The Flannan Isles are a series of rocky, uninhabited islands located to the west of Scotland. They’re an ideal location for a lighthouse to guide boats entering the UK from the north, however, so a few lighthouse keepers historically live on one of the rocky isles to keep the beacon illuminated.
The Flannan Isles are also said to be haunted according to Scottish folk tales. A presence is purported to stalk the barren and isolated islands, and shepherds who would bring their flocks to the isles to graze would often sooner travel back to land than stay on the isles overnight for fear of the specter.
In 1896, Scotland’s government authorized the construction of a lighthouse on the largest Flannan Isle, Eilean Mor. The construction was completed in 1899, and four men were assigned to tend to the lighthouse and keep the beacon lit. The four would work in a rotation, with each spending six weeks on the island before taking two weeks off to return home.
This setup meant that there would always be three keepers at the lighthouse, while one of the four men would be home with his family. In December 1900, one year after the lighthouse had opened, three keepers were on the island: James Ducat, Donald McArthur, and Thomas Marshal.
The first sign that something was wrong came on December 15, when a passing boat noticed that the house’s light was out in the inclement winter weather. When they came into harbor, the ship’s crew alerted the Northern Lighthouse Board that something was wrong at the Flannan Isles lighthouse. Due to the bad weather, the relief vessel wasn’t able to make it to the lighthouse until December 26.
A relief keeper, Joseph Moore, was sent to the island to investigate. He relayed what he found to Captain Jim Harvie of the Hesperus, the relief vessel. Harvie sent a telegram back to the Northern Lighthouse Board, dated December 26.
“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,” Harvie wrote.
Numerous theories about what fate must have befallen the men have been forwarded by various investigators and speculators. The physical evidence in the lighthouse indicates that McArthur’s coat and oilskins were still inside, even though his compatriots’ were nowhere to be found.
The most likely event is that Ducat and Marshal went down to the western landing to secure their equipment ahead of a rough storm and that McArthur, who was still up in the lighthouse, may have seen extremely strong waves approaching the beach. McArthur may have rushed out of the lighthouse, shutting the door and gate behind him as he went to prevent the waves from crashing into the structure, to alert his allies to the danger.
All three could have then been washed away by the waves of the particularly strong storms that were buffeting the island on December 15. While this is the most likely explanation, some people have suggested that one of the men may have gone mad and killed his coworkers, or that the three fell victim to the phantom that supposedly haunts the island.
In the end, the world may never know what really happened to the missing Flannan Isle lighthouse keepers.