Section Index
Bicentennial - 2011
Visiting the Rock
Underwater Life
at the Bell Rock

"Inchcape Rock" by Robert Southey
Light-keeper's Duties "1823"
The Bell Rock Prayer
Sir Joseph Banks and Mutiny on the Bounty
Sir Walter Scott's visit, the "Pharos Loquitur"
"The Year without a Summer"
"Death of HMS Argyll"
Pharos Experience
Preparing for Automation
Life in the Bell Rock
Lighthouse (1865)

A Keeper's Account
'"A Quiet Night In"

A Keeper's Account
"Outdoor 'Excursions'"

North Carr Lightships
Lighthouses of the Forth
The Bell Rock Tartan

Bill Daysh did his training years (1950-53) at HMS Condor on the outskirts of Arbroath, and returned there in 1969 as Manpower Control Officer, POAF's Divisional Officer and Ship's Diving Officer. In the latter capacity, he was responsible for setting up the Sub Aqua Club at HMS Condor.

In the summer of 1970, the team (which included local divers from Arbroath) found the massive propellors of the HMS Argyll, the only ship to fall foul of the Bell Rock since the Lighthouse was built in 1811 . . .

Further information on the diving activities at the wreck and the subsequent finding of the propellers can be found at

"The death of HMS ARGYLL"

by William Daysh, MBE, RN (Retd)

HMS Argyll
The 10,850-ton battle cruiser - HMS ARGYLL

The Bell Rock, that 2,000 foot sunken ledge of sandstone lying off the Firth of Forth, was the source of many legends throughout history. Also known as the Inchcape Rock, it was a veritable graveyard for ships and a place of terror for seamen. An appalling number of ships were wrecked there until the Bell Rock lighthouse was built in 1811 by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of 'RLS'.

But in spite of the lighthouse being manned during the First World War, one of the Royal Navy's largest battle cruisers at that time, HMS ARGYLL, succeeded in wrecking herself on the Inchcape Rock in 1915.

Such was the need for secrecy about naval losses during the war that the demise of ARGYLL was barely made public at the time, and the drama that engulfed her crew and the lighthouse keepers that night was never brought to light. Apart from a small mention in one newspaper, little information was released about the incident and in the euphoria that surrounded the ending of the war in 1918 there was no call for retrospective inquiries. The records of the event became "lost" and had it not been for the subsequent investigative efforts of the Scottish journalist James Murray, no further details would have emerged at all.

The Bell Rock is, and always has been, treacherous. It sits in unexpected isolation some twelve miles from the nearest coastline, where at high tide the sea covers its jagged peak. During the First World War the lighthouse was manned but not lit, except for short bursts at routine times and by special request - even though the 3rd Cruiser Squadron of the British Grand Fleet, which was based at Rosyth, operated in the area. It was thought that the lighthouse, if lit up, could assist German submarines in navigating the coastal waters of eastern Scotland, and several British lighthouses had already been shelled by German ships.

In October 1915, ARGYLL was nearing the end of a refit at Plymouth dockyard and was urgently needed at sea. On completion, she was expected to rejoin her squadron at Rosyth without delay. But as the North Sea was infested with enemy submarines at the time, she was ordered to take the longer, clockwise route around the British Isles - as was the practice of the time. She left Plymouth in foul weather on October 25 with a full complement of 655 officers and ratings under the command of Captain James Tancred.

In spite of the conditions, in order to make May Island before dawn - the time when German submarines were most active in the Forth estuary - the big ship was obliged to maintain 16 knots as she ploughed through the Irish Sea. She reached the east coast of Scotland on October 27 in worsening weather. H E Evans - a young Midshipman in ARGYLL at the time - said later: "That night was one of the worst I can remember in long years at sea - storm-force winds, mountainous seas, thick fog and heavy rain; as unpleasant a combination as any seaman could face."

Stranded on the reef
HMS Argyll stranded on the reef

As the Bell Rock was the last natural hazard Captain Tancred had to contend with before reaching the safety of his base, he sent a signal to Rosyth requesting the lighthouse to be lit. His navigating officer plotted a course to pass the Bell Rock by eight miles, a margin considered to be perfectly adequate.

Satisfied that he had taken adequate precautions, and nearing the end of a stressful journey, Captain Tancred handed the ship over to the Officer of the Watch in the early hours of October 28 and retired to his cabin to rest.

During the war, the Bell Rock keepers could only be contacted by boat or by visual signals, and on receipt of ARGYLL's at Rosyth, a motor torpedo boat was despatched with all haste to the lighthouse. However, on reaching the mouth of the Forth, the small vessel was confronted by a wall of seething white water and was forced to turn back.

On its return to Rosyth, the offices of the C-in-C Rosyth sent a further signal to the battleship QUEEN MARY, which was patrolling the North Sea nearby. QUEEN MARY responded at 02.17 with: "Regret that owing to heavy seas I am unable to contact the Bell Rock light."

With that, nothing more was done to contact the Bell Rock lighthouse or, more crucially, ARGYLL herself. She continued on, pounding through huge waves in pitch blackness, with visibility reduced to nothing by torrential rain and the foaming spray that was lashed by a howling gale. Meanwhile, every eye on the bridge and in look-out positions strained for the expected shaft of bright light that would guide them past the hazardous reef. But they saw nothing.

Then, in the early hours, as a particularly heavy squall suddenly lifted like a curtain, a look-out called: "Sailing ship ahead" - mistaking the huge granite pillar of the Bell Rock lighthouse for a large spread of sail.

The Captain, having heard the call and assuming that a collision was imminent asked a bridge officer, "What is she doing?"

"It isn't a sailing ship, sir," was the reply, "it's the Bell Rock lighthouse!"

The Captain rushed onto the bridge and took command. The helm was immediately put hard over and the engines put "Full Astern", but nothing could stop the oncoming tragedy. With waves crashing over her, ARGYLL gave two great lurches and wedged her 450 foot keel firmly among the rocks, just two lengths short of the lighthouse.

It was just after 04.30.

Departmental assessments revealed extensive damage. Her bottom was pierced in No. 2 stokehold and oil fuel leaking from her damaged tanks had started a serious fire. Having grounded at the very top of high water, it seemed unlikely that ARGYLL would ever be re-floated. However, there was also a great fear that if she did shake herself loose, she could drift into deep water and sink.

Captain Tancred realised at once that the situation was hopeless. His ship could either sink in deep water or would stay where she was and be a prime target for German submarines, once dawn broke. The crew was brought up on deck to prepare to abandon ship.

Approximately twenty minutes after the sickening crunch of metal on rock, ARGYLL was sending frantic signals:

Urgent. ARGYLL ashore on Bell Rock. Ship badly damaged. Afraid will rip her bottom as the tide falls. Appears there is no chance of saving ship.

The fire was put out and the lifeboats were swung out in readiness.

Aerial view of the wreck
Aerial view of the wreck

In the lighthouse, Principal Keeper John Henderson and his two assistants Colin McCormack and Donald MacDonald were not in evidence, and were totally oblivious to the British warship stranded on their doorstep with heavy seas pouring over her and into her.

In ARGYLL, frantic attempts to contact the keepers by loud-hailer were swept away on the wind. The crew clung to the deck with their hands freezing and the howling gale beating them into exhaustion as the keepers slept on. When dawn finally broke, the crew of ARGYLL faced an awesome sight. The Bell Rock lighthouse stood tall among the foaming waves, less than a hundred yards ahead of their ship.

Using lifebuoys, the crew made several attempts to float a grass line to the lighthouse, in an effort to make contact with the keepers, but all ended in failure due to the heavy seas.

When the keepers finally made a move to show their light at a routine time, they were staggered by the sight 30 feet below them. At first, they hid away, mistaking ARGYLL for a German battleship that was preparing to shell their lighthouse. But when they read the frantic signals she was flashing and realised she was British, they suddenly found themselves drawn into the drama. The keepers made Herculean efforts to float a line to the ship, using an empty barrel. They finally succeeded and the crew of ARGYLL hauled it in and secured a heavy hawser to it.

Just then, the ship received a signal informing her that the Arbroath, Broughty Ferry and St Andrews lifeboats had been launched and forced back, but two destroyers of the dark night patrol were on their way.

With the hawser only half-way between the ship and the lighthouse, ARGYLL used a loud-hailer to tell the keepers that help was on the way - and her crew promptly hauled back on the line. In the lighthouse, the line snaked across the floor of the entrance and tripped Colin McCormack. As he fell, the line wrapped itself around his leg and hauled him rapidly towards the entrance, 30 feet above the jagged rocks and foaming sea. Henderson fell on McCormack and grabbed him under the arms and held on. In ARGYLL, the crew unwittingly carried on winching in the line and a bizarre tug of war ensued. Henderson wedged himself into the lintel of the doorway and clung to McCormack for dear life, while MacDonald hacked away at the line with a knife that he had managed to snatch. On the edge of a disaster for McCormack, MacDonald succeeded in cutting the rope at the last possible moment. The line went slack and Henderson and McCormack fell back into the safety of the lighthouse, exhausted.

McCormack was put to bed with a bad rope burn on his leg, to settle his nerves and recover from his ordeal.

Meanwhile, the two destroyers HMS HORNET and JACKALL appeared out of the gloom and made every effort to get close to the stricken ARGYLL. After several attempts, HORNET managed to get her stern close to ARGYLL's, where 500 of her crew had been assembled for abandoning ship. The rest of the crew took to the lifeboats and rowed clear of their ship.

On mountainous waves, the stern of HORNET rose and fell like an express lift against ARGYLL's. At times the two ships clashed violently, buckling HORNET's stern plates. There was a real danger of men being crushed between them, but each time the sterns passed, men made the jump to HORNET's deck until there were none left aboard ARGYLL.

HMS JACKALL succeeded in getting the lifeboats in her lee and picked up the remaining survivors. By 12.30, the entire crew of ARGYLL was safely at Rosyth, each man recounting his story as he changed into dry clothes. By somewhat of a miracle, every crewman was saved without injury, apart from one sprained ankle.

The Newly salvaged propeller
Bill Daysh inspecting the newly salvaged propeller

ARGYLL was never re-floated. To prevent her wreck becoming a navigational aid for enemy ships, the Navy's salvage team explosively reduced her to a pile of steel plates, after recovering everything of value. After the Great War ended, she attracted little attention until the sub aqua era began in earnest. Then she was dived on many times over the years. However, her two massive, manganese-bronze propellers eluded divers for fifty years until, in the summer of 1970, naval and *local* civilian members of the Sub Aqua Club of HMS Condor found them. Weighing 14½ tons each, the propellers were then worth around £9,000 in scrap value and they were subsequently recovered for that purpose by a civilian salvage team.

It was a sad ending for a gracious ship. Built in 1904 at Greenock, Scotland, ARGYLL belonged to what was know as the "Improved County" class of battle cruiser and escorted the King and Queen to India when they went East for the Durbar at the end of 1912. In 1909, she held the Navy's Gunnery award cup.

© Copyright
Bill Daysh - May 2003

* The vessel used to successfully find the propellors was the AH94 skippered by Brian Bruce and crewed by Sam Russell. The other two members on the trip were Clark Ross and Bob Spink, (R. R. Spink Jnr.). Acting on information provided by Peter Swankie Bruce, (who was a young lad at the time of the stranding), the boat was anchored on a bearing from the forrard gun-turret. This turret was always clearly visible for some time either side of low water.

Brian Bruce acted as stand-by diver in the inflatable while Bob Spink and Clark Ross made the first dive, Bob taking a line with a small seine-net float attached. He rather speedily surfaced again as seals were zooming in on him - attracted by the float bobbing about behind him! Discarding the float, Bob dived again and, after some time, re-surfaced waving wildly to attract my attention. He had found the first propellor!

I am grateful to Brian Bruce for this additional information. - Webmaster

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