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

I am indebted to the Staff of the Northern Lighthouse Board for the following detailed information on recent developments at the Lighthouse.

Automation at the Bell Rock

The Fire

Work commenced on automation in the late 1990s. Unfortunately during reconstruction work an incident occurred resulting in a fire which caused considerable damage, not only to the kitchen, watchroom and lightroom, but to the upper courses of the tower itself. This delayed the project by an extended period until the damage could be repaired.

The Lightroom showing the damaged
panes of glass
The kitchen, immediately below the lightroom, where the keepers kept watch

The pictures above show some of the damage to the kitchen and lightroom floor. The triangular shapes seen in the lightroom photograph are the blackened glass panels through which the light can normally be seen. Many of these panels had to be replaced after the fire.

The photograph to the right shows the type of scaffolding used to repair the masonry after the fire. The stonework inside the kitchen had splintered due to the intense heat of the fire and this caused cracks to appear in the external walls, which had to be injected with a special compound to strengthen the tower and keep out the water.

A normal scaffold is built from the ground up, but this cannot be used at the Bell Rock because the tide covers the rock during high water and would wash the scaffold away. The name given to this special type of scaffolding is called "cantilever". It is supported by the building itself. The rock is submerged twice a day to a depth of several metres. Some days the rock is never seen above the surface of the sea at all, due to the time of year, the general state of tides and weather conditions.


Automation completed in 1998

The automation of the Bell Rock was finally completed in 1998. The technology available at this time required the use of a hybrid system. This system used electricity to provide power for the Emergency Lanterns and to rotate the main light's lens; also acetylene gas to provide a suitable light source for the main light.

The main light consisted of a "Third Order" lens (a lens approximately 700mm in diameter, which magnifies the gas mantle light source) shown in the photograph below.

The "Third Order" lens
The Gearless Pedestal

The lens is rotated using a machine called a "Gearless Pedestal". This is a very low-speed electric motor which does not require a gearbox and therefore has a limited number of moving parts to maintain. This machine does not require a great deal of power and only uses about a thirtieth of the power used by a normal 60watt household lamp.

Batteries are used to provide the power required by the pedestal and these are charged using solar panels, which convert daylight into electricty.

The photograph above shows the Gearless Pedestal and the mechanical device, which changed the gas mantles if one stopped operating. This actual mantle changer can be seen in the Signal Tower Museum, Arbroath.

The white panels seen in the background of this photo are some of the solar panels used to charge the batteries.


The solar panels installed in the lightroom - from the front.

An extension was built onto the balcony to accommodate 12 further solar panels to enable the batteries to be charged. Even with all the additional panels it was thought to be insufficient charge to operate the system in the depths of winter, so in consequence a diesel generator was installed to cope with any deficit during the winter period. The generator is primarily intended to be used to provide lighting and power for visiting personnel.

How the light works

A device called a "photo electric cell" senses daylight and when it starts to get dark this device sends a signal to the control system to turn on the light. There is a small pilot light (similar to the pilot in a gas central heating boiler) which is always lit inside the gas mantle. The control system then opens up the main gas valve and allows the mantle to operate normally.

Should any of this system fail it will switch itself off and switch on the emergency lanterns which are mounted externally on the balcony. These will provide a light that can be seen at a nominal range of 11 miles (approximately 15 kilometres).

The operation of all the equipment in the lighthouse is monitored and the information is sent by radio to Fife Ness Lighthouse (near Crail in Fife) and is then transferred via a telephone line to the Board's headquarters in Edinburgh.


The decision to refurbish the station was taken primarily to discontinue the use of acetylene gas. This is a highly flammable gas, which is time consuming to replace, dangerous to transport and is not environmentally friendly.

Due to advances in battery and lamp technology it was now possible to remove the gas and replace it with a safer alternative.


The existing kitchen was retained (renewed after the fire) as were the existing bedrooms when the lighthouse was still manned. A new toilet area was constructed to allow for the installation of generators, fuel and water tanks.

Due to the location and the physical constraints of this site, the optimum amount of solar panels could not be accommodated. Therefore to make up for any deficits, diesel generators have been installed and these are used to charge the batteries, and also to provide domestic lighting and heating for maintenance visits.

New light

The new light uses the existing "Gearless Pedestal" which has been modified to remove the pipework for the gas and the mantle changer equipment. The existing lens has been re-used with a new electric light source. This new lamp uses 35 watts, about one half of the power used by a 60 watt household lamp. A new higher power battery system was required for this lamp but because of advances in technology the batteries were now much smaller than the old ones and more batteries could be accommodated in the existing floor space.

The existing solar panels were re-used as they were still serviceable, even after 13 years exposed to the elements.

Water and fuel

The lighthouse tender is required to deliver fuel to the lighthouse as and when required. This is generally carried out once per year.

The Entrance Level is extremely small and has a mezzanine floor, which accommodates the Break Tanks for water and fuel. These Break Tanks have been installed for the purpose of reducing the height that the tender's portable pumps have to pump fuel and water, when storing the station.

The water and fuel break tanks have a capacity of approximately 450 litres each. Fuel and water is pumped from the rock level (during periods of low water) to each of the separate tanks. This in turn is transferred via internal pumping system to tanks located on the balcony. There are four fuel tanks and four water tanks on the balcony, each with a capacity of 600 litres. The water tanks provide the station with water for domestic use ie washing etc.

The fuel tanks are used to supply a further two tanks in the engine room. These tanks have two purposes: to reduce the pressure of fuel applied to the engines (which provide generated power for the station) and to provide increased storage capacity for fuel. Each tank has a capacity of 350 litres.

Engine room

The Engine Room contains the two Lister diesel generators, each of which has a rated output of 10 kW. Each generator is programmed to do a single start "Health Run" of one hour each week to maintain the engine in good condition. In addition the engine is always on standby to charge the batteries should the voltage fall below its nominal 24V level. Or when requested by the Optic System, a charging run can take place for a period of 5 hours. Power for domestic use is available from each generator.

Power system

All equipment is supplied from the new battery system and even with the advances in technology it was not thought that the system would run completely supplied by power from the sun. As generators were required for lighting and power for maintenance personnel, these generators can be used to charge the batteries in the event that the batteries are in danger of running down. The generators will use approximately 180 gallons (approximately 800 litres) of fuel per annum. This figure does not include use by maintenance personnel, therefore extra storage capacity was built in to allow for this use.

Future works


The existing helipad was installed in the 1970s and has provided sterling service during this period despite the ravages of tide and weather over 30 years. The helipad and walkway are now showing signs of their age, wear and tear.

A new helipad and walkway are planned and will be installed within a year or so. Designs or drawings are not available at the present time, but there follows a couple of photographs of the existing structure.

The walkway and helipad as repaired in 1987

The helipad in the spring of 1988 after one winter.
Several of the handrail uprights have been damaged and some are missing.

Sadly today the helipad and walkway are badly damaged in places and several repairs have been carried out to address this damage.


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