A December Mystery:The Missing Lighthouse Men

It is well known, I think, that people like to read ghost stories around the Christmas season, but how about a real-life December mystery?

The Flannan Isles are located thirty kilometres west of the Outer Hebrides, in the Atlantic Ocean. Celtic monks lived on those desolate islands in isolation, until they were abandoned for a thousand years. There are the remains of a chapel there, said to have been built by the Irish monk St.Flannan. In 1895 a lighthouse was built there, to warn off ships, passing in those treacherous waters.

In 1900, a three man crew of James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and Donald MacArthur arrived for a two week posting, just in time for the hostile winter to set in.

I am not sure who is who in this photograph, but at least one of those three men is present in it, maybe the other two are, also.


A vessel, the lighthouse tender Hesperus, passed the island around midnight on December 15th, and noted that the light was not to be seen, but this information was not shared until subsequent events became known. Its return visit, scheduled for the 20th, was cancelled due to adverse weather. On the 26th, the Hesperus arrived at the island, and when there was no sign of anyone on the island to greet them, blew its steam whistle, sounded its siren, and then fired  a rocket, all of which elicited no response.

Relieving keeper Joseph Moore went ashore and found the lighthouse deserted.

He later said that he knew only too well that something serious had occurred. The outer door and gate were closed. Inside, the fire had gone out, the ashes stone cold. Everything was in its place. The pots and pans had all been washed up that day by the duty cook.The beds were unmade and the clock was stopped. The only sign of anything amiss was an overturned chair by the kitchen table. He went back to the landing stage and reported what he had found, and returned with two other crew members. A search of the island turned up no sign of the missing men.

Two days after Moore’s discovery, the Northern Lighthouse Board sent Superintendent Robert Muirhead to investigate. He examined the lighthouse logbook, finding that the last entry was made on the 13th of December. An entry for the 14th, and part of the 15th, had been made on a chalk slate, ready to be later transferred into the log. There was nothing after that date. So what had happened on that day, the 15th of December? Whatever it was, it must have took place between the chalk slate entry on the 15th, and midnight of the same day, when the passing Hesperus crew had noted that the light on the island was not shining.

Muirhead proposed that all three men had gone outside in a storm to secure equipment, and had been taken by a giant wave. The board accepted this explanation, and the families of all involved grieved for their loss.


But doubts have been expressed about this theory. For one thing, it would have had to be a wave of record size to have reached the men, if the men were where it is thought that they were when, and if, the wave took them. A documentary programme featured a weather re-analysis of that day, back in 1900, showing that there were severe gales around the Flannan Isles, but not a storm or hurricane to produce a wave of such magnitude that would have been required to cause such a tragedy. But there is always a possibility of a rogue wave, many of which have been recorded before. There were signs at the lighthouse of storm-inflicted damage, but the log makes it clear that this occurred earlier.

In Muirhead’s report, he noted that the wet weather gear of two of the keepers was missing. MacArthur’s was still on its peg. A code of rule is that lighthouses should not be left unattended, someone has to man it at all times. So it seems MacArthur had stayed behind while the other two men went outside. Had he seen a rogue wave about to hit, ran out to warn his colleagues, but ended up sharing their same, fatal, fate? Had such a wave taken all three men? This scenario would explain the overturned chair, but not the closed outer door and gate.

Some people have questioned whether the isolation, cooped up together in the difficult conditions, had caused one of the men to snap, killing the other two. Was it MacArthur, going out to kill the other two men? There was no sign of a weapon, or blood, or MacArthur himself. Would he have thrown both bodies into the sea, and then jumped to his own, watery, death, the light on the island being extinguished after the lives of the crew?

Other theories have been offered, of varying credibility, including sea monsters, and the obligatory alien abduction. Some say that the island is cursed. History tells of bones being found on the island, and tales tell of a race of small people who used to live there long before the holy men. Moore himself found small bones while being stationed there, and somehow a connection is made between a curse and these pygmy-like former inhabitants.

Fifty years before the lighthouse was built, three hundred men had died in the rough seas surrounding the islands. Perhaps this was the reason for the lighthouse to be built in the first place. When it was being constructed the foreman died, and not long after the disappearance of the three men another keeper died when he fell from the tower.

That is five men dead in the space of four years.

Moore himself was spooked by the island, understandably, really, by what he found. And what he didn’t find.

His son later told a writer that his father didn’t like the islands, and didn’t want to be there. The night before he discovered that the keepers were missing, he did not sleep well. He was convinced that he saw the boathouse on fire from his window, but on investigation found that it was just his imagination. He later took this as a portent for what happened. He would say that what happened on the island was very strange, and, on later consideration, believed that ‘we are all cursed in some way.’

Whatever happened on that island on the 15th December, 1900, we will never know. The island, and the ocean, don’t appear to be giving up their secret anytime soon.

A poem, Flannan Isle, by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, told from the perspective of Moore and the two colleagues he went ashore with, ends this way:

Like curs a glance has brought to heel,

We listen’d flinching there:

And look’d, and lookd, on the untouch’d meal,

And the over toppled 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