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