The first hint of anything amiss on the Flannan Isles came on December 15th, 1900. The SS Archtor on passage from Philadelphia to Leith passed the islands in poor weather and noted that the light was not operational. This was reported on arrival at Oban although no immediate action seems to have been taken. The island lighthouse was manned by a 3 man team, Thomas Marshall, James Ducat & Donald Macarthur, with a rotating 4th man spending time on shore. The relief vessel, the lighthouse tender SS Hesperus, was unable to set out on a routine visit from Lewis planned for December 20th, due to adverse weather and did not arrive until noon on December 26th. On arrival, the crew and relief keeper found that the flagstaff was bare of its flag, none of the usual provision boxes had been left on the landing stage for re-stocking and, more ominously, none of the lighthouse keepers were there to welcome them ashore. Jim Harvie, captain of the SS Hesperus, gave a strident blast on his whistle and set off a distress flare, but no reply was forthcoming.
A boat was launched and Joseph Moore, the relief keeper, was put ashore alone. He found the entrance gate to the compound and main door both closed, the beds unmade and the clock stopped. Returning to the landing stage with this grim news, he then went back up to the lighthouse with the SS Hesperuss 2nd mate & a seaman. A further search revealed that the lamps were cleaned and refilled. A set of oilskins was found, suggesting that one of the keepers had left the lighthouse without them, which was surprising considering the severity of the weather. The only sign of anything amiss in the lighthouse was an overturned chair by the kitchen table. Of the keepers there was no sign, either inside the lighthouse or anywhere on the island.
Moore & 3 volunteer seamen were left to attend the light and the SS Hesperus returned to the shore station at Breasclete. Captain Harvie sent a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board dated December 26th, 1900, stating:
A dreadful accident has happened at the Flannans. The 3 keepers, Macarthur, Ducat, Marshall and the Occasional have disappeared from the Island. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to rescue a crane or something like that. The men remaining on the island scoured every corner for clues as to the fate of the keepers. At the east landing everything was intact, but the west landing provided considerable evidence of damage caused by recent storms. A box at 108' above sea level had been broken and its contents strewn about, iron railings were bent over, the iron railway by the path was wrenched out of its concrete, and a rock weighing over a ton had been displaced above that. On top of the cliff at over 200' above sea level, turf had been ripped away over 33' from the cliff edge. However, the keepers had kept their log until 9:00 a.m. on December 15th and this made it clear that the damage had occurred before the writers disappearance.
No bodies were ever found and the loneliness of the rocky islets may have lent itself to feverish imaginings. Theories abounded and resulted in fascinated national speculation. Some were simply elaborations on the truth. For example, the events were commemorated in Wilfrid Wilson Gibson's 1912 ballad, Flannan Isle. The poem refers to an uneaten meal laid out on the table, indicating that the keepers had been suddenly disturbed:
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table spread.
For dinner, meat, and cheese and bread,
But, all untouched; and no-one there,
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come, and they in haste,
Had risen and left the bread and meat,
For at the table head a chair,
Lay tumbled on the floor.
However, Nicholson makes it clear that this does not square with Moores recorded observations of the scene, which state that:
The kitchen utensils were all very clean, which is a sign that it must be after dinner some time they left.
Other rumours, that one keeper had murdered the other 2, and then thrown himself into the sea in a fit of remorse, that a sea serpent or giant sea bird, had carried the men away, that they had been abducted by foreign spies, or that they had met their fate through the malevolent presence of a boat filled with ghosts, were less plausible. The baleful influence of the Phantom of the Seven Hunters was widely suspected locally.
Northern Lighthouse Board Ensign On December 29th, Robert Muirhead, an NLB superintendent, arrived to conduct the official investigation into the incident. The explanation offered by Muirhead is more prosaic than the fanciful rumours suggested. He examined the clothing left behind in the lighthouse and concluded that James Ducat & Thomas Marshall had gone down to the western landing stage, and that Donald Macarthur, the Occasional, had left the lighthouse in heavy rain in his shirt sleeves. Whoever left the light last and unattended was in breach of NLB rules. He also noted that some of the damage to the west landing was difficult to believe unless actually seen.
From evidence which I was able to procure I was satisfied that the men had been on duty up till dinner time on Saturday December 15th, that they had gone down to secure a box in which the mooring ropes, landing ropes et cetera were kept, and which was secured in a crevice in the rock about 110' above sea level, and that an extra large sea had rushed up the face of the rock, had gone above them, and coming down with immense force, had swept them completely away. Whether this explanation brought any comfort to the families is unknown. The deaths of Thomas Marshall, James Ducat (who left a widow and 4 children) & Donald Macarthur (who left a widow and 2 children) cast a shadow over the lighthouse service for many years.
Nicholson, offers an alternative idea for the demise of the keepers. The coastline of Eilean Mòr is deeply indented with narrow gullies called geos. The west landing, which is situated in such a geo, terminates in a cave. In high seas or storms, water would rush into the cave and then explode out again with considerable force. Nicholson speculates that Macarthur may have seen a series of large waves approaching the island, and knowing the likely danger to his colleagues, ran down to warn them, only to succumb himself as well. This theory has the advantages of explaining the over-turned chair, and the set of oilskins remaining indoors, although not perhaps the closed door and gate.
Haswell-Smith attributes the origins of the theory to Walter Aldebert, a keeper on the Flannans from 1953 – 1957. Aldebert believed one man may have been washed into the sea, that his companion rushed back to the light for help but that both would-be rescuers were themselves washed away by a second freak wave.
The event remains a popular issue of contention among those who are interested in paranormal activity. Inevitably perhaps, modern imaginations speculate about abduction by aliens. A fictional use of this idea is the basis for the Doctor Who episode Horror of Fang Rock. The mystery was also the inspiration for the composer Peter Maxwell Davies modern chamber opera, The Lighthouse. The British rock group Genesis wrote and recorded The Mystery of Flannan Isle Lighthouse in 1968 while working on their 1st album, but it was not released until 1998 in Genesis Archive 1967 - 1975. Angela J. Elliott wrote a novel about the disappearance of the lighthouse keepers. Published in 2005, it is called Some Strange Scent of Death, after a line from Gibsons poem. The haunted islands and the lighthouse also feature heavily as a hideout for a villain in British author Manda Bensons novel Pilgrennons Beacon. In 2008, the New Zealand band Beltane wrote a song about the lighthouse and its mysterious disappearances on the album Through Darker Seasons.