The Keepers of Flannan Light
Mystery clouds the story of what happened to these three vanished lighthouse keepers.
by Brian Dunning
February 13, 2018
Today we're going to back to the year 1900, beneath leaden skies, overlooking a slate-grey ocean, with a cold, gusty wind spattering us with spray. We're standing on the highest point of Eilean Mòr, the largest of a group of tiny islands called the Seven Hunters far off the coast of Scotland. It's an island with a history of strange stories, from a race of pygmies to ancient rituals performed around a stone chapel. None stranger than that of the crew of three lighthouse keepers who disappeared without a trace just before Christmas 1900.
The Seven Hunters are the Flannan Isles, among the smallest and westernmost of the Hebrides, about 115 kilometers off the Scottish mainland. They're really just rocks, too small to be inhabited, save for the lighthouse atop Eilean Mòr. A small chapel on the island is dedicated to St. Flannan, though chapel is perhaps too grand a term as it's little more than a single small drystone room. Not far away are a pair of ancient stone shelters, collapsed igloos of stacked rocks that were little big enough for one person. It's said that monks may have dwelt there, as old legends tell that each summer a gathering of Gaels from Lewis — the nearest inhabited island — would journey out to the island for a ceremony at the chapel. Other legends say that tiny bones were dug up on the island, evidence of the pygmies who lived there, and conducted their pagan rites around the rude stone structures.
But legend gave way to progress when the Flannan Isles Lighthouse was completed in 1899. Concrete tramways led from cliffside landings on the east and west sides of the islands, allowing ships to land men and supplies no matter which way the wind was blowing. Each was treacherous as the landings are mere cutaways in the cliffside with a crane platform some 20 meters above the surging waters. The lighthouse itself, at the summit of the island, stretches 25 meters high, putting its light a full 100 meters above sea level. It had comfortable living quarters for its crew of three men.
Four keepers rotated ashore, six weeks on and two off, so that three were on the island at all times. The steamer Hesperus visited every two weeks to bring stores and each new keeper back for his shift. On Boxing Day, December 26, 1900, the Hesperus brought the relief keeper Joseph Moore, and the first thing they noticed was that the light was out — later inquiries revealed that the Northern Lighthouse Board had already received reports of this from passing ships for more than ten days, but those reports had gotten lost in a bureaucratic sea of their own. Nor were the keepers at the landing to meet them with mooring lines. The flag was not flying and no crates were waiting at the landing stage. It seemed the island's mystical past might have been creeping back.
The Hesperus fired a signal rocket but there was no response. Moore went ashore, was gone for a while, and the report he brought back has become the basis of the mystery which survives to this day. Any book you read will give the same basic description. Moore found the door to the lighthouse ajar; a meal of salted mutton and boiled potatoes half eaten and still laid out on the table; one of the chairs toppled over. The clocks were all stopped. Two of the keepers' waterproof oilskins were missing, but the third man's coat was still hanging on its peg.
Noting that there was damage to the west landing from a powerful storm over the preceding week that had wrought havoc with Scottish fishing fleets, the Lighthouse Board went with the assumption that all three keepers had been swept into the sea in some tragedy, the details of which would probably never be known. But as time went on, a growing number of people doubted that explanation. Not only did the disheveled nature of the lighthouse dwelling suggest something unusual had happened, but the entries from the lighthouse log were also unsettling. They are said to have been written by Marshall, the second man in the chain of command:
Dec. 12: Gale, north by north-west. Sea lashed to fury. Stormbound 9pm. Never seen such a storm. Everything shipshape. Ducat irritable. 12pm. Storm still raging. Wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passed sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. McArthur crying.
Dec. 13: Storm continued through night. Wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. McArthur praying. 12 noon. Grey daylight. Me, Ducat, and McArthur prayed.
Dec. 15: 1pm. Storm ended. Sea calm. God is over all.
So whatever took place must have happened after the storm. And not only that, judging by the emotional state of the men, it could well have been something unearthly. Accounts of the rituals practiced on the island by the men of Lewis, recorded in 1695 by the author Martin Martin who traveled there, were strange indeed. Worshipers stripped to their waist, circled the chapel on their knees, and spoke only using strange word substitutions when on the island, thought by some to be the language of the mysterious pygmy beings.
Popular theories of the keepers' vanishing ranged from the esoteric, such as the pygmies of Eilean Mòr turned them into birds or made ceremonial sacrifices out of them; to the physical, such as the men killed each other in a fight, or were abducted by pirates, or even just hopped onto a passing ship in search of a new life elsewhere.
Although this set of unanswered questions is where most films and articles about the disappearance rest their case, it turns out there is much more to the story. Enough, in fact, that we're able to come to a satisfactory — if not entirely complete — solution to the fate of the men.
To do this, we follow a method familiar on Skeptoid: we go back to the original sources to see what was reported by the people who were actually there, and compare it to later accounts to find out whether some of today's story elements were added ex post facto by various authors, and that were not part of the original evidence. British historian and author Mike Dash immersed himself in this case for years, and wrote the definitive piece on it for a 1998 volume of Fortean Studies. Dash managed to track down the origin of nearly every little piece of the story; and for those that he couldn't, other researchers generally have. By now we have a fairly complete picture of what's fact and what's fiction in this greatly magnified and misrepresented legend.
Let's begin with the pygmies and other mystical elements. The legend of the pygmies is a real one, and it is ancient enough to predate our story today. Although Martin, in his travels, noted there is some evidence that the people of Lewis did refer to Eilean Mòr as "the Isle of Little Men", an 1895 analysis of his book published in The Antiquary found that such tales were fairly widespread throughout the Hebrides and were not unique to Eilean Mòr. Stories of tiny bones are just stories; no anthropologists have ever made any such finding.
Nor was there anything unusual about the alternative vocabulary that worshipers were said to be required to speak. Of all the examples Martin gave, Dash found that they were all simply common Gaelic words. As far as walking barechested on one's knees during worship, I think we can grant 17th century Gaels this tradition without concluding the lighthouse keepers had to have been sacrificed by supernatural beings.
But the best information is to be found when we turn to the actual report made by Moore of his search for the men. He was a regular keeper at Flannan Light, and deeply familiar with the island's procedures. Of all that he reported inside the quarters, everything was just as it should be. There was no half-eaten meal, no chairs knocked over. To find any reference to these events, we have to fast-forward eleven years, to an epic poem published in 1912 by W. W. Gibson which dramatized the event. The mysterious elements from inside the house never happened at all — they were the creative invention of the poet Gibson.
What Moore did find, however, was the logbook, and it differed from what's in the popular retellings that include accounts of praying and crying, and a post-storm entry on December 15th. In a 2014 response to a Freedom of Information Act request for the true logbook entries, the Northern Lighthouse Board stated:
We do not hold the log book and no-one is aware of its whereabouts but lighthouse log books would not generally extend beyond recording tasks carried out at the lighthouse and the weather and sea conditions etc.
This dovetails well with Dash's finding that the actual logbooks were simply lost by the courts during the 1901 inquest. Moore's report also reveals that the logbook was in the handwriting of the principal keeper, Ducat, as expected; not in Marshall's, as in the stories. Never would a subordinate write in the log, and certainly not that his boss was irritable or crying, where his boss would see it. Moore also recorded that the log's last entry was on the 13th, thus the popular final entry of the 15th is phony.
Conclusion? The published logbook entries are fiction. Their first confirmed appearance in print was 1965, when paranormal author Vincent Gaddis told the story in Invisible Horizons. He claimed to have gotten the log text from a 1929 piece by Ernest Fallon in True Strange Stories, but so far, nobody has been able to confirm this.
Addendum: In another brilliant piece of investigative journalism, author Mike Dash did manage to track down the elusive Ernest Fallon and his logbook entries. Turns out Fallon was almost certainly a fake name, and the True Strange Stories piece was fiction written by the author John L. Spivak during a confluence of two persuasive influences: The magazine was desperate for great fiction, and Spivak was desperate for money to support his young family. - BD
Moore did find storm damage to the landing, though quite different from what is usually described today. The crane itself was unharmed, as it was properly secured for weather — contrary to today's stories. A block of stone weighing just over a metric ton had been dislodged by the sea and dropped onto the tramway. A lifebuoy lashed 34 meters above sea level had been torn from its ropes by the force of the waves. Walter Aldebert served as Principal Keeper at Eilean Mòr between 1953 and 1957, and documented just how bad the storms could be, in an effort to help solve what happened to his predecessors. He photographed spray hitting the lamphouse itself, 100 meters up. Once he nearly lost his life in a foot of strongly receding water just outside the lighthouse after a wave rolled over the crest of the island, 77 meters up.
So what did happen? The oilskins that Moore found missing from the lighthouse were worn by two of the men — Ducat and Marshall — only when going down to the landing. Six months previously, the keepers had been fined five shillings when some of the landing tackle was left out and was damaged. The leading theory has always been that when the storm hit, Ducat and Marshall put on their togs and went down to the landing to secure the tackle — not just to avoid another fine, but because the ropes were absolutely crucial if relief were needed. Seeing the great explosion of whitewater from a swell that might have taken them, or perhaps called by one of his comrades, McArthur rushed out to throw a line; and in his efforts, was likely taken by the sea as well.
Automated since 1971, Flannan Light still warns mariners of the treacherous Seven Hunters, in the spirit of those whose courage is aptly portrayed in the old lighthouse keeper's prayer:
Yet should I sink beneath the foam,
I pray this flame might guide thee home.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Keepers of Flannan Light." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
13 Feb 2018. Web.
24 Feb 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4610>
References & Further Reading
Bainton, R. The Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2013.
Dash, M. "True Strange Stories?" Fortean Times. 1 Apr. 2017, Issue 352: 40-44.
Dash, M., Moore, S. "The Vanishing Lighthousemen of Eilean Mór." Fortean Studies. 1 Jan. 1998, Volume 4.
Gaddis, V. Invisible Horizons: True Mysteries of the Sea. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1965.
Gibson, W. W. Fires. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1912. 47-51.
MacRitchie, D. "The Pigmies' Isle in the Hebrides." The Antiquary. 1 Jan. 1895, Volume 31, Number 182: 22-26.
Martin, M. A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland. London: A. Bell, 1703.
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