In 1900, three keepers of Flannan Isle Lighthouse near the highest point on Eilean Mor simply vanished without a trace. No explanation for their whereabouts has ever been discovered. Many people believed that the rugged, lonely island was haunted.
Lighthouses nowadays are operated automatically, but there was a time not so long ago when each of the lonely lighthouse rocks around the coast of Scotland had its light tended by a few stalwart lighthouse keepers. The job was vital to the safety of ships in the area, but it had considerable hazards. The job of a lighthouse keeper was a very lonely one and not for the faint-hearted - they would be isolated for weeks at a time.
Eilean Mor Lighthouse, off the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, was manned by three people, a head keeper, and two others. As they were confined for lengthy periods of time without other human company, they had to get along with each other or life would be very uncomfortable indeed.
In 1900 the head lighthouse keeper was a man called Thomas Marshall. His two crew were called James Ducat and Donald McArthur. In December 1900, their unexplained disappearance was to cause great concern and speculation.
It was on 15 December that it first became obvious that something was wrong at the lighthouse. It was reported to the authorities that the light at Eilean Mor, which was supposed to burn constantly, had gone out. This posed a great danger to shipping in the area, and when the light had still not gone back on after a few days, a vessel was sent to the rock to investigate. A dinghy from the vessel was launched with a landing party, which tied up at the rock in an atmosphere of eerie silence. Why had no one come down to meet them?
The explanation became all too clear when the party entered the lighthouse itself. The place was absolutely empty. The lighthouse crew had gone. The landing party looked around for some explanation but could find none. There was no sign of there having been any disturbance. Everything was tidy and seemed to be in order, but the crew's outdoor gear, their oilskins, and boots, were nowhere in evidence. Apart from the fact that the men had gone, the only strange thing that the landing party noticed was a piece of seaweed lying on the stairway, a kind that none of them had ever seen before.
It was unthinkable that the men in the lighthouse crew should ever abandon their posts. Why and where had they gone?
The log that was kept at the lighthouse gave strong indications that all had not been well before the men disappeared. On 12 December Thomas Marshall had written:
"Gale N by NW. Sea lashed to fury. Never seen such a storm. Waves very high. Tearing at the lighthouse. Everything shipshape. James Ducat irritable."
Another entry for the same day read:
"Storm still raging, wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passing sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins, Duncat quiet. Donald McArthur crying."
Tension among the lighthouse crew was given a further mention on 13 December:
"Storm continued through the night. Wind shifted W by N. Ducat quiet. McArthur praying."
Marshall made another entry that day:
"Noon, grey daylight. Me, Duncan, and McArthur prayed."
There were no entries in the log for the following day. On 15 December the final entry in the book read as follows:
"Storm ended. sea calm. God is over all. "
Several things were disturbing about the entries in the log. First of all, there were the mentions of Ducat and McArthur behaving as if as if something was wrong. Were they unwell or frightened? Was it the storm or something else?
Then there was the fact that there had been no entry made for 14 December. Why was that?
Finally, the storm that was supposed to have raged around the lighthouse rock for three days seemed very unlikely as on the island of Lewis, less than twenty miles away, there had been no sign of any such storm. Had the men in the lighthouse been imagining things?
The official inquiry into the disappearance of the lighthouse crew was unable to shed further light on the incident. Nor were the three men ever found. But many people thought that they had been subjected to something supernatural. People had believed for many years that the rocky islands around the lighthouse were haunted.
Further evidence had been submitted to the enquiry that had only served to deepen the mystery. On the night of 15 December, seamen on a boat in the waters around the strangely dark lighthouse had seen another boat, manned by men dressed in storm clothing, cut across their bow.
The occupants had not responded to the seamen's calls. The only thing the seamen heard in answer to their cries was the sound of the oars as they creaked in the rowlocks.
Was this the last sight of the men from the lighthouse or were the figures in the rowing boat merely ghostly apparitions? The answer will probably never be known.
Many theories have been put forward in an attempt to explain how the three men had simply vanished from Eilean Mor, yet to date, no plausible explanation has been able to account for their disappearance. One of the investigating party was ordered to stay in the lighthouse alone for two days before replacement keepers could once again man the light. During the night, above the sound of the sea and wind, the man reported hearing voices of men calling to him. He was convinced that the voices he heard were the lost souls of the missing lighthouse keepers.
Whatever took these three men away from this lonely, rugged island, remains a mystery.