The lighthouse still cast its beam across the water. But the tower was empty. So was the island. Something terrible had happened to everyone there.
On boxing day 1900 the storm that had raged over the Outer Hebrides had abated sufficiently for the Hesperus to set out laden with stores for the lighthouse on Eilean Mor, the largest of the Flannan Islands, 17 miles away.
In the bows, oblivious of the wind and waves, Joseph Moore crouched, peering through the murk for the first clear sight of the lighthouse on which he was relief keeper.
Now he could see the tall tower from which a beam of 140,000 candle power flashed its warning to shipping in the dangerous waters leading to the Pentland Firth. Yet for the past ten days the lighthouse had been wrapped in darkness. Something was seriously wrong on Eilean Mor and Moore was in a fever of impatience to land and, after his shore leave, meet his colleagues again.
With leave long overdue and provisions and maybe even fuel running low the three men on the lighthouse, James Ducat, the head light keeper and his assistants Donald McArthur and Thomas Marshall, must be eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Hesperus.
Yet there was no one on the tiny quay to welcome them and allow Moore to take up his duties while another of the lighthouse team returned to Lewis. There were no mooring ropes, no empty cases– just a nothingness over the tiny island that made James Moore fear the worst.
For the first time in years he wondered if the old folk on Lewis were right in believing that Eilean Mor was haunted. Its grassy slopes were ideal for grazing sheep, yet no one but the lighthouse keepers ever stayed there overnight.
Moore was first into the boat that was rowed to the quayside and before it tied up had scrambled on to it. He ran to the entrance gate. Locked! Desperately he fumbled for his keys and unlocked it. Once more he was held up when he found the main door of the lighthouse tower itself just as tightly closed.
With a feeling of foreboding he rushed inside and shouted at the top of his voice: “Jim! Tommy! Donald! Are any of you there, lads?”
His voice echoed eerily, emptily as if the tower was completely deserted. He hesitated for a moment and then, as he was joined by the boat’s crew, dashed up the winding stairs wondering what signs of disaster he would encounter.
He flung open the doors to his mates’ sleeping quarters. Empty! The beds were neatly made and everything was spick and span as usual. With the boat’s crew at his heels he made a search of every room, corner and cupboard in the tower and found not a trace of his three comrades.
Two sets of oilskins and seaboots, those belonging to Ducat and Marshall, had vanished, so they must have worn them to go down to the jetty to deal with some emergency. McArthur’s seaboots were there– a puzzling feature– as he would have put them on if he had found it necessary to join them in a hurry.
Then he turned to the light and found it in perfect order, although it had not been lit for the past ten days. The wicks had been trimmed and the reflector polished and, with his mind in a turmoil now, he picked up the log.
It noted that the weather on December 13 and 14 had been unusually severe with a slight improvement on the 15th. After that– nothing.
That, thought Moore, was the night on which he and many other people on Lewis had observed that the light could not be seen. They had discussed it and decided that shocking visibility was the cause. But, when the skies had cleared on December 15th and there was no beam from Eilean Mor, it was obvious that something serious was amiss out on the Flannans.
In a last effort to find some clue as to what had happened he looked out at the crane which, from its concrete platform 65 feet above the sea, raised and lowered heavy cases as they were landed or returned to shore.
Its ropes, usually kept in a chest higher up the tower, were draped round it. The chest itself was missing from its corner and it seemed to Moore that some gigantic wave, at least 100 feet high, had battered Eilean Mor, whisked away the rope chest and swept the lighthouse crew, presumably from the jetty to their deaths.
Yet the morning of December 15 had been relatively peaceful so how could two men, Ducat and Marshall, dressed in weatherproofs, have been in such danger that McArthur should have dashed to help without even donning his seaboots? And, if the weather had been worse on Eilean Mor than it seemed on Lewis, why had three experienced keepers risked their lives on the quay?
Knowing the effect that the loneliness of life in a lighthouse could have on some men, Moore wondered if one of his mates had gone insane and murdered the others and then committed suicide. But no knives or other weapons were missing. There were no signs of blood or a struggle.
Three healthy, sane and reliable men had simply vanished and Moore understandably was reluctant to do what his duty demanded that he should do, man the light on his own until reliefs could be sent to help him. he stayed there alone for the next two days, keeping a lone vigil, the prey to a thousand terrifying thoughts and fears.
Back on land the Northern Lighthouse Board had only just realized that all was not well on Eilean Mor.
On December 15 Captain Holman of the Archer had sailed near the Flannan Islands, watching for the light that would guide him on a safe course. He saw nothing and, perturbed and puzzled, recorded the fact in his log and reported to the Board when he reached port. By some mischance his statement was overlooked and not read until January 1901 when evidence from Joseph Moore and sailors from the Hesperus bore out Holman’s disturbing revelation.
A team of competent and experienced investigators went out to the lighthouse, now functioning efficiently once more, and found nothing to add to the scanty details that Moore had reported.
Murder and suicide were discounted. Islanders’ stories of sea monsters snatching men to their death were ignored. Ducat, Marshall and McArthur had simply vanished. Their bodies were never recovered from the sea and from that day to this no satisfactory explanation of the mystery of the Eilean Mor lighthouse has been offered or accepted.