Everyone loves a good mystery and what better than a tale of three men who went missing from a lighthouse, an upturned chair and unfinished meals. We have had nearly 120 years for people’s imagination to run wild and come up with all sorts of theories – ghosts, aliens, drowning and murder, to name a few.
The setting is the Flannan Isles, a set of islands 20 miles west of the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. Stationed at the lighthouse in December 1900 were three lighthouse-keepers – Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald McArthur. Apart from a tiny chapel the lighthouse was the only building on Eilean Mor (large island), the islands being largely uninhabited. The lighthouse was built in the 1890s, taking four years to complete, largely because of the problem of getting building supplies to the remote island, and the rough and dangerous nature of that part of the Atlantic Ocean.
On 15 December a storm broke out and a passing steamer noticed that the light at the lighthouse was not working. The crew of The Fairfield, another passing ship, were both angered and worried when they noticed no light guiding them. Due to the storm The Hesperus, carrying supplies and John Moore who was to replace one of the men, was late in setting off for the Flannan Isles and didn’t arrive until Boxing Day. There they expected to see the men within minutes of landing. It was not a particularly big island and it was normal for the men to come to the shore to greet them.
Instead they were met with silence. There was no flag up and no empty supplies boxes at the shore waiting to be swapped with full ones. Something was amiss.
This is where folklore, myth and simple modern-day tale spinning play their part. It is said that as Joseph Moore entered the lighthouse three unusual birds flew out, a sign for some that the three men’s disappearance was linked to the supernatural. A dinner plate with three full plates was found, with one chair left upturned as if someone had left in a hurry. Two sets of outdoor gear were missing and only one set of oilskins. Somebody had clearly gone outside without their outdoor gear, an act that was unheard of, unpractical and against the Northern Lighthouse Board rules for the lighthouse to be left unmanned. Where had the men gone in such a rush?
A search of the island found extensive storm damage in places, with iron railing bent out of shape and an iron railing pulled completely out of the concrete. The master of The Hesperus concluded that a great storm had swept the men out to see and he sent a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board, telling them that and saying that:
“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…….”
The mystery deepened when the logbook entries were read. Entries from 12 and 13 December included such personal details as “Ducat irritable” and “McArthur crying”, while another one reported that they were all praying. As well as being vey uncharacteristic of the men involved, putting such personal information in the logbook was far from standard practice. On 14 December there was no entry and on December 15 at 1pm the entry read, “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all”.
As there had been reports that the light was not seen at 4pm on 15 December, the 1pm logbook entry suggests that the men disappeared some time in those three hours. The Northern Lighthouse Board carried out an official investigation which concluded that two of the men had got into trouble and been pulled into the sea and the third man ran out to try and save them, only for him to be pulled out also.
Over the years the mystery of what happened to the men has fascinated people, inspiring poems, songs and, most recently, a film, The Vanishing. Not content with the story that the men had been pulled out to sea, others have speculated that a sea serpent had carried the men away, they had been abducted by ghosts (or foreign spies) and that they had hired a boat to leave the island and start new lives elsewhere.
Others have queried the reliability of the reports of the diary entries and the upturned chair. Certainly The Northern Lighthouse Board website makes no mention of the entries and one would assume that they would have the documents.
In 2015 naturalist John Love, having conducted research on the mystery and the men involved, put forward a simpler theory. He found that two of the men had previously been fined for not storing their gear properly before a storm. Wanting to avoid another hefty fine, Love suggests that two of the men went out to secure the equipment, got blown away by the storm and the third man went to help.
There has most likely been some fabrication over the years, by those intent on juicing up the story, no more so than Wilfrid Wilson Gibson who wrote this poem in 1921.
“Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steer’d under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night.
A passing ship at dawn had brought
The news: and quickly we set sail,
To find out what strange thing might ail
The keepers of the deep-sea light.
The winer day broke blue and bright
With glancing sun and glancing spray
While o’er the swell our boat made way,
As gallant as a gull in flight.
But, as we near’d the lonely Isle;
And look’d up at the naked height;
And saw the lighthouse towering white,
With blinded lantern, that all night
Had never shot a spark
Of comfort through the dark,
So ghastly in the cold sunlight
It seem’d, that we were struck the while
With wonder all too dread for words.
And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds–
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag–
Like seamen sitting bold upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we near’d, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.
And still too mazed to speak,
We landed; and made fast the boat;
And climb’d the track in single file,
Each wishing he was safe afloat,
On any sea, however far,
So it be far from Flannan Isle:
And still we seem’d to climb, and climb,
As though we’d lost all count of time,
And so must climb for evermore.
Yet, all too soon, we reached the door–
The black, sun-blister’d lighthouse door,
That gaped for us ajar.
As, on the threshold, for a spell,
We paused, we seem’d to breathe the smell
Of limewash and of tar,
Familiar as our daily breath,
As though ’twere some strange scent of death:
And so, yet wondering, side by side,
We stood a moment, still tongue-tied:
And each with black foreboding eyed
The door, ere we should fling it wide,
To leave the sunlight for the gloom:
Till, plucking courage up, at last,
Hard on each other’s heels we pass’d
Into the living-room.
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table, spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;
But all untouch’d; and no one there:
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come; and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat:
For on the table-head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor.
We listen’d; but we only heard
The feeble cheeping of a bird
That starved upon its perch:
And, listening still, without a word,
We set about our hopeless search.
We hunted high, we hunted low,
And soon ransack’d the empty house;
Then o’er the Island, to and fro,
We ranged, to listen and to look
In every cranny, cleft or nook
That might have hid a bird or mouse:
But, though we searched from shore to shore,
We found no sign in any place:
And soon again stood face to face
Before the gaping door:
And stole into the room once more
As frighten’d children steal.
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.
And, as we listen’d in the gloom
Of that forsaken living-room–
O chill clutch on our breath–
We thought how ill-chance came to all
Who kept the Flannan Light:
And how the rock had been the death
Of many a likely lad:
How six had come to a sudden end
And three had gone stark mad:
And one whom we’d all known as friend
Had leapt from the lantern one still night,
And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:
And long we thought
On the three we sought,
And of what might yet befall.
Like curs a glance has brought to heel,
We listen’d, flinching there:
And look’d, and look’d, on the untouch’d meal
And the overtoppled chair.
We seem’d to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought on three men dead.