The Flannan Isles, sometimes referred to as the 7 Hunters, are a tiny group of islands on the outside of the Outer Hebrides – a string of islands in the North of Scotland. The group are named after the 7th century bishop of Kallaloe, and later saint, St Flannan – whose feast day was eerily close to the dates of this tale; December 18th. St Flannan put a chapel on this, otherwise uninhabited island in the 7th century. In 1899 the authorities put a lighthouse nearby.
Uninhabited, hilly and rocky, covered only by grass … people generally had little to do with these islands. For centuries Shepherds would use the islands to store sheep away from poachers. They themselves never stayed overnight – folklore warned of malevolent spirits on the islands. The lighthouse keepers were another case entirely. Until the house was automated in 1971, a crew of three lighthouse keepers was stationed at all times. On regular shifts a fourth keeper was dropped off, who would make the 150 foot climb to the cliff top; allowing a brief respite for one of his comrades. On Boxing Day 1900 Captain James Harvey docked to drop off lighthouse keeper Joseph Moore and return one of the others to the mainland. What the two men found was unexplained and disturbing.
On reaching the island, sometimes called Eilean Mor, Harvey sounded the horn to alert the keepers of their arrival. After a lengthy silence he shot off a flare, still to no avail. Harvey sent Moore to the island on the lifeboat.
Having negotiated the steep cliffside and entered the lighthouse, Moore found a scene akin to that of the Mary Celeste. The lights were on but no one was home. The door wide open, only two coats taken from the hangers. Had all three men gone out into the inhospitable winter weather, surely one of them must have half froze to death? A half eaten meal lay on the table, the food already mouldy. James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and William McArthur had simply vanished. On returning to the boat, Captain Harvey mounted a search of the island, but nothing could be found of the three men. The authorities were contacted, and superintendent of lighthouses Robert Muirhead made his way to Eilean Mor the next day. That Ducat, Marshall and McArthur had somehow all fallen into the sea and drowned was most likely, but what Muirhead discovered gives an air of mystery to this tale.
On checking the logbook, Muirhead found the following entries – recorded by Thomas Marshall. On 12th December a violent storm pummeled the island, Marshall noting “severe winds the likes of which I have never seen before in 20 years”. The tempest was so terrifying it broke head lighthouse keeper James Ducat, who had become struck mute by it. William McArthur, by all accounts a hardened seafarer, spent the entire day weeping uncontrollably. The tempest raged the following day. Marshall simply notes the three men prayed for deliverance. Nothing is written at all on the 14th. On the 15th December 1900 Thomas Marshall simply wrote
“Storm ended, Sea calm. God is over all”
On the high cliff face a crane was set up. Muirhead found its ropes unfastened, splayed out on the rocks below. Logic states it most likely the lighthouse keepers were taken by a rogue wave, while on the rocks, recovering the ropes. One of the men may have stayed in the lighthouse and, perhaps noticed the massive wave coming at his comrades- this would at least explain why one ran out without his coat on. The odd thing was there was no once in a century storm on the days mentioned. A storm did hit the island on the 17th, though nothing as bad as the three experienced keepers described. Had they simply lost track of the days?
While the fuzzy outlines of this tale make sense – three men somehow became disoriented and were washed out to sea – and the real mystery may be what sent these men into their spiral? Ergot poisoning? a gas leak? mass hysteria combined with a long history of superstition surrounding this spooky, windswept isle? I can’t conclude the tale without sharing one final tidbit. In the seven decades following the disappearance of Ducat, Marshall and McArthur many a lighthouse keeper has claimed, in the dead of night to hear ghostly voices on the wind, whispering the names James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and William McArthur.
Originally published on Tales of History and Imagination’s Facebook page 21st January 2019. Edited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow