Unsolved Murders

Donald MacArthur

Age: unknown

Sex: male

Date: 15 Dec 1900

Place: Flannan Island Lighthouse, Scotland

Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald MacArthur vanished from their posts on the Flannan Islands Lighthouse in December 1900.

Their disappearance was described as a mystery. It was thought that they might have been blown over the cliffs or carried away by the waves during a storm.

When a lighthouse steamer later succeeded in landing two men on Flannan Islands on 26 December 1900, they went up to the lighthouse station but found the entrance gate and outside doors closed, the clock stopped, no fire lit, and, looking into the bedrooms, found the beds empty, with no trace of any of the men or their bodies.

It was found that the last entry in their log was dated Saturday 13 December 1900. However, it was noted that the logs for 14 December 1900 including the time of extinguishing the light on 15 December, along with barometer and thermometer readings and state of the wind taken at 9am on 15 December, were noted on the slate for transferring to the log later.

As such, it was thought that they had disappeared on the afternoon of Saturday 15 December 1900.

It was supposed that they must have been at their breakfast when something occurred, causing them to leave hurriedly, as a half-eaten meal lay on the table.

It was further found that all the ropes in the store had been removed and that some of the ironworks around the crane were damaged, and thought that they must have noticed that the crane had been in danger and taken the ropes to secure it, and that in their efforts must have been dragged over the rock along with it.

It was noted that a crane originally erected on the crane platform, which was about 70ft above the sea level, had been washed away the year before in 1899 but replaced with a new crane during the summer which was still in place, unharmed, with the jib lowered and secured to the rock. It was further noted that the canvas covering the wire rope on the barrel was securely lashed round it, and that there was no evidence that the men had been doing anything with the crane.

However, it was noted that about 40 feet above the crane platform there was a box that contained mooring ropes, landing ropes, derrick landing ropes and crane handles, which was usually secured in a crevice in the rocks, 110 ft above sea level, and that it had been washed away, with the ropes left strewn about the crevices of the rocks near the crane platform and entangled among the crane legs, although all coiled up, with none found unfastened.

Further it was noted that the iron railings round the crane platform and from the terminus of the tramway to the concrete steps up from the West landing were all displaced and twisted and that a large block of stone, weighing upwards of 20 cwt, had been dislodged from its position higher up and carried down to and left on the concrete path leading from the terminus of the tramway to the top of the steps.

It was also noted that a life buoy fastened to the railings on the path had also disappeared, and that whilst it was first considered that it might have been used to rescue someone, careful examination of the bindings showed that the canvas had been torn and that the life buoy must have been ripped from its fixing by the force of the sea pouring through the railings, even though, as it was noted, it had been 110 feet above sea level.

It was thought that both James Ducat and Donald MacArthur had been wearing their boots and waterproofs and suggested that they would only do that when they were going down to the landings and that as such, when they had left the station they had been either been going down to the landing or the proximity of it.

As such, it was thought that they had gone down on the afternoon of 15 December 1900 to the proximity of the West landing to secure the box with the mooring ropes and that an unexpectedly large roller came up on the Island, and a large body of water went up higher than where they were and that on coming down on them had swept them away with resistless force.

It was also considered that they might have been blown away by the wind, but noted that the wind had been westerly, and that as such, it would have more likely have blown them up the Island and that it was more probable that they would have been able to thrown themselves down before they reached the summit or brow of the Island.

It was further noted that the light on the lighthouse had not been seen for several days before the event, and thought that it had been out for four days before being repaired on 15 December 1900 after which it was not seen alight again until the relief vessel arrived. The dates were:

  • 7 December: Light seen. The crew were inspected by the Superintendent who was the last person to see them alive.
  • 8 December: Light not seen.
  • 9 December: Light not seen.
  • 10 December: Light not seen.
  • 11 December: Light not seen.
  • 12 December: Light seen.
  • 13 December: Light not seen. Last log entry made.
  • 14 December: Light not seen.
  • 15 December: Light not seen. Date of storm thought to have washed the light house crew away.
  • 16 December: Light not seen.
  • 17 December: Light not seen.
  • 18 December: Light not seen.
  • 19 December: Light not seen.
  • 20 December: Light not seen.
  • 21 December: Light not seen.
  • 22 December: Light not seen.
  • 23 December: Light not seen.
  • 24 December: Light not seen.
  • 25 December: Light not seen.
  • 26 December: The lighthouse steamer Hesperus arrived to discover the light house crew missing and restored the light.

The Superintendent, who wrote a report on the event dated 8 January 1901, said:

I was with the Keepers for more than a month during the summer of 1899, when everyone worked hard to secure the early lighting of the Station before winter, and, working along with them, I appreciated the manner in which they performed their work. I visited Flannan Islands when the relief was made so lately as 7th December, and have the melancholy recollection that I was the last person to shake hands with them and bid then adieu.

The following account of a visit to the Flannan Island Lighthouse was published in the newspapers on Saturday 29 December 1900:

The enormous power of the sea is exemplified by what took place at the west landing. Above the steps there there is a concrete platform, and higher up, 50 feet above high-water mark, another. On the latter there was a crane which was fastened into the cement. This was carried away one day in December 1899 and at the same time two logs of greenheart wood, weighing 25 cwts., and lying in a crevice beside the tram line 75 feet above highwater mark, were washed away.

At one o'clock the lighthouse men invited me to dinner. Ducat, the head keeper, who had already shown me over the lighthouse, and whose previous experience of lighthouse work had been at the other end of the island, at Loch Ryan, Wigtownshire, asked a blessing. The fare was plain, but abundant, broth, beef, with excellently mashed potatoes, and plum pudding. The cook if I remember right was Ross, a powerful fellow who has not apparently shared in the disaster, but who had already had a sufficiently unpleasant experience. He was sitting on a trolley when the brake or something gave way. The trolley dashed down to the end of the line, and there he was pitched out, and fell on the rocks 15 feet below, just above the east landing stage. Marvellous to relate, he escaped with a broken arm, and as the steamer was in at the time, was taken ashore without delay.

We took Ducat off with us that afternoon, as it was his turn ashore, and I last saw him the same evening, as I can see him now, at the gate of his house, glad to be once more at home with wife and children. He was a most civil and pleasant man, and I little thought there was such a tragedy in store for him and his brave comrades on outpost duty.

I may add, in conclusion, that the lamp in this, almost the latest of our lighthouses, has six concentric wicks and has a power of 140,000 standard candles. The lantern is 75 feet above the surface of the island, and 330 feet above high-water spring tides. The light is visible for 24 nautical miles in clear weather. The tank holds 2,000 gallons of oil, of which 1,800 or 1,900 gallons are used in the year. On the longest night in December the consumpt is 8½ gallons.

However, it was stated that exactly what happened to the lighthouse crew was not known, and that the mystery had captured the imagination of the public ever since, with there being books written about it, as well as a film, The Vanishing, which was released in 2018.

Nothing more is known about exactly what happened to the crew of the lighthouse.

*map pointers are rough estimates based on known location details as per Place field above.

see en.wikipedia.org

see Dundee Evening Telegraph - Saturday 29 December 1900

see Northern Lighthouse Board