6 February 2015


Keith McCloskey. The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. The History Press, 2014.

The discovery on Boxing Day 1900 that the three lighthouse keepers on the Eilean Mor lighthouse in the Flannan Islands, part of the Outer Hebrides 20 miles (32 km) west of Lewis, were missing has become one of the classic unsolved mysteries, Britain’s version of the Mary Celeste. 
This is the first full length book treatment of this mystery and McCloskey places it within the context of the history of the lighthouse service and the life of the light's keepers; often lonely and claustrophobic.

He reproduces much of the available official documentation and explores the various theories that have been invoked to explain the disappearances of these men; the principle keeper James Ducat and his second assistant Thomas Marshall and the occasional keeper Donald MacArthur. The second in command William Ross was off ill, which McCloskey suggests may have some bearing on what happened. Another lucky man was third man Joseph Moore who had been on leave. It was he who was to discover the loss of the men.

McCloskey also examines some of the folklore that has accumulated around this story; such as that when Moore landed he encountered three giant birds “like seamen sitting bold upright” that took off and dived into the ocean without making a splash, or the mysterious log, which seems to have been an invention of either some American hack writer in the 1920s, or more probably Vincent Gaddis of Bermuda Triangle fame. It is clear that McCloskey really has not had the time to go through much of the prior literature to work out a full time line for the development of the story and its mutations.

A rather more puzzling omission is any reference to or acknowledgement of Mike Dash’s detailed study of the case in Fortean Studies 4, now readily available on the internet HERE
Despite that caveat this is a worthwhile account of a famous mystery, to which the author provides two alternative rational explanations. -- Peter Rogerson.

[Editor's note: At the age of about six or seven I remember being thrillingly terrified as my grandmother recited William Wilfred Gibson's poem 'Flannan Isle'  by flickering gaslight in her kitchen. Even now reading the fifth verse sends a shiver down my spine! -- J.R.]

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