flannan Isle Lighthouse”, an opera composed by Peter Maxwell Davies, and 2005 novel, Some Strange Scent of Death, by Angela J. Elliot.

With the rise of absurd theories and the portrayal of the event in popular culture, it is easy to lose sight of the human side of the tragedy. James Ducat left behind a widow and four children. Donald McArthur left behind a widow. Though Thomas Marshall was unmarried, he was the youngest of the group at only 28 and with a full life ahead of him. In addition to family, each left behind friends who would be scarred by the tragedy. In addition to Moore, who, unable to cope with the disaster, was moved to a different post, Superintendent Muirhead was grieved by the lost of men whom he considered friends. As Muirhead noted in his official report, “I visited them as lately as 7th December and have the melancholy recollection that I was the last person to shake hands with them and bid them adieu.”

The men at the Flannan Isle lighthouse worked in a profession that could be physically demanding, lonely, and tedious. Their responsibility was simple: to keep the light of Flannan Isle shining each night in order to warn passing vessels to the dangers that lurked beneath the menacing waters of the Atlantic. In the end, the irony is these menacing waters managed to rise up and sweep them off the face of the earth forever.

For Further Reading

Website for the Northern Lighthouse Board
Complete text of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s Flannan Isle
A Lighthouse Digest Article Discussing the Disappearance of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse Keepers
Mike Dash’s Paper on the Disappearance