The mystery of the 121-year-old lighthouse that will never be solved

Exactly 121 years ago today, a ship arrived on the small Scottish island of Eilean Mor and started one of the events in maritime history. most enduring mysteries.

The Hesperus was a lighthouse annex – a vessel specially designed to support and maintain lighthouses.

He was heading for the Flannan Islands in the Scottish Outer Hebrides after the steamboat Archtor docked at Leith on December 18, 1900 and reported that the Eilean Mor Lighthouse was not functioning.

Thomas Marshall, Donald MacArthur and James Ducat in front of the Flannan lighthouse a week before their disappearance. (Provided)

The captain of the Hesperus, one Captain Harvey, disembarked relief keeper Joseph Moore on the afternoon of December 26, only to find the lighthouse and island completely empty – and no sign of the three men being were waiting to find there.

James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur had apparently disappeared, with no idea of ​​their destination or fate.

Further questions were raised by the presence of an oilcloth in the lighthouse, meaning that one of the men had gone out without any protection from the rain – never to return.

The last logbook entries were dated December 15, 1900, and the lighthouse was in good condition, indicating that the men had completed their work for the day before their disappearance.

What has become of men?

“A terrible accident has occurred in Flannans. The three Guardians, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional (McArthur) have disappeared from the island.

“Upon our arrival this afternoon, no sign of life was visible on the island. Fired a rocket but, as no response was given, managed to land Moore, who went up to the station. but found no guard there.

“The clocks were stopped and there were other signs that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor guys, they must have fallen off cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something. . “

Flannan Islands Lighthouse
On December 26, 1900, a rescue ship found the Flannan Islands Lighthouse, off the coast of Scotland, completely abandoned and its three keepers disappeared. (North Lighthouse Board)

This was part of the telegram sent by Captain Harvey on the evening of December 26.

A search by crew members the next day uncovered signs of what may have happened, particularly on the west side of the island.

“We had an old box halfway up the tracks to hold West Land’s mooring ropes and mooring gear, and it’s gone,” Moore wrote in a letter.

“Some of the ropes, it seems, have been blown away, they are strewn on the rocks near the crane. The crane itself is safe.

Missing monolith

Still unexplained “mystery” photos

“The iron guardrails along the passage connecting the railway with the path at the landing stage and starting from their foundation and broken in several places, as well as the round crane guardrail and the handrail for the manufacture of the quick mooring rope for the boat, are completely carried away. “

A formal investigation was carried out by the Superintendent of the Northern Lighthouse Board, Robert Muirhead, who delivered his report on January 8, 1901.

He found that a lifebuoy was missing, but ultimately concluded that it had been torn from the sea, not used by men.

“When the accident happened, Ducat was wearing sea boots and a raincoat, and Marshall sea boots and oilskins, and as Moore assures me the men only wore these items on their way down to the landing. , they must have intended, when they left the Station, whether to descend to or near the landing, ”Muirhead wrote.

The Scottish Hebrides are in the far northwest of the country. (Getty Images / iStockphoto)

“After careful examination of the location, gates, ropes, etc. and after weighing all the evidence I can gather, I am of the opinion that the most likely explanation for the disappearance of the men is that they had all fallen in the afternoon of Saturday, December 15 near the west landing stage, to secure the body with the moorings, etc. being shot down on them had carried them away with unresisting force. “

In other words, the men were considered likely to have been swept away as they worked frantically to protect certain equipment from the elements.

Moore was left to guard the lighthouse, although Muirhead correctly notes that he “seemed very nervous”.

Muirhead also described his own grief over the disappearance of the men, whom he said he knew well.

“I visited the Flannan Islands when the relief was given on December 7th, and I have the sad memory of being the last person to shake their hands and say goodbye to them,” he wrote .

Muirhead’s report, while offering no other possible conclusion, was not enough to quell speculation about how the men went missing.

Some analysts said it would be highly unusual for an entire lighthouse crew to be absent from the building, raising questions about the nature of the emergency.

Logbook entries leading to the disappearance mention severe weather conditions and storms, but these were not recorded in larger regional weather records.

Other scenarios offered include an erupting fight on the cliff, resulting in the deaths of the men – McArthur in particular had a reputation as a brawler.

Over the years, rumors have grown of the disappearance, including apocryphal diary entries detailing the deteriorating mental state of the men, and the crew of the Hesperus finding uneaten meals on the lighthouse table.

Gérard Butler and Morgan Brown
Gerard Butler (pictured with Morgan Brown) starred in a thriller based on the Flannan mystery. (Getty)

The mystery was even dramatized as the 2018 thriller The Vanishing, with Gerard Butler postulating the discovery of a body and several gold bars on the island led to mounting tensions, murders and conspiracies.

Ultimately, despite Muirhead’s report, the disappearance of the three lighthouse keepers remains unexplained.

“The loss of the three keepers of the Flannan Islands Lighthouse in 1900 is an important and very sad part of our history,” the board said on its website.

“We pay tribute to these keepers, who have served the North Lighthouse Board so well over the years, and can only report what was recorded at that time.”

As for the lighthouse itself, it remained inhabited until 1971, when it was automated.


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