THOSE fine Scottish actors Peter Mullan and Gerard Butler have been announced as two of the stars of Keepers, a new film which centres on the Flannan Isles Lighthouse Mystery in which three lighthouse keepers tragically lost their lives in baffling fashion.
By coincidence, reader Bill McLaughlin recently suggested that I look in to the mystery and while I knew the basic details, it has been something of a voyage of discovery, not least because of the flummery, flim-flam and sheer downright nonsense that has been spoken and written about the events ever since they occurred in late December, 1900.
Poems, songs, novels, operas and even Dr Who have featured the mystery not least because – spoiler alert – no one, but no one, has ever solved the riddle of what happened to the three disappeared keepers of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse. And as you will see, no one ever will.
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The facts are these: sometime just before Christmas, 1900, principal keeper James Ducat, regular keeper Thomas Marshall and an “occasional” keeper Donald MacArthur, all employed by the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB), disappeared from the Flannan Isles Lighthouse located some 20 miles west of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
Problems with the lighthouse were first noticed on December 15 – a passing ship noticed the light was out but this fact was not reported on the mainland of Scotland until several days later.
Due to relieve one of the three-man crew, the NLB lighthouse tender boat, The Hesperus, under Captain Jim Harvie, was delayed by bad weather in its departure from Oban and did not arrive at the lighthouse until December 26.
Joseph Moore, a keeper who was the “fourth man” in the rotated staffing of the lighthouse and therefore knew the place intimately, went ashore and found no trace of any of the three keepers, with all but the kitchen door locked. It was presumed they had fallen from the cliffs or had been swept into the sea off the rocks or landing jetty to the west of the lighthouse, and indeed there was considerable damage to that landing area.
A tragic accident, then, and that is how almost everyone saw it at the time. There was much speculation in the press as to what might have happened, but no more actual facts emerged. Then along came an interfering poet, and suddenly the Flannan Isles Lighthouse incident became a full-blown mystery of the Gothic horror variety.
The poet was Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962) who was actually a serious poet and editor for most of his career but who in 1912 published a sensationalist account of the disappearance that struck a chord with the public. More or less since then, the words “Flannan Isles” and “mystery” have been intertwined.
We’ll spare you all of it, but here’s a few lines from Gibson’s work Flannan Isle, which occasionally has a McGonagall-like quality.
Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle To keep the lamp alight, As we steer’d under the lee, we caught No glimmer through the night.
A passing ship at dawn had brought The news: and quickly we set sail, To find out what strange thing might ail The keepers of the deep-sea light.
The doggerel continues… Yet, as we crowded through the door, We only saw a table, spread For dinner, meat and cheese and bread; But all untouch’d; 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 on the table-head a chair Lay tumbled on the floor.
Gibson lays it on thick: Aye: though we hunted high and low, And hunted everywhere, Of the three men’s fate we found no trace Of any kind in any place, But a door ajar, and an untouch’d meal, And an overtoppled chair.
And, as we listen’d in the gloom Of that forsaken living-room – O chill clutch on our breath – We thought how ill-chance came to all Who kept the Flannan Light: And how the rock had been the death Of many a likely lad: How six had come to a sudden end And three had gone stark mad: And one whom we’d all known as friend Had leapt from the lantern one still night, And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall.
Thankfully he’s nearly finished with this tosh.
And long we thought On the three we sought, And of what might yet befall.
Like curs a glance has brought to heel, We listen’d, flinching there: And look’d, and look’d, on the untouch’d meal And the overtoppled chair.
We seem’d to stand for an endless while, Though still no word was said, Three men alive on Flannan Isle, Who thought on three men dead.”
Unfortunately this utter bilge became the accepted version of what happened, and the gullible public bought the ‘Mystery’ spiel with as much alacrity as a Donald Trump supporter believing everything the President tweets.
LET’S deal with the poem first: no one else had ever gone mad or perished at the Lighthouse for the simple reason that it had only been working for a year before the incident. The 75ft lighthouse had been constructed between 1895 and 1899 on Eilean Mor, the biggest of the Isles, by David Alan Stevenson of the famous lighthouse-building family. He was the full cousin of author Robert Louis Stevenson.
Though the clerk of works died from natural causes during the building work, the only real casualty was Billy, a horse who was being slung ashore to help transport material up the steep slopes only to wriggle out of his sling and fall to his death.
There was no over-toppled chair or meal awaiting consumption. Indeed Joseph Moore, first man on the scene after the tragedy, reported all the kitchen utensils to be clean and the quarters all in good shape – “a sign that it must be after dinner some time they left,” as Moore is recorded saying in the official report. He also noted that Ducat and Marshall’s sea boots and outer clothing were missing but not McArthur’s coat, suggesting he had gone outside in his shirt sleeves, perhaps indicating an emergency.
The clocks were stopped, but clearly they had not been wound up as dead men can’t do that sort of thing. Nor can they light fires, which is why Moore recorded that the fire “was not lighted for some days.”
There was, in short, no incontrovertible explanation as to why the three men were not at the lighthouse, and there never has been.
It didn’t help that other fantasists took up the story. Someone even shamefully created a log book to suggest that the three men were at loggerheads – and on the internet such fake news is always accepted as gospel.
There was no log book – there was a slate on which principal keeper Ducat recorded on the morning of Saturday, December 15, that all was well. It was that night the passing ship noted the extinguished light.
As one of its regular staff, Moore is the best witness and he told the NLB the best clue as to what happened. Everything was fine on the east side of the island but the west was somewhat different: “We had an old box halfway up the railway for holding West landing mooring ropes and tackle, and it has gone. Some of the ropes it appears, got washed out of it, they lie strewn on the rocks near the crane. The crane itself is safe.
“The iron railings along the passage connecting railway with footpath to landing are started from their foundation and broken in several places, also railing round crane, and handrail for making mooring rope fast for boat, is entirely carried away.”
Superintendent Muirhead was one of the NLB’s most trusted and senior staff and he coolly surveyed the scene, noting that the mooring rope box was missing from 110ft up, before making his report: “After a careful examination of the place, the railings, ropes, etc and weighing all the evidence which I could secure, I am of opinion that the most likely explanation of the disappearance of the men is that they had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday, December 15, 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.”
In his 2015 book A Natural History Of Lighthouses, author and naturalist John Love provided compelling evidence of a reason why all three men should have left the lighthouse – NLB rules stated that one keeper always had to stay indoors. His research revealed that Thomas Marshall had previously been accused of negligence and had been fined five shillings after equipment was washed away during a fierce gale.
Love contended that the fine would have made all three men anxious to secure everything on the site, and while they were doing so a giant wave swept them away.
Not that such a prosaic ending was ever going to stop the fantasists, especially those who have dreamed up supernatural ends for the three keepers or those who are just keen to hang a story on the tale.
Horror of Fang Rock was the Dr Who serial based on the Flannan Isles Mystery, with Tom Baker reciting from Gibson’s poem, while Orcadian composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies used the tale for his 1979 chamber opera The Lighthouse.
In 1968, the rock band Genesis wrote and recorded The Mystery of Flannan Isle Lighthouse while working on their first album, though it was not released until 1998.
Angela J Elliott wrote the 2005 novel Some Strange Scent of Death with the title drawn from a line from Gibson’s poem. Other novels and stories even have the islands being haunted by the keepers, but Gibson’s poem still gets most of the blame.
The trouble is that whatever happened to the three keepers of the Flannan Isles lighthouse in 1900, their fate really does remain a mystery, for not one iota of evidence, not a body nor any shred of clothing, was ever found at or near their presumed place of disappearance or anywhere else on Eilean Mor. Not in 1900 nor at any time since has any serious clue emerged to suggest anything other than a tragic accident.
Until the sea gives up its dead, however, the Mystery of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse will remain exactly that – a mystery.