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

Operations of 1811 to 1823

The Bellrock Lighthouse by JMW Turner
The Bellrock Lighthouse by JMW Turner
By kind permission of the Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland


January - The first task, when the artificers left the Bell Rock in December last, was to remove the rope ladder connecting the Lighthouse to the mortar gallery of the Beacon-house. This was necessary to close the outside door. It was replaced by another rope ladder containing steps, which could be stored in the passage when the door was closed, and let down to the Rock surface when access to the House was required. During the last fortnight supplies of fresh meat and vegetables had run low. Relief was made on the 29th, when Mr Forrest remarked: “Let the weather be how it will, we shall not be in want even of the most trifling article, for a month to come.”

February - Friday, 1st - “The day long wished for, on which the mariner was to see a light exhibited on the Bell Rock, at length arrived. Captain Wilson, as usual, hoisted the Float’s lanterns to the topmost on the evening of the 1st of February; but the moment the light appeared on the Rock, the crew, giving three cheers, lowered them and finally extinguished the lights.” The Floating Light, having completed its mission successfully, was ready to be towed into Leith. On the way there, due to bad weather, they had to shelter in the Fife fishing town of Anstruther. The crew had become so well acquainted in the port, that many had married local girls. RS remarked that if the boat had spent any more time there, there would probably not be an unmarried man on board!

March - Great interest was taken by Stevenson’s friends when they had the opportunity of inspecting the hull of the Floating Light after it arrived in Leith. Over the last four years it had become encrusted with barnacles and seaweed. In RS’s own words: “Numerous crustaceous, testaceous and molluscous animals and zoophytes still adhered in great numbers to her bottom. Mussels of the species called Mytilus pellucidus were abundant; they were of a large size, the striae on the shells measuring 3½ inches in length, by 1¼ inch in breadth. Some of the common acorn-shells, Balanus communis, were so large as 1½ inch in diameter. The seaweeds were chiefly Fucus digitatus and esculentus, and were in general 4 or 5 feet in length.”

The Lighthouse Yacht returned to the Rock to attend to the supply and relief of the keepers, whereupon she set off again immediately for Leith. The command of the vessel was given to Capt. Wilson, while Capt. Taylor took care of the Bell Rock tender - situations for which their services had respectively qualified them.

Towards the end of March, Stevenson had written Mr John Forrest (Superintendent of Lightkeepers’ Duties) asking him for an account “of every particular occurrence at the Bell Rock during the winter months”. Forrest, in his reply, makes several interesting points:

• Firstly, Forrest mentions the “vibrations” or “tremors” rather than physical shaking when the house was hit by huge waves. He noticed this always happened when there was a very heavy ground-swell, and were most apparent during gales from the south-east.
• A large piece of lead which had been used as a back weight of the balance crane (weighing a quarter of ton) had been lifted by the seas some 6 feet from its original position.
• Part of the Railways had been smashed up during the course of the winter.
The seas most to be feared were those from the north-east as they tend to break close to the house. He added that, in general, the higher and stronger the winds were, the less power the sea had on the Light-house. The heaviest seas, oddly, were accompanied with little wind, invariably occurring after a gale had abated.
• As for damp walls, contrary to what he expected, it was the very reverse of this; as dry as any house in Edinburgh was his comment. On the subject of warmth, since the Jacob’s Ladder was taken down, and they were able to close the outside door, they had been very comfortable. Warmer here than any house ashore!
• The three lightkeepers had settled in. Mr John Reid seemed happy enough, although at first when heavy seas struck the house he was more than a bit apprehensive. Mr John Bonnyman had no problems and had settled down comfortably. Mr Henry Leask pined somewhat for his home and family, and like John Reid was not so confident about the house’s stability when the weather was rough.
• For recreation, they exercised whenever possible on the Rock catching fish and walking on the Railways
• A small library was available, and whenever possible a supply of Scots Magazines [a monthly magazine still produced in Dundee, Scotland] and the Weekly Chronicle [possibly an Edinburgh paper?] was delivered to the Lighthouse.
• On Sundays, only the necessities were attended to, and afterwards they would meet for prayers when two or three chapters of the Bible would be read.

April - Mr Forrest, who had been three months on the Rock, now came ashore. Michael Wishart, who had been seriously injured in June 1809 by the fall of the moveable beam-crane, now took up his position as Assistant Keeper. Plans for the Signal Tower.

May - The building of the Signal Tower on the mainland was also well under way. The only vessel now serving the needs of the Bell Rock was the Smeaton. All the others had been disposed of by public sale.

September - When RS visited the Lighthouse he found everything in good order. Mr Reid and his assistants were satisfied with their arrangements. Mr Dove had completed the copper flagstaff, and also the iron grating outside the light-room. Mr Slight had made great progress with the oak partitions, beds and interior finishings. He had also dismantled the upper parts of the Beacon-house. At low water all hands helped with fixing the Railways before the onslaught of winter. On the 12th, the Smeaton narrowly escaped shipwreck when her mooring chain severed. She was driven north to Dunnottar Castle, some 14 miles south of Aberdeen and it took her three days to get back on station at the Bell Rock. Also this month, the Lighthouse suffered its first accident when a temporary stove took fire. Six panes of glass were damaged and had to be replaced.

November - During storms this month, several huge boulders were thrown onto the Rock, one of which must have weighed upwards of two tons, completely blocking one of the landing places until it was broken up and removed. At that time the tides were higher than been seen for many years. The spray on this occasion reached a record 108 feet above the surface of the Rock. At times it seemed as though the sea had engulfed the entire beacon-house. Nor, too, were the lightkeepers all that happy about their own safety.


The light had now been exhibited for 12 months. RS writes: “It was highly gratifying to the Board to find, from almost every quarter of the coast, by the testimony of those who had seen it at sea, that this important edifice gave universal satisfaction, appearing in all aspects to answer the fullest expectations of the mariner.” A Visitor’s Book was also kept at the Lighthouse . . . nearly 500 people had landed to inspect the Lighthouse during the summer months.

In September the Beacon-house was finally taken down. Its beams had become so weakened by the ravages of the crustaceous insects that it had become dangerous. It was dismantled in three weeks; whereas it took two whole working seasons to erect!

There were specific regulations laid down in attending to the Bell Rock lighthouse. The Smeaton visited the Rock every two weeks, at the time of spring tides, to relieve the light-keepers and to supply the house with necessities. Of the four keepers belonging to the establishment, three were always at the Lighthouse, while one was ashore on leave. The normal term ashore was a fortnight and the duty spell at the Rock six weeks. All this, of course, was dependent on weather conditions . . . it wasn’t the first time that keepers had found themselves stranded upwards of three months on the Rock due to inclement weather.


In the course of the year the lightkeepers’ houses, signal tower and sea wall at Arbroath were completed. Besides these, there were storehouses and accommodation for the master and crew of the attending vessel.

For more on the shore base of the Bell Rock lighthouse - see Signal Tower


During 1814 a thunder-rod or lightning conductor was fitted on the western side of the house. It measured 2¼ inches and, in parts, 1 inch thick. The outside edge was slightly curved to suit the contours of the House. It composed of 1½ ounces tin to 1 lb of pure copper. With bats, screws and connecting pieces it weighed about a quarter of a ton.

That year Sir Walter Scott, on a voyage with the Commissioners, visited the Lighthouse, wherein signed the Visitors’ Book and wrote his famous lines Pharos Locquitor.

In 1815 work began constructing permanent Railways, and in 1816 the Smeaton was replaced by the Pharos as Bell Rock tender. That year Stevenson noted that the Lighthouse had become so discoloured by the effects of the weather and seas, that he decided the paint it a greyish colour. At the same time the interior was painted white.

By 1819 the Railways were complete. Another improvement that year was the rope ladder access to the House, which was replaced by rungs of solid brass, weighing about 1 ton 8 cwt. In October, they experience one of the severest gales ever seen at the Rock. On that occasion the Bell Rock lost 18 inches off its height, a piece of rock about that dimension having been carried away from the highest part.

In 1820 and 1821 further improvements continued, especially in storing fresh water and provisions. A new hoist was devised for lifting these stores more easily to the entrance of the House.

In 1823 a problem occurred with winding mechanism. A ratchet-wheel spring snapped causing the rotating light mechanism to fail. In consequence of that the signal ball was not raised, much to the alarm of the lightkeepers’ families. However, the Signal Tower at Arbroath had recently acquired carrier pigeons, and a few of these were always kept at the Lighthouse in case of such emergencies. Later that day one of the bird arrived explaining what had happened. The flight between Lighthouse and Signal Tower, upwards of 11 miles, was calculated at being about one mile per minute.

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