The Flannan Isle disappearances (4)

This is the fourth of a series of four blog posts about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers on Flannan Isle on December 15th 1900. If you feel that you need to read a previous blog post again, just search for “Flannan”.

We have now looked really quite thoroughly at what was, along with the sea serpent, one of the great mysteries of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Given that there are so many plausible theories, but no forensic leads, such as bodies to examine for injuries or marks on the skin, for mercury levels and so on, no absolutely 100% true correct answer will ever be possible. It’s just a case of finding a solution which explains all of the anomalies found by Joseph Moore as he explored the lighthouse and the rest of the island on December 26th 1900.

Having said that, I am the one writing this blog post and I may be the one to decide what the 100% true correct answer might be.

So….here’s the absolute 100% true correct answer…….

A researcher called James Love found out that Thomas Marshall had already been fined five shillings (0.25p) on another lighthouse, when his equipment was left out and washed away during a fierce storm. In modern money, £1 Victorian was reckoned to be between £116-£132. The fine of five shillings, therefore, was approximately £29-£33, and would probably have been increased for a second offence.

Marshall remembered, or was reminded, just before lunch on December 15th, that he had left equipment out yet again, and he put his sea-boots on to go down and put it away. James Ducat offered to come with him to help, and he put his own sea-boots on. The third man, Donald McArthur, had to remain behind because at least one person always had to be in the lighthouse. When they got back, he would start to prepare lunch.

There may have been a storm going on, but in my scenario, there didn’t need to be.  The sun set that day at around 4.00pm, so time was easily on their side.  Both of them were experienced men and they would have known immediately whether going down to the level of the landing stage was feasible or not. The two men took a very long time, though, and so Donald MacArthur, leaving his sea-boots behind, went out of the lighthouse in his shirt sleeves to see what was going on. At this point, he was not particularly panicking, which explains that the lighthouse gates and door were both closed.

And then suddenly, a gigantic wave hit the landing stage, surged up the cliff, and carried away the box where equipment was always stored, 110 feet above sea level. It immediately drowned Marshall and Ducat, busy far below on the landing stage, and also claimed Donald McArthur, who was just beginning to walk down the path to see where his colleagues were.

The wave may have been part of an approaching storm, or it could have been one of the “Freak waves” which have been discovered in recent years….

You can read the full account in Wikipedia but it begins with:

“Rogue waves (also known as freak waves, monster waves, episodic waves, killer waves, extreme waves, and abnormal waves) are unusually large, unpredictable and suddenly appearing surface waves that can be extremely dangerous to ships, even to large ones………. In oceanography, rogue waves are more precisely defined as waves whose height is more than twice the significant wave height, which is itself defined as the mean of the largest third of waves in a wave record.”

In 1985, the Fastnet Lighthouse off south western Ireland was hit by a wave of 157 feet (48 metres)

One wave was recorded in January 1995 in the North Sea about 100 miles southwest of the southern tip of Norway. It reached a maximum height of 84 feet (25.6 metres).

In 2000 the oceanographic vessel, RRS Discovery, recorded a 95 feet (29 metres) wave off the coast of Scotland near Rockall.

In 2013, a wave of 62 feet (19 metres) was recorded by a buoy between Iceland and Great Britain, off the Outer Hebrides. This cannot have been particularly far from the Flannan Isles. The wave was caused by 50 mph winds. So what does a 100 mph wind create?

I can’t give a reference but I’m sure that years ago I once read an account of a Scottish lighthouse which stood 200 feet above the sea having the turf rolled back by the waves:

I certainly read an account of stones from the sea bottom being lifted by waves and crashing against the windows of a lighthouse some 400 feet above normal sea level:

Such waves are certainly within the realms of possibility. Scientists have identified two regions where huge rogue waves may occur….the northern Pacific south west of Alaska and the North Atlantic to the north west of the Outer Hebrides. Of the two, the waves in the Atlantic tend to be bigger.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, that’s my solution to the Flannan Isle mystery. Now, I must see if there’s any sign of the postman…..


There is a fairly recent film about the Flannan Isle disappearances. It is  called “The Vanishing” and makes use of the events at the lighthouse to tell a tale of greed, violence and murder.

Here are the three lighthouse keepers. They look as if they are up to no good:

Overall, once you put to one side for the duration of the film, any serious explanations you may have of the mystery, this is an excellent thriller, well worth the cost of buying the blu-ray. But, let me say again, it is not a documentary, and makes no attempt to offer a serious, scientific, explanation of the keepers’ disappearance. The film has been made to entertain, and it certainly does that!!







Filed under History, Science, Wildlife and Nature

33 responses to “The Flannan Isle disappearances (4)

  1. A feasible conclusion to a fascinating mystery

    • Well, I thought it was, although those giant waves are a little scary. I don’t know if you remember the Derbyshire, a huge iron ore carrier, but that was apparently sunk by one, back in the 1970s.

  2. Given the waves known to occur in the region, you explanation seems the most probable. Those, though, that have never been around violent seas may find it difficult to believe that such waves can and do exist. Thanks, John, for sharing this interesting mystery with your readers.

    • My pleasure, Allen. Any disbelievers may like to look at
      where the captain of the QE2 relates how:the ship…..
      “encounters a hurricane on a crossing to New York. She takes a 29-metre wave over her bow. “It looked as if we were going into the White Cliffs of Dover,” says Captain Ronald Warwick.”

      • The referenced article, “Monsters of the Deep” carries the following item: “1944, Indian Ocean. British Royal Navy cruiser Birmingham plunges into a deep hole then takes a huge wave over her bows. The commander reports wading through knee-high water on a deck more than 18 meters above sea level.”

        If I remember correctly the HMS Birmingham has recently passed the tip of South Africa when this occurred. It was at night and the cruiser was running with all hatches closed, without lights, blacked out, in fear of submarines when the wave hit. If this is the same event that I read about years ago, the crew was taken in complete surprise. In the dark of night, how frightening this must have been If the ship had not been buttoned up, it may have gone down.

  3. Chris Waller

    I am just trying to visualise a wave 157 feet high. That’s over 6 times the height of the gable-end of my house. When they speak of ‘the cruel sea’ they are not joking.

    An incidental note here. An uncle of mine who was in the wines and spirits trade in the 1970s told me that, under English licensing laws, anyone who had worked as a lighthouse keeper was barred from holding an alcohol license. I don’t know whether this law is still in force.

  4. Even on a calm day it looks like pretty dangerous place. You have, over four episodes, presented very plausible case.

    • Thank you for those kind words. I think that the whole episode is very intriguing and if I were thirty years younger, I’d love to visit Flannan Isle.
      I can only imagine how amazed my Dad would have been to hear that one of his favourite poems, which he read to us in class one grey afternoon in a grubby clay mining village in central England has now been read by people in so many different countries, all because of him.

      • I just read the poem. Ican understand how well it could grab the interest of a classroom. Are you going to tell more of the grubby clay mining village et al?

      • Actually I already have with the posts which all share the words “The place where I grew up” in their title. If you search, you should find all of them.

      • Thanks for the link. I now remember and noticed that I commented. When my hand comes out of its bandages i may add something more.

  5. GP

    Your explanation is the most logical one – so I’m with you, John.

  6. I think you have hit the nail on the head.

  7. John, your explanation sounds highly plausible. The captioned photo of the lighthouse is the best view for showing the precariousness of the exposed and steep slope to the sea below. The lighthouse engulfed by high waves is pretty scary. Wouldn’t like to be in the shoes of that lighthouse keeper. Would be sure to watch The Vanishing when it’s available on Netflix USA.

    • Well, my wife and I both enjoyed it although it is violent in places.
      You are correct about the very last picture. It must have taken a very sturdy helicopter and pilot, an excellent knowledge of how the waves break around the lighthouse, and a brilliant waterproof camera to take a photograph of that calibre.

  8. Your explanation is certainly a plausible one John and I’d go with that as the likely answer. Certainly the men had to go out of their own accord, and dressed suitably for the weather of that day. Freak waves, as you say, do occur and reach great heights, so I’m happy with it!

    • I’m glad to hear it. Waves can be incredibly powerful. The sea wall at Cley-next-the-Sea has been breached several times, and in Eastern Scotland it was discover more than a century ago that the waves were hitting the sea wall during the worst storms with a force of around three tons per square inch. No wonder that the metal fence on Flannan was a bit twisted!

  9. Rogue wave! Finally the answer. I wouldn’t mind watching The Vanishing. Did you like it? Was it accurate?

  10. Yes, I enjoyed it, if only for showing just how savage even decent men can be when pushed into a corner by greed.
    The film wasn’t accurate as a way of explaining the real-life mystery. It was a story based on the main facts of the actual incident:
    “There was a remote island-a lighthouse-three men disappear-the truth was never discovered.”
    Arguably, what the film makers were suggesting as an explanation for those four main elements of the real life story was possible but highly unlikely. Having said that, what they did put forward was a thrilling tale, a real yarn of the sea.
    Overall, the film was easily worth an hour and a half of my life and the £8 I paid for the DVD. I would recommend it.

  11. Thank you for sharing!!… I expect your theory is near correct with reality (thought my imagination is having difficulty letting go of the Kraken theory 🙂 )… had they had the technology we have today, perhaps they could have had an explanation for the waves, like today’s tsunami… 🙂

    Until we meet again..
    May your troubles be less
    Your blessings be more
    And nothing but happiness
    Come through your door
    (Irish Saying)

    • The link with Wikipedia does supply an explanation for these special waves:
      “Rogue waves seem not to have a single distinct cause, but occur where physical factors such as high winds and strong currents cause waves to merge to create a single exceptionally large wave.”
      Actually, the kraken may well be part of the story, but only as an explanation for the events that the Vikings could not understand. In their world, ships at sea, and people on shore, perhaps even whole isolated communities, just disappeared, often in fairly good weather. There was no explanation except to invent a huge monster with tentacles, which could easily overwhelm or snatch people off the beach or from the top of the cliffs. That was the only thing they could come up with, that explained what appeared to have happened.

  12. Jeff

    So what we’re saying is that it was a rogue wave but it was also to do with lapses in protocol, and coincidence, that they happened to be outside at that exact time. I think actually that this kind of combination is responsible for many ‘paranormal’ events, because the human mind seems to struggle with not interpreting coincidences as meaningful. The world is a big place with lots going on all the time, so there will always be occasions when things come together in unusual combinations leading to relatively novel outcomes without any particular protagonist being necessary.

    Not entirely novel, though, as you illustrate with your Kraken example. There has to be a certain critical mass of events to create some kind of folklore of people disappearing at sea, in the woods etc., allowing later events to be seen in that way. These things remain part of our culture albeit in a diminished way.

  13. I would agree with you, and I think that what you are saying is extremely innovative. It goes a long way to explaining a great many “supernatural” mysteries and in the case of Flannan Isle, the scenario is helped along enormously by an already established belief in people being abducted by “The Phantom of the Seven Hunters”.
    What we really need to do though, is to find the events that do not fit into this pattern. My best one is the tale of the curtains which I published quite a long time ago. It had two witnesses who were able to evaluate what was happening as it happened. A similar event, which allowed me to be on Channel 4 TV to tell the tale, was the straw falling from a clear blue sky in north Norfolk. That was with three witnesses who, again, were able to investigate what was happening as it happened.
    What was surprising about the straw was the number of my students who were reduced to telling me “No, it didn’t happen !! It’s impossible, so it can’t have happened.” It must have really worried them !

    • Jeff

      I remember the straw one, you made it into the Fortean Times with that! And you’re quite right, it’s the ‘high strangeness’ events that perhaps deserve more scrutiny as they are less likely to be influenced by pre-existing beliefs, conscious or otherwise.

      The events in your Dad’s house bring to mind something that happened to my old (former and aged) neighbour. His wife was in hospital gravely ill and he was at home, when he heard a loud noise. The wash basins in both bathrooms had cracked from front to back (I later saw them myself). Shortly afterwards he received a call from the hospital to say that his wife had died.

      • In similar fashion, I recorded this story about my Dad’s moment of death:
        “As far as is known, my Dad, Fred died peacefully in his sleep in 2003, aged eighty. He was in a side ward of the hospital in Burton-upon-Trent, and was found in the early hours of a Monday morning, sometime between one and two o’clock.
        As I was to discover later, though, his wristwatch had stopped at four minutes past eleven. So too had the clock on the wall of his kitchen five miles or so away. In the next room, I also found that the old brown wooden clock in his sitting room, which had been a wedding present some fifty or more years earlier, had also stopped at that same time of 11.04. Because of all this I feel absolutely certain that this was the exact minute when Fred died..”

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