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11 August 2008, JellyBean @ 4:50 am

“Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steered under the lee we caught
No glimmer through the night…”

W.W. Gibson: “Flannan Isle”

Lighthouses always evoke an air of mystery and solitude and many lighthouses have ghost stories attached to them. One of the most famous stories attached to a lighthouse is the mysterious happenings in December 1900.

On the 15th December, 1900, the steamer Archtor was on passage from Philadelphia to Leith. The weather was poor and as they approached Flannan Isle, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, they noticed that the familiar lighthouse lamp was not burning.


On their arrival at Oban, they reported the matter to authorities but no immediate action was taken.

The island lighthouse had a three man team, with a fourth man on shore leave. Although planning to arrive on the 20th December the relief craft, Hesperus, along with Joseph Moore, the relief man, only managed to arrive at the isle at noon on the 26th December.

On arrival, they noticed that the flagpole did not have the flag flying, provision boxes which should have been left on the dock were not there and more strangely none of the men were waiting to greet them from the beach. Despite blowing the ship’s whistle and setting off a flare, the beach and lighthouse remained ominously silent.

Quickly they launched a boat with Joseph Moore to investigate. Joseph was dropped on shore alone and he made his way up to the eerie lighthouse. He found the entrance gate to the compound and main door both closed, the beds unmade and the clock stopped.

He quickly returned to the landing area and summoned the second-mate and a seaman to accompany him back to the lighthouse. The second search showed that the lamps had been cleaned and were filled. A set of oilskins (heavy duty raincoat) was found, suggesting that at least one of the men had left the lighthouse without them which was strange considering the recent bad weather.

The only other sign of anything wrong was an overturned chair in the kitchen area. There was no sign at all of the occupants.

It was decided that Moore and three of the crew would remain behind at the lighthouse to ensure it was functioning. Despite a thorough search of the island by the men, nothing turned up besides the damage to western landing from the storms. Looking at the keepers’ log, their last entry was at 9am on the 15th December where they mentioned that this damage had already taken place.

The Hesperus returned to the shore station at Breasclete and the captain sent the Northern Lighthouse Board a telegram stating:

“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 must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to rescue a crane or something like that.”

No bodies were ever found and no clue as to their fate ever surfaced.

The events were commemorated and embellished in Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s 1912 ballad, Flannan Isle, which put this mystery firmly into the annals of legend.

There were many theories as to what had happened:

* one keeper had murdered the other two and then thrown himself into the sea in a fit of remorse

* a sea serpent (or giant seabird) had carried the men away

* they had been abducted by foreign spies

* they had met their fate through the malevolent presence of a boat filled with ghosts

* they were abducted by aliens

On 29 December, Robert Muirhead, an NLB superintendent, arrived to conduct the official investigation into the incident. He concluded that James Ducat and Thomas Marshall had gone down to the landing stage and probably got into some difficulties. Donald McArthur (the ‘Occasional’) had left the lighthouse in heavy rain in his shirt sleeves. (Whoever left the light last and unattended was in breach of NLB rules). Something happened which washed all three into the sea.

The mystery is just as powerful today as it was back at the turn of the last century. Books, poems, songs, films and TV programs have been made about the lighthouse.

To see some historical documents on this mystery, go to:

Northern Lighthouse Board: Historical Information

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