UNEXPLAINED

Episode 8: When The Light Fades

When I'm considering what stories to feature on the show, there are really only a few criteria that must be met. 

Firstly it has to be more than just an event, there must be story, a set of events with which to thread and weave our way through.  Secondly that there be something ultimately very human in the tales, and last but by no means least, that the peculiarity of the story has yet to be satisfactorily explained.

Of all the unexplained mysteries I have come across so far there is one that for me has left the most indelible impression.  As far as mysteries go you couldn’t invent a better story. A story that has over time led to some of the most extraordinary of speculations and has since evolved a folklore all of its own... This is that story.

The Flannan Isles, also known as the Seven Hunters, are located at the furthest reaches of the Scottish Outer Hebrides. A collection of seven rocky islands, they form a small but majestic archipelago of startling isolation.  To the east, approximately 17 miles away lies the Isle of Lewis, to the south by 40 miles, the deserted isle of St Kilda. And if you were to venture west, you would need to travel more than 2000 miles of uninterrupted ocean before hitting the coastline of North America.

The Flannan Isles are named after an Irish missionary known as St Flannan who is believed to have made his home on the islands as far back as the 7th century. The remains of the chapel in which St Flannan is thought to have lived can still be found on Eilean Mòr, the group’s largest island. 

Translated from Gaelic to mean simply, Big Island, Eilean Mòr, rears out of the sea, a vast hulk of grey black rock topped by a rugged grassy plateau.  It’s sheer cliffs measuring well over a hundred feet, with its highest point reaching almost three times that. 

Although uninhabited, many crofters from nearby Lewis would regularly visit the islands in the summer months to graze their sheep. Other would arrive to pilfer eggs and feathers from the island’s bountiful population of seabirds. 

Overtime, due in no small part to the association with St Flannan, the island developed a strange mystique all of its own, becoming a place of inherent sanctity to many of those who visited.

To view the island in it’s isolation it is easy to understand the awe with which it would have filled those early visitors. 

There were many who believed, and some still do, that the isles were a place of great otherworldly magic, home to a host of fairies and nature spirits, and not all of them good, an attitude born out in the customs and superstitions of any person daring to set foot on one of the seven hunters. 

If when approaching the islands on an easterly wind, the gust were to suddenly switch, you wouldn’t think twice before turning the boat around and heading straight back home.  For any that arrived successfully, it was customary to immediately uncover the head before performing a complete turn clockwise while ‘thanking God for your safety’.

So you can imagine the sense of trepidation many would have felt when it was announced that a lighthouse would be erected on the especially sacred Eilean Mòr.

A sense of trepidation that was somewhat justified when barely more than a year after opening, the lighthouse was to become the tragic scene of one of the UK’s most enduring of mysteries.

What exactly happened on the island some time in December in the year 1900 has never been fully accounted for. It is quite simply a mystery that remains to this day unexplained.

In 1782 a series of ferocious storms battered the Scottish coast resulting in the deaths of many seamen, including those of two herring boats that were smashed on the rocks of the Kintyre peninsula on the West coast.  As a result the Northern Lighthouse board was established to oversee the construction of a number of lighthouses to be stationed on the most treacherous of Scottish coastlands.

Although as ever, initially motivated by trade, the ensuing feat of engineering was driven by a genuine desire, characteristic of the Scottish enlightenment to work not for individual prestige but for the greater good of mankind. 

Leading the team of engineers was Thomas Smith, the great grandfather of none other than famed Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson.  Although the family profession would prove ultimately unfitting for Robert, it was nonetheless his uncle David who oversaw the construction of the lighthouse on Eilean Mòr.

However it would be some time before such a plan would come to fruition.  Maybe it was concern over the exposure of such a location to the harshest of the Atlantic’s uncompromising weather or perhaps it was a reluctance to build on such mystical ground, but finally after 40 years of pleading, the lighthouse board agreed to the construction.

The build began in 1894 and was due to take two years but was beset by the tumultuous weather and even rougher seas characteristic of the area. 

The lighthouse was to be built on the south side of the island where the rock reaches its highest point, surrounded on both sides by sheer cliffs none of which were less than 150 ft. in height.  Meaning that all supplies had to be hauled by hand up the cliff side.

A perilous set of steps were carved into the rock leading to the building at the top.  For support there was only a modest metal railing to remind you of the rocky peril that lay in wait for anyone foolish enough to deviate from the path. 

Such was the steep incline of the steps a small service railway was installed where a cable-supported rail car could be used to transport heavy goods to and from the landing platform. 

Shortly before the build was completed, the Forman Mr. Deas, died suddenly.  an event that in hindsight could be considered a disturbing portent of what was to come. It certainly wouldn't have been lost on many of the construction workers well accustomed with the superstitions related to the island.

Nevertheless, a full two years after construction was due to complete, on 1st December 1899 the 140,000 candlepower lamp, perched atop a majestic white tower 275 feet above sea level was lit for the first time.  As the rotation device kicked into life, out of the darkness shone a beam of light, illuminating the black north Atlantic waters for miles around.

There were four keepers required to operate the newly opened lighthouse. As a psychological necessity, there would only be three men on the island at any given time while the fourth took a fortnight’s leave. 

The first man to be stationed on the island was 43-year-old Principal Keeper and married father of four, James Ducat.  A seasoned lighthouse practitioner with over 20 years of experience, James hailed from Arbroath on the East coast of Scotland.

He would later be joined by 1st Assistant Keeper William Ross and 28-year-old Second Assistant Keeper Thomas Marshall.  As the first Christmas of the new century approached, Ross was forced off the island due to ill health. 

With regular light keeper Joseph Moore not due for a further two weeks, Ross was replaced by 40-year-old occasional keeper and ex-soldier Donald McArthur.  Donald who was also married with children, hailed from the nearby town of Braesclete on the Isle of Lewis.

I often wonder how it might have felt for the men returning to the lighthouse after their regulatory breaks, at that moment having stepped off the delivery boat, watching the last contact with civilisation disappear from view.  Perhaps there was some relief at returning to the quiet sanctuary away from the daily hassles of life or perhaps it was more with great sadness that they found themselves again, alone on a distant rock far away from their wives and children.

With the switchover completed on 11th December, McArthur promptly banished all thoughts of home and quickly settled into his role. As the night approached, the men set about doing what they did best duly noting the day’s observations in the lighthouse logbook at the end of the day. With the familiar sounds of a North Atlantic storm rattling around the Island the men settled in for the night.

As a waning moon appeared in the sky above, down below the Eilean Mòr light shone far and wide as it had done for every other night of its yearlong life.

The first sign of trouble came at midday on December 15th. Roughly 120 miles to the North west of the Seven Hunters, a cargo ship SS Archtor was making steady progress on her route toward the port of Leith in Edinburgh. 

The steam ship, Captained by Thomas John Holman had left the American city of Philadelphia on the 28th November carrying over 4500 tons of cargo.  Although most of the voyage had been beset by stormy weather by late afternoon on the 15th, the storm had abated somewhat leaving fine clear skies above.

A few hours later and the ship was fast approaching the Flannan Isles.  On deck, stood a greatly perturbed Captain Holman.  By his estimation they should have been no more than 5 miles from Eilean Moor but as he stood under the vast expansive sky, surrounded by only the darkest of seas, he could not make out any sign of the lighthouse, or more precisely its light.  The beam of which, on a night such as this would have been visible for over 20 miles.

Assuming a miscalculation on his part, Captain Holman continued to steer the vessel on its course towards Edinburgh.  The following day however the ship appeared clearly to be plotting a correct course. The Captain resolved to uncover the discrepancy of the night before but was almost surprised to find nothing wrong with his calculations.  The ship had indeed passed by the lighthouse, so where then was the light?

Disturbed by the apparent black out of the lighthouse, Captain Holman planned to report the matter to the relevant authorities on his arrival to Leith.  Unfortunately, that message never arrived.

Two days later, Captain Holman and the SS Archtor ran aground on the approach to Leith port.  

Perhaps it was the shock of the event that had dislodged the Flannan Isles from Captain Holman’s mind, or perhaps with his navigation skills now under heavy scrutiny he was reluctant to bring up the possible miscalculation from the two nights before. 

With no news to the contrary, the lighthouse board would have no reason to think anything strange had taken place on Eilean Mòr.  But with the next rotation of keepers due a few days later, all that was about to change.

On 26th December 1900, the lighthouse tender boat, a long steamer named the Hesperus made its way towards the largest of the Flannan Isles.  The ship had been due to arrive the previous day but severe storms in the area had delayed its departure.  On board, was regular keeper Joseph Moore, who was scheduled to start his latest shift that day. 

But as Captain James Harvie brought the ship closer to land, it was clear that something wasn’t right.  It was common practice for the keepers to raise a flag in preparation for the next rotation but as Captain Harvie scoured the island he could see no sign of the flag. 

His concern turned to alarm when several blasts from the ship’s horn brought no response from the three light-keepers.  The subsequent firing of a distress rocket from the vessel again failed to yield any response.

Greatly unnerved, the Captain ordered the rowboat into the water and sent Joseph Moore to investigate.

It is difficult to imagine just what was going through Moore’s mind as the small boat pulled up below those towering cliffs, the grey murky waters seeming unusually calm for the bitterly cold December day.

Moore stepped off the boat and cautiously made his way up the steep stone steps.  As he approached the summit, the top of the lighthouse came into view.  Passing the ruins of the ancient chapel, he called out to the men but again there was no reply, no familiar faces to greet him. Something was deeply wrong.   A short time later, Moore arrived outside the lighthouse and slowly opened the front door.

What he discovered has formed the basis for one of the greatest maritime mysteries of modern times.  

After entering the lighthouse he found the inside door also closed but curiously the kitchen door was wide open.  The fireplace was cold, indicating it had not been lit for some days.  One of the chairs appeared to have been pushed away from the table, perhaps in a hurry, the rest of the room was spotlessly clean. 

When he entered the bedrooms he found them empty, left, as they would have been since the morning.  In fact everything was in perfect order: the lamp for the light was clean, the foundation was full and the blinds on the windows correctly orientated.  The only thing that was missing was the men.  They had simply vanished from the face of the earth.

As if to add a further twist, Moore also noticed that every clock in the building had stopped.

The thoroughly spooked Moore returned to the rowboat and requested the help of Second Mate McCormack who, along with another seaman, followed Moore back to the lighthouse to renew the search of the area.  Unable to find any clues as to what had happened, three men promptly returned to the boat and made their way back to the Hesperus. 

Ever the professional, Captain Harvie’s first instinct was to makes sure the light would be up and running again that night.  Moore was ordered to return to the island along with three volunteers, the buoy master Allan Macdonald and two seamen, Messrs.’ Campbell and Lamont.

Having dropped the men off again, Captain Harvie set off immediately for Breasclete in Lewis.  Later that day, Harvie sent his now infamous telegram to the Secretary of the Northern Lighthouse Board in Edinburgh, the immortal first line reading, ‘A dreadful accident, has happened at Flannans…’ 

But the mystery had only just begun.  

That first night taking over from the missing lighthouse keepers would not have been easy for the four volunteers.  Having no doubt been upset by the turn of events, it would have taken some strength to stop their minds from wondering as to what exactly had taken place. It would have been a very somber night indeed.

The following day, Moore and his companions renewed their search of the island but found no clues to help with their investigation.  That was until they came across the Western landing point.  Approaching the landing the men found that a number of iron railings of the tramway had been ripped from their foundations and mangled out of shape.  A box containing mooring ropes had vanished despite having been firmly wedged into a crevice and then anchored.

Despite some of the more fanciful thoughts that may have sprung to mind, the first assumptions of the replacement crew centered on some kind of freak storm that may have blown the men from the island.  However, when Moore submitted his report of the events two days later, it contained one startling detail. 

All men stationed at Eilean Mòr had a set of wet weather wear to cope with the extreme conditions.  In the case of Ducat and Marshall this took the form of weatherproof boots and oilskin coats.  McArthur however, only being an occasional keeper, was not so well equipped and had only what he called his ‘wearing coat’ at his disposal. 

When Moore searched the lighthouse he discovered Ducat and Marshall’s gear was missing but McArthur’s coat was still on its peg.  Which could only mean that whatever had happened, McArthur had left the lighthouse in his shirtsleeves. 

A strange fact if you consider just how severe the weather must have been to blow the men from the island. What could possibly have happened that would send McArthur running out into a severe storm without his jacket?

A few days later, The Northern Lighthouse Board sent Superintendent Robert Muirhead to investigate further. Muirhead confirmed Moore’s initial findings and pointed to a particularly heavy storm front that was believed to have hit the island during the time of the men’s disappearance as the most likely culprit. 

A buoy that had been fastened to the railings 110ft up had vanished.  As well, a large block of stone weighing upwards of a ton had been clearly dislodged by something before falling onto the path below. 

In conclusion it was his belief that a freak wave had hit the island and somehow whisked the men clean from the rock.  The report was published a few weeks later and the case was officially closed…

There have been many falsehoods surrounding the Flannan Isle’s mystery – most often to do with reports of strange recordings apparently found written in the logbook shortly before the men disappeared.  They speak of something dark brewing and the fracturing of the men’s mental states.  One log had supposedly noted that ‘all had been calm,’ suggesting initial reports of bad weather to have been mistaken…

In truth, thanks to an exhaustive study on the subject by writer Mike Dash, it appears this part of the story, and some other questionable elements were in fact fabricated some years after the event. 

What is known is that the last recorded log entry seems to have been made on Tuesday 15th December.

Needless to say, in the absence of a satisfactory explanation for the event, many are only too keen to fill the vacuum, with theories ranging from the workings of malicious spirits to straight out alien abduction.

Certainly at the time of Muirhead’s original report there weren’t many willing to believe the conclusion that a mere wave could be responsible.  After all such a thing was widely held to be nothing but a myth itself…

Or at least it was. 

On 1st January 1995, measuring equipment located on the Draupner Oil rig in the North Sea, just off the coast of Norway recorded what is now considered the first official evidence of a freak wave, crashing into the platform at a staggering 61ft at peak height.

And yet…

In 2013 author and historian Keith McCloskey conducted his own research into the incident.  Enlisting the help of Eddie Graham, a meteorologist from the University of Highlands and Islands on Lewis, McCloskey re-analysed the weather patterns for the Flannan Isles around the time of 15th December 1900. What he discovered was startling. 

Although the weather appears to have indeed been rough, it certainly wouldn’t have been anything that the 3 seasoned light keepers hadn’t experienced before.  What’s more, with wind speed estimated to have peaked at roughly 60 mph any waves generated by such a storm would barely have made it above 30 ft.

A fact all the more incredible when you consider that McCloskey’s own findings and Superintendent Muirhead’s earlier report suggest that the men would have been at well over a hundred feet when they were supposedly taken.

The largest freak wave ever recorded was 95 ft. high, so if it was a freak wave, it would have to have been the largest wave ever known.

And what of the strange case of the McArthur’s jacket?  A senior keeper at the Northern Lighthouse Board, Alistair Henderson, is insistent that under any normal circumstances the lighthouse would never have been left unattended.  It is a fairly standard rule followed by all lighthouse keepers, let alone ones so experienced as Ducat, Marshall and MacArthur.

Perhaps more disturbingly, referring to the Muirhead report, it is Henderson’s belief that the true events were in fact covered up.  After all Muirhead's was the only official report to emerge from the incident.

There was no fatal accident report that would have been standard for such an event. Even more alarmingly, key documentation that contained evidence of everything that happened on the island disappeared mysteriously after Muirhead had left the island.

If McArthur never left the lighthouse where did he go? Or if he did indeed leave the building, what possible reason could he have had for breaking such a fundamental convention?  Might ultimately McArthur hold the key to the mystery?

In an age well before social media and smartphones, working on the rock in the year 1900 meant complete and utter cut off from all communication with the world. A state of affairs comparable to astronauts travelling through the isolation of space who even then are able communicate with others on the ground to alleviate the psychological confinement. 

Furthermore it is a condition that astronauts today will spend months preparing for, under constant psychological analysis, as scientists seek to determine their capability to endure such a situation.

Is it possible that McArthur, who it is reported had worked almost consistently without a break for two and a half months leading up to December 15th, had simply snapped? 

Having been cooped up on what must have at times felt like the very edge of the world, miles from civilisation with gale force winds battering the coast all around, the circumstances were certainly ripe.  Perhaps with the other two men having left the building to undertake some routine operations, McArthur had simply lost his mind and wondered coatless into the storm, bludgeoning his companions to death before throwing himself into the waters below.

It wouldn’t be the first time that such conditions have driven somebody to madness.

On Thursday 18th August 1960, 18-year-old David Colin and his father had decided to take a day trip to visit Ross Island off the south west coast of Scotland.   On the island stood a lighthouse that had been built in 1843 by Alan Stevenson, another uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson.

David and his father set off from the local sailing club and arrived at the island shortly before lunch. As a courtesy, David thought it right that they should inform the lighthouse keepers that they were there.

After knocking on the door, David received no response except from a rather over enthusiastic dog that he assumed must have belonged to one of the keepers.  Unperturbed David and his Father returned to their walk. 

But as the day wore on, the keepers had still not returned, the only sign of life being the ominous ringing of an unanswered telephone coming from inside the lighthouse.

Eventually David’s father plucked up the courage to enter the building. Inside he found lighthouse keeper Hugh Clark, dead with fellow keeper Robert Dickson nowhere to be seen.  After an extensive manhunt, the 24-year-old Dickson was eventually apprehended and brought to trial for the murder of Hugh Clark.  The trial was no less dramatic, as David himself recounts:

‘As Lord Cameron donned the hideous black cap and prepared to pronounce a sentence of death by hanging, the courtroom grew darker and darker, until coinciding with the Judge's awful words the courtroom was shaken by an enormous flash of lightning and a colossal peal of thunder.’

Dickson’s execution was set for 21st December 1960.  However, five days prior to the fateful day, Dickson was reprieved on account of what was judged to be his unstable mental condition at the time of the crime.  Robert Dickson’s apparent moment of psychopathy was thought to have been stimulated in no small part by the stress of working in such close proximity with others in a state of such intense isolation.

Was it a similar fate that befell the Eilean Mòr keepers? Or was something even more sinister at play?

In 1904, four years after the disappearance of the men, newly installed lighthouse keeper John McLachlan was cleaning the glass casing of the light when he slipped and fell to his death.  Counting the Forman who died shortly before the lighthouse opened, 5 people had died on the island in less than five years since the lighthouse was constructed.  No other lighthouse in the UK has been beset by such tragedy.

Was the island simply cursed by what locals sometimes refer to as the phantom of the hunters, taking its revenge for the careless invasion of its unearthly realm?

In the memoirs written by Joseph Moore many years later, it is clear that the event had affected him profoundly.  Thinking back to that chilly December day in 1900 that he first came upon the empty lighthouse, he writes of a mysterious event from the night before.

That night he hadn’t been sleeping well and for some reason had been drawn to the window.  Looking out he thought that he saw the boathouse on fire, but when he investigated further he found it to be just a figment of his imagination. He knew instantly that it was a portent for something awful.  Detailing again the event, which he described as ‘very strange indeed,’ he believed us all to be cursed in some way.

In truth we will never know what happened exactly on that cold December Day 1900.

On September 28th 1971 the Eilean Mòr lighthouse became fully automated and continues to guide ships through the dark North Atlantic nights.

Perhaps what appeals most about this story is the sheer improbability of the most rational explanation.  But might there be something else, something that strikes at the very heart of us.  For aren’t we all in a way keepers of the light, isolated on a rock forever on the verge of being swept from existence by a giant mythical wave?

And for what it’s worth, my own view, as intriguing the notion is that the men were the unfortunate victims of some otherworldly event, I believe what occurred was a little more prosaic but no less extraordinary.

For is there anything more incredible than the notion that MacArthur, having watched his colleagues become endangered by some unfathomable storm, had rushed from the safety of the lighthouse to help them.  And in so doing had lost his own life in the process. 

That ultimately it was in trying to protect the lives of each other and the many others passing by on the stormy seas, that these ordinary folk doing a job that was far from ordinary lost their lives.

When I think about this story, I’m reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s incredible post-apocalyptic novel, The Road – and forgive me for those who haven’t read it, as this will contain a spoiler.  The Road details a terminally bleak journey of survival as one man and his son try to reach the south coast of America in the aftermath of a catastrophic event. 

As they grow increasingly weak and the journey becomes more and more dangerous the father fights desperately to keep his son from harm. He tells him they must survive because they are the good guys who are carrying the fire.  The phrase seems glib but it’s enough to keep the boy going, even though he doesn’t quite get it.  And nor do we, really, that is until the novel’s fateful end when both we, and the boy finally understand, the fire was him…

 

© Richard MacLean Smith


Sources

1.    McCloskey, K. (2014), The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mòr Lighthouse Keepers, The History Press

2.    Dash, M. (1998), The Vanishing Lighthousemen of Eilean Mòr, Fortean Studies 4, http://www.mikedash.com/assets/files/Vanishing%20Lighthousemen.pdf

3.    Flannan Isles Wikiepdia entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flannan_Isles

4.    The Unexaplained Files (2014), S02E04, Science, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1VXSIVR-cQk

5.    Collin, D. R. (2010), The Ross Island Lighthouse Murder , Kirkcudbright.com, http://www.kirkcudbright.com/dynamic.asp?ID=66

6.    Original wreck report for the SS Archtor, http://www.plimsoll.org/resources/SCCLibraries/WreckReports/17924.asp?view=text

7.    The report submitted by Robert Muirhead, Superintendent, on the 8th January 1901: https://www.nlb.org.uk/HistoricalInformation/FlannanIsles/Report-by-Superintendent/

8.    The Draupner Wave Wikipedia entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Draupner_wave