Exploration Mysteries: Eilean Mòr Disappearances

The Eilean Mòr lighthouse.

The Flannan Isles or the Seven Hunters are a group of remote, rocky islands in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Eilean Mòr, the largest of the islands, has been shrouded in myth and superstition. Visitors who ventured there engaged in strange rituals to protect themselves. They firmly believed that it was cursed.

This isolated scene was the stage for one of the United Kingdom’s most notorious disappearances. In 1900, three lighthouse keepers on Eilean Mòr vanished and were never seen again. 

Eilean Mòr lighthouse keepers. Photo: Daily Record

The life of a keeper

Being a lighthouse keeper in the old days was not easy. Keepers worked full-time and had to maintain lenses and lamps, repair equipment, replenish the oil, prepare landings for ships, and assist in rescues.

Keepers stayed cooped up in their little vertical towers for weeks or months at a time. They then rotated to other lighthouses. It was an isolating experience, and keepers did not see their families for most of the year. However, many accepted this sacrifice as a way of life. What some weren’t ready to accept was a post at Flannan Isles Lighthouse on Eilean Mòr. 

Eilean Mòr is only 0.4km wide and has steep 60m cliffs. The only manmade structures on the island are a 23m lighthouse and a rudimentary drystone chapel dating back to the 7th century. Despite its modest size, visitors were terrified and refused to stay the night. Centuries ago, shepherds who used to live on neighboring islands brought their sheep to graze during the day but hurried back home before dark.

The reason for the island’s reputation is unclear. Many, including crew members on passing ships, described a sense of foreboding. James Ducat, the experienced head keeper of the lighthouse, had the same reservations. His family said that he took the job reluctantly, knowing the island’s reputation. Along with Second Assistant Thomas Marshall and Occasional keeper Donald McArthur, they managed the lighthouse without incident until December 1900. 

First sign of trouble

On December 15 of that year, the SS Archtor was traveling to Leith from Philadelphia and passed Eilean Mòr. The light was out, forcing the captain to divert the vessel. After docking in Leith, the captain conveyed the irregularity to port authorities, and they noted the incident.

On Boxing Day, the relief vessel Hesperus arrived at the lighthouse to no signal flag, none of the usual preparations at the landing site, and no keepers coming to meet them. They fired flares and blew whistles, but got no response. Captain James Harvey sent replacement keeper Joseph Moore to investigate. The lighthouse seemed completely abandoned and eerily calm. The lamp and lenses were clean and the oil tubs were full. In the living quarters, food was laid out on the kitchen table, the fireplace was unused, beds were made up, and the clocks had wound down. The only thing that stood out was the missing oilskin coats and boats of James Ducat and Thomas Marshall, while Donald McArthur’s clothes remained. 

Moore went to the west landing to find the iron railings twisted and in pieces and boxes of ropes scattered. A lifebuoy was also missing from the landing and the railway tracks used to shuttle supplies to the landing were “torn” from the ground.

These discoveries prompted Captain Harvey to leave Moore and three others on Eilean Mòr to tend the lighthouse while he went to the mainland for help. Moore was so terrified that he was eventually transferred. The Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) investigated the disappearance and reported that “A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans…No sign of life was to be seen on the Island…Poor fellows, they must have been blown away…”

End of the investigation

And that was the end of it. The official cause of disappearance was a storm or powerful wave that swept them out to sea. They determined that Ducat and Marshall might have gone down to the landing to secure the boxes of ropes when a rogue wave swept them away. McArthur may have run out to save them and he, in turn, got swept out into the dark North Atlantic Ocean. There were no follow-up investigations, despite many unanswered questions. 

Stormy weather and deadly waves. Photo: Shutterstock

In later years, a writer named Ernest Fallon claimed he had the keepers’ original logbook, which described severe weather on the island at the time. From December 12 to 15, one of the keepers (probably Marshall) supposedly wrote about strong winds, and about Ducat and McArthur’s fragile state of mind. On December 15, the entry stated, “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.” Despite this, there were no reports of storms in the area on those four days. This “logbook” was likely a hoax. 

While the NLB did not suspect foul play, curious minds felt that the behaviors were very out of character. Why would all keepers be outside at the same time, when one had to stay inside the lighthouse at all times? Why did Donald McArthur go outside without his gear?

Foul play?

They theorized that McArthur might have done something sinister. He was the least experienced of the three and was a temperamental man. Going mad was not unheard of among lighthouse keepers. Some suggest that McArthur may have killed his colleagues, then himself. Others posited that a passing ship might have abducted them. 

St Flannan’s lighthouse. Photo: JJM

More in line with the swept away theory is the idea of a powerful rogue wave battering the cliff’s edge and taking the keepers out to sea. Though rare, rogue waves are possible. These walls of water are capable of reaching 100m and often occur in stormy weather. They are extremely unpredictable and can do significant damage, especially to unsuspecting ships.

The Muckle Flugga Lighthouse in the Shetland Islands is known to experience these colossal waves, with one recorded to have almost reached past the 60m cliff. An Eilean Mòr lighthouse keeper in the 1950s named Walter Aldebert conducted his own investigation by photographing waves crashing against the cliff. Some waves were so powerful that the water’s spray went way past the 60m cliff edge. These types of waves also have to do with the island’s geography. Its many caves and gullies cause waves driven by huge swells to explode violently. 

Or…maybe the place really is cursed. Misfortune continued to plague the little island until the lighthouse was automated in the 1970s. A replacement keeper for Joseph Moore fell to his death, and another keeper lost his mind. William Ross, one of the original keepers who was on leave at the time of his colleagues’ disappearance, died on duty at another lighthouse. 

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About the Author

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer (and occasional photographer) based in sunny Trinidad and Tobago.

Since graduating from the University of Leicester with a BA in English and History, she has pursued a full-time writing career, exploring multiple niches before settling on travel and exploration. While studying for an additional diploma in travel journalism with the British College of Journalism, she began writing for ExWeb.

Currently, she works at a travel magazine in Trinidad as an editorial assistant and is also ExWeb's Weird Wonder Woman, reporting on the world's natural oddities as well as general stories from the world of exploration.

Although she isn't a climber (yet!), she hikes in the bush, has been known to make friends with iguanas and quote the Lord of the Rings trilogy from start to finish.

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