Mystery on Eilean Mòr
Irish preacher Flannán mac Toirrdelbaig built a stone chapel in the Outer Hebrides in the 7th century, and later became a saint. The archipelago where he built the chapel, a scattering of rugged, rocky islands lying 20 miles west of Lewis, was named the Flannan Isles in his honour. And it’s here—specifically Eilean Mòr, the largest in the chain—where three lighthouse keepers mysteriously disappeared without a trace in 1900.
On a cold afternoon in December, the Hesperus arrives at Eilean Mòr. But Captain James Harvey, a sailor transporting replacement keeper Joseph Moore to the island, is surprised when no one is there to greet him. He blows the ship’s horn and ignites a flare, but there’s no response, nor are there any other signs of life. The current lighthouse keepers—James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and William McArthur—knew he was bringing Moore to the island today, which makes their absence all the more worrying.
Moore rows ashore, climbing the steep, winding steps that lead to the lighthouse. He feels a sense of foreboding as he approaches the front door and sees that it’s open and unlocked. He also notices that two of the keepers’ three oilskin coats are missing from their pegs. He makes his way to the kitchen and finds half-eaten food lying on the table and overturned chairs, as if the men had left in a hurry. He searches the rest of the eerily lifeless lighthouse, but to no avail, and rows back to the Hesperus to inform Captain Harvey.
Harvey, Moore, and the crew search all 43 acres of the island and the seven smaller ones surrounding it, but no trace of the three men is found. He sends a telegram to the mainland, which makes its way to the Northern Lighthouse Board in Edinburgh. “A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans,” he writes. “The three keepers have disappeared from the island. Poor fellows must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane. I have left Moore and two seamen behind to keep the light burning.”
NLB superintendent Robert Muirhead, who knew the men personally, departs for Eilean Mòr to investigate their disappearance. He finds no further clues on the island, but there’s something troubling about the last few entries in the lighthouse log. Marshall writes about “severe winds, the likes of which I have never seen.” He also mentions that Ducat has been “irritable and quiet” and that McArthur had been crying. In the entry for December 13, Marshall writes that the storm is still raging and the men have been praying for it to pass. The final entry, dated December 15, reads “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.”
The log itself has been lost to time. These excerpts are in fact from the 1929 book True Strange Stories by Vincent Gaddis, the American author who famously invented the phrase ‘Bermuda Triangle’, so their authenticity has been rightly questioned by contemporary investigators. And they conflict with Muirhead’s official report for the NLB, which states that the final log entry was written on December 13. “Everything was in order,” he writes. “The lamp was ready to be lit, and it was evident that the work of the morning of December 15 had been completed, indicating that the men vanished that afternoon.”
The mystery of Eilean Mòr has been retold countless times over the past century and become a modern Scottish folk tale, complete with colourful embellishments. Popular claims that weather reports from the period reveal the seas were calm when the men vanished are unsubstantiated, and it’s likely Gaddis conjured those evocative log entries up to make his book more compelling. In all likelihood the men were caught in a storm and sadly swept into the sea. Muirhead found ropes scattered on the landing platform that were usually kept in a crate suspended by a crane, and the men probably died trying to retrieve them.
The sudden disappearance of Ducat, Marshall, and McArthur is tragic and definitely peculiar. But the remote location and old myths about strange spirits haunting the island from the time of St. Flannan have undoubtedly contributed to its mysterious legacy. Today, since the automation of the lighthouse in 1971, the Flannan Isles are completely uninhabited except for nesting seabirds. But the mystery has an enduring life of its own and will appear in books and websites about the paranormal for years to come—even though the reality of the tragedy is almost certainly more mundane than the legends would have you believe.
Photography by Flying Fish