State of works as at September 1808
During January the east coast of Scotland had been subjected
to particularly heavy seas, and no landing could be made
until the 20th. When they got to the Rock they found that
several iron supports of the railway had come apart.
No less than 10 of the bracing chains of the Beacon had
completely loosened, but they were pleased to see there
had been no substantial damage to the Beacon itself. Three
huge boulders (one weighing upwards of a ton) had been washed
onto the Rock by heavy seas. These came to be known as Travellers.
Eventually they would be washed into the sea again, but,
at that time, it was of concern that they might be dashed,
by the force of the sea, against the Beacon and Railways
rather like a battering ram, therefore causing serious damage
to both structures. So in early March they were broken up
into smaller pieces and removed from the area.
Back in the workyard the Ninth course was complete, and
the Tenth had already started. Mylnefield, however, was
still at a standstill due to the prolonged frosty weather.
In early March, another shipwreck was averted. A large brig
from Gothenburg on its way to Liverpool narrowly missed
the Bell Rock. Had it not been for the watchful eye of the
Floating Light they might well have struck the reef.
Another vessel, the sloop "Patriot", was
purchased from a Kirkcaldy shipbuilder to cope with the
increased work expected with this season’s operations. This
boat had scarcely completed her first trip when she was
found to be taking in water and was pronounced “unseaworthy”.
Repairs were put into effect immediately. Two more praam-boats
were also launched in Arbroath, the "Fernie"
and the "Dickie".
The newly-built "Sir Joseph Banks" tender
set sail on the 20th with the Hedderwick praam-boat in tow.
On board were 15 artificers, consisting of millwrights,
joiners, smiths and masons, to be employed in extending
the Railways and fitting-up the Beacon-house for the workmen.
Over the next few days little work was achieved due to the
state of the weather. During this time the "Smeaton"
was employed chiefly with the quarries at Mylnefield, and
the Alexander with those in Aberdeenshire.
At Arbroath work was progressing well with the preparation
of the courses. The 19th was now complete, and the dressed
timber for the upper part of the Beacon was ready for shipment.
Accordingly the Tender left Arbroath with Mr Francis Watt
(the Foreman Joiner) and 18 artificers. At low tide they
continued refitting and extending the Railways. When the
tide overflowed the Rock they moved up into the Beacon and
continued their work there. The fitting up of the Beacon
was a great relief especially for those seriously affected
by sea-sickness. It would also put an end to the inconvenience
(as RS put it, “the plague”) of having to boat the men to
and from the Rock by day and night.
The first three weeks of the month were virtually taken
up with getting on with the Railways and completing the
Beacon-house, as well other important chores, such as fixing
mooring rings and laying down small floating-buoys as guides
for the approaching loaded praams. In particular the completion
of the circular Railway (55 feet in diameter) round the
entire site of the Light-house was paramount.
The “big crater” at Rubislaw Quarry, Aberdeen, before closure
The depth was 430 feet (131m)
On May 23rd, things were now in readiness to commence building
operations for the season. The Smeaton arrived with 26 blocks
of stone for the Fourth course, as well as a few casks of
pozzolano, lime, sand, cement, trenails and wedges, and
other materials connected with the building. The sheer crane,
used for lifting the stones from the praams onto the rock,
was erected at the eastern landing. The Railway, however,
was still only two-thirds complete. Over the winter months,
the upper course of the building (the Third) had acquired
a thick coating of seaweed which was duly cleared, and on
the 28th of the month, five stones of the Fourth course
was laid. The building was once more underway.
On the last day of May it snowed so heavily that there
was 3 inches on the decks of the vessels. RS remarked that
April and May had been particularly cold months with temperatures
seldom exceeding 40 deg.F (5 deg.C). He was also full of
praise for his various Heads of Department for their ardour
and zeal in their work.
The beginning of the month saw a very severe gale hit the
coast. The "Smeaton" had once more to flee for
shelter in the Frith of Forth. RS’s concern was for the
11 artificers who had been working on the Rock and who had
not been able to get off before the winds changed direction.
Fortunately, they were now able to shelter in the Beacon,
which at that time was still incomplete and without bedding
or a proper fireplace. It was difficult to say who had the
worst of it. If it had been uncomfortable on the Beacon,
RS thought, they certainly would have been no better off
in the Tender. The following morning a relief boat managed
to land with provisions for the men who had not eaten properly
for almost 30 hours. For good cheer, “a tea-kettle full
of mulled port wine” was included.
No substantial damage had been done to the Beacon, although
on one occasion the whole fabric shuddered when a large
wave struck the building during high water. The sea entered
the lowest apartment (the Mortar Gallery) and washed away
lime casks and anything moveable that happened to be there.
One of the joiners, James Glen, who, recounting his own
tales of hardship during earlier travels, kept up the spirits
of the men, during what must have been a very fearful time
That morning, RS managed with great difficulty to land
on the Rock. He found that three of the stones had lifted
3 inches off their beds. The sheer crane at the landing
site had lost two of its four legs, but fortunately the
moveable beam crane on the Lighthouse site itself was still
intact. The weather continued in a boisterous state for
most of the month. Once again, on the 17th, the artificers
found themselves overnighting in the Beacon-house. Fortunately,
this time it was in a more complete state, now with bedding,
but still with no cooking facilities. During high water,
however, the men found the shaking and shuddering a somewhat
By the 25th, the work on the Building was now 10 feet in
height. It was found that a rope ladder (known as Jacob’s
Ladder) was possible between the Beacon and the Lighthouse
site. This was an important innovation because it allowed
transport of the mortar buckets, by means of a pulley system,
between the two buildings, and work could now continue even
when the Rock was substantially under water. At this time
of year the days were at their longest; therefore, when
the masons landed on the Rock at 3 am, as was necessary
on occasions, it was already daylight. By 9.30 pm, the Seventh
course was complete.
On the 30th June, one of the principal builders, Michael
Wishart, met with a serious accident. The moveable-beam
crane collapsed whilst positioning one of the stones, and
unfortunately Wishart was caught underneath the falling
machinery. Bleeding seriously from the injury, he was quickly
transported back to Arbroath with instructions to procure
the best surgical aid. He made a full recovery, and eventually
became a Lighthouse Keeper (second-in-command at the Bell
Rock) when the Lighthouse was completed in 1811.
The harbour area showing the Bell Rock workyard
The first days of the month saw the Building gradually
rise out of reach of the sea. The Ninth course, consisting
of 71 stones, was now complete. RS visited Michael Wishart
in Arbroath and was pleased to find him on the road to recovery.
The completion of the Tenth course saw the building
now clear of high water at neap tides. This was considered
an important milestone by RS, and, as always with these
occasions, flags were hoisted on all vessels and a glass
of rum was served to all hands.
At this time RS visited Shotts Iron Works with plans for
a new design in cranes, called the Balance Crane, to be
used in the construction of the upper part of the Building.
After the accident involving Wishart it was obvious that
the Moveable Beam Crane was unsuited to the task.
The 15th saw the most successful day spent on the Rock
so far. The artificers landed at 7.15 in the morning and
continued through to midnight, working 16½ hours in all.
No fewer than 52 stones had been laid, the Twelfth course
was complete, and the height of the building now stood at
15 feet above the foundation stone. The beacon-house was
also nearing completion. Tarpaulin was chosen to line the
roof, a material more suitable on this occasion than the
normal lead sheeting. The wooden exterior was given three
coats of white lead paint and the walls were insulated with
moss to ensure against dampness and draughts. Its interior
was then lined with a green baize cloth, giving it altogether
a very comfortable appearance. A few days later the entire
complement of artificers (23 in all) moved to their new
quarters in the Beacon-house.
Another unfortunate accident occurred in the workshop when
a stone fell on one of the labourers who was trying to support
it with a prop. William Walker, a married man with a young
family, died a few hours later after sustaining a broken
On the 22nd an embargo was placed on all shipping around
the coasts of Britain. This was due to the war with France,
and in particular the intended Expedition to Walcheren.
No exception could be given to any vessel, even those engaged
on Bell Rock service. It was another 10 days, after an appeal
to the Lords of the Treasury, that the embargo was lifted.
On the first day of the month, 78 blocks of stone where
landed, of which 40 went to completing the Fourteenth
course. By the 6th Aug. the Seventeenth course,
consisting of 60 blocks, was completed.
At daybreak, much to the amazement of everyone, a large
schooner, the "Fly of Bridport", bound
from London to Dundee, was seen to be almost on top of the
Rock. The crew of the vessel was strange to the coast and
not realised the danger they were in. After discussions
with the Landing-master they were conducted to the Frith
On the 11th, such were the heavy swells that no boat could
get anywhere near the Rock. Again one of the legs of the
sheer crane had been broken. The gales continued with such
severity that 12 of the artificers on the Beacon asked to
be relieved and taken on board the Tender. This was done
with the utmost of difficulty. Although it was the policy,
up till now, to allow each man to choose whether or not
to remain on Beacon or the Tender, it was now thought too
inconvenient to split them in this way. Ultimately the men
who came off the Beacon were returned to the workyard in
The gales had scattered various pieces of equipment all
over the Rock, and once again the sea had created havoc
in the mortar gallery on the Beacon. The blacksmith’s anvil
was found lying on the rock below, while his bellows and
the lime and cement casks were completely washed away. RS,
however, was able to take possession of his own apartment
in the Beacon-house, which he found most convenient instead
of being obliged to return to the Tender in all weathers,
day and night. On Saturday, the 19th, the Twenty-first
course, consisting of 45 stones, was completed, bringing
the height of the building to 25 feet.
The following day, the Twenty-second course was
built entirely in one day. As this was the first occasion
that this had happened, three hearty cheers were given.
Being Sunday, at 12 noon, prayers were read for the first
time on the Bell Rock. Those present, 30 in all, crowded
into the top apartment of the Beacon, and two artificers
joining hands supported the Bible.
Stones from the Smeaton being transferred to a praam-boat
On the 22nd, the Floating Light once more broke from her
moorings due to the strong winds. She was obliged to anchor
about a mile away until better weather allowed her to return
to her original station. On the 25th the solid part of the
building (the Twenty-sixth course above the Rock)
was completed. It also ended the granite outer casing; from
here on the building would be constructed only of sandstone.
The height was now 31 feet 6 inches above the rock, and
about 17 feet above high water of spring tides. At this
point the building operations for the season were concluded.
There were several reasons for halting at this time. Firstly,
the next stage of the building would be the door and inner
staircase area of the house. RS considered it better to
leave well alone than subject the void (as he put it) to
the rigours of the winter winds and storms, even though
the level of the building was now 8 to10 feet above the
normal height of the waves. Secondly, the balance crane
was not yet perfected. This would be attended to over the
winter months. And thirdly, the beginning of September had
in the past been notorious for very strong gales. RS was
taking no chances.
At the end of August, the men returned to Arbroath on the
Tender. “The vessel being decorated with colours, and
having fired a salute of three guns on approaching the harbour,
the workyard artificers, with a multitude of people, assembled
at the harbour, when mutual cheering and congratulations
took place between those afloat and those on the quays.
The Tender [Sir Joseph Banks] had now, with little
exception, been six months on the station at the Bell Rock,
and, during the last four months, few of the squad had even
been ashore. The artificers having made good wages during
their stay, like seamen upon a return-voyage, were extremely
happy, and spent the evening with much innocent mirth and
RS, full of praise for his workmen, continues: “They
always went from Arbroath to their arduous task cheering,
and they generally returned in the same hearty state. While
at the Rock, between tides, they amused themselves in reading,
fishing, music, playing cards, drafts, etc, or in sporting
with one another. In the workyard at Arbroath, the young
men were almost, without exception employed in the evening
at school, in writing and arithmetic, and not a few were
learning architectural drawing, for which they had every
convenience and facility.”
The operations at the Rock continued with further securing
the lower part of the Beacon and the Railways. Already RS
was considering using alternate red and white lights, so
he visited the Lighthouse at Flamborough Head, the coast
of Yorkshire, England, which only recently had exhibited
an arrangement of this kind. Come the beginning of November,
all bulky material was battened down for the season, and
RS, making his usual arrangements for having the Rock visited
during the winter months, left the works on the 8th.