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Enduring mystery: Lasting tribute to lost lighthouse keepers

The three men vanished from the Flannan Isles more than a century ago.

It was Boxing day in 1900 and out in the Atlantic a distress flare burned through the wintry sky.

The crew of the Hesperus watched as it rose above the remote cluster of bleak rocks before them.

The ship's whistle sounded out loudly, an anxious call towards the lighthouse tower standing silently up on the cliffs. But no one responded.

The landing stage, drenched in sea spray, was empty. No flag flew on the lighthouse mast.

A small boat was lowered from the ship into the water and relief lighthouse keeper Joseph Moore rowed out with a small crew towards the rocks.

There are steep steps winding up the cliff of Eilean Mor and he had climbed every single one of them many times over.

This time, however, he had felt a strange sense of foreboding. He was the first one to walk through the door of the Flannan Isles lighthouse.

Inside, the kitchen clock had stopped. Ashes lay cold in the fireplace and two out of three oilskin coats were missing from their pegs.

Of the three men who wore them, not one could be found.

Back at the Hesperus, Captain James Harvey sent out a telegram to the mainland:

A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island.

"No sign of life was to be seen," the captain wrote, followed by the update: "Night coming on, we could not wait to make something as to their fate".

The Flannan Isles lighthouse that usually burned like a star over the black waves had gone out. The men charged with keeping it shining were gone.

Joseph Moore, right, remained a lighthouse keeper for most of his life.
Joseph Moore, right, remained a lighthouse keeper for most of his life. Kenneth McCuish

Lighthouse keepers Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald McArthur had vanished without a trace.

As the sky darkened, Captain Harvey had left Joseph behind to man the lighthouse.

"He searched the whole island," says Joseph's grandson, Kenneth McCuish.

"He told people later that he looked into the small kirk and graveyard that was there.

"Opening up one of the graves, he said that he felt something brush past his face, a force of some sort."

That it was a time of deep superstition and fear is of no doubt. How did three men, no strangers to the sea, just vanish from a rock 20 miles out in the wintry Atlantic?

It has been more than a century since the Eilean Mor lighthouse keepers' mysterious disappearance and the true events of what happened to the men remain unknown.

Over time, theories have circulated, all trying to discover what happened all those years ago.

There are those who believe a giant wave took them or perhaps a strong wind blasting across the rocks.

But it's the men, not the mystery, who are now finally being remembered.

On December 15, 117 years to the day since someone first noticed the light of Eilean Mor had gone out, a memorial is being unveiled to those who were lost.

The Flannan Isles are located in Outer Hebrides.
The Flannan Isles are located in Outer Hebrides. Ordnance Survey data/Crown copyright

Led by the community of Breasclete on Lewis, the village the missing men called home when not out at sea, a monument of a bronze wave sculpture set on Lewissian gneiss and sandstone has been built by the shore of Loch Roag.

Designed by local stonemason James Crawford, it is within sight of both the quay, the departure point for the ill-fated crew and An Taigh Mhòr, the lighthouse station built to house the families of keepers serving on the island.

Central to the project will be a permanent exhibition in the local community centre, exploring original archive material, events leading up to the tragedy and the enduring mystery of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the keepers.

More than a century since their disappearance, Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur are being paid tribute.

Breasclete, Isle of Lewis.
Breasclete, Isle of Lewis. Robert Watson

"My grandfather, Joseph Moore, used to sit me on his knee and tell me the story surrounding the mystery," says Kenneth.

"This was way back in 1953, long before radio and television was the main source of communication.

"Joseph Moore's son, my uncle James Moore, would have been over the moon in hearing on what is about to happen in Breasclete."

Not much is known about the three lighthouse keepers themselves, though some of their descendants still live across Scotland.

The logbook the men carefully kept during their time on duty has been lost, along with much of the paperwork in the aftermath of their disappearance.

When not on duty, the keepers lived in Cnoc Mor in the small village of Breasclete, and it was from this area that the original builders of the lighthouse came.

Built between 1896 and 1899, it was they who constructed steps and later rails before the tower itself.

What could not be back-packed up the rocks, like horses and building materials, had to be winched up instead.

It was barely a year in operation when the men vanished.

It was barely a year in operation when the men vanished.
It was barely a year in operation when the men vanished. STV

Donald McArthur, one of the missing, was an occasional watch-keeper at the lighthouse, who had been temporarily replacing the regular keeper who was ill.

He was of Breasclete stock, an ex-regular army man and tailor by trade. He had been supervising the building of a local church when he left for duty.

When he failed to return, his wife was only able to pick up the minimum of his pension as he was not a full time employee.

Thomas was about 27 years old, stoic, had never married but left behind his father.

He had been relying on Thomas' wage so when he lost his son, it was even harder for him.

James had five children. His wife took on his pension.

A fatal accident Inquiry was never carried out despite the process being introduced to Scotland in 1895.

The few official records that do remain are from the Northern Lighthouse Board, including a letter written by Joseph, Kenneth McCuish's grandfather, who was the assistant lighthouse keeper on relief duty for the Flannan Isles at the time.

There is also a report submitted by the men's superintendent Robert Muirhead, the last man to see them alive, and the telegram from the captain of Hesperus, the ship which found the men gone.

https://stv.tv/news/features/1376118-the-mysterious-disappearance-of-the-eilean-mor-lighthouse-keepers/ | default

While the real story of the lighthouse keepers, how they lived and not just how they died, might never be fully known, their names will be.

Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur now have their names engraved into the stone they lived on by the waves they served upon.

As the Northern Lighthouse Board statement reads: "It was on the December 15, 1900, that the last entries were noted by the keepers at Flannan Isle.

"Now over 100 years later, what happened on that day remains a mystery. A mystery that has captured the imagination of the public ever since.

"Despite the intrigue and dramatised speculation of what may have happened, we have to remember three keepers lost their lives and the families of these three men, to this day, do not know their fate."

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