Join me as I count down to the creepiest night of the year with a selection of history’s strangest mysteries…
When the light went out, it was clear that something was wrong.
The lighthouse on the tiny island of Eilean Mor in the Outer Hebrides was supposed to shine its guiding light constantly, come what may. It was manned by three people, all of them experienced and conscientious: a head keeper, James Ducat, and two assistants, Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur. They knew the danger posed to shipping by the reefs and rocky outcrops around the Flannan Isles, and would never normally have allowed the light to go out. When, after a few days, that light had still not come on, concern turned to alarm. What was happening on Eilean Mor?
A ship was sent to investigate, and to take fresh supplies and a replacement keeper to the island. On Boxing Day 1900, as The Hesperus approached Eilean Mor’s rocky shoreline, the skipper still expected one of the keepers to appear on the landing stage to greet them. To his dismay, though, nobody came.
All That Remained…
The replacement keeper, Joseph Moore, went ashore to investigate. As he climbed up the steps that had been carved into the cliff face, he was seized by a sense of foreboding. Entering the lighthouse, he found the place deserted. Of the crew, there was not a trace. Nor was there any apparent explanation for their absence: apart from an overturned chair in the kitchen, everything was in order, and there was no sign of any disturbance. Two of the crew’s sets of outdoor gear – oilskins and boots – were gone, which indicated that two of the keepers had left the lighthouse prior to their disappearance – but what had happened thereafter?
The only clues emerged when the lighthouse log was discovered and read.
On December 12th, Thomas Marshall had written:
Gale W by NW. Sea lashed to fury. Never seen such a storm. Waves very high. Tearing at lighthouse. Everything shipshape. James Ducat irritable.
Later the same day, he had made the following entry:
Storm still raging, wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passing sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. Donald McArthur crying.
Yet the storm that was apparently battering Eilean Mor with such ferocity had been nowhere in evidence on the Isle of Lewis, some twenty miles away. How could that have been? Was the storm some kind of highly localised event, or had the crew been imagining things? Neither explanation seems particularly likely.
On December 13th, Marshall made another entry:
Storm continued through night. Wind shifted W by N. Ducat quiet. McArthur praying.
Later that day he wrote the following:
Noon, grey daylight. Me, Ducat and McArthur prayed.
These entries suggest that there was some tension in the lighthouse. The references to crying and praying seem particularly odd. Donald McArthur apparently had the reputation of being a hard-drinking tough guy, so why was he weeping and searching for Divine consolation? Was he frightened or unwell? It’s worth remembering that anyone working as a lighthouse keeper, especially in such a remote location, would have to be well able to withstand long periods of isolation, not to mention storms and bad weather. What was so different about this particular storm? And why all the mentions of praying? Was this level of religious observance usual amongst the keepers, or had something else led them to seek the Almighty’s assistance?
There was no entry on December 14th.
On December 15th, Marshall’s last entry into the log was both enigmatic and to the point:
Storm ended. Sea calm. God is over all.
What did Marshall mean by this? Did he simply mean to suggest that all was now well, or did his words indicate something else altogether?
Alas, speculation is the only course now open to us. The three men were never found, and the official enquiry could shed little light onto the matter. There have been numerous explanations put forward over the years, from the banal to the utterly bizarre. Some commentators suggest that two of the men got into trouble while working outside, possibly as a result of strong winds or freak waves; the third man rushed outside to help them, overturning a chair in the process, but was killed alongside his colleagues. Others raise the dark possibility of some form of cabin fever, with one of the men losing his mind and killing first the others and then himself. There are other, still wilder theories: UFOs, sea monsters, the supernatural.
There has also been a healthy dose of debunking. Remember Thomas Marshall’s haunting log entries? According to some sources, these were first published in a newspaper and might have been, in effect, a hoax.
The mystery, however, remains. Prior to the construction of the lighthouse, Eilean Mor had been uninhabited. The only other edifice on the island is a tiny ruined chapel, sacred to the memory of St Flannan. Local people had believed for many years that the island was haunted and, while shepherds sometimes took their sheep there to graze, none would even consider staying overnight.
The Eilean Mor lighthouse remained manned until the 1970s, when it was finally automated. There are reports of subsequent keepers occasionally hearing voices in the wind, calling out the names of the missing men. While this may sound like a romantic invention, there can be little doubt that the names of Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald McArthur are now inextricably linked to the island where they met their ends. There is, in all likelihood, a mundane explanation for their disappearances, but we live in a strange world; who can say what the truth really is?
Aye, though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men's fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouch'd meal,
And an overtoppled chair.
– Flannan Isle, by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson