The Flannan Isle Mystery: What Happened To Three Lighthouse Keepers 123 Years Ago?

Three men went out on a dark night in 1900 and were never seen again. What happened to these three mariners?

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Science Writer

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

A lighthouse glows against the dark night sky.

The Flannan Isle mystery has inspired a lot of conjecture and some unusual speculation, but what really happened to the three lighthouse keepers who disappeared in 1900? Image credit: muratart/

In 1900, three lighthouse keepers posted on a remote Scottish island in the Outer Hebrides went missing and were never seen again. The account of the crew of the Flannan Isle Lighthouse has become a popular story that evokes all the tropes of a gothic mystery, and has generated a plethora of explanations ranging from the mundane to the decidedly “out there” ever since. So what is so compelling about this story and what are the most likely answers?

The story as we know it

On the night of December 15, 1900, the transatlantic steamer Archtor passed near Flannan Isle and noticed something was wrong – the lighthouse was dark. A few days later, the news was passed to the Northern Lighthouse Board who quickly dispatched a crew to investigate. The relief vessel arrived at the island on Boxing Day and the captain, Jim Harvie, signaled with the ship’s horn and fired a flare into the sky. There was no reply. 


Joseph Moore, one of the lighthouse crew who had been on relief at the time was sent to shore to investigate. Moore later reported that he had an immediate sense of foreboding the moment he set foot on the island and ascended the steep cliff to the lighthouse.

When he arrived, he discovered the lighthouse door was unlocked and two of the three oilskin coats that hung in the entryway were missing. In the kitchen area, he found half-eaten food and an overturned chair that suggested someone had left in a hurry. Moore’s search found nothing else in the lighthouse so he retuned to inform the captain, who ordered an immediate search of the rest of the island. A search that was ultimately fruitless, but they did find signs that the island had recently been hit by a massive storm.

The Flannan Isle lighthouse sits over 200 feet above sea level.
The Flannan Isle lighthouse sits over 200 feet above sea level and is otherwise isolated on this sparse island. Image credit: Chris Downer via Geograph (CC BY-SA 2.0).

A supply box near the western landing platform had been smashed to pieces and its contents thrown across the ground, even though it was over a hundred feet above sea level. Turf had been ripped up from the top of the cliff, iron railings had been bent and deformed, a railway track was torn from its concrete moorings, and an enormous rock, weighing more than a ton, was missing.

With no sign of the missing men, Harvie sent a telegram to the mainland, which was passed back to the Northern Lighthouse Board in Edinburgh. It read:


“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.” 

Harvie concluded, “Poor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.”

What happened to the lighthouse keepers?

Flannan Isle Lighthouse was built was built in 1899, a year before the men disappeared, on an island that had long been associated with strangeness. The only regular inhabitants on the island were sheep, but even the hardy sheep herders refused to stay on the island after dark as they feared the various ghosts and phantasms that lurked there. This preternatural connection has added layers of misinformation and complexity to the story of the disappearing lighthouse keepers and has led people to speculate that they were devoured by some dark sea monster, carried away by giant birds, or even abducted by aliens.


For fans of the unexplained, the crucial piece of evidence for a more fantastical explanation comes from a reported logbook that supposedly contained haunting and bizarre entries made between December 12 and 15, 1900. 

According to these entries, one of the lighthouse crew reported a storm that was beyond anything they had witnessed before, that one of their number was unusually quiet and that the other, a seasoned mariner, was weeping. The next entry explained that all three men had started praying to God for help, despite being in a safe and secure lighthouse. The final entry noted the storm had ended and that “God is over all”, a phrase that has baffled many since.

The logbook evidence is extremely interesting and adds some juicy twists to an already strange account. The only issue is that it is a complete fabrication, a detail that was injected into the wider narrative years later.

Unfortunately, we may never know what exactly happened to the three lighthouse keepers, but there is certainly no existing evidence to suggest it was anything supernatural. The most likely explanation is that the three men were lost to the sea, just as Captain Harvie concluded in his telegram. In fact, following their disappearance, an investigation of the island was led by Robert Muirhead, a superintendent to the Board. He concluded that two men had gone out, probably to secure equipment stored near the western landing. When they did not return, the third man went to investigate, and he too was taken by the sea.  


Alternatively, it has been suggested that one of the men, William MacArthur, who was known to be surly to say the least, may have killed the other two men before killing himself, or that a fight may have broken out that caused all three to fall off the cliff. 

The Flannan Isle mystery is so popular that it inspired a film in 2018, called The Vanishing. No matter how these men met their end on the distant island over a hundred years ago, the story remains one of the most intriguing in Scottish history. 


  • tag
  • mystery,

  • sea,

  • history,

  • supernatural,

  • maritime