Flannan Isles Mystery 1900 a Lesson in Fake News

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Fake news is the watch word of today and I often curse the explosion of social media for the bending of facts. Everything from Presidential tweets to the reporting of events that spark riots seem to avoid any basis of logic. It appears we as humans split into 50/50 divides on any issue and leap to conclusions at the first opportunity. The case of the Flannan Isle Mystery shows I am wrong. Fake news and gossip have always haunted tragic circumstances. It has just become faster and easier to pedal false facts in our day.

Three Lighthouse Men Disappear in 1900


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I will keep this brief as the Wikipedia article seems to cover everything I could and fits in with the better references I have found. Some of the good and bad articles I have put below. I would like to add that anyone who is interested in this tale should avoid all, but the most reliable social media sources. Still to this day people make videos and pedal the myth rather than the facts of this case.

Sometime on the 15th December 1900 men called James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and William MacArthur, were on duty at the lighthouse. The structure is 75 ft high and made of stone. It is perched 150 ft up a cliff. Back in the day the relief boat would sit offshore and supplies and crew would be ferried to a landing stage. They would then make their way to the lighthouse up steps and in the case of goods along a narrow railway. There were two such landing spots. One on the east and one on the west.

The island on which all this stands is called Eilean Mòr off the coast of North West Scotland.

On the 15th December a ship had been passing and reported the light was not visible. This was reported on to the Northern Lighthouse Board when the ship docked three days later. A relief ship was due for dispatch but because of bad weather could not make it out there until midday on the 26th. The first signs of problems were that no-one from the lighthouse came out to greet the boat. The crew sounded the foghorn and fired a flare yet still there was no response.

The way the lighthouse crew worked was they had three men on the island and one on shore leave. The relief keeper was put ashore and when he made his way up he noticed that things were not as they should be. None of his three colleagues were about. The gate to the compound was closed as was the door to the building. Inside there was no clue as to where they were. The island is not big, there was no way the boat’s arrival could have gone unnoticed.

The relief lighthouse man, Joseph Moore, went back to the boat and got some reinforcements. A search of the building and the contents were made but still there was no clue as to where the missing men had gone.

What was there was one set of oilskins hanging inside ( these were early versions of waterproof gear). In addition, there were signs of a terrible storm having visited the island. Damage was done to railings as high as 200ft above sea level. The western landing stage was severely damaged. It was later noted that high on the cliffs turf had been ripped away from the edge suggesting powerful winds.

Contrary to later reports the lighthouse was in order and cleared away following the last meal.

Three days later a Superintendent of the Northern Lighthouse Board, Robert Muirhead, attended the island to conduct an official investigation. It was he who decided the tragic events had been on the 15th December. Entries in the written logs stopped then.

He determined that the men had been lost while trying to secure a box of equipment high on the western approach. Such a box was found smashed and the contents scattered around. Some of the contents had wrapped around a small crane and others were in rock crevices. He believed that two men had initially gone down there and the owner of the remaining oil skins had rushed out to help them in only his shirt sleeves.

Muirhead knew all of the men and he knew his business. One quote sealed the investigation for me, he said that the damage on the western landing area was ‘ difficult to believe unless actually seen.’

So this was 1900. These were experienced lighthouse people. The crew of the boat would have been Western Scots sailing the waters. These were not YouTube sleuths sitting in air conditioned attics. They were not modern health and safety people who had no clue about the business they managed. They knew their trade. From the first telegram from the captain of the boat to the conclusion of Muirhead all went with the idea of a storm and giant waves having taken the men.

Mythical Log Entries and Poems

These days we get a Facebook post that goes viral, back then we had poets and journalists. Over the years both promoted what I can best describe as a ‘ Marie Celeste’ narrative. Combined it comes to a very different idea of the fate that befell James Ducat, Thomas Marshall, and William MacArthur. Three men who if nothing else deserve to have their last moments defined by logic.

Among the myths that were created were : A terrible storm raged for days. These men slowly lost their marbles. In fictional log entries one made reference to a man crying and another going ominously quiet. It was said that food was left uneaten as if a sudden dark happening made them flee into history. There has been talk of one going mad and killing the others before disappearing into the ocean. They hired a mystery boat so they could go to new lives or that foreign spies abducted them. Sea serpents and giant birds grabbed them and took them to their deaths.

The log entries which described terrible despair were traced to an American journalist years after the event and it was this act that did the worst smear on the facts. I think the false logs gained ground because most people were not stoic Western Scots. Readers would probably view such a storm as terrifying. Unless you had been in one you could only imagine your reaction.  So why wouldn’t it terrify the lighthouse men into silence and near madness? In addition, how many of us, even back then, could imagine a life isolated on a rock with two others for weeks on end?

An Island of Surge Gullies

Apparently they are called Geos. These are created by wave erosion and the collapse of ground. This means you have narrow gullies that often have caves formed as the waves are forced along them. Such was the terrain of the western landing area. As waves crash through these gullies they become evermore forceful. A later keeper of the light noted that there was a cave at the end of the western approach to the island. When the sea was angry it could result in the water crashing back out high and with great force.

In the below article author John Love talks of the research he put into this mystery. According to him the incident only became mysterious from 12 years later when the intellectual elite got hold of the story. I can see the similarities in today’s nonsense. You probably know what I mean. People who have little practical experience of the dangerous and unusual jobs that are done as they sleep. Then when something happens that results in tragedy these elites cannot imagine that they cannot grasp it. In our day they then tweet out their childlike wisdom. The sea has no feelings, events have no feelings they just are a set of circumstances and misjudgements. It has always been so with tragic loss of life.

If equipment was not stored properly on the island and it was lost to a storm the keepers could be fined. This may have been the motivation for Ducat and Marshall to have ventured down to the box above the western landing area. MacArthur’s coat was left on a peg along with the oilskins so it is assumed he had remained inside initially. Also it is possible that he saw freak waves rolling in towards the area where his colleagues were working. So he runs out into the cold and rain in just his shirt and trousers.

I wonder what we would make of this story today. When the official explanation of storm and poor judgement are splashed across the modern media? Add in some political influence and desire for conspiracy theories? You would get the same sort of sea serpent, madman killing others tale. It would lead then to the outlandish theories being taken as a preference with no more evidence than the tales told about these three poor guys.

Loose Ends

There are a couple of points that do not sit well with many people about this mystery. I am still with the logic of what the Northern Lighthouse Board decided as likely. I am particularly unwilling to second guess experienced people who were there at the time. However, when Joseph Moore ( relief keeper) approached the lighthouse he noted that a gate was closed and so was the main door to the building.

The issue is: Why would a man intent on rushing to his colleagues aid. A man so alarmed he does not even put on his coat. A man who does not observe the regulation that one man should always be in the building…Stop to close the gate and door?

My thoughts are it takes a split second to slam a door as you rush out. Given the likely high wind it might even have been essential. Imagine a gale being allowed to roar through the building? What of papers and the danger of lanterns spilling flammable oil?

As for the gate. If that was likely to be damaged and fly off its hinges then maybe that would be the reason a millisecond was spent closing it.

The other issue that is often sited for mystery is why were no bodies found washed up? The shores of any significance are 20 miles east. The other islands in this collection of the Flannan Isles are between 1 mile and 2 miles distant. If you go west from there you have nothing but the Atlantic Ocean. If a storm was severe enough to cause the damage and sweep three men to their deaths it is strong enough to scatter those men. I have heard of storming waves that dismembered people against rocks. I have heard of storms that saw boats hit rocks and the people were never found. In one case when the boat could be seen from the shore. The people were almost close enough to rescue from land.

Sadly, it happens and even though a search was done of this island there is no guarantee such a rocky island would be scoured in every rock crevice. Nor would that have even been possible in December. Further the other rocky islands were not searched as far as I can see. Probably because getting even a row boat in close enough to search would have been folly. Just my take but overall neither fact, the gate or the missing bodies means a great deal.

I would love comments on this, if I have my logic wrong or you have some source that contradicts what I have said? Take care.




The official site that publishes the letter of Joseph Moore, the telegram of the captain of the relief boat and Muirhead’s report without shred of supernatural or homicidal themes.

Flannan Isles


The above is a great logical article.

The below is not so good. I love the fact that in this article the official report is placed. It says clearly that two crew volunteers were left on the rock with the relief keeper. The writer still then makes reference to how scared the relief keeper must have been when spending the days alone…but he wasn’t alone and in their own article it says so. Marvellous:


Below is the article about the research carried out by the naturalist author John Love.

Has mystery of Flannan Isles finally been solved?