Three Men Vanished From a Scottish Island 100 Years Ago and People Are Still Looking
The disappearance at the turn of the 20th century still fascinates over a century later.
The Flannan Isles lighthouse. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
This article originally appeared on VICE CA.
In this series – which will be written whenever my editor allows me – I, Mack Lamoureux, will be telling the tale of some of the greatest mysteries from time gone past. I originally wanted to call it Mack's Mysteries but nooooooooo, we had to go with History's Mysteries cause rhyming is better than alliteration, I guess – I've been assured if the name sucks we will be changing it. Anyhoo, enjoy this tale.
On the highest point of the craggy island Eilean Mòr sits a lighthouse.
The rather unassuming white lighthouse located off Scotland’s Western Isles is nicely kept. It features a small living quarters built on a downwards slope and away from it runs a stone walkway which leads to a jagged, sharp cliff face overlooking the angry water below. This structure, known as the Flannan Isles lighthouse holds not just a lamp that keeps ships from running themselves into the dangerous rocks of the Outer Hebrides—but also one of the greatest mysteries of the Atlantic.
It’s a mystery that happened over a century ago, when the only three men on the small island—the first men to ever man this lighthouse—just up and vanished.
The tale of the vanishing men begin in the Outer Hebrides, a collection of islands off the west coast of Scotland. The sea around the area is dangerous so it was decided a lighthouse would be built there in 1895. The birth of the Flannan Isles lighthouse was a difficult one as all the supplies had to be hauled up the 150 foot cliffs from ships lurching in the churning water below. The land was, to put it bluntly, not fit for humans as it leaves one in complete exposure to the angry northern gales—it was uninhabitable. Furthermore, it wasn’t just the mere geography that made the island foreboding, it was also the home of strange legends of unearthly dwellers who haunt the island.
However, despite strong winds and ghost stories, the Flannan Isles Lighthouse lit the night sky for the first time on 7 December 1899. From here on out, it was stoked by four of the best men in the lighthouse game due to them needing to work well in the aforementioned exposure.
And just over a year later, three of the four men would disappear.
The four men who, for a brief time, would be the antidote to Eilean Mòr’s desolation were Joseph Moore, Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald MacArthur. This was back in the day, well before lighthouses could be automated and manned by one person or remotely. The way it worked on Eilean Mòr’s highest point was three men would work on the island while one would rotate out on a two week leave. There was no way on and off the island except for the relief ship which would bring supplies and the man rotating in.
For a year everything seemed swell, with the men working dutifully to keep boats from ruining themselves of the crags of the Hebrides. But then, just over a year after its construction, on December 15, 1900, the light didn’t shine. A small ship noticed it and five days later a ship set out to with the man on leave, Moore, to relieve the three on the island and see what was going down. Things immediately seemed amiss when there was no reaction to the flare the ship set off to signal it’s arrival.
Moore was the first to shore. He thought something was off when nobody was there to meet him.
“I went up to the lighthouse and on coming to the entrance gate I found it closed. I made for the entrance door leading to the kitchen and storeroom and found it also closed, and the door inside that,” Moore wrote in a letter two days later. “But the kitchen door itself was open. On entering I looked at the fireplace and saw that the fire was not lighted for some days. I entered the rooms in succession and found the beds empty, just as they left them in the early morning.”
“I did not take time to search further, for I naturally well knew that something serious had occurred.”
Knowing the three men he spent the majority of the last year with just up and vanished, Moore went and got some help from the ship. Moore, being the lighthouse man he was, went back to his duties in short order, and got the light going again. He and three volunteers stayed on the island and firstly made sure to help guide ships away from the rocky crags, and secondly figure out what in the blue hell went on at the highest point of Eilean Mòr. How did not one but three experienced men, who knows the sea well and lighthouse work better, disappear from a small island? What the hell happened?
As the men investigated, the captain of the relief ship left and booked it to the nearest telegram station. There he sent off a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board Headquarters. “A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans” it began before explaining what they found on the deserted island. From here a collection of investigators set off for the island.
The term “vanished without a trace” is one commonly used when writing about mysteries, but rarely it is ever true. As is the case here, there were plenty of traces of the vanished men. There was a half-eaten meal in the kitchen. Some of the outdoor wear used by the men were left inside the building. The beds were obviously slept in. The kitchen door was left open. The pots and pans were nicely cleaned and put away. While the men vanished, they left plenty of evidence of their existence.
They were just… gone.
The four non-vanished men on the island continued their search for days but it was to no avail. The men were gone, never to return, and a hundred years later, to this day, we’re still trying to figure out what happened. The lighthouse would again be restocked with workers who would remain around the clock until 1971 when the Flannan Isles lighthouse was automated. The island, to this day, is best known for the disappearance.
The disappearance of the three men wasn’t a small thing, this was something covered widely back then by newspapers and quickly found its way into folklore. The incident has had countless books written on it, a famous poem penned by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, documentaries, TV-shows, and films made about it. “It seems that the unexplained fate of the three keepers (Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald MacArthur) will remain yet another of the sea’s enduring mysteries,” reads a Northants Evening Telegraph story that was published on December 27, 1900. Most recently a film starring Gerard Butler called The Vanishing tells an adapted tale of the Flannan Isles mystery in which a bunch of people get murdered—never change Mr. Butler.
“We seemed to stand for an endless while/ Though still no word was said. Three men alive on Flannan Isle. Who thought, on three men dead,” reads the end of Gibson’s poem Flannan Isle which is kinda the 1912 version of a Gerard Butler movie.
In a thoroughly researched paper about the mystery from 1997, Irish historian Mike Dash writes that over the years people have offered a variety of explanations of what happened to the men. There are a few commonly held explanations—that a massive wave took them over the side during some precarious work; that the wind was strong enough to take them over the cliff; that one of the men, fed up with the men he spends so much fucking time with, snapped killed two of them and tossed the bodies into the ocean before killing himself in a similar manner; or they were killed attempting to help a sinking ship. Dash writes that one theory—offered up by the man working as the lighthouse superintendent between 1953 and 1957—stands above the rest.
The story goes as this: it’s in the evening after dinner and a storm is raging outside. Thomas Marshall and James Ducat go out to secure the rope that goes down the cliff as the cook does the dishes. As Marshall and Ducat are working a massive wave rips over the cliff and takes one over the side. The man left on terra firma then sprints back to the lighthouse, gets Donald MacArthur who, leaving in a hurry, doesn’t take all his gear and as they work another ungodly wave takes the pair over the side. From here Eilean Mòr was in its natural state, empty.
Then there are also the far more fun explanations to this mystery though. Some have thought that an ancient race of tiny people that live on the island, uh, turned the men into giant birds. I’m sure there are some tales about faeries abducting them cause the lovely Scots love them some faeries. There is also the obvious ‘they were abducted by ol’ timey aliens’ or ghosts/demons made the people go bye-bye explanations.
While there are many explanations—some a lot more believable than others—there has never been a concrete one. Like anything that happened a long time ago, what we definitely know is slowly eroded by the passage of time. The one thing we know for sure though is this, something tragic happened in December of 1900 on that craggy island of Eilean Mòr.
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