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 Origins of the Rock

A treacherous reef . . .

Of all the terrors known to mariners navigating the east coast of Scotland in olden days, the Inchcape Rock, otherwise known as the Bell Rock, was probably the one most dreaded! The fear of striking the rock was so great, that it is said that more ships were shipwrecked on the neighbouring shores trying to avoid it, than actually on it!

At best, it may be described as a treacherous submerged reef, situated in the northern reaches of the great sea estuary known as the Firth of Forth, and as such lies directly in the way of shipping approaching the River Tay and the City of Dundee.

Map showing the position of the Bell Rock on the coast of Scotland
Map showing the position of the Bell Rock on the coast of Scotland

Whatever may have been the early state of the Inch Cape or Bell Rock as an island, Stevenson, in his “Account” says: “Its present character is strictly that of a sunken rock and, as such, its relative situation on the eastern shores of Great Britain renders it one of the chief impediments to the free navigation of that coast.”

The earliest mention of the Rock in contemporary records comes from the Cosmographer to the King of France in 1583, Nicolay D’Arfville, Seigneur Du d’Aulphinois. This French writer gives a hydrographical description of the coast of Scotland from Leith to the Solway Coast mentioning the distances of places, tides, rocks and sandbanks, or “dangers” as they were termed, to be avoided. In describing the coastline from Leith to Caithness he observes:
“Entre Finismes [Fifeness] et la pointe nommé Redde, xii mille à l’est sud-est du costé de la dicte pointe Redde, gist un danger appelé Inchkope”

This is undoubtedly a reference to the Bell Rock, the inch or island of the Cape, and with an obvious reference to Redhead, the highest point on the coast just to the north of Arbroath.

An old Scottish writer, to which Stoddard refers in his “Remarks on Scotland”, and attributed to John Monypenny (1633), says:
“By east of the Isle of May, twelve miles from all land in the German Seas, lyes a great hidden rock, called Inchcape, very dangerous for navigators, because it is overflowed every tide. It is reported in old times, upon the saide rocke there was a bell, fixed upon a tree or timber, which rang continually, being moved by the sea, giving notice to the saylers of the danger. This bell or clocke was put there and maintained by the Abbot of Aberbrothock, and being taken down by a sea pirate, a yeare thereafter he perished upon the rocke, with ship and goodes, in the righteous judgment of God.”

This reference above to the Abbot of Aberbrothock and the bell, which tradition says he placed on the Rock, would suggest the correct origin of the name Bell Rock. Even Stevenson himself thought that the erection of a bell was not an “improbable conjecture”. The Abbot obviously knew well of the peril to vessels offshore, and decided to mark the place with a floating bell to warn them of the dangers.

Readers, who are aware of Robert Southey’s famous poem “Inchcape Rock”, will know about the pirate, Sir Ralph the Rover, who, as Monypenny says, became a victim himself of the Rock, having a year earlier cut down the Abbot’s bell.

“Canst hear,” said one, “the breakers roar?
For methinks we should be near the shore.”
“Now, where we are I cannot tell,
But I wish we could hear the Inchcape Bell.”

Sir Ralph the Rover tore his hair,
He curst himself in his despair;
The waves rush in on every side,
The ship is sinking beneath the tide.

Description of the Rock

The Bell Rock is situated off the east coast of Scotland, approximately 11 miles from the Royal Burgh of Arbroath, and 14 miles from St Andrews on the Fife coast. Its composition is that of sandstone of a reddish colour. Redhead and the sea-cliffs in the area are formed of similar rocks, and old Arbroath and its ancient Abbey are built of the same material. This strata of red sandstone rock extends across the Firth of Forth to the Coast of Berwick and the town of Dunbar, over 35 miles distant (almost 60km).

Chart showing the distance of the Bell Rock from the Friths of Forth and Tay
Chart showing the distance of the Bell Rock from the Friths of Forth and Tay

The main part of the rock is about 427 feet (130.14m) in length and 230 feet (70.1m) in breadth; however, the south-western reef extends another 1000 feet (304.8m) beyond the main area. Stevenson remarks that the “greatest length, therefore, of the Bell Rock, which may be said to be dangerous to shipping, is about 1427 feet (435m), and its greatest breadth is about 300 feet (91.4m).”

Tides vary, of course, according to the time of year. At high water during spring tides, the part of the rock on which the lighthouse is built, is on average about 12 feet (3.65m) below water level; and at low water of spring tides, where the lighthouse is built, the rock is about 4 feet (1.22m) above sea level. Higher parts of the rock may be two to three feet higher above that again. At low water during neap tides hardly any part of the rock is visible.

Before the lighthouse was built the position of the rock would be, in most instances, quite noticeable due to the huge breakers and waves crashing over the area. Even the noise in itself would suggest that there was something very nasty in the vicinity! However, in calm weather and at high tides, nothing whatsoever would be visible to warn of the great danger that lay only feet below the surface.

Sometimes great rocks or boulders are thrown up onto the rock by the sheer force of the sea. These rocks (called Travellers) may weigh as much as two tons. They may lie on the surface of the Rock for many months until another great storm comes along, whereupon the force, which deposited them there in the first instance, carries them off again back into the sea.

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