This first in a new series on Scottish mysteries will feature the only Scottish teenager to have a Pacific Ocean island named after him as well as other Scots whose deaths are shrouded in mystery because they were lost at sea.

The mystery about Robert Pitcairn came with the end of his short life, and I will explain as much as I can about that but please do not expect a solution to any of the mysteries I will be writing about because then they would not be mysterious.

A mystery to European eyes until its discovery in the 18th century, Pitcairn Island is a volcanic island in the South Pacific Ocean which also happens to be the last British Overseas Territory in the Pacific.

The National: Pitcairn island is a remote British overseas territoryPitcairn island is a remote British overseas territory

There are four islands in the group but only Pitcairn is inhabited – it is said to be the most remote inhabited island in the world.

Pitcairn Island is always associated with the Mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, when a group of mutineers from HMS Bounty set Captain William Bligh adrift in a small vessel. Naval officer Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers sailed to Pitcairn and settled on the island with several Tahitian men and women.

They may have chosen Pitcairn because naval charts of the time had its position wrong by about 200 miles and therefore no-one would think of searching for them in that area – it would take many years before their hiding place was discovered.

These days, Pitcairn Island has a population of around 50, making it one of the least populous countries in the world, with most of the inhabitants being descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian companions.

With towering cliffs and little arable land, the island has no airport or deep-water port and is accessible only by boat. The economy is primarily based on fishing, tourism, and subsistence farming while its very remoteness makes it a top order for collectors of postage stamps and coins around the world.

It got its name from a young Scottish sailor. Pitcairn was born on May 6, 1752, at Burntisland in Fife, one of nine children of John Pitcairn and Elizabeth Dalrymple. Robert’s grandfather was the minister of Dysart Kirk and his father was an officer in the Royal Marines.

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Major Pitcairn and his wife seem to have been quite well off as they maintained a house in Edinburgh as well as their Burntisland home.

Robert Pitcairn seemed destined for a career in the Army but surprised his family by joining the Navy. He became a midshipman on HMS Emerald at the age of 13 and in 1766 transferred to HMS Swallow, a 14-gun sloop which was sent to the South Pacific to seek new lands that could be claimed for the expanding British Empire.

Captained by the experienced Philip Carteret – he had participated in a previous circumnavigation of the world – the Swallow and its companion ship HMS Dolphin sailed together to the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan before separating. Carteret chose a more southerly route, while HMS Dolphin became the first clearly documented European ship to reach Tahiti.

On July 2, 1767, Pitcairn was aloft keeping watch when he spotted a land mass some miles distant. HMS Swallow sailed towards the island, which may have been visited by a Portuguese vessel more than 100 years previously, but with no record of that sighting and Portugal not claiming it, here was an expansion of the empire waiting to be grabbed.

The ship’s log records how the 15-year-old Scottish midshipman made the sighting: “It [Pitcairn Island] is so high that we saw it from a distance of more than 15 leagues and it having been discovered by a young gentleman, son to Major Pitcairn of the Marines. We called it Pitcairn’s Island.”

The Swallow sailed around Pitcairn and its three companion islands – Henderson, Ducie, and Oeno – but was unable to land due to stormy weather. Normally, the ship would have sent officers on to the island to formally claim possession of it for Britain but Carteret’s claim was authoritative and thus Pitcairn became British territory, and still is.

CARTERET described it as “a small high uninhabited island not above four or five miles round ... scarce better than a large rock in the ocean”.

According to the Pitcairn Philatelic Bureau, Carteret “erroneously recorded Pitcairn’s location at 25°02’S 133°21’W 25.033°S 133.350°W. These incorrect co-ordinates meant that the island could not be found again by later voyages as it lies 327.4 km (203.4 miles) further east. The 3° longitude error may be explained by Carteret sailing without the benefit of the new marine chronometer.”

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It was that mistake which enabled the Bounty mutineers to evade discovery until 1810 when an American ship landed and discovered that only one of the mutineers was still alive. The fate of Robert Pitcairn is what makes him a Scottish mystery. Having been just 15 when he made his famous sighting, Pitcairn sailed in another ship, HMS Aurora, at the age of just 17.

He was definitely on board Aurora under Captain Thomas Lee when it sailed into the Pacific from the Cape of Good Hope on December 29, 1769. The ship was heading for India via the Comoro Islands but never made landfall. No trace has ever been found of the ship or its crew and the main theories about its disappearance were that it was overwhelmed and sunk in a tropical storm or was destroyed by fire.

We do not know if his parents accepted their 17-year-old son’s fate but we do know Major Pitcairn was himself killed during the American Wars of Independence, dying of wounds received at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775.

The loss of the Aurora involved another Scot, the poet and former ship’s purser William Falconer. Born the son of a barber in Edinburgh in February 1732, Falconer combined his poetry with a career at sea and had risen to the rank of purser in the Royal Navy when he boarded the Aurora as a passenger. Having survived two previous shipwrecks, he did not escape from the Aurora and, as with, Pitcairn his death must remain a mystery.

Perhaps curiously his most famous poem published in 1762 was called The Shipwreck. I like this excerpt from what is a truly epic work of more than 900 lines: Thrice with shrill note the boatswain’s whistle rung: ‘All hands unmoor!’ proclaims a boisterous cry ‘All hands unmoor!’ the caverned rocks reply: Roused from repose aloft the sailors swarm, And with their levers soon the windlass arm: The order given, up springing with a bound, They fix the bars, and heave the windlass round; At every turn the clanging pauls resound: Up-torn reluctant from its oozy cave The ponderous anchor rises o’er the wave.

High on the slippery masts the yards ascend, And far abroad the canvass wings extend Another Scot who was mysteriously lost at sea and who was mourned by the British public was Lieutenant General Hay McDowall. Born the son of an MP at Garthland Castle in what is now Dumfries and Galloway, McDowall came to prominence during the siege of Trincomalee in what was then Ceylon in August 1782. As commanding officer of the British garrison he negotiated a surrender with the French forces besieging the town and was able to evacuate his garrison of 1000 men.

HE later served as a Colonel in Flanders but McDowall was not done with Ceylon, however, returning to the island in 1799 as its commanding officer. He later transferred to India to become commander of the Madras Army but resigned after a scandal involving a fellow Scot, adjutant general John Munro.

McDowall was on his way back to Britain aboard the Lady Jane Dundas when the East India company ship went missing off the Cape of Good Hope during a fierce gale that sank four ships in all in March 1809. Again no trace of the ship nor any of its crew and passengers was ever found and McDowall’s fate remains a mystery.

There is a theory about what happened to Douglas Clavering, the renowned Scottish Arctic explorer and naval officer who was lost at sea off the coast of Sierra Leone in the summer of 1827. Clavering was in command of HMS Redwing which was engaged in the suppression of the slave trade off the coast of West Africa when she foundered at sea.

No trace of the crew, including Clavering, was ever discovered but a piece of the ship washed ashore in November 1827, which indicated she may have been struck by lightning – a million-to-one chance – but sailing ships of that period were recorded as being hit by lightning, especially in the seas off Africa.

A rather more recent mysterious death at sea occurred in 1979 when Inverness-born writer and producer Ian Mackintosh went missing with two companions when their single engined-plane disappeared over the Gulf of Alaska.

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A search of the area found no trace of the aircraft and Mackintosh, creator of the superlative spy series The Sandbaggers and also the series Warship, is still officially listed as missing, presumed dead.

That would be mystery enough but Mackintosh’s background as a naval officer and probable spy for Britain during the Cold War – he was awarded an MBE for his services – has seen many people try to solve the mystery, with some suggesting the plane diverted to the Soviet Union because Mackintosh was a double agent for the KGB.

In an interview some years ago, his brother, Lawrie Mackintosh, added to the mystery, revealing he and his brother has spent some time together before Ian went to the US for the last time.

He said: “Everything is speculative, but on balance it did feel like he was saying goodbye.”

Author Robert G Folsom had suggested that Ian Mackintosh was almost certainly involved in intelligence work.

Lawrie agreed: “Ian’s wife, when she called him, was often told he wasn’t there yet he was supposed to be based at a shore establishment. Ian’s naval career, on the face of it, wasn’t exceptional. He never commanded a ship, for example but he got an MBE. Even after he retired from the Navy, every time he left the country he had to clear it with the authorities. Most former Royal Navy officers don’t have to do that.

“The New York Times wrote an article some years ago saying that The Sandbaggers was the most accurate spy series ever. If that was so, where did Ian get his information? The Sandbaggers was authentic because it wasn’t about the James Bond fantasy. It was set in an office and a lot of intelligence work happens in the office. Ian was very methodical – you saw that in his television work – which you need to be in that business.

“Secondly, he was very determined. If, for some reason, he had to disappear, he would do that. He kept everything to himself and he wouldn’t have spoken out of turn.

“His attitude was: I have a job to do and I will do it, regardless of the consequences.”

Lawrie does not believe his brother defected to the USSR.

He said: “Had the British believed that he had defected, there would have been lots of telegrams between embassies and so on. None of that happened.”

Very mysteriously, when Mackintosh’s former father-in-law, Admiral Nick Carter, tried to ask some questions about the disappearance, he was warned not to.

Lawrie Mackintosh concluded in that interview: “None of this seems sensible if it was just an accident.”

Next week I will tackle the mystery that is Sawney Bean.