Calm before the storm
It was early morning on December 26, 1900 when the ship Hesperus broke through the Atlantic, slicing through frigid sea air. Captain James Harvey was sailing to the remote Flannan Isles to relieve the lighthouse keepers stationed there. One of those islands is Eilean Mor, an island that was one of seven islets known to locals as the “Seven Hunters,” just northwest of Scotland.
Captain Harvey was transporting lighthouse replacement keeper Joseph Moore. After a bout of bad weather, the captain and the lighthouse replacement were three days behind schedule from relieving the workers on the island. There was no sense of urgency — bad weather has its delays.
No one was there to greet them
Bringing people to and from the mainland to the Eilean Mor wasn’t new for the captain. When he arrived, there was usually someone at the landing dock to greet them. But this time, there was no one waiting. Even the flagstaff was bare. The Hesperus pulled in slowly. All eyes were on the landing dock…but again, no one appeared.
Once they were close to port, Captain Harvey asked Moore to investigate. Perhaps the crew weren’t aware of their arrival, which was understandable considering they were late. Moore stepped on the island and felt a sense of unease wash over him. Something wasn’t right. Aside from the howling ocean wind and the crashing of the waves, the island was silent.
The lighthouse keeper replacement didn’t like what he saw
When Moore approached the lighthouse, he noticed the front gate was unlocked. He entered and called out to anyone inside. No one answered. He called again, but was once again greeted with inhuman silence and the crying of gulls. Dread washed over him; something just didn’t feel right. He felt his palms grow sticky and clammy with sweat and his breathing escalated.
Sure enough, when he entered the mess hall, he was shocked at the sight before him. The clock on the wall was stopped. The table was made up and there were plates still full of food: meat, potatoes, and pickles. Though Moore wasn’t superstitious, he knew about the island’s reputation.
Saint and his lambs
The Eilean Mor Island has an eerie history that stems back to the 7th century. Local and religious folklore believed that St. Flannan built a chapel on the island that he and a circle of his followers inhabited and worshiped on, thus the namesake of the seven isles surrounding the lighthouse, the Flannan Isles.
Although the island seemed to be the perfect place to establish a congregation, the worshipers believed in the island’s supernatural powers. It was a place fueled by what many still believe was a place of fairies. Because of its reputation and the superstition surrounding it, rituals such as circling the church on your knees were adopted by the locals. There was a definite presence: An aura that undeniably shrouded the island.
He left because of fairies
Although the good saint tended his flock on Eilean Mor, his foundation was short-lived. It’s rumored that the saint, along with his followers, left the island due to supernatural sightings of “fairy folk.” The only thing the saint and his congregation left behind was his church and a flock of sheep (there was a good amount of grass for them to munch on).
Flash forward nearly 1500 years. Once again, something strange had occurred on the Flannan Isles. Upon further investigation, lighthouse keeper Moore noticed that two out of the three oil coats were missing from their pegs at the entrance. Three men were stationed at the lighthouse — why would only two take their coats?
Lighthouse keeper saw a strange sight
The coats belonged to James Ducat, 43, Thomas Marshall, 40, and Donald McArthur, 28. Did all three leave the lighthouse? That would be a breach of protocol considering there should always be someone stationed inside. Perplexed and spooked, Moore returned to Captain Harvey and relayed what he saw. Harvey sent out a search party, but as the day drew to a close, no one could find the missing attendants or any sign of their whereabouts.
When returning to the mainland, many of the locals speculated what happened to the men. Some came up with possible logical explanations, such as drowning (too bad lighthouse keeper Ida Lewis wasn’t around or there’d be no mystery at all). Others believed they were taken by supernatural forces living on the island and were spirited away to the “other world.” Well, we can’t rule it out…
A lighthouse keeper’s duty is not for the faint of heart
For those of you who fantasize about living in a lighthouse, you’re probably expecting an idyllic and peaceful life. It’s simple to imagine a spiraling tower where, at the top, you can sip a cup of coffee or tea while looking out into the sunset over the ocean. Unfortunately, being a lighthouse keeper isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
Sorry for all you “Light Between Two Oceans” fans, but it’s not all ocean gazing and quality alone time. Being a keeper is a fulltime job. For instance, keepers lived at a lighthouse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And if you were a keeper 100 years ago (even today), there was seldom electricity and plumbing…..yeah, not really a thing.
You may want to think twice about living in a lighthouse
For those dreaming of one day living and keeping a lighthouse, here are some things to consider: Being a lighthouse keeper is a 24-hour job. And if you were a lighthouse keeper a hundred years ago… it was basically the equivalent of holding down a fort. According to National Park Services, a keeper’s shift began from 4 PM until dawn.
However, if there was a storm, a keeper had to be stationed, tending to the light until the storm came to pass. They had to continuously tend to the lighthouse in full uniform which included: blue pants, vest, suit, jacket, and hat. If neglected or donned on inappropriately, it was cause for a fine or even termination. But that’s all superficial compared to the real job at hand.
Don’t let the light go out
Pressed and dressed, a keeper would make their way up the lighthouse where the Fresnel lens was stationed. The Fresnel lens is the heart of the lighthouse. A keeper would fill that bad boy with oil, and wind a clock mechanism that would turn the lens (let there be light!).
Once fueled, other chores had to be done. The lens needed to remain clean. Neglecting to do so would also put a keeper’s job at risk. And as for family and socialization? Forget it. A lighthouse had an attached duplex meant for two families — families of the keepers. Got to keep that back-up family on deck. And if you want a book? You order from a catalog and your food and medical supply would be delivered. You’re literally quarantined with a singled job. Yay!
He reported to the captain but found nothing in their search
Upon returning from Eilean Mor, Captain Harvey left the replacement lightkeepers on the island. Strange disappearance or not, the lighthouse needed to operate. Until other accommodations could be made, Harvey left behind the replacement keepers until everything was sorted out. Instead of finding a realistic explanation, however, the case of the missing lighthouse keepers only became stranger.
Soon, the idea of being spirited away to the “other world” started gaining momentum. The evidence? Right before the three men disappeared, they left a message. The lighthouse’s logbook provided a chilling glimpse into the men’s final days. There were tears, fear, and prayers. The message was cryptic and alarming.
Newfound details uncovered
Like ships or airplanes, the lighthouse kept a logbook. Inside are detailed accounts about shipments or important notes written by the lighthouse keepers. One of the logged entries was dated December 12, 1900 by Thomas Marshall. In his log, he described a fierce storm that swept through the island — one so strong that it had the men on their knees.
Marshall wrote: “Severe winds, the likes of which I have never seen before in twenty years.” It was enough to startle the men into prayer. He later wrote that Ducat (the oldest man in their crew) had been quiet while the young McArthur was in tears, despite being a man who had a reputation as a “tough and experienced seafarer.”
What was strange? There was no reported storm
Of course, it was reported that rough waters delayed Captain Harvey to the islands. However, rough winds causing a storm were never reported. Low and behold, the logbook said otherwise. “Strangest of all, there were no reported storms in the area on December 12th, 13, or 14,” he wrote. “All should have been calm up until December 17.”
The last entry in the book was from December 15th. “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.” What does that mean? And why were three grown men, accustomed to deadly storms, suddenly cower with this one, that is, if it existed?
What many assumed was death by drowning
One-hundred and twenty years passed. In those 120 years, no one ever recovered the bodies of the lost lighthouse keepers. It’s enough to make you wonder whether or not something truly paranormal happened on the island back in 1900. Or maybe it was just good old-fashioned homicide? No one wanted to entertain the idea, but it was certainly a possibility.
Being cooped up on an island with two other men can be maddening. Or what if the local legends were true? What if it were really the fairy folk? While we’re at it, let’s throw aliens in the mix too. Nevertheless, this one fits the books as one of the strangest disappearances in maritime history.
Lighthouses seldom changed over the years
Lighthouses haven’t really changed over the years. Their purpose remains the same and the structure is recognizable. Aside from utilizing modern technology, the function of a lighthouse remains the same. In fact, the lighthouse stems as far back to ancient times. However, instead of oil burning lights, they were lit by beacon fires.
The difference? The ancients didn’t have glass windows (or even a lens) until the 1st century AD. Until then, they relied on open lit torches. As technology improved, candles or oil lamps were used in lanterns with panes made of glass or horn. One of them you may know well — the Lighthouse of Alexandria.
The first recorded lighthouse was in Egypt
When you hear the “Lighthouse of Alexandria,” you probably think the seven wonders of the world, ancient Roman emperors, and conquest. Few know that the Lighthouse of Alexandria, formally known as the Pharos of Alexandria, was possibly the first lighthouse in the world. Scholars believe the structure was built around 280 BC and stood in the harbor of Alexandria at 350 ft. tall.
For some, its height doesn’t seem impressive. But consider that the lighthouse was second only to the Pyramids of Giza. At the time, its architecture could be considered a miracle. It might have been constructed by Ptolemy I Soter, the successor of Alexander the Great, and stood until it’s demise from an Earthquake in the 14th century.
Scholars believed the lighthouse was forever lost
Once the lighthouse was destroyed, a fort was rebuilt in its place in 1477 (BBC). Centuries pass. It wasn’t until 1994 that archaeologist Jean-Yves Empereur, founder of the Centre of Alexandrian Studies, excavated the ruins — masonry blocks — of what was once the Lighthouse of Alexandria and with it, statues of Ptolemy I Soter and his wife, Arsinoe.
Since then, the lighthouse has seldom changed. Today the second-oldest functioning lighthouse in the world the Tower of Hercules, which was constructed in the 1st century AD. It was built over the bones of one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules, a giant named Gerylon. Like the Tower of Hercules, locals from Eilean Mor, believed it a place of myth.
Their death was concluded
Apart from the Mary Celeste, the men’s disappearance was in fact strange. Even the superintendent of the Commissioners of Northern Lights, Robert Muirhead, had something to say about the incident. “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 Saturday, 15 December…and a large body of water…coming down upon them had swept them away with resistless force.”
However, despite 120 years of no developments, there are several armchair historians still working on figuring out the case to this day. One of those people is leading naturalist John Love. He has been investigating the disappearances on the Flannan Isles and has come to a conclusion. Their disappearance wasn’t supernatural. (Sorry, alien lovers.)
More than just a high roller
Naturalist John Love believes there more to the story than just a tragic accident. True: There isn’t any other explanation. But perhaps within finer details lies the means to smooth out the wrinkles of time. According to the Sunday Post, Love researched the incident and has come to the conclusions that two of the keepers were previously fined for improperly storing supplies in a prior storm.
Love also believed that it was these previous fines that may have prompted the men to double-check that everything was in its rightful place. Remember, should any tools, equipment, or supplies be neglected, it could mean the pink slip. Love believed that it was that urgency that persuaded the men to brave the growing storm.
They’re paranoia led to their untimely demise
The two men who previously had fines must have had good sense to go into the storm as they did. Taking their raincoats, they trudged into the harsh elements. According to Love, it was during their excursion that a wave flushed them out. In his book, “A Natural History of Lighthouses,” Love took on the mystery and pieced it together in a more coherent and organized manner.
His book was his way of trying to figure out what happened to Ducat, Marshall, and McArthur. It was plain and simple. As for the paranormal theories regarding their disappearance, Love believes it is nothing more than superstitious speculation. Skeptical, Love delved further into his investigation and finds something bizarre.
He didn’t believe in superstition
When it comes to the toppled chair in the room and the unfinished meals, Love says “it was only after 1912, when English poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson published his epic, Flannan Isle, that the story began to assume an air of mystery, speculation, even intrigue.” In other words: those details were baloney.
The way Love saw it, the mysticism gave Flannan Isles its mythical vibe. “We only saw a table, spread/For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;/But, all untouched;/and no one there:/…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.” Maybe Love was onto something after all…
Nature got the best of them
Superstition aside, Love truly believed it was a simple act of rough weather that swept the keepers away. “For me and many others including lighthouse keepers themselves, there is no mystery and never has been. There is no need to invoke the sinister or the paranormal — it was purely a tragic act of nature the men got swept away by abnormally rough seas.”
Well, that rubs away the exciting theory of fairies taking away the seafarers. Love’s research also suggested that Thomas Marshall was fined for negligence in the past and had to pay a fine of five shillings after equipment was swept away by a fierce storm.
But why all three?
Granted, two out of the three oil coats were missing from their pegs…so what happened to the third? Wasn’t it was a big “no-no” to leave the lighthouse unmanned? Why, yes devoted readers, we’re glad you caught wind of that. One oil coat remained; that is true. But if you look at the story from the keepers’ point of view, it becomes clear.
It’s reasonable to assume that the first two keepers left and were gone for longer than usual. It’s also reasonable to assume that the third lighthouse keeper may have followed his fellow keepers after realizing they were gone too long for comfort. The passing of time was a red flag.
He left in a moment of urgency
Perhaps the urgency of the situation (the fact that his fellow keepers did not return in a timely manner) encouraged the final lighthouse keeper, most likely Donald McArthur, to race out into the storm in search of his brothers. In doing so, the final keeper suffered the same fate. In the chaos of the storm, it’s most likely that a wave swallowed him whole.
Just as the first investigation reported back in 1900. Love believes that the disappearance of the lighthouse keepers wasn’t the only tragedy that took place on the islands. There have been others. It wasn’t just people either (wonder how those sheep fared). A poor horse named Billy also had a tragic end.
The lighthouse was newly constructed
Believe it or not, the lighthouse at the time of the disappearance was recently constructed. It was completed in 1899, mere months before the lighthouse keepers disappeared. Building the lighthouse was no easy feat. Love further researched that during construction, a group of workers died from natural causes and a horse named Billy who was craned to shore also died.
Unfortunately, the horse struggled in his sling when being craned to the island. Also unfortunately, (to reiterate) being a lighthouse keeper is not meant for the faint of heart. It is an occupation that deals with the possibility of death, whether it’s on location or of oncoming sailors at sea.
More lives were lives after
Today, the Eilean Mor lighthouse still stands. Locals, of course, like to indulge in the popular folklore that the men were swept away to another world. However, whether they were swept away by a storm-induced wave or taken by mysterious fairy folk that good old St. Flannan saw, it doesn’t soften the fact that three men were lost.
They were three men with families, a local watering hole where they converse among friends, and — like everyone else — were just doing their part to put food on the table and perform their duty as men of the sea. Perhaps one day, the world will definitively know what became of the Eilean Mor lighthouse keepers.