Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur were all experienced seafarers, ship hands, and captains and all more comfortable on the ocean than on land.
The last journal entry written by Thomas Marshall on December 15th, 1900.
“Strom ended, sea calm, God is over all.”
The next day, the men were gone, and perhaps more daunting is that there were no storms reported in the area when they disappeared.
The island of Eilean Mor in Northwestern Scotland is one of seven islets that make up the Flannan Isles. The Eilean Mor is more rock than anything else, capable of capsizing a large vessel, which is why building a lighthouse to sit on top of it was of dire importance.
The construction of the lighthouse began in 1896, and by 1900 it was ready to be illuminated for the first time.
The lighthouse is still active today, although it has been automated and unmanned for over 40 years.
Passing ships would often spot herds of sheep grazing on the little grasses the island offers. Some of the ‘braver’ Scottish shepherds would journey the treacherous waters by boat, a full herd of sheep in tow.
They believed their sheep grazing on the Flannan grasses would receive powerful gifts, such as the ability to heal the animal’s maladies, including broken limbs. The grasses would bless pregnant female grazers with twins, incentive enough for a poor shepherd to risk life and limb.
At the beginning of December 1900, three men, Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur arrived on Eilean Mor Island to begin their shift.
When Captain James Harvey’s ship, The Hesperus, arrived three weeks later with supplies and a replacement keeper, Joseph Moore, the three men were nowhere in sight.
Although the light was in working order, it was switched off. The flag pole stood bare of its flag.
Joseph Moore, the replacement keeper, rowed out to the east port of the island. Immediately he felt an “all-encompassing sense of dread.”
Moore, who has never been superstitious, knew that even the shepherds refused any overnight stays on the island, often abandoning their sheep until the daybreak.
Something about a spirit protecting the island, they would say.
Although isolated and uninhabited, the history of the small island dates from the 7th century. Remnants of stone-built homes, called bhotis, dotted the landscape.
There were also the remains of a chapel and stories were told of even non-religious men feeling a strong and sudden urge to pray, usually whilst circling around the chapel on their knees.
The chapel once belonged to St. Flannan… and perhaps it still does.
Joseph Moore quickly rowed back to The Hesperus to alert the crew of his findings. A small search crew was assembled and scoured the island for any clues of the missing keepers.
Every door of the lighthouse and the crew’s cabin was shut tightly, all except the kitchen door, which was left ajar.
There was food still on the kitchen table as if prepared and served, but not eaten.
A single coat hung on the rack, which was also concerning being that it was December and bitterly cold outside with heavy winds.
The crew also felt it important to report that every clock on the island had ceased ticking. However, there was no apparent reasoning for the mysterious absence of the men, and besides one overturned chair, nothing else seemed amiss.
Captain James Harvey sent a telegram back to dry land.
A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island.
Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.
Night coming on, we could not wait to make something as to their fate.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence was the logbook found in the lighthouse.
On December 12th, Thomas Marshall penned “severe winds the likes of which I have never seen before.”
Could a powerful storm swept all three men to sea?
It is doubtful. Eilean Mor Island rests 150 feet above sea level, not to mention the height of the lighthouse, which showed no damage.
However, after inspecting more of the island, the crew discovered that the western docking platform had been severely damaged. Its safety railings, once attached to the solid rock of the island, had become unhinged. Some were left dangling, the others were just not there.
The evidence began pointing at a massive storm. Perhaps a tidal wave caught all three men off guard?
All three keepers took their job seriously. As they should, because alerting incoming vessels averted disastrous collisions, capsizing, and crew deaths.
The golden rule: at least one man should be in the lighthouse cabin at all times during operation. It is no doubt that the men took this rule as a matter of life and death.
To support the storm theory, though, a massive tidal wave sweeping out the crew to their watery graves is a possibility, albeit one that is hard to fathom. One lighthouse keeper witnessed a terrifying wave two decades later when a massive storm brought a 300 water wall that nearly pulled him from the highest point in the lighthouse cabin.
Robert Muirhead, superintendent of the Commissioners of Northern Lights, described his theory in an official report.
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 of Saturday, 15 December to the proximity of the West landing, to secure the box with the mooring ropes, etc and that an unexpectedly large roller had come up on the island, and a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them had swept them away with resistless force.
Surely the damage docks seem to suggest a storm, but no reports noted any storms in the area. Keeping in mind that the St. Flannan lighthouse was a mere 800 metres away from civilization, townfolk who could see the light, when illuminated.
Further down the page, Marshall, in journalistic fashion, wrote that James Ducat, a usual boisterous individual, has begun to completely withdrawal and was no longer speaking or acknowledging the other crew. Ducat was simply in another realm.
Marshall described unusual low moral of his crew and that Donald McArthur, considered the gruffest of the bunch, sat in the corner sobbing.
Marshall dated the next entry on December 15, 2009.
He wrote that all three men prayed together, although moral was now at a severely low point.
The last words penned by Marshall stated, “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.”
As previously stated, no passing ships reported any heavy storms in the area, especially ones of such a serious nature.
Could a storm been isolated directly over the island and nowhere else?
Over the years, there have been many theories and experts to back them up.
Some theories suggest the storm was a product of low moral, isolation, dread, and impending doom.
In a nutshell, madness sat over one or all of the men brewing an internal storm perhaps more intense than nature could send. This internal storm ended in murder, then suicide.
Other further reaching theories suggest intervention from the heavens. Space ships and little green men.
Others suggest a paranormal angle. Perhaps St. Flannan not happy with his new guests.
What do you think happened to the Flannan Lighthouse Keepers?