The Mystery of Eilean Mor
Eilean Mor is one of the principal islands in the Flannan Isles, also known as the Seven Hunters, a lonely cluster about 20 miles (32km) west of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Although it means ‘Big Island’ in Gaelic, at 39 acres this isn’t a massive place, but for sailors a forbidding one. It rises 288 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, with perilous sheer cliffs up to 150 foot high. It was here in 1895 that work began on a 75 foot high lighthouse, and from 1899 it commenced beaming a guiding light to sailors up to 25 miles out at sea. In 1971 the last crew of keepers left and the light was automated, and it still shines on today.
More fiction and speculation has been churned out over this genuinely strange story of vanished lighthouse men than any other island-bound maritime mystery. I was cajoled by some of its less steadfast aspects when writing about it several years ago, relying on versions told by such romancers as Vincent Gaddis in his none the less fascinating Invisible Horizons (1965). Some of what has been passed off as fact for the past century appears to be anything but. This is regrettable, because the story needs no such embellishment – its truth stands alone in its genuine weirdness. As well as Gaddis and others, we can blame the colourful imagination of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962), a prolific poet and close friend of Rupert Brooke. His 1912 ballad, Flannan Isle lies at the root of much of the unnecessary detritus this puzzle has gathered down the decades.
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.
There are shades of Conan Doyle’s fictitious rendering of the Mary Celeste here, and things are not helped by a later stanza which goes:
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:
Eerie hints of creeping madness, shifting personalities, the wages of loneliness and isolation. Meat and drink to a poet. The three keepers, James Ducat, Donald McArthur and Thomas Marshall, were at the end of a 14-day shift in December 1900 but had been prevented from leaving the island due to bad weather. A passing ship, the steamer Archtor, had found it odd on the night of December 15 that the lighthouse, which was normally visible for 25 miles, was unlit. When the relief tender, the Hesperus, set off to the island, the weather, with mountainous seas, had been so bad that they had to stand off for some time, but when they did finally get a man ashore, the truth became evident, as this telegram of 26th December 1900 reveals, sent by Captain Harvie, the master of the Hesperus, the Lighthouse Tender:
‘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. Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that. Night coming on, we could not wait to make something as to their fate. I have left Moore, MacDonald, Buoymaster and two Seamen on the island to keep the light burning until you make other arrangements. Will not return to Oban until I hear from you. I have repeated this wire to Muirhead in case you are not at home. I will remain at the telegraph office tonight until it closes, if you wish to wire me.
All the real, genuine documentation of this case, including the above, is available at the Northern Lighthouse Board’s website http://www.nlb.org.uk/ However, you’ll not find any of the other revelations which have clung to the yarn as told by Gaddis and others. One of the strangest is Gaddis’s inclusion of entries from the log kept by the lighthouse men, the source of which he attributes to an article by Ernest Fallon in the August 1929 edition of True Strange Stories magazine. It was by repeating these entries when writing this story some years ago that I incurred the displeasure of the Northern Lighthouse Board. Regrettably, the following words are still being peddled by many ‘unexplained’ websites today:
December 12th: Gale north by northwest. Sea lashed to fury. Never seen such a storm. Waves very high. Tearing at lighthouse. Everything shipshape. James Ducat irritable. (Later): Storm still raging, wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passing sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. McArthur crying.
December 13th: ‘Storm continued through night. Wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. McArthur praying. (Later:) Noon, grey daylight. Me, Ducat and McArthur prayed.’
December 15th: ‘Storm ended, sea calm, God is over all.’
There are distinct echoes of Gibson’s poem here; ‘And three had gone stark mad’ Gaddis and others claim that these entries were all written in Marshall’s handwriting. The archives of the Northern Lighthouse Board do not corroborate this at all, the handwriting was Ducat’s, and the log seems to have only been kept up to the 13th. There were some final brief notes by Ducat in chalk on the slate written about weather conditions at 9am on the 15th. Whatever befell the men possibly occurred between then and the night of the 15th. Nautical logs are not personal diaries. Any man writing about praying or God, passing facile comments about his shipmate’s moods or even using phrases such as ‘sea lashed to a fury’ would have faced more than a few questions from his practical, no-nonsense superiors ashore. Vincent Gaddis was a decent and highly entertaining writer, but his penchant for invention included such contrived conversations as ‘Looking forward to shore leave?’ asked the skipper, smiling. ‘Aye’, Moore answered, ‘It’ll be good to be back on land for a space where you can see people, talk, and have a drink or two. ‘Tis pretty lonely there some times.’ Gaddis wasn’t there; how could he describe a ‘smiling’ Captain or report conversations? These little verbal excursions in his work might add colour, but they’re bogus, and none of these words appear in any of the documents held by the Northern Lighthouse Board.
Yet my original resort to the creepy log book entries had another result. In 2006 I was contacted by none other than Cyril Nicholas Henty-Dodd, (1935 –2009), better known as Simon Dee, one-time high profile British television interviewer and disc jockey who hosted a twice-weekly BBC TV chat show, Dee Time in the late 1960s. (Some suggest that that Dee was the model for the Mike Myers character Austin Powers). Dee was keen to produce a documentary about the Eilean Mor mystery, but when I stripped it back to its factual basics, mysterious though they are, he expressed his ‘bitter disappointment’ and I heard nothing more.
The mystery of the log entries remains. Where did Ernest Fallon get these from? We must conclude that they are an invention. If not, and somewhere they exist, then they are genuinely strange. But Fallon wasn’t alone in his embroidery. Children’s author Carey Miller in his 1977 Mysteries of The Unknown includes the story that when the man, Moore, is sent onto the island from the Hesperus, when he ‘opened the door of the lighthouse three huge birds of an unknown species flew out to sea from the top of the light’. There is no evidence to support this. As ever, for the newspapers of the time this sinister event presented a field day for inventive journalism. It began with a report in The Scotsman dated December 28 1900, stating that one of the cranes on the island had been swept away by the severe weather. The official report contradicts this. Then the Oban Times weighed in with three misnomers on January 5 1901. They reported that there was a half-eaten meal on the table in the lighthouse, (other reports even tell us that it was mutton and potatoes) that a chair had been pushed back as if its occupant had arisen in haste, and that there was an oilskin found trapped in the wreckage of the island’s west crane. The first two claims are entirely spurious and the third appears nowhere else, and in any case, even if the sea had swept away one of the keepers, the loss of his oilskin seems unlikely.
So the question will remain forever; what really happened? All manner of suggestions have been presented down the years. The paranormal lobby have been busy creating legends of the ‘strange atmosphere’ and peculiar history of the island. Even piracy has been suggested – although they would have been a pretty dumb bunch of Jack Sparrows to attack Eilean Mor. The inevitable sea monster has been cajoled from the deep, time slips, other dimensions, and the evergreen favourite, alien abduction. What a bunch of Venusian tourists would want with three horny-handed Scottish lighthouse keepers is beyond imagination. If their disappearance was not supernatural, then the culprit must surely be the sea. Even though the lighthouse stood over 300 feet above sea level (91m) the sea at Eilean Mor was so violent at times that spray lashed the top of the light. The jetty was reported as battered and the rails were twisted. Perhaps two men had gone out in a storm and a third had seen a huge wave coming and gone out to warn them, with tragic results. We’ll never know. Freak waves are not restricted to Pacific tsunamis. When I sailed through a hurricane in the Pacific, I had no idea how high the waves were, but they towered above the ship like mountains. Two vessels in the South Atlantic in 2001, the MS Bremen and Caledonian Star, both encountered 98ft (30m) freak waves. Bridge windows on both ships were smashed, and all power and instrumentation lost. In 2004, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory ocean-floor pressure sensors detected a freak wave caused by Hurricane Ivan in the Gulf of Mexico. From peak to trough it was around 91ft high (27.7m), and around 660ft (200m) long. The open sea can be a terrifying place.
The mystery of Eilean Mor continues to inspire creative writers and musicians. Part of Gibson’s poem is quoted in Horror of Fang Rock, an episode in the Dr. Who series (complete with the misspelling ‘Flannen’). The Genesis song The Mystery of Flannan Isle Lighthouse is featured on the band’s compilation Archive 1967-75. The missing men inspired Hector Zazou’s song Lighthouse, subsequently performed by Siouxsie on the album Songs From the Cold Seas, and the opera The Lighthouse by Peter Maxwell Davies is also based on the incident.
In 2000, exactly 100 years after they disappeared, silence fell for one minute on nearby Breasclete, west of Lewis, in honour of the three men, in an event covered by the BBC in Scotland. A reporter with BBC Radio nan Gaidheal in Stornoway, Alasdair Macaulay, who had researched the incident, said: ‘I have heard about a woman at Crowlista in Uig who had been hanging out her washing on that day. She was said to have seen a massive wall of water coming in from the west. She apparently ran back to the house as this large wave hit the shore. Her washing and washing line were said to have been swept away.’
Such is the all-consuming power of the sea; merciless, inhuman, and forever mysterious.