Not exactly a ghost story, but danged spooky nonetheless.
The Flannan Isles are a group of seven uninhabited islands, part of the Outer Hebrides chain off the coast of Scotland. The largest of the seven–also called the Seven Hunters–is called Eilean Mor, which in Scots Gaelic means, simply, Big Island. It’s not so very big; it covers a grand total of thirty-seven acres.
There is no particular ghost story attached to Eilean Mor, but it is the site of a classic unsolved mystery. Three lighthouse keepers vanished from the island in December 1900, and no one has ever explained why or how.
The sea around the Flannans has always been exceptionally dangerous. So many ships have been lost there in heavy weather that, in 1895, a lighthouse was commissioned on Eilean Mor. The same heavy seas that caused so many shipwrecks also made the transportation of construction materials difficult, and the lighthouse was not completed until 1899.
It had been in operation a little over a year when, on the night of December 15, 1900, a Captain Holman, skipper of a freighter, SS ARCHER, saw that the light was dark. He reported this fact by Morse code to the nearest shore station.
There were at the time three keepers stationed at the Eilean Mor light: head keeper James Ducat, first assistant Thomas Marshall, and second assistant Donald McArthur. One of the three was due to be replaced by Joseph Moore, and supplies were due to be landed at the same time, but, because the weather was so severe, it was not until December 26 that Moore, aboard SS HESPERUS, was able to land on the island. Under ordinary circumstances, the man whom he would replace on duty would be waiting at the east landing, on the lee of the island. No one was waiting for Moore when he came ashore. Worried, Moore ran to the lighthouse. There, he found the living quarters and storehouse empty, the clock stopped, and the fireplace ashes cold.
He reported back to HESPERUS, and, in company with three seamen from the ship, made a more thorough search. This search confirmed that the men were not in the lighthouse or any of its outbuildings, and that the oilskins (the heavy-weather gear the keepers wore while working outdoors) and boots of all three were missing.
Outside, they found that, on the west (windward) side of the island, the landing stage had suffered severe damage; the iron staircase that led down the slope to the landing was twisted, and ropes and jibs on the crane platform, where supplies were landed from that side, were scattered about.
The last official entry in the head keeper’s logbook was dated December 13; on a slate nearby, written in chalk, there was data recorded at nine o’clock AM on Saturday, December 15, with barometric pressure and temperature recorded. Whatever happened to the three keepers happened therefore between nine AM and midnight, when Captain Holman of SS ARCHER reported that the light was out.
A full-scale official investigation concluded, based on the missing oilskins and the knowledge that the ten days between the light going dark and the discovery that the men were missing had been exceptionally stormy, that the men had most probably gone to check the extent of storm damage on the west landing and been swept away by a rogue wave. This possibility was confirmed in later years when, in a heavy sea, one huge wave rose seventy feet up the side of the island and completely swamped the platform.
The three men who vanished that stormy December day in 1900 have not returned as ghosts. There have been whispers, though, that they might have been lured to their deaths by spirits–the spirits of the hundreds of fishermen and freightermen lost to the sea off the shores of the Flannans. These whispers say that the keepers might have heard the voices of those long dead, calling for help, and while responding to those calls, died themselves.
Among the way-out-there versions of what might have happened, there’s also a story about a ghostly Viking longboat that supposedly haunted the area (Vikings once settled on some of the islands of the Outer Hebrides) and how the ghosts of the raiders may have come ashore and dragged the three away. That one was too much even for me, inveterate lover of ghost stories though I am, to stomach.
The only ones who know for sure are long gone. The poet William Wilson Gibson wrote their epitaph in his poem “Flannan Isle”:
Aye, though we hunted high and low, and hunted everywhere,
Of the three men’s fate we found no trace,
Of any kind in any place
But a door ajar, and an untouch’d meal
And an overtoppled chair. . .
And long we thought of the three we sought–
And of what might yet befall!
Accounts are given of the disappearance of the keepers of Eilean Mor in Raymond Lamont Brown’s PHANTOMS OF THE SEA: LEGENDS, CUSTOMS AND SUPERSTITIONS (1972) and in several books by the British writer Colin Wilson.