Weird History

The Chilling True Story Of The Flannan Isles Disappearance, The Inspiration For 'The Vanishing'  

Quinn Armstrong
31.2k views 14 items

Off the northwest coast of Scotland is a small chain of islands called the Hebrides. At its outer edges is a cluster of islands, the Flannan Isles, which is home to the Flannan Isles mystery.

The surface details of the mystery are deceptively simple. According to the Northern Lighthouse Board, in December 1900, three lighthouse keepers - Donald McArthur, James Ducat, and Thomas Marshall - seemingly disappeared from the Earth. Their bodies were never found, and an official investigation conducted by a superintendent named Robert Muirhead determined the sea had "washed away" the men. It's the strange and unsettling details, however, that have made this story a favorite among paranormal investigators, conspiracy theorists, and even filmmakers.

Despite all of the attention the story has attracted, the mystery remains unsolved: why would the keepers venture into the storm without their coats? What was the meaning of their strange, final log entry? What does this have in common with tales of other mysterious lighthouses?

After all these years, this strange disappearance still has the power to provoke and terrify.

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Photo: Peter Standing/Flannan Island Lighthouse/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0
Some Believe Aliens - Or Giant Birds - Are Responsible For The Disappearances

Numerous strange theories have emerged about the lighthouse keepers' ultimate fate. These supernatural speculations lack substantial evidence, yet they have persisted over the years, with some advocates still frequenting paranormal forums today. According to the news site and podcast Mysterious Universe, some people believe aliens were involved in the mystery.

Other theories, however, incorporate the area's local legends. One assumption involves giant birds carrying the men away - the storied creatures supposedly haunt the islands. Another idea suggests the islands' vengeful spirits were responsible.

All Three Men Left Their Posts - Which Is Prohibited

According to the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB), the tragedy came to light after the master of the Hesperus vessel, Captain James Harvey, sent a telegram on December 26, 1900, about the missing men. Captain Harvey had asked assistant lightkeeper Joseph Moore, who was aboard the Hesperus and on his way to provide relief duty, to search the island for any sign of life. When Moore returned to the ship reporting the three men's disappearance, Captain Harvey composed his telegram:

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.

After investigating the lighthouse, Moore wrote a letter detailing his observations:

Now there is nothing to give us an indication that it was there the poor men lost their lives, only that Mr. Marshall has his seaboots on and oilskins, also Mr. Ducat has his seaboots on. He had no oilskin, only an old waterproof coat, and that is away. Donald McArthur has his wearing coat left behind him which shows, as far as I know, that he went out in shirt sleeves.

It appeared all three lighthouse staffers had left their posts at the same time - a move that is against protocol, according to Historic UK. The NLB then dispatched a superintendent, Robert Muirhead, to further investigate. Muirhead completed his report on January 8, 1901.

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Photo: Gordon Doughty/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0
The Final Entries Of The Lighthouse Log Are Uncharacteristically Mysterious

Science and skepticism writer Brian Dunning reports on his Skeptoid podcast that the three lighthouse keepers were men of their time: quiet, practical, and not easily given to superstition. This makes the final entries in the lighthouse log of Thomas Marshall - the man who was second in command - even more unsettling:

Dec. 12: Gale, north by north-west. Sea lashed to fury. Stormbound 9 pm. Never seen such a storm. Everything shipshape. Ducat irritable. 12 pm. Storm still raging. Wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passed sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. McArthur crying.

Dec. 13: Storm continued through night. Wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. McArthur praying. 12 noon. Grey daylight. Me, Ducat, and McArthur prayed.

Dec. 15: [It's] 1 pm. Storm ended. Sea calm. God is over all.

The Kitchen Was In Disarray And The Clocks Had Stopped

When replacement lighthouse keeper Joseph Moore arrived and opened the door to the lighthouse, according to Skeptoid podcast producer Brian Dunning, he was greeted by an odd sight. There was evidence that whatever fate had befallen the keepers had come suddenly. The front door was left open; a half-eaten meal of mutton and potatoes sat on the table; and a chair was on its side.

Strangest of all, the clocks had stopped working - with no explanation as to why.