Eilean Mor: The missing lighthouse keepers

S01EP09

SYNOPSIS

This week go in deep with the 120 year old mystery of Eilean Mor, a small island off the coast of Scotland that is home to nothing but a lighthouse. In 1900, it’s three keepers vanished and have never been found.

MAPS

LINKS

Wikipedia – Not much info, but always a staple.

Amazon – The Lighthouse – A bit dry, but if you don’t mind that a good read with a lot of insight into the ins and outs of a lighthouse keepers life.

Mike Dash’s Paper – A superb paper, though I don’t agree with everything he says, includes a lot of primary source material as well as newspaper reports from 1900-1901

REVIEW

If you enjoy the podcast, please consider leaving us a review over in itunes or your app of choice. It really helps us out. Cheers!

SCRIPT

Eilean Mor: The Missing Lighthouse Keepers

On the 26th December 1900, a small ship approached the remote island of Eilean Mor. It was a small eruption of land, uninhabited aside from a small battery of 3 men, whose job was to operate and maintain the isles lighthouse. The relief vessel Hesperus was to bring supplies and rotate a fourth member of the lighthouse team. As the ship closed in on the barren Isle, the sight of the lighthouse on the edge of a sheer cliff sprung out from a bleak landscape. Joseph Moore, the member of the lighthouse crew who would be rotating in, noted that curiously, there was no flag flying on the flagpole, nor were there any provision boxes placed out for restocking. The crew on the boat fired off several blasts of the horn, splitting the quiet air. As they waited for a sign or reply from the lighthouse, an ominous feeling hit Joseph, things, it appeared, were not quite right on Eilean Mor. This is Dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.

Eilean Mor

At barely a quarter of a mile in width and just 43 acres in total, the Isle of Eilan Mor is the largest of a chain of small crags of land that make up the Flannan Isles in the outer Hebrides. Around 60 miles from the coast of mainland Scotland, it is set in the remote and bitter wilderness of the North Atlantic Sea, which surrounds it on all sides. The nearest port is in Gallon Head at the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis and Harris, which makes up the largest Island in the Outer Hebrides. 40 miles to the south is the abandoned Isle of Kilda and in the west, there is 2000 miles of open water before the coastline of North America comes into view.

Rising sharply from the water, the Southern end of Eilean Mor is a steep series of cliffs that stand around 150 feet tall, with a large slope extending to the northern tip of the Isle, here the cliffs drop 200 feet straight down to the sea below. Completely uninhabited, there are only three buildings, the lighthouse, built in 1899, the keepers living quarters and a small, ramshackle ruin that was once a chapel named the “Blessing Chapel”. It was dedicated to the Irish missionary St Flannen, who was among the last people to have been known to certainly occupy the Isle in the seventh century and from whom the Isles have taken their name.

In the near 1300 years since and preceding the building of the lighthouse, it is thought unlikely that anyone had occupied the Isle for any period of time. Falling under the authority of Lewis, there are historical reports that inhabitants of Lewis would undertake yearly pilgrimages during the summer months for the purpose of rearing sheep and collecting eggs, quills, fowl and down. These pilgrimages were known to take on something of a supernatural bent. If the wind were to change direction upon their setting sail to the islands, they would immediately turn around and return home. Upon arriving, the crews of the boats would remove their hats and make their way to the ruined chapel, strip their upper clothing off and pray three times, once on approach, once as they made their way around the stone ruin and a third as they were beside it. Until they had done this ritual every morning, no foraging could begin. They also followed a code of conduct on how animals on the island were killed, as well as being careful to utilise a traditional local dialect in place of their own. These customs and rules were so strongly observed that any members of crew new to the pilgrimage would be placed with a senior member who was to keep a close watch and act as an advisory at all times. In 1695, Martin Martin wrote that they observed these customs to “Prevent inconveniences that they think may ensue upon the transgression of the least nicety observed here”. When making inquiries to the men and women of Lewis on the sanctity of the Isles, he was told: “there was none ever yet landed in them but found himself more disposed to devotion there than anywhere else.”

The Lighthouse

In 1895, the Northern Lighthouse Board saw fit to place a lighthouse on Eilean Mor and shortly after first constructing steep zig-zagging, stone stairways leading up to the island’s summit on both the East and West sides of the island, the construction of the lighthouse started. Due to consistent bad weather, the construction took four years, rather than the projected two and when it was finished, consisted of both the Eastern and Western landings, a crane around halfway up the staircases and small steam-powered trolleys on rails to assist in carting supplies from the landing dock to the lighthouse. There was a small living quarters for the crew and the lighthouse itself, which stood 75 feet tall from the highest point on the North-Eastern tip of the Isle. The light itself stood 275 feet above sea level and could be seen for up to 24 miles out at sea when it was lit for the first time on December 1st, 1899. Whilst it was a modern lighthouse, it was not fitted with any wireless or telegraph equipment, but instead used a signalling device that the crew could use in an emergency to signal to a watch station in Lewis.

The Crew

The crew of the Lighthouse was 4 men strong, three of whom stayed at the lighthouse at any one time and a fourth member who would rotate out to Lewis for two weeks leave in order to rest and recuperate from the high levels of responsibility, unforgiving climate and oppressive isolation of the Island.

The most senior and principal keeper was James Ducat. he was 43 years old and married with four children. He had already spent 20 years in the lighthouse service. During construction of the light on Eilean Mor, he had spent 14 months acclimatizing himself with the Island so when the men made their move there full time, he was already familiar with every facet of the landscape.

The second Assistant Keeper was Thomas Marshall. he was 28 years old and unmarried.

The third was a man named Donald McArthur, 40 years old and married. He was, in fact, an occasional keeper, standing in for the first assistant keeper who was away on extended sick leave.

Joseph Moore was the fourth and last member of the crew and was the man who, on the 26th of December 1900 stood on the Bow of the relief vessel Hesperus watching for the welcoming party as it approached Eilean Mor to restock food and fuel for the crew and rotate personnel.

And then there were none

As the small relief ship approached the Island, the first sign of anything unusual that Joseph Moore noticed was the lack of a flag flying on the flagpole. As they drew nearer, however, he also noticed that the usual store boxes, which should have been placed out on the landing ready for restocking were curiously absent too. Due to the previous day’s bad weather, they were already overdue and Joseph expected the men to be keen to see them arrive. The crew signalled their imminent arrival by giving several blasts of the ships horn and when still there seemed to be no sign of movement from the lighthouse, they sent up a signal flare, but the lighthouse stood ominously still against the steel grey sky. In his memorandum, written 2 days later, Joseph wrote:

“Captain Harvie deemed it prudent to lower a boat and land a man if it was possible. I was the first to land, leaving Mr McCormick, the Buoy-master, and the men in the boat till I could return.”

“I went up to the lighthouse and on coming to the entrance gate I found it closed. I made for the entrance door leading to the kitchen and storeroom and found it also closed, and the door inside that. But the kitchen door itself was open. On entering I looked at the fireplace and saw that the fire was not lighted for some days. I entered the rooms in succession and found the beds empty, just as they left them in the early morning.”

“I did not take time to search further, for I naturally well knew that something serious had occurred.”

“I darted outside and made for the landing. I informed Mr McCormick that the place was deserted. He with some men came up so as to make sure, but unfortunately the first impression was only too true. Mr McCormick and myself proceeded to the light room, where everything was in proper order. The lamp was clean, the foundation full, blinds on the windows etc.”

In describing the living quarters, Moore noted that MacArthur’s ‘wearing coat’ was left on its peg, an item of clothing that he would have surely needed in poor weather. Moore stated: “It shows that as far as I know, Macarthur went out in his shirtsleeves”.

On the night of the 26th, Joseph and several other members of the Hesperus crew, Allan Macdonald the Bouymaster, and Seaman Campbell and Lamont stayed on at Eilean Mor. Meanwhile, Captain Harvie turned the Hesperus back to Lewis, docking at Breascleat, which housed the nearest telegraph station to Eilean Mor. He made an urgent telegram to the secretary of the Northern lighthouse Board in Edinburgh stating:

“A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the Occasional, have disappeared from the Island. Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the station but found no keepers there. 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 or something like that. Night coming on, we could not wait to make further investigation but will go off again tomorrow morning to try and learn something as to their fate.”

That night, Joseph manned the Lighthouse, ensuring it was lit at the correct time. The next morning, the men thoroughly searched the Island looking for some trace of the missing Lighthouse team but found nothing. It seemed as if the men had simply vanished.

An Investigation begins

Over the next two days, the men continued their search for any trace or clue as to what could have been behind the disappearance of the Lighthouse crew. On the East side of the Island, they found no sign of disturbance and everything was in order. Climbing down the sharp stone steps to the docking area, they found that all landing ropes and equipment were properly and safely stored away and in their correct place. As they made their way over to the Western Dock, however, small signs of trouble begun to emerge.

Joseph found that at some point between his previous shift on the Island, ending on the 7th December and his return on the 26th December, some force, which he thought likely severe storm weather, had caused the iron tracks of the steam trolley to have broken in several places. Furthermore, a box which was used to store mooring ropes, usually wedged and anchored into a crevice high up on the stone steps had vanished. They also found that one of the cranes on the Western steps, used to carry stocks up to the steam tramway from the docking area was destroyed.

On the 29th December, Robert Muirhead of the Northern Lighthouse Board arrived on the Island to conduct an internal Investigation on the missing lighthouse crew. He confirmed most of the details previously given to the Board of the discoveries the men had found concerning the damage to the Western landing. He also found a large block of stone weighing just over a ton had fallen down by the side of the pathway, along with a missing life buoy, usually secured to the railing by rope had disappeared. In his report he documented his findings as such:

“Owing to the amount of sea, I could not get down to the west landing place, but I got down to the crane platform about 70 feet above the sea level… The Crane was found to be unharmed, the jib lowered and secured to the rock, and the canvas covering the wire rope on the barrel securely lashed around it, and there was no evidence that the men had been doing anything at the crane. The mooring ropes, landing ropes, derrick landing ropes and crane handles, and also a wooden box in which they were kept and which was secured in a crevice in the rooks70 feet up the tramway were displaced and twisted. A large block of stone weighing upwards of 20 cwt (hundredton) had been dislodged from its position higher up and carried down and left on the concrete path leading from the terminus of the railway to the top of the steps. A life buoy fastened to the railing along this path, to be used in case of emergency, had disappeared, and I thought at first it had been removed for the purpose of being used but, on examining the ropes by which it was fastened, I found that they had not been touched, and as pieces of canvas were adhering to the ropes, it was evident that the force of the sea pouring through the railings had, even at this great height (110 feet above sea level), torn the life buoy from the ropes.”

Muirhead then turned his attention to the station’s logbooks. A diary type document that the crew used to record simple weather and sea conditions around the isle along with any details that the crew would have found to be of particular noteworthiness. The log was kept with impeccable punctuality up until the 13th of December and logs for the 14th and 15th were kept on a slate and written in chalk, which were to be transferred later to the logbook itself. The final entry was dated the 15th December at 9 am. Joseph noted that the morning’s work had been done and that they had eaten their lunchtime meal and cleaned up after themselves. Given that the sunset was as early as 4pm in the Winter and yet the light had not been lit, Muirhead felt quite sure to conclude that whatever grim fate accosted the men on the Island, it was almost certainly being carried out sometime in the early afternoon of 15 December. This was backed up further by a report from a Captain Holman, of the vessel Archtor, who had passed Eilean Mor on that evening and noted that the light was not lit.

So what did happen to the crew of the Eilean Mor lighthouse on that bitter Winters afternoon? With no place to hide evidence and no way of deserting, the men appear to have disappeared off the face of the earth. However, despite Captain Harveys dramatic telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board, men do not simply vanish.

Theories

There is a myriad of theories that have been proposed over the years concerning the disappearance of the lighthouse keepers of Eilean Mor. They range from the plausible to the extreme in strangeness, but no matter the initial credibility of each, none offer anything more than circumstantial evidence.

Of the more bizarre, it has been put forward that the men were abducted by aliens, or became victim to a supernatural cult which had ties with the old traditions of the Isle linked with the spiritual history. There is, naturally no evidence to support either, however, the theories are often put forward. Sea monsters and passing ships abducting the crew are also out there and equally unsubstantiated.

One more plausible theory carries that at least one of the men, suffering from a form of isolation sickness became violent and killed the other two and then himself. This relies on the evidence of the effects isolation can have on a person and is backed up by the fact that the relief vessel was late to arrive at the Island. This exact scenario, in fact, did occur in 1960, when the relief keeper of another lighthouse in Scotland on the Isle of Little Ross, named Hugh Clark was shot by the assistant keeper Robert Dickson at close range with a .22 calibre rifle. Robert Dickson pleaded insanity and cited the stress and isolation of the job as a contributing factor to his mental decline.

Concerning this theory, neither Moore nor Muirhead noted any conceivable murder weapons as missing and there was no evidence of violence found. It is a theory worthy of consideration, however.

Muirhead’s initial supposition suggested that high winds were the cause, due to the damage of the western dock, however, upon later musings, he withdrew from this as his final conclusion. On the subject of high winds carrying the men over the cliff’s edge, he stated in his report:

“As the wind was westerly, I am of the opinion, notwithstanding its great force, that the more probable explanation is that they have been washed away, as, had the wind caught them, it would, from it’s direction, have blown them up the island and I feel certain that they would have managed to throw themselves down before they had reached the summit or brow of the island.”

The official Line

One of the theories deemed most plausible and indeed, was the final conclusion of the Northern Lighthouse Board at the time, posited that there was a storm of some kind, sufficient enough to cause damage to the Western pathway and landing port. The men were drawn outside, perhaps in an attempt to reduce further damage and subsequently washed away after being struck by a wave. The official report by Muirhead, dated 1901 stated:

“After a careful examination of the place, the railings, the ropes etc and weighing all the evidence I could secure, I am of the opinion that the most likely explanation of the disappearance of the men is that they had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday the 15th December to the proximity of the West landing, to secure the box with the mooring ropes, etc and that an unexpectedly large roller had come up on the island and a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them had swept them away with restless force.”

This, however, would have had to be an incredible wave. In 2000 the British oceanographic vessel RRS Discovery recorded a 95 ft wave off the coast of Scotland, however, it was in severe gale force winds. Modern satellite data has also proven that waves of up to 98 feet can be common in all oceans around the world.

The men of Eilean Mor, however, were thought to have been at least 110 feet above sea level. On the night of the 15th, the vessel Archtor, who reported the lack of light shining from the lighthouse, further reported the weather conditions around Eilean Mor as “Clear, but stormy”. This is anything but specific, however, it does not sound like the weather was violent enough to have been notably bad.

In latter years, the principle keeper of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse, Walter Adelbert, who served the station between 1953 and 1957 carried out his own research on the waves around Eilean Mor, and found that waves could indeed reach the height of at least 200 metres, he himself being almost swept away by one when he attempted to take photos of the giant waves from the top of the cliff. He goes on to hypothesise that, in his opinion, the most likely scenario consists of two of the men going out to save the landing ropes as they were a necessary piece of equipment for a relief boat to land, and were subsequently struck by a large wave which took one of the men out to sea. The second man, fearing for his safety and requiring help in attempting to rescue the first, would have rushed back to the lighthouse to call MacArthur, who would then rush out, leaving his coat behind. The two men would have tried to help their colleague, however, a second wave could have then struck both men, taking all three out to sea.

However, this theory is not without holes. If MacArthur rushed out with the second man to help the first, why were all the doors found shut by Joseph Moore upon his initial arrival? Further, it has some contradictions at times. Walter states “Nobody goes out of a lighthouse in bad weather” But then posits that the men did just that. His justification is to save the landing ropes, however, were they really so significant as to be worth risking your life for? Could it not be possible to signal to land if they were lost, or in the worse case scenario, have the relief vessel turn back upon the revelation that they were lost and retrieve more? As there were two landings, is it far-fetched to believe that the ropes from the East landing could have been used temporarily for the West if needed?

And what of the coincidence of two giant waves, both over 100 feet tall could have struck all three men in rather quick succession? Two of whom whilst attempting rescue, would have surely been watching for this exact scenario?

Walter Adelbert also goes on to state in reference to the weather and sea conditions, that “Perhaps these poor fellows, being fairly new to the Flannans, did not realize the extreme danger”. However, the men had already been on the Island over a year and James Ducat, the principle keeper had spent a further 14 months on the Island to acclimatize himself to the environment prior to the completion of the construction of the lighthouse. Although largely accepted as the most likely theory, it is far from tied up.

Now, in its 117th year, the disappearance of the Eilean Mor lighthouse keepers is just as cast in shadow as it ever was. We can point to the theory of a giant wave as certainly the most plausible, however, it is not without holes nor conjecture. Any new concrete evidence arising is unlikely and just as the bodies of the men were never found, concrete answers will most likely remain undiscovered too. The unfortunate fate of James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur will persist as the mystery it was in 1900.

Thanks for listening, please like, subscribe and… sleep tight.