Why you should care
Three lighthouse keepers disappeared into thin air. Was it aliens, wild seas or something else?
The Scottish Hebrides is a craggy and foreboding archipelago. Often swathed in mist, its jagged rock formations erupt from the North Sea like the fangs of some aquatic leviathan. But on clear days the water becomes aqua blue, and the islands, illuminated in sunlight, appear idyllic. Dec. 26, 1900, was one such day, according to Captain James Harvey, who had been sent to the Flannan Isles to provide some much-needed relief to the three lighthouse keepers on the island of Eilean Mor.
But in spite of the good weather, Harvey felt a sense of foreboding as his ship approached the notoriously hard-to-navigate shores. Even though the replacement lighthouse keeper, James Moore, was arriving six days late due to poor weather, the relief flag had not been raised and no one awaited anxiously on the landing to be taken back to shore. After both a whistle and flare garnered no response, Harvey sent Moore ashore to investigate. What he found has remained a mystery for over a century.
As Moore opened the unlocked lighthouse door, he immediately knew something was wrong — the air was heavy with a damp chill, the fireplace having remained unlit for days. All the clocks had stopped, the beds were unused, and two of three keepers’ oil-skinned coats, essential during the winter months, were missing. An extensive search confirmed what Moore already suspected: All three men had vanished without a trace.
Why had none of the bodies washed ashore? And how could three experienced seamen all be taken unawares by an approaching wave?
James Ducat, 43, Donald MacArthur, 40, and Thomas Marshall, 28, were some of Eilean Mor’s first lighthouse keepers and, at the time of their disappearance, the sole inhabitants of the island. In the seventh century an Irish monk, St. Flannan, had built a chapel on Eilean Mor, the ruins of which still stand today. However, shortly after the structure’s consecration, the Irish saint and his flock fled the island, claiming that they were being tormented by magical beings. Tales of a mythical race of “little people” known to locals of surrounding islands as the Lusbirdan were still prevalent during the time of the disappearance. Shepherds who tended to the Eilean Mor’s only permanent residents, sheep, referred to the island as “the other country” and refused to spend the night there.
But in spite of Eilean Mor’s cursed reputation, the Northern Lighthouse Board set about constructing a lighthouse on the island in 1895 to prevent ships from floundering on its rocky cliffs. The disappearance occurred just one year after its completion on Dec. 7, 1899. A wireless sent to Cosmopolitan Line Steamers from a Captain Holman of the steamer Archtor on Dec. 15, 1900, reported that the Eilean Mor’s light was not shining. Due to more pressing matters, the CLS had failed to pass the information on to the Northern Lighthouse Board.
Shortly after Moore’s harrowing discovery, an investigation was launched by the Northern Lighthouse Board superintendent, Robert Muirhead. Volunteers searching the island found signs of damage on the storm landing, reporting that “the box containing the mooring ropes had vanished, despite having been firmly wedged into a crevice and then anchored.” Upon inspecting the landing, Muirhead found that a life buoy was missing and wrote, “It was evident that the force of the sea pouring through the railings had, even at this great height [about 10 feet above sea level], torn the life buoy off the rope.”
This initial evidence led Muirhead to conclude that the men had tried to stabilize the box of mooring ropes and been swept away by a rogue wave. But not everyone at the Northern Lighthouse Board was convinced. Why had none of the bodies washed ashore? Why had one of the men left without his coat in the middle of the bitter Outer Hebrides winter? And how could three experienced seamen all be taken unawares by an approaching wave?
Decades later, the story got more bizarre. A 1965 book cited a 1920s magazine publication of the lighthouse log’s final entries from Dec. 12-15, 1900. This document, allegedly written by Thomas Marshall, told of an otherworldly storm, so intense that all three keepers feared for their lives. MacArthur, by all accounts a tough guy, was crying and praying in the corner while Ducat, the senior keeper, reportedly sat silent and dazed throughout. The final entry reads, “Storm ended. Sea calm. God is over all.”
These accounts, which are disputed as unreliable and may have been published in the pulp magazine True Strange Stories, led some to speculate that one keeper killed the other two before killing himself. “One of them was in the lighthouse, as regulations forbade the station being left empty,” says Keith McCloskey, author of The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. “I feel something happened between the man left behind, Donald MacArthur, and the other two. MacArthur was known to be volatile. Even if a giant wave swept one in and the other went back for MacArthur, are we then asked to believe a second wave swept the other two away?”
Other theories look to Eilean Mor’s mysterious history for answers, positing that the men were captured by the Lusbirdan and taken to the land of the fairies. Others point to everything from alien abduction to ghost pirates to an attack by the Loch Ness monster. The stranger-than-fiction disappearance was even the subject of an episode of Dr. Who in 1977, which blamed a shape-shifting alien.
But in spite of the more esoteric postulations that have swirled around the Eilean Mor disappearance for more than a century, many lighthouse experts maintain that there is no mystery and never has been. In 2015, naturalist John Love revealed in his book, A Natural History of Lighthouses, that Thomas Marshall had previously been branded as negligent after equipment was swept away during a gale. Marshall probably asked the men to secure the lines during the storm and the three were pulled into the ocean by a wave.
It seems the mysterious disappearance of the lighthouse keepers at Eilean Mor is one the island intends to keep.