The Scramble for Stories | Article

Everyone loves a good mystery. Where we used to gather around campfires, now we cluster around flatscreen televisions or curl up with our Kindles. Stories are how we approach liminal spaces within our psyches, with conjecture, narrative, and counter-narrative serving to titillate and inform.

Society’s appetite for stories is so overwhelming that we forget that their retelling is sometimes invasive. During the disappearance of Nicola Bulley near the River Wyre in January 2023, people flocked to the area to take selfies and to carry out their own investigations. Sky and ITV approached Bulley’s family after a body was found, despite their express wish for privacy[1].

It is tempting to link such exploitative behaviour and the prioritisation of story over protagonist to modern mediums such as TikTok and YouTube. However, long before electronic media made communicating a matter of moving our thumbs across mobile phones, stories were shared via word of mouth, over wirelesses, and in print.

Such a story can be found 33km west of Gallan Head in southwest Lewis[2], where petrels, kittiwakes, shag, and puffins chatter and dive amongst the six islands that make up the Flannan Isles[3]. The largest of these is Eilean Mor, whose steep cliffs yield to a small grassy top. Aside from its birdlife, Eilean Mor is famous for two things – its lighthouse[4] and the disappearance of lightkeepers Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald Macarthur in 1900. The unsolved nature of the disappearance, the island’s isolation, and the accompanying sense of gothic horror have made the story fertile ground for conjecture[5].

The lighthouse was first operational in 1899, being managed by three men prior to automation in 1972. A fourth man was stationed at nearby Breasclete and provided rolling cover for whomever was due shore leave. A lightkeeper’s job was important but monotonous. Duties included painting, cleaning, cooking on the coal-fired range, recording weather readings, maintenance of the logbook and, most importantly of all, ensuring the correct operation of the light when darkness fell[6]. The most catastrophic failure a lightkeeper could countenance was ‘standing the light’[7] – failing to ensure that the lighthouse was signalling correctly.

Also key on Eilean Mor was bringing in supplies from landings on either the east or west of the island. Despite a mini-railway being built to assist in transporting food and equipment up to the lighthouse, resupplying was gruelling and dangerous work. The Atlantic swell could be savage, with waves roaring up over 100ft to bend metal railings, and spray reaching the top of the lighthouse itself – 328ft above sea level[8].

On the night of 15th December 1900, the SS Archtor steamed by the Flannans. Her captain looked for the double flash of the lighthouse but saw only darkness. It was not until 26th December, when the tender ship Hesperus brought supplies to Eilean Mor, that the fate of the lightkeepers was confirmed[9]. No response was forthcoming after the ship’s horn was sounded, nor after a signal rocket was fired. With growing unease the crew landed, only to find the lighthouse deserted, with the clocks stopped and the fire grates cold. The logbooks, including weather, barometer, and thermometer readings, were completed until partway through 15th December, indicating that an accident had occurred shortly thereafter[10].

Such a tale was ripe for retelling and theories as to the lightkeepers’ fate proliferated. Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s 1921 poem ‘Flannan Isle’ painted a picture of

‘…a table, spread

For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;

But all untouch’d and no one there:

As though, when they sat down to eat,

Ere they could even taste,

Alarm had come; and they in haste

Had risen and left the bread and meat;

For on the table-head a chair

Lay tumbled on the floor.’[11]

Although compelling, the poem used artistic licence; the table was not set for dinner upon discovery, nor was there an overturned chair. Gibson also referenced a local myth, stating that when Joseph Moore entered the lighthouse on 26th December to discover Ducat, Marshall, and Macarthur missing, three huge black birds took wing from the tower and flew out to sea. These birds were thought to be the spirits of the lightkeepers, and although Moore made no mention of the incident in his report[12], this omission proved no impediment to a good story spreading. The appetite for an explanation also prompted the revisiting of even older legends. It was rumoured that the bodies of human sacrifices at Callanish stone circle were taken out to Eilean Mor to be received by the gods, and that the lightkeepers’ presence on the island had disturbed its sanctity[13]. There was conjecture that loneliness had affected one of the keeper’s mental health so badly that he had murdered his colleagues before disposing of their bodies and throwing himself into the sea[14]. In his 2014 book The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers[15], Keith McCloskey suggests the theory that two of the keepers had been at the west landing securing supplies, when the remaining man had seen a huge rogue wave approaching. Running down to the landing to warn them, he had been too late, resulting in all three being swept to their deaths.

These and a hundred other theories have been vigorously posited, debated, and refuted. One aspect that they share is an almost complete disregard for those outside the sphere of conjecture. What about those for whom the mystery didn’t leave a jumble of intriguing clues? What of the people whose priority wasn’t investigating backstories or searching for hidden messages in logbooks, but rather ensuring that their children survived a bitter winter? All of the keepers had relatives for whom their salary was the sole source of income and who faced destitution. The conjecture certainly didn’t thrill Macarthur’s widow, who had children aged ten and seven to raise, with no prospect of finding work. It didn’t excite Mrs Ducat, who became the sole provider for a family of five. It certainly did not feed Marshall’s seventy-year-old father, who was unable to work after a lifetime’s labour as a seaman, and whose claim for recompense was rejected after much pleading. The families were advocated for by National Lighthouse Board Superintendent Robert Muirhead, but sober appeals for generosity were lost in the scramble for gossip around what happened on Eilean Mor[16].

Our hunger for intrigue has not diminished in the years since 1900. On Eilean Mor a bleak and mysterious setting, a supernatural sub-narrative, tantalising clues and, crucially, no prospect of a consensus solution combined to form a perfect incubator for tittle-tattle. Similarly, Nicola Bulley’s wandering dog, her mobile phone still connected to a conference call, and underlying health conditions[17] allowed people to tell their own stories around an already-captivating narrative. Repeated mental mastication by academics, internet researchers, and reporters disregarded the welfare of the Bulley family, just as the families of the lightkeepers were shouldered aside in the rush to file copy.

Tragedies similar to the 1900 lightkeeper disappearance and Nicola Bulley’s drowning will continue to occur and be exploited. These stories, whether illuminated by glowing embers or backlit mobile screens, are mediums by which we render ourselves in the world; they thrill, entertain, and horrify us. As we seek our stories, though, we must remember that once they were lived rather than heard.

*Thanks for reading, folks. Image courtesy of Wikipedia and Peter Standing. My recent short stories include ‘Wean’s Crabbit‘ and ‘Property for Sale – Grim-on-Wye’.

Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, Best MicroFiction 2021, Writer’s Egg, Idle Ink, The Wild Word, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father. He blogs at and tweets at

[1] BBC (2023) Nicola Bulley: Ofcom “extremely concerned” by family media complaints. Available at (Accessed: 25.02.2023).

[2] Angus, S. and Maclennan, D. (2015) ‘The management of offshore islands for nature conservation: the outer Outer Hebrides’, Journal of Coastal Conservation, 19(6), p. 885-896.

[3] McCloskey, K. (2014) The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. Stroud: The History Press.

[4] National Lighthouse Board (2023) Flannan Islands. Available at (Accessed: 18.02.2023).

[5] Murray, D. S. (2022) For the Safety of All: A Story of Scotland’s Lighthouses. Edinburgh: Historic Environment Scotland.

[6] McCloskey, K. (2014) The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. Stroud: The History Press.

[7] McCloskey, K. (2014) The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. Stroud: The History Press, p. 47.

[8] McCloskey, K. (2014) The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. Stroud: The History Press.

[9] Bottega Mistero (2015) The Mystery of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse. Available at: (Accessed: 01.03.2023).

[10] McCloskey, K. (2014) The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. Stroud: The History Press.

[11] Gibson, W. W. (1921) Flannan Isle. Available at: (Accessed: 02.03.2023).

[12] McCloskey, K. (2014) The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. Stroud: The History Press.

[13] Michell, J. (1967) The Flying Saucer Vision. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.

[14] McCloskey, K. (2014) The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. Stroud: The History Press.

[15] McCloskey, K. (2014) The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. Stroud: The History Press.

[16] McCloskey, K. (2014) The Lighthouse: The Mystery of the Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. Stroud: The History Press.

[17] BBC (2023) Nicola Bulley: Family will “never understand final moments”. Available at: (Accessed: 03.03.2023).

3 thoughts on “The Scramble for Stories | Article

  1. You know, I can read/watch the goriest, grossest FICTION and it not affect me; but give me a true story like this, and it’s upsetting. I think a lot of people relish mysteries and lurid news, never giving a second though to those whose lives are forever changed because of what happened.

    Liked by 1 person

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