The Lighthouse
Vital Statistics
Description of the Rock
What's in a Name?
Marking the Spot
Scots Magazine "Account"
of 1807

1810 (1)
1810 (2)
1811 to 1823
Construction Techniques
The Lightroom
of 1811

Masonry Courses
The Railways of the
Bell Rock

The Bell Rock Lighthouse

Signal Tower/Shore Base
Machinery, Equipment
and Inventory

Keeping up with New Technology
Automation at the Bell Rock
Accidents, Attacks and Shipwrecks

The Commencement of the Works

Operations of 1807

The north-easterly parts of the Bell Rock showing the position
The north-easterly parts of the Bell Rock showing the position
of the Lighthouse, Railways, and Wharfs

Immediately the Act of Parliament, by which the Commissioners of the Northern Light-houses were empowered to build a Lighthouse on the Bell Rock, received the Royal Assent, Robert Stevenson returned to Scotland. On his arrival in Edinburgh the Board instructed him to make whatever preparations were necessary to commence operations in August 1807.

One of the first things that had to be done was to prepare a vessel to act as a Floating Light, to be moored just off the Rock. Secondly, a Beacon-house (which would eventually house the artificers) was to be built on the Rock, which, although it had no light of its own, would supplement, by its very existence, its own warning, along with that of the Floating Light. Shipping would then derive immediate advantage from them both. A captured Prussian vessel, called the "Tonge Gerrit", was purchased and renamed the "Pharos" after the celebrated Pharos of Alexandria. She measured 67 feet in length and 16 feet in breadth, and was registered 82 tons. The vessel was of flat construction and rounded at both stem and stern which suited her well for the purpose of a light-house vessel, but her rigging and equipment had to undergo considerable alterations.

The concept of a floating light was quite new to the coasts of Scotland. The new "Pharos" was furnished with a large copper lantern for each of her three masts, which contained 10 lamps with small silver-plated reflectors. The new lightship was ready on 9th July and subsequently towed out of Leith harbour by the Lighthouse Yacht. However, before the ship set sail an interesting, if not amusing, incident occurred at the dockside. The assembled seamen were informed of their destination and of the nature of their service; whereupon two of the men took immediately to their heels and were never seen again . . . such was the dread of the Inchcape Rock.

Several of the experienced shipmasters and merchants of Arbroath were invited to give their opinion as to the precise spot where the lightship should be moored, taking into account the direction of ships passing the Bell Rock. Eventually, after much sounding in all directions, a place was decided on . . . about a mile and a half from the Bell Rock in a north-westerly direction. The Floating Light first exhibited her Light on the 15th September 1807.


The "Smeaton" (42 tons and 55 ft long), named in honour of the famous builder of the Eddystone Lighthouse, John Smeaton, was built at Leith expressly for Bell Rock service. She was employed as a tender for the Floating Light and as a stone-lighter (that is the vessel used to transport the blocks of stones from the quarries to Arbroath, and the dressed stones from the harbour out to the Rock). RS had already fixed ideas on where to built the Lighthouse; also the site of the Beacon-house, which would be used also to house the artificers during the latter part of the construction period. There were also concerns over sea-sickness of those workmen unused to the motion of the sea. Rate of wages and conditions were fixed at £1 per week including food, with the term of duty at the Rock being one month at a time without any shore leave in between. There were also special rates for Sunday working. Among the masons hired for the work, ten were brought specially from Aberdeen, because of their experience in working with granite.

On Monday, 17th August, 24 men sailed from Arbroath at 10pm, and work commenced at 6am as the water receded from the Rock. A glass of rum was given to each man before disembarking. The first task was to bore the holes for the bats or hold-fasts fixing the great beams of the Beacon-house, while the smith attended to laying out the site of his forge. The time spent on the Rock that morning was 2 hours before the tide made it impossible to continue working. At 7 in the evening work started again, and all hands were engaged on setting up the apparatus for the smith’s forge. At 9pm the work finished for the day. After 6 days out from Arbroath, the smith’s forge was complete and 12 holes had been bored for the Beacon-house.

The artificers were well fed, their daily rations being:

• 1½lb beef
• 1lb ships biscuits
• 8oz oatmeal
• 2oz barley
• 2oz butter
• 3qts beer
• vegetables and salt

The need for the Lighthouse was considered so important that working on Sundays was also expected, although not obligatory. However, even though Prayers were held on board one of the boats, four masons still declined to work due to their observance of the Sabbath. A special prayer was also composed by the Rev. Dr Brunton of Edinburgh for those working on the Bell Rock.

At that time, the "Sir Joseph Banks", the ship specially built to house the artificers, was still "on the stocks", and was not due on site until the following year (1808). The men therefore were billeted, at least for the first week, on board the "Smeaton". Fortunately the weather was fine, but conditions were soon found to be woefully inadequate - so much so that, apart from the cramped conditions, even the cooking had to be done on deck! So when the "Smeaton" returned to shore for fresh provisions, Stevenson and his men took the opportunity of moving to the more commodious quarters on the Floating Light.

However, there were disadvantages in this, in that the men had now to row a good mile from the Floating Light, whereas the "Smeaton" had been moored only a quarter-of-a-mile away, which made quick and easy access to the Rock!

With the onslaught of neap tides, the working-time at the rock gradually became shorter, and on occasion, such was the enthusiasm of the men, they continued working until knee-deep in water. Operations at this time were confined to the erection of the Beacon-house. Due to the water scarcely receding from the rock, the smith was in a particularly unenviable position. With his feet immersed in water, and his face scorched by flying sparks and clouds of smoke, he was almost unable to keep his fire alight. The neap tides had reached such a state that barely any part of the rock could be seen above water, resulting in no work being done. The seamen termed it “the dead of the neap”. With no landing possible for five days, some of the artificers were so seriously affected by sea-sickness that they asked to be returned to the workyard at Arbroath. However, when the men did finally get onto the rock again, they found that, by eating dulse (fucus palmatum), a variety of seaweed, it greatly helped them to recover.

Towards the end of the month they had their longest time to date working on the rock - almost 3½ hours.


At the beginning of the month, tests were carried out landing a cargo of stones on the rock. First transferring them from the "Smeaton" to one of the praam boats; then by special winch tackle onto the rock. The experiment proved very successful, and no problems were foreseen in that department.

On the 2nd disaster almost struck. The "Smeaton" accidentally broke free from her mooring, and before long had drifted some 3 miles to leeward. RS could see that there was no chance of her getting back to the Bell Rock before it was completely overflowed by the tide. There were 32 men on the rock that morning with only 2 small boats, each capable of carrying in safety only 8 men. Just when RS was about the address the men on their desperate situation, a large boat suddenly appeared through the haze. It was the timely, if not unexpected, arrival of James Spink, the Bell Rock pilot with some letters from Arbroath. His appearance at the rock that day certainly saved many lives, and in recognition the Board awarded him a small lifetime pension. The consequence of that narrow escape was understandable; 18 men refused to embark for the Rock the following day.

The incident, however, focussed Stevenson's attention on the need for a proper tender (or a Tender of Safety, as he called it) to be moored nearby, and also the advantages of being able to take refuge on the Beacon-house in the event of a similar incident re-occurring.

A few days later a great storm battered the east coast of Scotland, and it was the opinion of RS, who was on board the Floating Light at the time, that they were lucky to have survived the raging seas. Once the winds had moderated, however, it became apparent that the vessel had suddenly severed its moorings. Had this happened during the storm there was little doubt, due to the proximity of the Rock, that they too would have run aground on it. In consequence, it was decided to move the Floating Light a further mile away from the Bell Rock. Due to the bad weather, the men had not been able to land on the Rock for 10 days. When they did, although many of the tools and picks of the masons had been strewn about by the force of the sea, not a single article was lost.

The support beams of the Beacon-house, showing the level
The support beams of the Beacon-house, showing the level
of the mortar gallery and high water at spring tides

The artificers had now been one month afloat and they now had the opportunity to return to the work-yard as per the agreement. But in the best interests of getting the beacon erected as soon as possible, they now wished to remain until the season was over. On Sunday, 20th Sept, four of the six principal beams of the Beacon-house were erected. Each of the beams measured some 16 inches square and 50 feet in length. Due to the state of tides, the men were able to work on the rock for seven hours, the longest time yet by almost 3 hours. However, gales and heavy seas once again lashed the rock, but fortunately the beacon supports held fast. Towards the end of the month, the foreman smith was removed, albeit on a temporary platform, to his new quarters on the mortar gallery of the beacon. It was an important occasion.

On the 28th, Robert Stevenson returned to Arbroath, having been almost 5 weeks afloat, for the first time since works commenced on 17th August.


The external part of the Beacon-house was now complete, and, although it still lacked inside furnishings, it was now more or less storm-proof. A small flagpole was erected, and, as with all such occasions on the Bell Rock, there was a dram of rum for all hands. In favourable weather, and with the aid of torches, they were now able to complete 16¾ hours with little break.

That afternoon, Mr John Rennie, accompanied by his son, George, paid a visit to the rock. As Chief Engineer to the Bell Rock project he had a natural interest in the progress of the works. As they left, a farewell-glass was set out, with three hearty cheers, in the hope that everything in the spring of 1808 would be much the same as they were about to leave it.

Robert Stevenson was well delighted with the progress of the works during the first season. He was particularly pleased that the completed Beacon-house could now be used as a place of shelter should the Tender go adrift in future, as it had done in September of this year.

The workyard in Arbroath was conveniently situated on the north side of Ladyloan only 200 yards from the Lighthouse shipping berth. It contained a suite of barrack-rooms for the artificers, and several apartments for the engineer’s office, mould-makers’ drawing room, stores, workshops for the smiths and joiners, stable, etc. Sheds were also constructed for the workmen in wet weather. In the centre of the compound was a platform of masonry, measuring some 44 feet in diameter, on which the stones were laid when dressed, and where each course was checked and marked before being shipped out to the Rock. Towards the end of the year, work continued on preparing the first few courses, but the lack of granite meant that not even the first full course was complete.

During November, Stevenson visited the Rock and found the bracing chains of the Beacon-house had loosened, but otherwise everything was in a good state of repair. The Floating Light was also visited where he found the younger members of the crew somewhat bored with their existence with so little to occupy themselves. He observed that had it not been for the dangers of Impressment, these men would probably not have remained long in that particular work.

With the various departments of the Bell Rock works being settled as to their duties over the winter months, RS returned to Edinburgh.

A course of patterns to which the stones were cut
A course of patterns to which the stones were cut

The lower implement in the above illustration was called by RS - a Trainer or Gauge Rule. It was used to position accurately the stones, mainly the lower or solid courses. Stevenson, in his own words, describes it:

"A Trainer or Rule, framed of timber, applied by the builders, for ascertaining the exact position of the stones of the respective courses. At one end is an eye or socket on which it was fitted to a steady-pin placed exactly in the centre. This rule was used chiefly for ascertaining the radiating direction of the stones, from the centre towards the circumference, being laid agreeably to corresponding notches and lines marked upon their upper-beds, so as to preserve band throughout the work, and prevent difficulty with the closing or finishing stones".


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