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 Works (contd.)

Operations of 1810 - (May to mid-July)

State of the works as at September 1809 with Moveable
State of the works as at September 1809
with Moveable
Beam Crane and Rope Bridge to the Beacon house

During the winter months only the Floating Light and the "Sir Joseph Banks" Tender remained on station at the Bell Rock. The latter vessel was appointed to carry the artificers to and from the Rock during spring tides for repair and inspection purposes, as well supplying relief and provisions for the Floating Light. No landing was possible during February because of bad weather.

During March, however, a landing was effected and everything was found to be in good order, except some damage to the Railway caused by Travellers which were subsequently broken up and disposed of. It was also noticed that the great beam supports of the Beacon had been marked due to the movement of these huge boulders.

As the stability of the Beacon-house would be of paramount importance during the coming season’s building works, the bracing-chains, which were continually being broken by the heavy seas, were replaced at the end of last year by 36 great bars of iron bolted to the principal beams.

Another area giving cause for concern was the Mylnefield sandstone, which was found to be prone to splitting during frosty weather. RS required another source for the upper courses of the house, especially the cornice of the building and parapet of the light room. Eventually the liver-rock of Craigleith Quarry, near Edinburgh, well known for its durability and beauty was decided on, although it was with the greatest difficulty that they were able to procure stones large enough for the job. Most of the great houses and tenements of Old Edinburgh were also built of this stone.

At the workyard in Arbroath, great progress was being made with the cutting of the stones. The Forty-fourth course had been completed, and was now ready for shipment to the Rock. At this time, too, the component parts of the Lightroom were now being prepared in the Edinburgh works at Greenside. The sheets of silver-plated copper for the reflectors had been ordered; also the glass and cast-iron sash-frames. This part of the works were under the able direction of Mr Thomas Smith, RS’s predecessor, also his step-father, who had retired from the more active duties of Engineer to the Lighthouse Board. At this time, too, the balance crane, necessary for the construction of the upper house, was under trials but it still required further alterations to its design.

Stevenson also reckoned that, in all probability, given there were no unforeseen accidents, the Lighthouse would probably be completed this year, even though, at this time, only 26 of the 90 courses had been built. In the course of the last two seasons, 1400 tons of masonry had been landed and built; he calculated that 700 tons would complete the work. He was now giving thought to the light sequence which would distinguish the Bell Rock from other lighthouses. Having visited earlier Flamborough Head, and having made his own experiments at Inchkeith with different coloured lights, he found that red glass placed in front of the reflectors was the only practical solution if he wanted a flashing light of different colours. Eventually, alternating beams of red and natural light were decided on, so the apparatus was prepared accordingly.

The rope bridge, which had so effectively connected the Building to the Beacon-house for the first two seasons, was now replaced with a wooden gangway. The Smeaton also sailed for Leith to collect the balance-crane, but, on her return, due the bad weather, she was obliged to take shelter at Burntisland in the Frith of Forth. Both RS and Mr Dove decided to take alternative transport to Arbroath, and arrived there on the evening of 3rd May. All in all it was going to be a busy season.


On Monday, 7th May at 2.30pm, RS, accompanied by his artificers (19 in all), and the balance crane in tow, sailed from Arbroath to the Rock. The season was under way. However, they had to wait three days before conditions allowed them to land. He was pleased to find everything in remarkably good condition. Seaweed was growing thickly on the Building. Even on the top-most course fuci had germinated so much so that great care had to be taken when walking on the surface. Otherwise the Beacon was in a perfectly sound state, which pleased the men greatly, being rid once and for all of the rolling motion of the Tender.

The first task was to get the balance crane in working order, but the weather still would not allow landing. In the meantime the Smeaton went off to the quarries at Mylnefield to collect the last consignment of sandstone. It was not until the 18th that 23 blocks were landed on the Rock. The method of transporting a stone from the base of the Building to its position on top was done in two stages. The stone was raised by winch machine from the Railway below onto the new gangway; whereupon it was taken by waggon to within reach of the newly-built balance crane where it was then raised to the course they were working on. Great interest was taken when the first stone of the Twenty-seventh course (38 blocks) was raised and placed in position by the balance crane. As usual there were three hearty cheers followed by a glass of rum. Being the beginning of the staircase, the walls at this point had a mean thickness of 6 feet.

The 27th Course - the entrance level to the tower. Here the walls are 6 feet thick

The 27th Course - the entrance level to the tower. Here the walls are 6 feet thick

With an improvement in the weather, work continued apace. By the 22nd, the Thirty-first course was complete. The door lintel was now ready - a particularly large stone weighing approximately 1½ tons. In trying to lift the stone unfortunately not enough care had been taken adjust the counter-weight of the crane and consequently it snapped at one of the joints. It was three more days before the crane was working again.


The 5th June brought the Building to a height of 45 feet which completed the Thirty-eighth course. This also saw the completion of the stone staircase part of the building, that is, from the entrance door of the house to the first apartment. The actual staircase itself wasn’t put in until the main structure was completed in August of 1810. At this point the thickness of the walls are reduced from 5 feet 9 inches to 3 feet 2 inches. The next course, consisting of 24 stones, also brought to an end to the trenailing and wedging of the stones. From now on the perpendicular courses would be not only dovetailed but also grooved and feathered (with sandstone joggles at the floor levels of each apartment) for maximum stability. The work, however, being much simplified, it was now expected to lay two courses per day. During this season the men worked a nine-hour day, and they were earning good money, on average about two guineas per week. The news from Edinburgh was also encouraging with the lightroom apparatus and the revolving machinery well to the fore. Working on the lighthouse had now become quite dangerous. The height of the tower and the lack of manoeuvring space presented a new set of difficulties. RS was aware that if anyone fell from the walls the result would almost certainly be fatal.

With the completion of the stone staircase courses the balance crane had now to be supported on two great beams. The crane would then be moved from one apartment to the next one up, once the floor/roof of that level was complete. Down on the Rock the western wharf was now finished after some 12 months in the making. On the 19th, the weather had become very unpleasant with constant rain and thunder and lighting. Nevertheless the work continued unremittingly. The builders that day laid the Fifty-first and Fifty-second courses.

RS at this point describes the very responsible positions which his principal workmen held. “Whether working the crane or in laying the stones, it required the closest application and attention, not only on the part of Mr Peter Logan, the foreman builder, who was constantly on the walls, but also of the chief workmen. Robert Selkirk, the principal builder, for example, had every stone to lay in its place. David Cumming, a mason, had the charge of working the tackle of the balance-weight, and James Scott, also a mason, took charge of the purchase with which the stones were laid. While the pointing of the walls with cement was entrusted to William Reid and William Kennedy, who stood upon a scaffold suspended over the walls in rather a frightful manner.” Time and time again RS makes the point that damage or loss of a single stone would put an entire stop to the operations until another could be made and brought from Arbroath.

Of late there had been signs of discontent among the seamen - especially about their rations of beer. On the 22nd, mutiny had all but manifested itself among the crew of the Tender. Capt. Wilson, the landing master, and Capt. Taylor, who commanded the vessel at that time, thought that the daily allowance was in every respect ample, and the latter added that “if those who now complained were even to be fed upon soft bread and turkeys, they would not think themselves right.” The ringleaders were eventually singled out, and although they were shown the schedule of the daily allowances on board the Tender (which incidentally for beer was 3 quarts per man), they refused to continue work without an increase in the amount. Two men were sent back to Arbroath and dismissed from the Service.

The Sixty-second course was now laid. At the same time it was found necessary to move the balance crane to the next stage. On average it was shifted every 16 feet of the lighthouse’s construction.

Towards the end of the month saw the Sixty-third and Sixty-fourth courses being laid, consisting of 16 stones each. The Building elevation was now at 64 feet above the Rock, and 52 feet above high-water mark. The state of the seas, thought Stevenson, was just awful considering the time of year. It was the first time they had ever witnessed such great waves crashing against the tower. The workmen at the top of the house were drenched from time to time, and the “sprays fell from the heights in the most wonderful cascades, and streamed down the walls of the building in froth as white as snow.” On 30th June the Sixty-fifth course was laid, forming the fourth or bedroom floor.


The state of works in July 1810, with the Balance Crane in position to achieve the perpendicular lifting of the stones. The Rope Bridge, at this point, is replaced by a wooden structure
The state of works in July 1810, with the Balance Crane in position to achieve the perpendicular lifting
of the stones. The Rope Bridge, at this point, is replaced by a wooden structure

On the 1st, RS returned to Arbroath after six weeks on the Rock, most of which he had spent in his tiny apartment on the *Beacon-house, this being no more than 4 feet 3 inches across. One of the problems that confronted him was the Impressment of one of the seaman from the "Sir Joseph Banks". He had gone to visit friends near Dundee in winter when the works were suspended, having got leave of absence from Capt. Taylor. Although the young lad, George Dall, was carrying his Protection Medal and documents, the officer who apprehended him considered that he did not stand protected unless he was actually on board the ship. Thus he had spent the last four months in jail waiting for his appeal to be heard in the Court of Session. RS immediately took the matter with the Commissioners. Shortly afterwards he was released from prison, and the proceedings never went further.

On the 3rd, 16 magistrates of Arbroath took up a long-standing invitation to visit the Bell Rock, although they had wait four hours until conditions allowed them to land. Up till now the number of artificers working on the Works varied between 26 and 31 in number. However, now that the Railways were finished this number was reduced to 22.

The height of the house was now about 80 feet, and it was proving difficult to hoist the stones to the upper courses in a single operation. It therefore was necessary to use a winch machine at an intermediate stage. This was done by projecting a beam from the storeroom window. At this point the cornice and parapet wall stones were now ready to be transported from Edinburgh, so James Craw and his horse and cart were loaded on board the "Smeaton" in preparation for the trip to Leith. On the way out it was necessary to call by the Bell Rock. As it happened the weather was so foggy they narrowly escaped running ashore on the north-western part of the rock. This incident further reaffirmed Stevenson’s resolve that alarm bells were an essential part of the lighthouse’s warning system for it had been the smith’s anvil which, on that occasion, had alerted them to the imminent danger.

Once again heavy seas lashed the Beacon and Lighthouse. It so alarmed the men that had the bridge between the beacon and tower been remotely passable, some may well have taken refuge there. As it happened, the tower would have afforded little comfort. The waves once again were crashing over the top, and the water came gushing down through the interior of the building and out through the entrance door.

The work in Arbroath was now almost complete, and it was time to pay off the stone-cutters. RS writes: “It is not customary to allow the men to separate without what is termed a “Finishing-pint”, five guineas were for this purpose placed at the disposal of Mr David Logan, clerk of works. With this sum the stone-cutters at Arbroath had a merry-meeting in their barrack, collected their sweethearts and friends, and concluded their labours with a dance.”

* When Robert Stevenson left the Rock at the end of July, he looked back with nostalgia at the Beacon-house which had been his home over the last six weeks. He described his thoughts on that occasion: "His cabin measured no more than 4 feet 3 inches in breadth on the floor; and though, from the oblique direction of the beams of the Beacon, it widened towards the top, yet it did not admit the full extension of his arms when he stood on the floor; while its length was little more than sufficient for suspending a cot-bed during the night, calculated for being triced up to the roof through the day, which left free room for the admission of occasional visitants. His folding-table was attached with hinges, immediately under the small window of the apartment, and his books, barometer, thermometer, portmanteau, and two or three camp-stools, formed the bulk of his moveables. His diet being plain, the paraphernalia of the table were proportionally simple; though every thing had the appearance of comfort, and even neatness, the walls being covered with green cloth, formed into pannels with red tape, and his bed festooned with curtains of yellow cotton-stuff. If, in speculating upon the abstract wants of man in such a state of seclusion, one were reduced to a single book, the Sacred Volume, whether considered for the striking diversity of its story, the morality of its doctrine, or the important truths of its Gospel, would have proved by far the greatest treasure."

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