FLANNAN ISLES, OUTER HEBRIDES
15 December 1900. As the Archtor approaches the final leg of its journey from Philadelphia to Leith, Scotland, it navigates the treacherous waters around the Flannan Isles, locally known as The Seven Hunters. The uninhabited archipelago of islands lay approximately 20 miles to the west of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and on top of the largest island, Eilean Mòr, sits Flannan Lighthouse.
The 75ft lighthouse sits on top of Eilean Mòr’s 150ft cliff, so even in the foulest of weather the light can be seen at sea for over 20 miles. However, on the evening of 15 December, the captain of the Archtor records in the ships log that there was no light coming from Flannan Island lighthouse. When the ship docks in Leith on 18 December, the absence of a light from the Flannan Isles is reported to the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) who are responsible for the upkeep of the lighthouse and the men that are stationed there to manage it. With no way of contacting the three-man crew on the Flannans to make sure everything is well, the NLB arrange for a relief vessel, the Hesperus, to sail to the islands on 20 December, however due to bad weather, they are held in port for almost a week.
It was noon on Boxing Day when the Hesperus finally made a safe crossing to Eilean Mòr. As it approaches the island, the captain sounds the ships horn and fires a flare, as was practice to notify the lighthouse keepers of their arrival. In response, a flag should have been raised from the lighthouse to acknowledge the ships arrival; however, nothing moves, save three large jet-black birds that take flight from the cliff. Later, the crew of the Hesperus said that they were unable to identify the species of the bird, saying they looked like albatross, but significantly larger.
When the crew of the Hesperus land on Eilean Mòr, they take the almost vertical steps that have been carved into the cliff side and finally reach the lighthouse. The door is closed, but not locked. Entering the lighthouse, there is no sign of the three-man crew.
The lighthouse keepers that should have been there were James Ducat (Principal Lighthouse Keeper), Thomas Marshall, and Donald McArthur. All were well experienced in their profession and being men of the Hebrides, they were no strangers to the fast changing and often violent weather conditions.
Searching the lighthouse, everything is as it should be. The food stores are stocked, the oil lamps cleaned and refilled, doors closed, beds made, pots, pans and cutlery clean and put away. Two sets of oil skins were missing, which were used in inclement weather, but a third set remained on the peg – it would have been unusual for any of the men to have left the lighthouse without them in mid-December.
Upon further inspection of the island, considerable storm damage is visible to the western cliff. Iron railings have been bent and turf has been ripped 33ft from the top of the cliff which rises 200ft above the sea. One might imagine that if the weather - wind, rain and waves – were that bad, it could have been possible for the men to have been swept from the island. However, Principal Lighthouse Keeper, Ducat, had a responsibility to maintain a daily record of activities on the island and all of the aforementioned damage had been meticulously recorded.
Ducat had logged an entry on 13 December which stated that the storm was still raging, and that all three men had been praying. This was considered unusual given their years of experience. They were also in a solid structure, 150ft above sea level, so they should have known that they were safe inside. To add to the peculiarity of Ducat’s entry, there had been no reported storms in the area on 12, 13 and 14 December from any passing vessels.
Ducat made the final log entry at 9am on 15 December, which simply read; ‘Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all’. Later that day, the Archtor would record that the lamp at the lighthouse was not lit.
So was there a 'storm', or did Ducat use the word to describe something else?
If there was a physical storm and the men were tragically swept from the island, what made them venture out of the lighthouse in such horrendous conditions? And why did one of them leave without their oilskins? There are a number of theories regarding the men’s disappearance from super waves to alien abduction, but there is one that those who know the islands best subscribe to.
For thousands of years, these inhospitable rocks have been visited by crofters from the Hebrides but no one has ever settled, not even temporarily. There is good reason for this as local folklore speaks of nature spirits on the Seven Hunters and they have tolerated visitors since men learnt to sail. That was until 1899 when the lighthouse was built on these mystical grounds. One year, one week and one day after the lighthouse was very first lit, three men mysteriously vanished from the face of the earth. Whatever happened to their poor souls remains a mystery to this day.