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Whatever happened to the Scottish lighthouse keepers?

The Flannan Isles of Scotland have always been one of the most desolate places on earth. No one lives on the rocky island now that the lighthouse has been automated, but back in the 1900s, it was a temporary home to three lighthouse keepers.

Imagine living in such a dark, cold, deserted place, with only your two fellow lighthouse keepers and maybe the occasional ghost ship for company. Such a job would challenge anyone’s resolve.

And on December 15th, 1900, things got even worse.

The steamer Archtor passed the lighthouse during a terrible storm, and reported that all was dark. This was a serious dereliction of duty, as ships could be irrevocably damaged and lives lost because of such a transgression.

The three-man team responsible for the lighthouse (Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald MacArthur) were known to be conscientious. This blunder would have been out of character for them, but no action was taken until their relief keeper arrived on December 26th. Due to the storm, he was six days late.

He immediately knew something was wrong. There was no flag on the flagstaff, no supply boxes waiting to be restocked, and none of the lighthouse keepers were there to greet them.

When he went ashore, he found the entrance gate to the compound and main door were both closed. The beds were unmade, and the clock stopped. A further search revealed that the lamps had been cleaned and refilled. One of the men had left his waterproof oilskins behind, which was surprising, considering the severity of the storm.

The only sign that something untoward might have happened was an overturned chair by the kitchen table.

When the island was searched, no sign was found of the three keepers, but the west landing had been badly damaged by the storm. The men had kept a log book until 9 a.m. on December 15th, and their notes made it clear that the damage had occurred before the keepers vanished.

Leaving the lighthouse unattended was a serious breech of industry rules. That these three men would ignore this safeguard was difficult for many to accept.

Their bodies have never been found.

What happened to the Scottish lighthouse keepers? Some believe they were washed into the ocean by the storm. Others believe it was a Lord-of-the-Flies situation–that one of the men went crazy and killed the others.

And still others think it was an alien abduction or a murderous sea monster.

What do you think happened? Have you ever visited the Flannan Isles? Could you work in a lighthouse?

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26 Comments

  1. Hmm, I would think if it was a Lord of the Flies kind of thing, there’d be more evidence of it – blood, etc.

    I read a few novels in recent years about lighthouse keepers and their families. The whole isolation aspect fascinates me.

    Reply
    • JH

      I would imagine that with a family, it would be a little bit easier…but maybe not. Maybe that makes things worse.

      Reply
  2. I would think someone landed on the island and took them by force, but if it was really stormy, not sure that would be possible.

    Reply
    • JH

      Apparently the storm was quite bad. According to the fellow from the lighthouse association who investigated, the damage to the west landing “had to be seen to be believed.”

      Pretty eerie, no matter what the theory!

      Reply
    • JH

      That’s awesome, Anna! I love that these stories can inspire people. Thanks for visiting. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Love stories like this. Really gets the imagination going and the writer in me itching for a pen, figuratively speaking. (-:

    Reply
    • JH

      Don’t resist it, Jan. Perhaps the writer in you wants it to be literal. 😉 You have so much talent.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  4. I’ve heard about this before. I imagine that perhaps one or two of them got washed off the rocks or into trouble somehow, the other rushed out to help and got into difficulty himself.

    I could imagine working on a lighthouse in this day and age where you can be so easily connected to other people through the internet, but back then I wouldn’t fancy it so much.

    Reply
    • JH

      It must have been extremely isolating, and just imagine if you didn’t get along with your co-workers!

      I think your theory is probably right, but the one thing that bothers me is the strict rule that one man must always stay with the lighthouse. Why did the third man leave without taking his coat?

      Thanks for commenting, Cait.

      Reply
  5. Could it have been pirates? Sea-based criminals who kidnapped them?

    Reply
    • JH

      I’m not sure if pirates cruise the Scottish islands, but I suppose anything is possible.

      Thanks for commenting, Stephanie. I’m actually not sure where pirates were most active back then.

      Reply
  6. I imagine mostly likely they were washed out to sea somehow, but that’s a pretty boring explanation eh? Aliens are more exciting. 😉

    Reply
    • JH

      That they are, but the sea is the most likely possibility, I agree.

      Reply
  7. Whoa! Maybe one or two went out to check out the damage and when they did not return after a specified amount of hours, the last one went out to look for them. I image that they wouldn’t just leave their brothers out in the elements without trying to find them…

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome to my blog, April! Thanks for commenting.

      I imagine you’re right, but I can’t see three experienced men rushing out in a horrible storm and getting so close to shore they were washed out to sea. I think something else had to have happened–I’m just not sure what!

      Reply
  8. I saw this one on a TV documentary. I think the most reasonable explanation is they tried to escape during the storm and were drowned. But it sure is creepy and mysterious! 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      It definitely is, Lexa. Did the documentary have any other theories?

      Reply
  9. I would love to work in a lighthouse. I think they are beautiful, fascinating, and had an important role in keeping sailors safe. They probably got washed out to sea. Although, the oilskin left behind is a mystery. Unless, the one who stayed back heard or saw something and acted quickly.

    Another great story, Holli. This one would be fun to share with students, using it as a story starter.

    Reply
    • JH

      Share away, Mary! Anything that can inspire students to tell stories is a good thing.

      There’s something eerie about lighthouses for me. Maybe it’s the isolation. I could do it for a little while, but I don’t think I could handle it as a permanent gig.

      Reply
  10. I’ve visited a number of lighthouses, and every one of them has a story about the keeper disappearing at some point during the history of the lighthouse. I think this is an incredibly tough life. The locations are always rugged and close to the ocean. Personally, I believe each case is due to the storm. The men are swept out to sea.

    In this particular story, even if there’s a rule, I can’t imagine sitting in the lighthouse, wondering if my friend is injured and fighting a storm, unable to get back. After a number of hours, I would search for him. The jacket could be due to an argument. Man 1 storms out to cool off, man 2 follows to calm him down, man 3 waits forever, then decides to find out what happened. The bond between these meb would be like family. And ocean storms are brutal. The wind tosses you around, the rocks are slick, and waves crash over areas normally not reached.

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s interesting, Bonnie. I had no idea that so many lighthouse keepers had disappeared! Sea monsters? 😉

      I would think that the very violence of ocean storms would have kept these experienced men from doing something silly, like getting so close to shore that they got washed out to sea. I’m guessing something out of the ordinary happened, especially since they locked the doors and gate behind them before leaving (but one fellow didn’t take his coat). I’m just not sure what.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  11. I get what others are saying about the most likely explanation being that the lighthouse keepers were washed away as they were attempting to save others or perhaps one of their own…except! That explanation doesn’t factor in the overturned chair or the abandoned oilskins. It really does set the imagination on fire, doesn’t it?

    Reply
    • JH

      It does, Kern, and welcome back!

      I think something a little out of the ordinary happened, especially for the men to “break the rules” and abandon the lighthouse. I mean, their one job was to man the lighthouse at all times, so it seems strange that they would have gone against that. If two were lost to the storm, I wouldn’t think the third would go after them and be lost the same way. These were men with experience in dealing with the island’s climate and storms.

      Reply
  12. I grew up in Maine, where there are many lighthouses, including Quoddy Head lighthouse, which is labeled as the easternmost point in the United States. It’s also a neat red and white striped lighthouse. Just a little fun fact, there. 🙂

    I imagine life as a lighthouse keeper to be isolating and hard work! I have heard many stories about haunted lighthouses & strange lighthouse happenings, but never one where three people just . . . Disappeared. So strange!

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh, I would love to visit Maine, Jaime! It always seems so picturesque and lovely. It’s the perfect place for a red-and-white striped lighthouse.

      I think any old places that are isolated and abandoned can lead to some pretty awesome ghost stories. Why not lighthouses? 😉

      Reply

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