Skip to main content

The Flannan Isles Mystery: The Three Lighthouse Keepers Who Disappeared Suddenly

Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.

What caused the disappearance of the Flannan Isles lighthouse keepers?

What caused the disappearance of the Flannan Isles lighthouse keepers?

The 100-Year-Old Mystery

The below snippet from a 1912 ballet written by the British poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson still provokes fear and terror among generations of seamen,100 years after it was written.

We seemed to stand for an endless while,

Though still no word was said,

Three men alive on Flannan Isle,

Who thought, on three men dead.

The poet refers to an incident that happened at the dawn of the 20th century; an incident that sparked one of the most unsettling mysteries at the time.

At the surface, the mystery appears deceptively commonplace. Off the northwest coast of Scotland is a small chain of islands called the Hebrides. At its outer edges lies a cluster of islands, the Flannan Isles.

The isles contained a lighthouse that was managed by three experienced lighthouse keepers: - Donald McArthur, James Ducat, and Thomas Marshall. Somewhere in December 1900, all three simply vanished, no trace of them was ever seen or heard of again.

The official investigation conducted by a superintendent named Robert Muirhead concluded that the sea had ‘washed away’ the men. However, it was the strange and baffling details that were found during the investigation that made it one of the spookiest, unsolved mysteries of the 20th century and a favorite topic for paranormal investigators, conspiracy theorists, and filmmakers.

In fact, the 2018 movie The Vanishing is based on the story of these disappeared lighthouse keepers. It is a psychological thriller that weaves a story of greed, insanity, and murder and offers a dark explanation of what might have happened to the keepers.

But till now every theory is only speculation. Was it something supernatural? Sea birds? Madness and murder? A government operation? Foreign spies? Aliens? No one knows exactly what took place that day at the Flannan Isles. But one thing is for sure, something (or someone) snatched those three men on that wintry night over 100 years ago.

What caused the disappearance of the Flannan Isles lighthouse keepers?

What caused the disappearance of the Flannan Isles lighthouse keepers?

The Mystery of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse Keepers

On the 26th December 1900, a small ship was making its way to Eilean Mor, a remote island in the Flannan Isles where a lighthouse was managed by three lighthouse keepers. The ship was also carrying Joseph Moore, a replacement lighthouse keeper for one of the three keepers that was managed on a rotational basis.

As the ship reached the landing platform, Moore was surprised not to see no one waiting. He blew his horn and sent up a warning flare to attract attention. But there was no response. A sense of dread filled his heart as he made his way to the lighthouse to find out what happened. On reaching, he knew immediately something has gone horribly wrong.

The door to the lighthouse was unlocked and in the entrance hall, two of the three oilskin coats belonging to Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur were gone. Moore continued to the kitchen where he found half-eaten food and an overturned chair, looking as if whatever had befallen the keepers had come suddenly. To add to this peculiar scene, the kitchen clock had also stopped working.

The perplexing clues raised even more unanswered questions. Why would one of the keepers go outside without his coat that too in such dreadful weather? Why did all three of them leave their post as it was against the rules to leave the post unattended? Why had the kitchen clock stopped working?

When Moore returned with his report, the captain James Harvey had the island searched. No bodies were found. all three had simply vanished. Harvey then sends a telegram to the mainland asking for help.

“A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall, and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island.”

A few days later, Robert Muirhead, the board’s superintendent who had both recruited and knew all three men personally, departed for the island to investigate the disappearances. His investigation led him to the lighthouse log entries written by Marshall which was even more baffling.

  • Dec. 12: Gale, north by north-west. Sea lashed to fury. Stormbound 9 pm. Never seen such a storm. Ducat quiet. McArthur crying.
  • Dec. 13: Storm continued through night. Wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. McArthur praying. 12 noon. Grey daylight. Me, Ducat, and McArthur prayed.
  • Dec. 15: [It's] 1 pm. Storm ended. Sea calm. God is over all.
Scroll to Continue

The peculiar thing was that there were no storms reported on 12th to 15th. Moreover these men were seasoned lighthouse keepers and it was hard to believe that they were crying and praying because of a fierce storm. And what is the meaning of the final entry ‘God is over all’?

Muirhead found further clues in the landing platform where he found ropes strewn all over the rocks. These ropes were usually held in a brown crate 70 feet above the platform on a supply crane. Perhaps the crate had been dislodged and knocked down, and the lighthouse keepers while attempting to retrieve them got ‘washed away’ in the sea?

Muirhead closed the investigation with this explanation.

“I am of the opinion that the most likely explanation of this disappearance of the men is that they had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday, 15 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 resistless force.”

Needless to say, the explanation left considerable room for doubt. The lack of bodies, the calm sea conditions, and the perplexing clues found at the lighthouse ensured that the mystery continued to baffle generations of seamen and researchers for over 100 years.

The Three Lighthouse Keepers Who Disappeared Without a Trace.

The Three Lighthouse Keepers Who Disappeared Without a Trace.

Is the Mystery Finally Solved?

Recently leading naturalist John Love and the author of the book A Natural History of Lighthouses has claimed that he has solved the mystery of the missing keepers.

According to the research done by Love, Thomas Marshall had previously been fined five shillings for negligence after equipment was washed away during a fierce gale. Because of this fine, the men were determined to ensure that the mistake does not repeat again. As Love says.

“Since it was not permitted for all three to abandon the lighthouse, only two of the men must have gone down to the landing to secure the gear. The third, Donald MacArthur, would have remained back in the lighthouse. But when his companions did not return he would have been concerned for their safety. Or else, perhaps, he saw a great wave approach and rushed to warn them. MacArthur may have been too late, only then to be swept away himself.”

Love concludes that there is no paranormal activity involved and it was purely a tragic act of nature the men got swept away by abnormally rough seas.

But not everybody is buying this explanation.

As Keith McCloskey who had researched the story extensively for his book The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers says.

“For me, the giant wave theory doesn’t work. It seems obvious, so the theory seems convenient. The truth is, nobody really knows what happened”

Keith believes there are more convincing theories behind the mystery.

Whatever be the truth, it seems the mysterious disappearance of the lighthouse keepers at Eilean Mor is not something that is going to get solved soon.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 21, 2021:

Thanks Peggy for your comments. It has remain unsolved for more than 100 years now so looks unlikely if it would be solved any time soon.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 21, 2021:

What an interesting story! I wonder if that mystery of their disappearance will ever be solved?

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 21, 2021:

Thanks Chirangada for your comments.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on April 21, 2021:

An engaging read, which keeps the attention of the readers intact.

Well done, Ravi Ji. Thank you for sharing another wonderful piece of writing.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 21, 2021:

Thanks Devika for your comments

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 21, 2021:

I like the mystery in stories and movies. Your story is well-written. I like lighthouses I find it with many stories of its own.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 20, 2021:

Thanks Linda for your comments

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 20, 2021:

This is an interesting story. Thanks for sharing it. The disappearance of the men sounds very mysterious.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 20, 2021:

Thanks Flourish for your comments and taking time to read.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 20, 2021:

Thanks John for your comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 20, 2021:

Thanks Urwa for your comments. I am glad you liked it.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 20, 2021:

Thanks Misbah for your comments

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 20, 2021:

I saw the movie. You'd think that someone would be able to figure this out by now! Thanks for presenting the case.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on April 20, 2021:

What an intriguing mystery, Ravi. Imhave always had a facination with lighthouses, and, strangely, wanted to be a lighthouse keeper when I was a child. I need to find the movie “The Vanishing.” Thank you for sharing.

Iqra from East County on April 20, 2021:

I love mysterious stories so much that I'm always looking for them. The Frightening Mystery of the Three Lighthouse Keepers is the best story. I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing Ravi

Misbah Sheikh from — This Existence Is Only an Illusion on April 20, 2021:

Ravi, I enjoyed the read. I like to read and watch suspense, thrillers, mysteries, horror, and paranormal stuff. It was very engaging. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Blessings and Peace

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 20, 2021:

All please do comment on this article.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 20, 2021:

Thanks Lorna for your kind comments.

Lorna Lamon on April 20, 2021:

This was an interesting read and the theory of the large wave is just too neat and tidy for me. However, I love a mystery and perhaps this one will drift into the annals of folklore and will remain forever a mystery.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 20, 2021:

Thanks Sankhajit

Sankhajit Bhattacharjee from MILWAUKEE on April 20, 2021:

nice depiction

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 20, 2021:

Thanks Bill for your kind comments.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 20, 2021:

That is quite a mystery! It should be a novel. Everyone loves a good mystery. Well done, my friend!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 20, 2021:

Thanks Dipankar

Hidden Writer from West Bengal, India on April 20, 2021:

Great work

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 20, 2021:

All please do comment on this article.

Related Articles