As with every year, there were events in 1900 that some people remember. If nothing else, history preserves their memory. For example, there was the steamer Sir Walter Scott, which, from its launch in 1900, provided many enjoyable moments for cruisers on Loch Katrine. The steamer was a large and luxurious vessel, with enough room to comfortably accommodate all of its passengers. Also long remembered was Queen Victoria’s ceremonial visit to Balmoral Castle in Aberdeen. The castle was draped in banners and flags, and the queen was greeted by a cheering crowd.
Or the gruesome disappearance of three sailors at Flannan Isles lighthouse. The lighthouse was a lonely and isolated place, and the sailors were never seen again. Their disappearance remains a mystery to this day.
The captain could barely see anything beyond the window. The storm was battering the waves against the ship. Rain was pelting the glass so hard it sounded like hail, and the ship was creaking and groaning under the strain. Although the sailors were experienced, they had never felt being so close to death in their lives. If the waves had been stronger, the steamer might have been swept out to sea. But it was not the weather which was the captain’s only concern: he was looking for the light, but could not find it. Nothing could have been worse than hitting a rock. The lighthouse at Flamman Island had no light.
‘What the hell is wrong with it?’ he asked himself.
Standing there on the deck, no word could leave the sailors’ mouths. But they were sure that something was definitely wrong. Something sinister was out there. The captain had a bad feeling about it, like a cold hand on his heart. He had to find the light, or they were all going to die.
When the ship successfully docked in Leith on 18 December 1900, the fault report was forwarded to the Northern Lighthouse Board, which was responsible for the maintenance of the lighthouse. To find out and repair the fault, three men were sent to the island from Lewis and arrived there from Breasclete on 26 December. The tower was operated by three men, James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur.
Captain Jim Harvie asked when he noticed that the flag was missing from the pole on their arrival, “Hmm, that’s strange. Where the hell is the flag?”
His voice held a note of apprehension as if he sensed that something was wrong. He might have felt unconscious if he knew that sinister, dark forces surrounded the island.
On arrival, the crew found that the flag was missing from the pole, the boxes containing the usual supplies had been left at the mooring station to be refilled, and, more ominously, none of the lighthouse keepers was there to greet them ashore. The captain of the Hesperus tried to reach them by blowing the ship’s whistle and firing a flare but was unsuccessful. A sense of foreboding and unease settled over the ship and its crew as they realized that something was very wrong. The captain of the ship, Jim Harvie, had a feeling that something was not right when they arrived at the island and the flag was missing from the pole. He might have felt that dark, sinister forces were at work.
A boat was launched and Joseph Moore, alone, was put ashore. As he was approaching the buildings, he was getting more nervous. He did not know what to expect. The only thing which eased his nervousness was the light breeze on his face. When he arrived, he found that the flag was missing, the boxes containing the usual supplies had been left, and the lighthouse keepers were not there to greet them. The captain tried to reach them but was unsuccessful. He found both the camp’s front gate and the front door locked, the beds unmade, and the clock stopped. The kitchen utensils were all very clean, a sign that they had left sometime after dinner. After returning to port with the bad news, he went back to the lighthouse with two other sailors of Hesperus. A further search revealed that the lights had been cleaned and refilled. They also found a set of oilskins (a special waterproof cloth used during that time), which suggested that one of the guards had left the lighthouse without wearing them. Other than that, there was no sign of either of them, either in the lighthouse or on the island.
Moore and three volunteer sailors were left on the island to look after the lighthouse, and the Hesperus returned to Lewis. Captain Harvie submitted a telegram to the Northern Lighthouse Board on 26 December 1900, writing:
There has been a terrible accident at Flannans. The three guards, the Ducat, the Marshall and the Occasional were missing from the island… The clocks stopped and other signs indicated that the accident may have happened about a week ago. Poor guys, they must have fallen off the rocks or drowned trying to secure a crane.
Meanwhile, people combed every corner of the island for clues to the guards’ fate. They found that everything was intact on the east coast, but on the west coast, they found signs of damage from recent storms. They also found the scattered remains of a broken crate; iron railings were bent, the railroad track along the trail was torn out of the concrete, and a large boulder had shifted.
On 29 December 1900, Robert Muirhead, the council’s inspector, arrived on the island to conduct an official investigation. He inspected the clothing left behind at the lighthouse and concluded that Ducat and Marshall had gone down to West Harbour and McArthur had left the lighthouse in a single shirt during the heavy rain.
‘Whoever was the last person to leave the lighthouse unattended was in violation of the rules. And the West Harbor was in a disastrous condition that I cannot describe in words. Well, they must have been swept away by the sea,’ – the inspector concluded.
Further theories have been put forward about the strange entries in a statement diary found in the lighthouse. Marshall wrote on 12 December that “it was the strongest wind I have ever seen in twenty years.”
But he also reported that Ducat was very quiet and Donald McArthur was crying and upset several times. This was odd because McArthur was a sailor famous for his bar fights and not afraid of anything, so it was odd that a storm would make him cry. The next day, according to his diary entries, the storm was still raging and the three men were praying. This was puzzling because all three men were experienced lighthouse keepers who knew they were in a secure structure 100 metres above sea level and should have known they were safe inside. In addition, there were no storms reported in the area on December 12, 13 and 14. But if there were no storms, what caused the devastation of West Harbour? The last log entry was reportedly made on December 15 and read.
“The storm is over, the sea is calm. God is overall.”
In 2020, however, journalist Mike Dash concluded that the diary entries were fictional and that they were made up to sensationalise the story.
The bodies of the three sailors were never found. And, of course, improbable explanations were offered, such as that a sea serpent (or giant seabird) had taken the men; they might have been under the influence of mermaids or sirens. Or that they had acquired a ship to sail away and start a new life somewhere else; or that they had been kidnapped by foreign spies; also, that they had been ill-fated by the malevolent spirits of a ghost ship. In any case, the incident was still remembered years later.
Others suggest, however, that McArthur may have seen the large waves approaching the island and, knowing that his colleagues were likely to be in danger, he jumped down from the tower to warn his companions, only to be swept away by the violent wave that reached the shore.
Research by historian James Love recently revealed that Marshall had previously been fined five shillings when his equipment was washed away during a powerful hurricane. It is likely that to avoid another fine, he and Ducat tried to secure their equipment during the storm and were consequently swept away by the wind. McArthur presumably suffered the same fate. Love believes that McArthur was probably in a hurry to warn or help his colleagues and was also swept away by the wind. This theory explains why they did not wear oilskins or jackets. But not why the gate was closed. Another theory is based on the first-hand experience of Walter Aldebert, who was the keeper of the lighthouse from 1953 to 1957. He believed that one of them may indeed have been swept out to sea and then tried to help two of his companions, but they too were swept away by the waves.
An additional explanation is based on psychology. McArthur is said to have had an impulsive nature; this may have led to him starting a fight on one of the rocks, which caused all three men to fall to their deaths. But some say one of the men went mad, murdered the other two, dumped their bodies in the sea, and jumped to his death.
In isolated places, loneliness can take its toll on even the most resilient. The mind may wander in solitude, and the silence can be deafening. Isolation can have an incalculable effect on people; we may not even think about how solitude can shape our personalities. Some people may even go to extremes in despair and desperation because the lack of human interaction can be maddening.