On receipt of Captain Harvie’s telegram on 26 December 1900 reporting that the three keepers on Flannan Islands, viz James Ducat, Principal, Thomas Marshall, second Assistant, and Donald McArthur, Occasional Keeper (doing duty for William Ross, first Assistant, on sick leave), had disappeared and that they must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned, I made the following arrangements with the Secretary for the temporary working of the Station.
James Ferrier, Principal Keeper was sent from Stornoway Lighthouse to Tiumpan Head Lighthouse and John Milne, Principal Keeper at Tiumpan Head was sent to take temporary charge at Flannan Islands. Donald Jack, the second Assistant Storekeeper was also despatched to Flannan Islands, the intention being that these two men, along with Joseph Moore, the third Assistant at Flannan Islands, who was ashore when the accident took place, should do duty pending permanent arrangements being made. I also proceeded to Flannan Islands where I was landed, along with Milne and Jack, early on the 29th.
After satisfying myself that everything connected with the light was in good order and that the men landed would be able to maintain the light, I proceeded to ascertain, if possible, the cause of the disaster and also took statements from Captain Harvie and Mr McCormack the second mate of the HESPERUS, Joseph Moore, third Assistant keeper, Flannan Islands and Allan MacDonald, Buoymaster and the following is the result of my investigations:-
The HESPERUS arrived at Flannan Islands for the purpose of making the ordinary relief about noon Wednesday, 26 December and, as neither signals were shown, nor any of the usual preparations for landing made, Captain Harvie blew both the steam whistle and the siren to call the attention of the Keepers. As this had no effect, he fired a rocket, which also evoked no response, and a boat was lowered and sent ashore to the East landing with Joseph Moore, Assistant Keeper. When the boat reached the landing there being still no signs of the keepers, the boat was backed into the landing and with some difficulty Moore managed to jump ashore. When he went up to the Station he found the entrance gate and outside doors closed, the clock stopped, no fire lit, and, looking into the bedrooms, he found the beds empty. He became alarmed at this and ran down to the boat and informed Mr McCormack and one of the seamen managed to jump ashore and with Moore made a thorough search of the Station but could discover nothing. They then returned to the ship and informed Captain Harvie who told Moore he would have to return to the Island to keep the light going pending instructions, and called for volunteers from his crew to assist in this.
He met with a ready response and two seamen, Lamont and Campbell, were selected with Mr MacDonald, the Buoymaster, who was on board, also offered his services, which were accepted and Moore, MacDonald and these two seamen were left in charge of the light while Captain Harvie returned to Breasclete and telegraphed an account of the disaster to the Secretary.
The men left on the Island made a thorough search, in the first place, of the Station and found that the last entry on the slate had been made by Mr Ducat, the Principal Keeper on the morning of Saturday, 15 December. The lamp was crimmed, the oil fountains and canteens were filled up and the lens and machinery cleaned, which proved that the work of the 15th had been completed. The pots and pans had been cleaned and the kitchen tidied up, which showed that the man who had been acting as cook had completed his work, which goes to prove that the men disappeared on the afternoon which was received (after news of the disaster had been published) that Captain Holman had passed the Flannan Islands in the steamer ARCHTOR at midnight on the 15th ulto, and could not observe the light, he felt satisfied that he should have seen it.
On the Thursday and Friday the men made a thorough search over and round the island and I went over the ground with them on Saturday. Everything at the East landing place was in order and the ropes which had been coiled and stored there on the completion of the relief on 7 December were all in their places and the lighthouse buildings and everything at the Stations was in order. Owing to the amount of sea, I could not get down to the landing place, but I got down to the crane platform 70 feet above the sea level. The crane originally erected on this platform was washed away during last winter, and the crane put up this summer was found to be unharmed, the jib lowered and secured to the rock, and the canvas covering the wire rope on the barrel securely lashed round it, and there was no evidence that the men had been doing anything at the crane. The mooring ropes, landing ropes, derrick landing ropes and crane handles, and also a wooden box in which they were kept and which was secured in a crevice in the rocks 70 feet up the tramway from its terminus, and about 40 feet higher than the crane platform, or 110 feet in all above the sea level, had been washed away, and the ropes were strewn in the crevices of the rocks near the crane platform and entangled among the crane legs, but they were all coiled up, no single coil being found unfastened. The iron railings round the crane platform and from the terminus of the tramway to the concrete steps up from the West landing were displaced and twisted. 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.
A life buoy fastened to the railings along this path, to be used in case of emergency had disappeared, and I thought at first that it had been removed for the purpose of being used but, on examining the ropes by which it was fastened, I found that they had not been touched, and as pieces of canvas was adhering to the ropes, it was evident that the force of the sea pouring through the railings had, even at this great height (110 feet above sea level) torn the life buoy off the ropes.
When the accident occurred, Ducat was wearing sea boots and a waterproof, and Marshall sea boots and oilskins, and as Moore assures me that the men only wore those articles when going down to the landings, they must have intended, when they left the Station, either to go down to the landing or the proximity of it.
After a careful examination of the place, the railings, ropes etc and weighing all the evidence which I could secure, I am of opinion that the most likely explanation of the disappearance of the men is that they had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday, 15 December to the proximity of the West landing, to secure the box with the mooring ropes, etc and that an unexpectedly large roller had come up on the Island, and a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them had swept them away with resistless force.
I have considered and discussed the possibility of the men being blown away by the wind, but, as the wind was westerly, I am of the opinion, notwithstanding its great force, that the more probably explanation is that they have been washed away as, had the wind caught them, it would, from its direction, have blown then up the Island and I feel certain that they would have managed to throw themselves down before they had reached the summit or brow of the Island.
On the conclusion of my enquiry on Saturday afternoon, I returned to Breasclete, wired the result of my investigations to the Secretary and called on the widows of James Ducat, the Principal Keeper and Donald McArthur, the Occasional Keeper.
I may state that, as Moore was naturally very much upset by the unfortunate occurrence, and appeared very nervous, I left A Lamont, Seaman, on the Island to go to the lightroom and keep Moore company when on watch for a week or two.
If this nervousness does not leave Moore, he will require to be transferred, but I am reluctant to recommend this, as I would desire to have one man at least who knows the work of the Station.
The Commissioners appointed Roderick MacKenzie, Gamekeeper, Uig, near Meavaig, to look out daily for signals that might be shown from the Rock, and to note each night whether the light was seen or not seen. As it was evident that the light had not been lit from the 15th to the 25th December, I resolved to see him on Sunday morning, to ascertain what he had to say on the subject. He was away from home, but I found his two sons, ages about 16 and 18 – two most intelligent lads of the gamekeeper class, and who actually performed the duty of looking out for signals – and had a conversation with them on the matter, and I also examined the Return Book. From the December Return, I saw that the Tower itself was not seen, even with the assistance of a powerful telescope, between the 7th and the 29th December. The light was, however, seen on 7th December, but was not seen on the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th. It was seen on the 12th, but not seen again until the 26th, the night on which it was lit by Moore. MacKenzie stated (and I have since verified this), that the lights sometimes cannot be seen for four of five consecutive nights, but he was beginning to be anxious at not seeing it for such a long period, and had, for two nights prior to its reappearance, been getting the assistance of the natives to see if it could be discerned.
Had the lookout been kept by an ordinary Lightkeeper, as at Earraid for Dubh Artach, I believe it would have struck the man ashore at an earlier period that something was amiss, and, while this would note have prevented the lamentable occurrence taking place, it would have enabled steps to have been taken to have the light re-lit at an earlier date. I would recommend that the Signalman should be instructed that, in future, should he fail to observe the light when, in his opinion, looking to the state of the atmosphere, it should be seen, he should be instructed to intimate this to the Secretary, when the propriety of taking steps could be considered.
I may explain that signals are shown from Flannan Islands by displaying balls or discs each side of the Tower, on poles projecting out from the Lighthouse balcony, the signals being differentiated by one or more discs being shown on the different sides of the Tower. When at Flannan Islands so lately as 7th December last, I had a conversation with the late Mr Ducat regarding the signals, and he stated that he wished it would be necessary to hoist one of the signals, just to ascertain how soon it would be seen ashore and how soon it would be acted upon.
At that time, I took a note to consider the propriety of having a daily signal that all was well – signals under the present system being only exhibited when assistance of some kind is required. After carefully considering the matter, and discussing it with the officials competent to offer an opinion on the subject, I arrived at the conclusion that it would not be advisable to have such a signal, as, owing to the distance between the Island and the shore, and to the frequency of haze on the top of the Island, it would often be unseen for such a duration of time as to cause alarm, especially on the part of the Keepers’ wives and families, and I would point out that no day signals could have been seen between the 7th and 29th December, and an “All Well” signal would have been of no use on this occasion.
The question has been raised as to how we would have been situated had wireless telegraphy been instituted, but, had we failed to establish communication for some days, I should have concluded that something had gone wrong with the signalling apparatus, and the last thing that would have occurred to me would have been that all the three men had disappeared.
In conclusion, I would desire to record my deep regret at such a disaster occurring to Keepers in this Service. I knew Ducat and Marshall intimately, and McArthur the Occasional, well. They were selected, on my recommendation, for the lighting of such an important Station as Flannan Islands, and as it is always my endeavour to secure the best men possible of the establishment of a Station, as the success and contentment at a Station depends largely on the Keepers present at its installation, this of itself is an indication that the Board has lost two of it most efficient Keepers and a competent Occasional.
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.
8 January 1901