Monday Mystery-Disappearance on the Flannan Islands

The Flannan Isles or Seven Hunters are a small island group near Scotland, approximately 32 kilometres (20 mi) west of the Isle of Lewis. They may take their name from St Flannan, the 7th-century Irish preacher. The islands have been devoid of permanent residents since the automation in 1971.They are the location of an enduring mystery which occurred in December 1900, when all three lighthouse keepers vanished without a trace.

The first hint of anything untoward on the Flannan Isles came on 15 December 1900. The steamer Archtor on passage from Philadelphia passed the islands in poor weather and noted that the light was not operational, something highly unusual for a operating lighthouse.This was reported on arrival although no immediate action seems to have been taken. The island lighthouse was manned by a three-man team (Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald Macarthur), with a rotating fourth man spending time on shore. The relief vessel, the lighthouse tender Hesperus, did not arrive on the rock until December 26th. On arrival, the crew and relief keeper found that the flagstaff was bare of its flag, none of the usual provision boxes had been left on the landing stage for re-stocking and, more ominously, none of the lighthouse keepers were there to welcome them ashore. Jim Harvie, captain of the Hesperus, gave a strident blast on his whistle and set off a distress flare, but no reply came.

A boat was launched and Joseph Moore, the relief keeper, was put ashore alone. He found the entrance gate to the compound and main door both closed. When he crept inside, he saw the beds unmade and the clock stopped. Returning to the landing stage with this grim news, he then went back up to the lighthouse with the Hesperus’s second-mate and a seaman. A further search revealed that the lamps were cleaned and refilled. A set of oilskins was found, suggesting that one of the keepers had left the lighthouse without them, which was surprising considering the severity of the weather. The only sign of anything amiss in the lighthouse was an overturned chair by the kitchen table. Of the keepers there was no sign, either inside the lighthouse or anywhere on the island.

Moore and three volunteer seamen were left to attend the light and the Hesperus returned to the shore. Captain Harvie sent a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse board dated 26 December 1900, 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 they must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.

The men remaining on the island scoured every corner for clues as to the fate of the keepers. At the east landing everything was intact, but the west landing provided considerable evidence of damage caused by recent storms. A box at 33 metres (108 ft) above sea level had been broken and its contents strewn about; iron railings were bent over, the iron railway by the path was wrenched out of its concrete, and a rock weighing over a ton had been displaced above that. On top of the cliff at over 60 metres (200 ft) above sea level, turf had been ripped away over 10 metres (33 ft) from the cliff edge. However, the keepers had kept their log until 9 a.m. on 15 December and this made it clear that the damage had occurred before the writers’ disappearance.

Did one of the keepers kill the others and then drown in the storm? Who wrote the last entries in the diary, and were they alone? Even with no evidence of foul play, were the lighthouse keepers taken unawares. Did they simply succumb to a freak wave, as is generally accepted. Indeed it seems one of the keepers must have ran to the aid of the others, leaving the chair on the floor and the his gear unused. Yet why then was the door securely closed, and the gate also?

Some light has been shed on the contents of the log that the lighthouse kept, though whether this was a real account is unknown;

“December 12. Gale north by northwest. Sea lashed to fury. Never seen such a storm. Waves very high. Tearing at lighthouse. Everything shipshape. James Ducat irritable”.

Later that day: “Storm still raging, wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passing sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. Donald McArthur crying”.

“December 13. Storm continued through night. Wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. McArthur praying”. Later: “Noon, grey daylight. Me, Ducat and McArthur prayed”.

On 14 December there was no entry in the log.

The final entry was made on a slate, which (under normal circumstances) would have been transferred to the logbook proper later on:

“December 15. 1pm. Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all”.

 

Who knows if this account is real,as the emotional nature of it seems to suggest it is a forgery. Even so, it appears one of the keepers did rush out of the lighthouse to the aid of his companions. Did he meet the same fate?

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