The Eerie Vanishing Of The Flannan Isles Lighthouse Keepers


BuzzFeed Unsolved Network


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(anxious violin music) - Nobody cared who I was 'til I put on the mask. (siren blaring) This week on "BuzzFeed Unsolved," we shine a light on the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from the isolated Flannan Isles. - Shine a light. - That's right. (Shane laughs) It's a pun. - Off to a great start. - That's right, a punny start. - Yeah, (laughs) I'm excited. - They really upgraded our office this season. - We really knocked down that wall. I didn't realize how beautiful it was behind there. - Well, open concept is in now. - Yes, yes. - I thought it would be nice to have us out here. What do think about lighthouses? - Well, we know I love them. I want to live in one and I want to die in one. - Do you think you could ever be a lighthouse keeper? - 100%. - What if I told you you were gonna disappear? - Sounds good. After this year, aye yai yai. (Ryan laughs) Just a little 2020 humor. I didn't realize how much I could slap my thighs out here without the desk in front of us. - Should we get into it? - Please. Oh. - [Ryan's Voiceover] The Flannan Isles, also known as the Seven Hunters is a group of uninhabited rocky islands off the western coast of Scotland. The mysterious islands allegedly had a profound effect on sheep and shepherds would sail their flocks to the islands to graze. Sheep who dined on the grasses of the Flannan Isles were said to give birth to twins or recover from illness. Despite its positive effect on sheep, legend of a spirit haunting the islands kept any shepherd from staying overnight. - [Shane] That can't be real. Sheep magic, what are you talking about, huh? - [Ryan] Well apparently it was not so much the sheep that were magical, it was the grass. - [Shane] Magic grass for double sheep? - [Ryan] For twin sheep or for a sheep with a cold. - Okay. - [Ryan's Voiceover] Nevertheless in 1896, the Board of Trade sanctioned construction of a lighthouse on the largest of the Flannan Isles, Eilean Mor. Eilean Mor is also home some bothies, a Scottish term for a small hut that now sit in ruin as well as the Chapel St. Flannan, the namesake for the islands. In December of 1899, the lighthouse was completed and lit for the first time. Four light keepers were assigned to the lighthouse, each of whom would work a staggered rotation of six weeks on, two weeks off. This meant there were always three men on the island tending the lighthouse at one time. - Good to have pals. - It's nice to have company when you're stranded on an island. - Well I guess if you don't have any fellas around, you got those sheeps anyway. - Just nice to not die alone, you know? I mean this is unsolved, so things aren't gonna happen that are great. - [Ryan's Voiceover] In mid-December 1900, one year after the lighthouse was first put in service, the three men stationed on the island were James Ducat, the 43 year old principal keeper with a wife, four children and 20 years experience, Donald MacArthur, the married 40 year old occasional keeper who was covering for the first assistant keeper who was on sick leave and Thomas Marshall, the youngest of the trio at 28 and the second assistant keeper. The fourth keeper, Joseph Moore, wasn't on the island as it was his two weeks off. - [Shane] So youngest was 28 years old. - [Ryan] That's right. - [Shane] How old are you right now, 29? - [Ryan] I'm 29, so let me put myself into the mind- - [Shane] Put yourself there. - If you could choose your fate. - Would ya? - Would ya? - Lighthouse, yep, lighthouse. I love working at the light-hoose. - What is going on with your face? - Give me one impassioned one, I want to hear it from you. Now that we've workshopped it. - I love working at the lighthouse. - I don't know, man. I love, I love, I love. - I love, I love working at the lighthouse. - Working, this isn't offensive I don't think. I apologize. - If you're Scottish and you're offended by this, you should be. - [Ryan's Voiceover] Around midnight on December 15th, the steamship Archtor passed near the Flannan Isles. Captain Holman noted that he could not see the light, though the conditions should have allowed him to. When the Archtor arrived in port, it reported the absence of the light, though this was never communicated to the Northern Lighthouse Board. - [Ryan] Pretty active board I'm imagining there. - [Shane] "Are the lights on?" "Yep." "Good." - Okay, check. - Then just kicks back. - That is the life. - That's another day of hard work, another day of hard work. - Oh, Jesus Christ. - [Ryan's Voiceover] On December 26th, the lighthouse tender ship Hesperus made a routine visit to Eilean Mor. When nearing the island, captain James Harvey found it odd that there was no flag on the flag pole. The Hesperus sounded her horn to try to get the attention of the three lighthouse keepers but there was no response. They then attempted firing a flare, again, no reply. Joseph Moore, the fourth lighthouse keeper, was onboard the Hesperus. With no signal coming from the island, Moore was sent ashore. Upon arriving at the Eilean Mor's east landing, nothing appeared amiss. Everything was where it had been when Moore had last been on the island. Moore made his way up to the island where he found the entrance gate, the entrance door and the door after that all closed. The kitchen door was found open however and the fireplace had not been lit for several days. All of the clocks were stopped. According to Moore, quote, "I then entered the rooms in succession, found the beds empty just as they left them in the early morning," end quote. With no sign of anyone, Moore realized something was seriously wrong and returned to the Hesperus to get more men to help him investigate. They found the lamp of the lighthouse to be in working order and fully prepped but there was no clue as to what happened to the three missing men. - [Shane] So Moore went ashore to knock on the door is, what you're saying. - You're right, (chuckles) I like that. I always find that when people are missing and nothing is out of place except the people. - Spooky. - Very eerie. There's something about it. - Very eerie. I guess it would be scarier if there was like blood everywhere but- - I actually don't think so. I think that would be a bit much. It takes a little more nuance to scare the Bergmeister, as all of you have seen on every episode of this show. - [Ryan's Voiceover] Moore and three others were left on the island to operate the lighthouse while the Hesperus sailed back to telegraph the Northern Lighthouse Board of the disappearances. The next day, Moore and the others set about the island searching for more clues. While the east boat landing where Moore had arrived the previous day was in perfect order, it was a different story at the west boat landing. The west boat landing was damaged and a box that had held tackle and mooring ropes was gone. The ropes were found strewn on the rocks and the iron railings around the area had been broken, with some completely missing. That damage however was already detailed in the keepers log, implying it was not directly related to the disappearance. Most notably missing upon further investigation was a life buoy for emergencies which had been kept among the railings approximately 110 feet above sea level. The ropes holding the buoy in place however had not been removed by man, implying that the sea had ripped the buoy from its spot. - Some bad buoy business. - It seems kinda lazy, no? It's 110 feet up in the air and you're just like "Yeah, I must have been the ocean that took that bad boy out." - 110 feet up in the air? - Yes. - I don't get that, what? - I guess you could have like a big calabunga wave but- - I'm not buying that. - Then what are you buying? What's on the shelf? - I don't know. Oh, it's some object work, yeah, go for it. What is that, a Gatorade? - No, it looks like a can of alien juice. - Is that where this is fucking going? Is that where this is going? - It doesn't have anything else on it, it just says alien juice. (Shane groans) - [Ryan's Voiceover] While some may question whether a 110 foot wave is possible, Historian Mike Dash found evidence from a lighthouse keeper in the 1950s that water has splashed on Eilean More as high as 300 feet up, wetting the lamp house. In fact, while trying to photograph these waves, the lighthouse keeper was almost washed away himself by a large wave. - [Shane] Good for him. Scary. - Getting up there and getting up there close and personal. - [Shane] Scary to take a photo of a big wave. - [Ryan] Guy's gonna end up on "Kookslams." (Shane laughs) - [Shane] He would end up on "Kookslams." - Whoa, it's slippery up here on these rocks. - 1950s lighthouse keeper gets dunked. (Ryan laughs) Hashtag nut buster. - [Ryan's Voiceover] Back at the lighthouse, by taking inventory of the clothes left behind, Moore was also able to determine exactly what his coworkers had been wearing when they disappeared. MacArthur in particular have left behind the only coat he was known to wear, implying he had disappeared into the cold of a December in coastal Scotland without a coat. They also discovered the logs from the keepers' final days. - It doesn't say whether or not they were in the toilet. - I knew that's where he was headed. We had to let him go there. He's gone there. - Come on. - He's happy about it and we can keep on moving. - Their final logs. - [Ryan's Voiceover] The last entry was from December 13th but a slate had details from December 14th and 15th, including the time the light was extinguished on the morning of the 15th as well as atmospheric readings as late as 9:00 a.m. - [Shane] I didn't realize they were up to more than just flipping a switch. So they're doing like readings and stuff? - [Ryan] They gotta tend to the grounds too, upkeep. - Mow the lawn. - I'm sure that like when you, yeah, mow the lawn, things like that, make sure the fence has proper paint on it. If you're in a coastal area, the elements there could be harsh. - They probably are. - Erode away at the structure and your sanity. - [Shane] Oh. - The salient point to take from all that is the fact that they weren't saying like "May be my last log, I saw a big ass wave outside and it looks like it's coming towards me." - Sure. - Nothing like that. - Yeah, okay. - Seemingly a normal couple days there. - [Ryan's Voiceover] The log noted morale had been low amongst the keepers. Peculiarly, it also made note of recent strong storms and winds, though there had been no reports of storms in the area. So either the turbulent weather had been extremely localized over their islands or the men had hallucinated or fictionalized the storms. - Have you ever been so jacked up that you imagined there was a thunderstorm outside your house? - Yeah, no, I haven't. - You had too much of the devil's juice and you were like "Whoa, look at those clouds." - What if two of 'em are real mean and they're playing pranks on the third one? - They're creating a thunderstorm? - [Ryan's Voiceover] One source reports the discovery of additional logs made by the 28 year old Thomas Marshall. Within, the second assistant keeper detailed how the storms had been so frightening, they had caused the men to pray even though their location atop a 150 foot cliff in a building that was only a year old practically guaranteed their safety. Marshall describes Ducat as being "very quiet in recent days." And the gruff MacArthur had been seen crying. The final entry read, quote, "Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all," end quote. While some have poked significant holes in the authenticity of these logs, even if true, they still don't offer much explanation for what could have happened to three vanished men. - Sometimes things can make you sad. You know all about that, right? Master of emotions. - [Shane] Yeah, I cry all the time. I cried at "Little Women" a year ago. - The film, right? - No. I just saw some little women on the street and I sobbed. - Why were they so little? (Ryan and Shane laughing) It's the way you said it. It really sounded like you were at Ralph's and you saw some like little women picking out fruit. - So the storm was not the thing that wiped them out, if these logs are true. - That's not necessarily true because they could think the storm's over. I mean how accurate do these guys, they're not Al Roker and he never gets it wrong. - He never does. - He never does. - Great guy, love Roker. Shout out to Roker. - Big Roke-head over here. - I'm a huge Roke-head. - You watch him on Roku? - No, I watch him on NBC. - [Ryan's Voiceover] With the island completely searched and turning up view clues, there was one man who might still be able to shed some insight on the keeper's final days, one Roderick Mackenzie. Because there was no radio contact with the lighthouse, the men on Eilean Mor were essentially stranded. If something happened and they required assistance, they needed a way to signal to someone who could get help. Lighthouse keepers would do so using poles with balls or disks attached to them and placed coming out of the lighthouse balcony, hoping someone would spot their message. 18 miles southeast of the island is Galen Head, where gamekeeper Rodrick Mackenzie was paid eight pounds a year to watch for communications from the Flannan Isles. Each night, Mackenzie was to note whether he could see the light and whether any signals were seen during the day. When investigators checked in with Mackenzie after the disappearances, he reported that he had been unable to see the actual lighthouse tower between December 7th and December 29th. He had however been able to make out the light on December 12th but not again until Moore lit it on the 26th. Mackenzie admitted the absence of the light for two weeks had concerned him but there's no indication he reported this to anyone until the Northern Lighthouse Board came to question him. - [Shane] So it's essentially his duty to check on them to make sure they're okay and he couldn't see the lighthouse for two weeks. - [Ryan] Even worse, it was his job to see if something was weird and then report it and he was like, "Hmm, that's weird. "Let's get back to this sausage I'm cooking." - "Well, wait it out, it's only been one week and six days. We'll see how this shakes out." - [Ryan's Voiceover] Inaction was not what Mackenzie was being paid those eight pounds a year for. According to the National Lighthouse Board, Mackenzie had agreed to report a failure, quote, "Immediately by telegram to Head Office in Edinburgh so that the necessary steps could be taken to have someone sent to carry out any repairs as soon as possible," end quote. Had an actual lighthouse keeper been appointed to that role, he likely would have reported the darkness much sooner. It should be noted that Ducat, the principal keeper, had asked the Lighthouse Board's Superintendent if an experiment of sorts could be done with the aim of seeing how long it would take someone to notice a signal from shore and respond appropriately. Alas, the experiment was not approved but Ducat would ultimately get his answer, way too long. - I guess it's a little too late for an I told you so. - I mean, he could still say it. - But he did bloody well tell them so. - [Ryan's Voiceover] With three lighthouse keepers vanished into thin air, it's time to jump into theories about what happened that cold December on Eilean Mor. Our first theory is that the men were accidentally swept into the sea. Perhaps a wave caught the missing tackle box, scattering the contents about the rocks. If two of the men went to try to retrieve the supplies and a wave swept one away, the other could have ran back to the house to get the third. It's possible that third man was MacArthur, who could have run out to help without grabbing his coat. Perhaps while trying to rescue their coworker, the others were hit by a renegade wave and likewise swept out to sea. As we've already discussed, enormous waves have been known to hit the island. So even if the keepers thought they were far enough from the shore, they may have been caught off guard. There's also the possibility the men could have literally been blown from the island. The nearby Butt of Lewis had been at one point considered by Guinness to be the windiest place in the UK. - [Ryan] What's funny about that is the butt of Shane is the windiest place in the US. (Shane and Ryan laughing) - You have that one locked and loaded? - Oh yeah, I did baby. - [Ryan's Voiceover] No bodies ever washed ashore, leaving room to question this theory. How could three experienced lighthouse keepers be caught so off guard, especially if one had already been swept to a rough sea? Why would the other two risk themselves? - "Help me," you know? They're like "Well, let's help him." - "Fuck, he's back in the ocean." - "Throw a rope down there or something" and then "whoa, whoa," you know? "Whoa, we're all in the sea now." - I would think that they have some sort of protocol when one falls in and it doesn't immediately become da, da, da, da, da, da, da. - What if they were drunk? - Slipping around. - What if they're drunk? - I guess what if they were drunk, yes. - If they're hallucinating, even worse. - Look, it's possible. I just don't think it's very plausible. - [Ryan's Voiceover] Perhaps because of the romanticism of an isolated Scottish island, some theorize one or more of the keepers could have had a psychological breakdown, leading to their demise. As the logs described, morale was low amongst the keepers and there was the possibility they were hallucinating storms. Perhaps a fight broke out with one keeper killing the others, tossing their bodies into the surf, then leaping into the ocean himself. MacArthur in particular was known for his rough nature and violent tendencies. There's also speculation that a romantic relationship could have sprouted between the men, then soured or that one went mad, running off the cliff while the other slipped chasing after him. Because there were no indications of violence found on the island however, this theory is based mostly in speculation. - [Shane] Lighthouse? More like fight house. - Needs work. It's perfectly plausible that one of them may have lost it out there on this island but there wasn't any indications of violence and I would assume being three grown men, you would see somewhat, some signs of a tussle. - Yeah, that place would be marked up, you know? - Yeah, probably. - There'd be some scuffs. - No one's gonna go out there like "All right, take me into the ocean I guess. Here you go, I wrapped myself up, so I can't escape." - There was no way for them to get off of there on their own? They couldn't have just bailed? - Like if all three of them walked into the ocean? - Well 'cause you said two of them could have been in love and I'm thinking well, what if all three, if they were like "This works. What we got going here, this works, the three of us. We're in love, we're three men who love each other." - A tripod. - A tripod, "Let's get outta here." - And then one day, one of them says, "I think this should be a bipod instead." - Oh no, I'm saying the three of them lived happily ever after and just moved to Jamaica or something. - Oh, I see. - [Ryan's Voiceover] Our third theory is of course that the men were abducted by aliens. - Here we go. - That's it. - No, it's not. - Yeah. - No it's not, there's more. - That's it. - Say the rest. - Theory four, our final theory is that- - What? That's it? - A little throwback there for you. - You're just having fun with it. - I mean look- - This isn't a serious theory. - 110 feet up in the air, got knocked off by something that wasn't man and there was no signs of a major wave hitting the lighthouse, no signs of a scuffle, they all left, the logs were pristine. Who's to say they didn't see some kind of big ass light outside and they were like "Hey, what's that?" - Because they'd be like "Hey, nice light." - They're lighthouse keepers, they love light. - "Oh, have you seen our light? What light you got there?" - "Oh, nice big lights." - "Hell of a light." - "Our light's the best." - "This light kicks ass." - "Whoa, there's another light. - "Why am I 300 feet off the ground? That's a hell of a light." - "Holy shit. Let's get closer to the (imitates screaming)." It's possible. - [Ryan's Voiceover] Our final theory is that some other supernatural occurrence happened to the three Flannan Isles lighthouse keepers. There are legends of water sprites in Scotland, particularly the Bue Men of the Minch or Storm Kelpies in the Outer Hebrides where the Flannan Isles are located. - I suspect everyone watching this is eagerly waiting for me to really dunk on this. But I gotta say, I love it. - Yeah. - Tell me more about these men. - [Ryan's Voiceover] These strong green- haired creatures are thought to live in caves and sink ships in order to drown sailors. According to legend, if the lighthouse keepers encountered a clan of these sprites, their only hope for survival would be to have the last word in a rhyming duel. - Do you not love the idea that the only way, and I repeat the only way you could survive a sprite is if you beat them in a rap battle? - A lot. - It says "The last word in a rhyming duel." - A rhyming duel. Okay, so here we go, Ryan. Well I'm a sprite. - That's your impression of a sprite? Just you saying "I'm a sprite?" - Well I'm a sprite and I've come to your island and if you want to live, you're gonna have to beat me. - You didn't even rhyme the first two sentences. You said I'm gonna do it in a rhyme-y way. - I thought you had to rhyme with what I said. - You didn't say like "I'm a sprite, let's test your might." - Okay. - And I'm here on this dark, dark night. Oh, are you in for a fright? - No, I'm not. - You better keep it tight. - I'm real tough and I'll tell you I've had enough. I sure do like my big, tall light and I don't like you, sir, try as I might. - It looks like you gents are heading for the falls. If not, you could suck my blue balls. (Shane laughs) - All right, I know when I'm beat. Woo. - [Ryan's Voiceover] There's also a local legend surrounding Moore's arrival on the island. Allegedly, when he entered the lighthouse building, three giant black birds perched atop the lighthouse flew off into the sky. People claim those birds were the three keepers, who were transformed into the avian form as a punishment for violating the supernatural power of the island. - [Shane] My brain is just, I'm picturing the "Animorphs" cover of a lighthouse keeper turning into like a crow. - Could you imagine just like them perched atop the lighthouse and they see all these people trying to look for them and they're trying and they're cawing and cawing. "It's us, it's us, please. I'm the bird, it's me, it's me Mac." - They got little slickers on. - There's the coat, it's on the bird. It got shrunk with them. - A little corn cob pipe. (Ryan laughs) - Tragic, it's tragic. - It's fun to imagine and a load of horseshit. - That's what happens when you enter "The Twilight Zone." - No, this is unsolved. - Shit, you're right. - Yeah, sorry dude. - {Ryan's Voiceover] Keepers tended the lighthouse on Eilean Mor until 1971 when it was fully automated. For those 70 years, the sudden and eerie disappearance of three men charged with manning the island must have hung heavily over the heads of lighthouse keepers in the Flannan Isles and keepers reported hearing the men's names whispered by someone in the wind. As for what extinguished the lights of James Ducat, Donald MacArthur and Thomas Marshall 120 years ago, that mystery remains unsolved. (ominous violin tones) (anxious electronic music) - Well, I gotta say I love it. - What is that dipshit look on your face? - You gotta really, you gotta really go- - You did like the wave, you did like a body roll. - I loved this story. - I like it, yeah. That's good. - That's good, right? - You've improved over the course of the episode. A real three act structure, it's good. - Fun. - Fun and a good cameo for aliens in this one. - Yeah, and I gotta say as I've been stuck in my apartment for the majority of this year, nice to go on a little trip with our minds. - Yeah, that's good and that's a good lesson to you anywhere. You may be locked up inside but you're never gonna be locked up inside up here. - Yeah, oh, you don't want to be locked up inside of there. Let me tell you, that is a nightmare palace. - It's not good. When are you gonna realize I'm not locked in here with you, you're locked in here with me! - Jesus Christ. I know you're just quoting a movie but you got way too intense on that. - What happened? - That was very scary. We'll see you next week, everybody. Do we usually do that at the end of a show? (Ryan laughs) We're outside now, where do we go? (mysterious electronic ensemble music)