• Lighthouse Disaster in the Lews

    by  • 21 January 2010 • Fishing, Tales & Traditions, Weather • 0 Comments

    In December 1900, the lighthouse on Eilean Mor in the Flannan Isles, which had only been lit for the first time a year previously, was discovered deserted by its three keepers; their dinner table had been set with cold meat, pickles and potatoes, and a chair was overturned in an obvious urgent departure.  Two sets of oilskins and seaboots were missing, and otherwise the quarters and lamp were in perfect order.  The last record, on a slate ready for transferral to the log book, was dated 15 December.  From the Glasgow Herald, 28 December 1900:

    The Northern Lighthouse Board yesterday received intelligence in Edinburgh of a terrible disaster that had occurred on the Flannan Islands, which are about 44 miles west of the Butt of Lewis, and 40 miles north of St Kilda.  The lighthouse is one of the rock stations where three men are continually stationed, fortnightly reliefs being given. The three men last stationed on the lighthouse were named James Ducat, the principal keeper; Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur, the last-named being an occasional keeper, employed in this instance during the illness of one of the regular staff. The relieving keeper, Moore, was landed on the island yesterday by the Board’s steamer, and the absence of all the men showed that a dreadful occurrence had happened. So far as it is presently known, the men have vanished, and nothing definite is known of their fate. It is, however, surmised that the calamity happened during the great storm of last week. As the regulations proved that during the night one man must remain in constant attendance on the lights, it is regarded as practically certain that the accident occurred in daylight, and it is suggested as one probably cause that the men have been blown over the cliffs and drowned while trying to secure the crane. Another theory is that they may have been trying to give assistance to a fishing boat or other vessel in distress.

    The relieving keeper, Moore, was yesterday left at the lighthouse with three other men to keep the light burning pending permanent arrangements. The Flannan Islands are a group of seven small precipitous islands, sometimes called ‘the seven hunters,’ covering an area of about three miles by two. The eastmost is 17 miles of Gallan Head in [Uig,] Lewis, and the islands lie near the track of vessels bound from the westward, and making the north passage through the Pentland Firth. the light, which was first lighted on the 7th December of last year, is seen 24 miles off in clear weather. A system of signalling, in case of need, exists between the lighthouse and the nearest point on the main islands, from whence the light is visible in clear weather. It is explained that the absence of signalling gave rise to no suspicion that anything was wrong, and that it would be taken for granted that the light could not be seen on account of the  recent bad weather.  Of the three men lost, two were married men, Ducat and McArthur. The former’s wife and family reside at Breascleit in Lewis, to which place McArthur, who was an old army man, belonged. It is understood that no such occurance ever before happened in the history of the Board, the most serious previous disaster being the loss of the attending boat, with all hands, on a run between Kirkcudbright and the Little Ross some years ago.

    A passing ship had noticed that the light was out on 15 December, and reported it at Oban; evidently the news did not reach the Lighthouse Board until after the relief ship Hesperus called on a routine visit and put a party ashore on 26 December.  The mystery has never been conclusively solved and has caught the popular imagination, being compared to the Marie Celeste and generating many theories, from murder or kidnapping to sea-serpents and a displeased Phantom of the Seven Hunters (there were other accidents) – though the most likely explanation is that the men were simply washed away in severe weather while attending to loose equipment.  The lighthouse continued to be manned until September 1971, when the last three keepers left it to automatic power.

    More detail from the Northern Lighthouse Board.

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