The Flannan Isles Mystery

The Flannan Isles (also known as the Seven Hunters), named for Saint Flannan, who lived a solitary existence there in the seventeenth century. The islands are a small island group in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, approximately 32 kilometres (20 mi) west of the Isle of Lewis and have been devoid of permanent residents since the automation of the lighthouse in 1971. The Lighthouse there is one of the most isolated in Scotland and were the focal point of an eerie tale about the disappearance of three light keepers in December 1900 that has never been solved. The Flannan Isles comprise a group of cliffy rocks, of which Eilean Mor, about 500 yards long and perhaps 200 yards wide, is the largest. Because of their position these rocks increasingly became a hazard to coastal shipping, so a lighthouse was built on Eilean Mor, fitted with a light powerful enough to be seen 40 miles out to sea.

Designed by David Alan Stevenson, the 23 metres (75 ft) tower was constructed for the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) between 1895 and 1899 and is located near the highest point on Eilean Mòr. It was first lit on 7 December 1899. In 1925 it was one of the first Scottish lights to receive communications from the shore by wireless telegraphy. On 28 September 1971, it was automated. A reinforced concrete helipad was constructed at the same time to enable maintenance visits in heavy weather.

In 1900 there were two landing places, which had to be blasted out of the rock itself: one on the western edge of the island and the other on the eastern edge, with steps cut into the cliff and rope and tackle set up for hauling supplies to the top. The lighthouse was manned by a three man team, with a rotating fourth man spending time on shore, each man on duty for six weeks followed by two weeks ashore. Stores and mail were brought to the lighthouse every two weeks by the steamer Hesperus; also on board was the fourth man rotating back in from his shore leave.

On December 6, 1900, Joseph Moore left on the Hesperus for his spell ashore, leaving behind Donald McArthur, Thomas Marshall, and James Ducat. Moore would have been due back on December 20, but bad weather kept the steamer away, and it wasn’t until December 26 that Moore was able to make the trip. He was worried on two counts: first, the delay in the steamer’s return meant that the three men in the light had to go without their Christmas mail and provisions; and second, for the past few days the light itself had not been lit, always a matter of concern for mariners at sea and for the authorities ashore. The first hint of anything untoward on the Flannan Isles came on 15 December, 1900. The steamer Archtor on passage from Philadelphia to Leith passed the islands in poor weather and noted that the light was not operational.

A boat was launched and Joseph Moore, the relief keeper, was put ashore alone. When the Hesperus anchored off the eastern edge of the island and a boat put in for the landing stage, Moore had further cause for worry—there was no one there to meet them, which was unusual, as the fortnightly steamer was something of an event for the men in their otherwise solitary existence. He found the entrance gate to the compound and main door both closed, the beds unmade and the clock stopped.

Moore and three volunteer seamen were left to attend and inspected the lighthouse. It was empty. Nothing was out of place. As with the cabin on the Mary Celeste, the interior of the lighthouse was a model of orderliness. The machinery that drove the light, the lens, the lanterns and their wicks—all had been properly serviced. A set of oilskins was found, suggesting that one of the keepers had left the lighthouse without them, which was surprising considering the severity of the weather. The only sign of anything amiss in the lighthouse was an overturned chair by the kitchen table. Of the keepers there was no sign, either inside the lighthouse or anywhere on the island. The three men had simply vanished, without leaving behind any clue pointing to panic, disaster, or distress.

The men remaining on the island scoured every corner for clues as to the fate of the keepers. At the east landing everything was intact, but the west landing provided considerable evidence of damage caused by recent storms. A box at 33 metres (110 ft) above sea level had been broken and its contents strewn about; iron railings were bent over, the iron railway by the path was wrenched out of its concrete, and a rock weighing over a ton had been displaced above that.

However, the keepers had kept their log until 9 a.m. on 15 December and this made it clear the damage had occurred before the writers' disappearance.
The log showed that there was bad weather on December 12 and 13 but that the next two days at least were calm. It was later confirmed by coastal shipping that this was the date when the light ceased to burn. Curiously, the foul-weather gear belonging to Marshall and Ducat was missing, but McArthur’s was still in place.

The Hesperus returned to the shore station at Breasclete. Captain Harvie sent a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board dated 26 December, 1900 stating:
“A dreadful accident has happened at the Flannans. The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall and McArthur have disappeared from the Island. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to rescue a crane or something like that.”

Where had the three men gone, and why? Their disappearance has never been solved and now, a century after the event, it never will be. But a possible answer lies in the discovery (not noticed earlier, since the lighthouse had been operational for only a year) that when the weather was settled, the sea at the west landing would, without warning of any kind, often suddenly rear itself into a giant wave and batter the clifftop a hundred feet above. The phenomenon is well known, being probably an unlucky accumulation of ocean swells. These king waves, as they are called on the west Australian coast, have dragged many a fisherman off an ordinarily safe rock and flung him into the sea, drowning or battering him to death. It is likely that this is what happened to Marshall, Ducat, and McArthur when they, for some reason we can never know, took themselves down to the west landing.

Sources :
Seafaring, Lore & Legend : “A Miscellany of Maritime Myth, Superstition, Fable and Fact” by Peter D. Jeans;

Pic source :
The Flannan Isles Mystery The Flannan Isles Mystery Reviewed by Tripzibit on 07:02 Rating: 5


  1. I know the "king wave" theory is the most popular explanation for the mystery, but it still doesn't solve the problem of why all three men would be at the landing at once. Or why only two of them had their rain gear on.

    It's probably the simplest solution, but not one I find very satisfying.

  2. Pretty strange stuff. I imagine living on a lighthouse island must be pretty creepy at times, too.

  3. Has anyone considered that the three men may have been picked up by another boat and taken somewhere else? Since the regular transport boat had been delayed for a week due to bad weather, the men might have run out of food or other provisions, and might have signaled a passing ship or boat to pick them up. Because of the delay in their regular transport, they may have felt that it was unreliable, so they could have simply not chosen to return, and hence, voluntarily "disappeared" to a new country.

    The other plausible scenario is that during the absence of their regular transport, the island might have been visited by pirates or other criminals, and the men could have been thrown into the ocean.

    Just two other possible explanations.

  4. There are no pirates in that area of the world especially in 1900. Its a very remote spot with nothing to attract criminals either.

    Lighthouse men are a breed to themselves, known for dependability, discipline and able to cope with isolation. If all 3 were swept away it is still odd that it was necessary for all 3 to venture in to a dangerous scenario in a severe storm.


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