The Island of Disappearing Men

10 Oct

There is an island in the North Atlantic called Eilean More, most northerly of a chain of islands known to seafarers as the Seven Hunters, which has become synonymous with a maritime mystery that has become as infamous and seemingly unsolvable as the affair of The Mary Celeste. Located seventeen miles to the west of the Hebrides, these bleak islands received their official name of the Flannan Islands from a seventeenth century bishop, Saint Flannan, who built a small chapel on Eilean More. Although Hebridean shepherds often ferried their sheep over to the islands to graze on the rich turf, they themselves would never spend a night there, for the islands are said to be haunted by spirits and by ‘little folk’. There have been rumours of disappearances, odd sightings and unexplained mysteries ever since the island chain was discovered but the oddest event in their three hundred year history took place in 1900 and is still being debated to this day.

A lighthouse was first built on Eilean More in December 1899 and was crewed by three men – James Ducat, Donald McArthur and Thomas Marshall. However, it had barely been functioning for a year before, one night shortly before Christmas in 1900, the lights went out inexplicably. Due to the danger this posed to passing ships, the Northern Lighthouse Board sent the steamer Hesperus, captained by Joseph Moore, out to investigate as soon as they could. As the Hesperus approached, no flags answered their signals and there was no sign of life. The entrance gate was closed and no one responded as Moore shouted for attention. Once inside he found that the lighthouse, like The Mary Celeste, was empty. In the main room the clock had stopped and the ashes in the fireplace were cold while in the sleeping quarters upstairs the beds were neatly made and the place was eerily tidy. Everywhere all seemed to be in order: the log book had been kept up to date until 15 December, the day the light went out; there was no lack of oil, the wicks were trimmed and the lights were all ready to be lit. It seemed clear that all three men had completed their basic duties for the day before their disappearance, making it all the more unfathomable.

Theories have abounded ever since about the mystery of Eilean More. The first to be put forward, unsurprisingly, was that there had been a storm during which the three men had been swept away into the sea. This theory caught on until it was pointed out that the 15th of December had been a calm day with no storms. Another theory was that one of the three men had gone insane and pushed the others to their deaths, then thrown himself into the sea. It is just about possible; but there is not the slightest bit of evidence for it. It is also possible that, even in the absence of a storm, a freak tidal wave might have risen up and swept the three unsuspecting men into the sea. But it is still hard to understand how three men could be involved in such a freak occurrence, especially in light of the fact that only two sets of oilskins were found to be missing – which strongly suggests that at least one of the men remained inside on that fateful December day. Only one thing is clear: something snatched three men off Eilean More at the turn of the century and left not even the shred of a clue as to their fate.

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