Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012


It is one of the loneliest places on earth.
Did a freak wave like this one strike Flannan Island?
The lighthouse on Flannan Island stands 15 miles to the west of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides - a place so forlorn and windswept that the lighthouse crew had to be changed every 14 days. Longer stays on the island would addle men’s minds and drive them mad.
On 7 December, 1900, the lighthouse’s Head Keeper, James Ducat arrived at the island for a new tour of duty. He was accompanied by Second Assistant, Thomas Marshall, and an experienced young man named Donald Macarthur.
As it was: temporary home to three men
The men were taken to the lighthouse on a local vessel, accompanied by Robert Muirhead, the Superintendent of Lighthouses. His job was to check that everything was running correctly.
Muirheard suggested that Ducat make a few changes to the daily routine and then bade farewell. He shook the men’s hands as he left the island and wished them a pleasant stay. He was the last person to see any of the three men alive. They disappeared without trace, thereby instigating one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Victorian age. 
In the days that followed Muirhead’s departure, the island was kept under telescope observation from the Outer Hebrides. If there was an emergency, the keepers were instructed to hoist a flag. A boat would then be sent to the island.
Flannan Islands: note how high the lighthouse was above sea level
It was a system that rarely worked well. The island was often obscured by clouds of swirling mist and the distance from the Outer Hebrides meant that accurate observation was almost impossible.
The fortnight that James Ducat and his team spent on the island coincided with a period of thick sea fog. The lamp remained visible at night, but only just. It was sighted on 7 December but was then obscured by bad weather for the next four evenings. It was seen again on the 12 December. After that, it was not seen for over a fortnight.
Three days after the last sighting of the lamp, a vessel named the SS Archtor passed close to the island. Captain Holman searched for the light in the night sky but there was nothing. Concerned that something was wrong, he raised the alarm.
The fortnightly relief vessel was supposed to arrive at the island on 21 December, but the weather was so atrocious it was unable to set sail. Not until Boxing Day did the SS Hesperus finally reach the Flannen Islands, arriving at noon.
They simply disappeared. But to where?
Photo courtesy: John J Maclennan: Stornoway
The lighthouse crew traditional welcomed the arriving relief vessel by raising a flag (to show that they’d spotted it) and then rowing out to fetch the new crew.
But on this occasion, there was no flag and no sign of the lighthouse boat. Captain Harvie, on board the Hesperus, sounded the siren. There was no response.
Two of the Hesperus’s crew, Joseph Moore and Second Mate McCormack now rowed across to the island. They found the place deserted and the lighthouse’s outer door was locked.
Moore had a set of keys and proceeded to unlock the building. The interior was deserted. There was no sign of Ducat, Marshall or Macarthur. The clock on the inner wall had stopped working. There was no fire in the grate and the three beds were empty. A meal had been left uneaten on the table.
Moore returned to the Hesperus to inform his commander, Captain Harvie. He, in turn, informed the Northern Lighthouse Board. ‘A dreadful accident has happened at the Flannann,’ he wrote. ‘The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the Occasional [Macarthur] have disappeared from the Island… Poor fellows must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.’
Flannan landing: very dangerous
The investigation was soon joined by Superintendent Muirhead from the Lighthouse Board. After a detailed search of the lighthouse and island he began to piece together the story of what might possibly have happened.
Everything seemed to have been running smoothly until the afternoon of the 15 December. James Ducat, had compiled weather reports up until the 13 and he had also written draft entries for the 14 and 15 December. There had been a storm on the 14, according to his text, but the following morning was calm.
It became clear that the storm had been severe for there was considerable damage to the lighthouse. The jetty was badly warped and the railings were twisted.
One of the storehouses had been washed clean away. Alarmingly, some of the stored ropes had become snared on a crane that stood fully 70 feet above sea level.
A genuine freak wave: terrifying
Muirhead could only find two possible scenarios and neither of them was very plausible. Either the three men had been blown off the cliffs (highly unlikely, since the wind was a westerly) or they had been swept off the island by a gigantic freak wave, which he called ‘an extra large sea’.
This latter hypothesis was ridiculed by many. Freak waves were believed to exist only in novels, poems and sailors’ fertile imaginations.
Hold on tight!
But it is now known that freak waves (not to be confused with tsunami or tidal waves) do exist and can be unbelievably destructive. In 2001, the expedition ship, Caledonian Star, was hit by a 30 metre wall of water that seemed to arise from nowhere. Such was its force that the bridge windows were smashed and the electricity failed.
Other vessels have encountered similarly massive waves, which are the result of a high winds and strong currents coming together to form a truly violent natural phenomenon.
In the absence of any other evidence, one must assume that the poor men of Flannan Island were swept off the land in a terrifying torrent of water - at least 70 feet in height - and then dragged to an unknown but watery grave.
UK paperback
I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit

1 comment:

  1. Using the principle of Ockham's Razor, a freak giant wave washing all three men off the island is the most logical explanation.