I love lighthouses. For centuries, these towering structures marked dangerous coastlines, hazardous shoals, and guided ships to safe harbors. With cheaper and more sophisticated navigational systems, few lighthouses are in use these days.
A lighthouse was the setting of my short story, The Keeper’s House which is included in the anthology Macabre Sanctuary. Two friends take a weekend trip to a historic lighthouse where they encounter a wooden-legged man who dresses in Victorian-era clothing. Is he a ghost? What is his interest in the keeper’s house?
There is a true event involving a lighthouse that’s more inexplicable than my fictional story.
The Flannan Isles Lighthouse stands on the highest point of Eileen Mòr in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of mainland Scotland. It’s best known for the mysterious disappearance of three of its keepers, James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and William MacArthur.
On December 15, 1900, the steamer Archtor passed by the lighthouse on a voyage from Philadelphia to Leith, a port area near Edinburgh. The ship’s captain noted that the light was not operational. When they docked on December 18, Captain Holman passed the news along, which eventually reached the Northern Lighthouse Board.
The board dispatched a relief vessel, the Hesperus to investigate. Because of adverse weather, the ship didn’t reach the lighthouse until December 26. Captain Harvie sounded his horn and sent up a flare, hoping to alert the three men, but there was no response.
Off-duty keeper Joseph Moore disembarked the ship and climbed 160 steep steps to the lighthouse. When he reached the compound, he found the entrance gate and main door closed. Upon entering the living quarters, he discovered the clock on the kitchen wall had stopped. The table was set for a meal, and a chair had been toppled over.
Moore returned to the eastern landing to report his findings. Harvie sent the first mate and another sailor to help look for the men. They found a set of oilskins, indicating one keeper left the lighthouse without them. They found no sign of the men on the island.
Captain Harvie left the three men on the island to attend to the light. He sent a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board.
“A dreadful accident has happened at the Flannans. The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall, and the Occasional 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, they must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane.”
On Eilean Mòr, the men scoured every corner of the island for clues that might lead to the fate of the keepers. Everything on the east landing was intact, however, there was evidence of considerable storm damage on the west landing. A box was broken, and its contents were strewn about, iron railings were bent, and the iron railway by the path was wrenched out of its concrete. A rock weighing more than a ton had been displaced.
The Board’s superintendent, Robert Muirhead, arrived on the island on December 29 to investigate. After examining the left behind oilskin, he concluded it belonged to William MacArthur. He speculated Marshall and Ducat headed out into the storm to secure equipment. When they didn’t return, Muirhead surmised MacArthur went out to find them. He believed an enormous wave rushed up above the face of the rock, then swept them away.
However, speculation arose—including the idea of a giant sea monster swallowing the men or a huge seabird whisking them away.
More doubt surfaced when a supposed logbook surfaced in which Marshall wrote of the great storm but stated all the men survived. There is no evidence that this logbook ever existed.
Others theorized MacArthur, an ill-tempered man, started a fight and the three of them fell to their deaths. Others speculated he murdered the others, disposed of their bodies into the sea, then threw himself off the cliff. There was no evidence to prove either of these theories.
It’s unlikely anyone will discover the exact reason for the demise of Marshall, Ducat, and MacArthur. But by whatever means the men met their fate on that December night, the Flannan Isles Mystery is one of the most baffling in Scottish maritime history.