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  • Bell Rock Lighthouse by Michael A. W. Strachan

    More than Stevenson and Rennie

    Historians now debate whether Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) or John Rennie (1761-1821) deserve the credit for the engineering behind the Bell Rock. While Rennie was Chief Engineer, Stevenson’s ingenuity on the reef arguable allowed him to construct from his own plan. (National Galleries Scotland, Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    When I was first approached by my Amberley editor regarding the possibility of writing a book about the Bell Rock Lighthouse my almost immediate answer was absolutely not. In my view there had been enough books written about the Bell Rock, most of which were nothing more than edited versions of Robert Stevenson’s 1824 Account of the Building of the Bell Rock Lighthouse. What new information was there still left to find? In the end I was persuaded to write the book by one of the Bell’s many enthusiastic fans: a person from Dundee who had tried to convince me of its superior status among lighthouses.

    The Bell Rock was built 12 miles off the coast of Arbroath between 1807-10. The light was first exhibited from 1st February 1811. (Taken from Stevenson's Account of the Building of the Bell Rock, Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    The Bell Rock, long seen as the lighthouse that made the name of the Stevenson Engineers, was built between 1807-10 to mark the deadly Inchcape Reef. As one might expect from the wealth of material published regarding the construction of the tower, it was not only seen as a monumental feat of engineering in its own time, but one which continues to draw appreciation and admiration today. To tame the Inchcape Reef, Stevenson and his men would need to build a solid stone tower on a rock which was submerged 12-feet under water at the high water and barely exposed during low-tide. At the outset of the construction it was expected it would take seven summers to build, but thanks to Stevenson’s ingenuity on the reef it was completed in less than four summers with the light first being exhibited on the 1st February 1811.

    The Bell Rock was manned by a chain of light-keepers from 1811 until it was finally automated in 1988. (Courtesy of Signal Tower Museum, Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    Despite this impressive record, if I was going to write a book about the Bell Rock it was not going to focus solely on the construction: Robert Stevenson wrote that book in 1824 and the Northern Lighthouse Heritage Trust has made that meticulous text available online. In more recent times authors have studied the construction while questioning whom the credit should go for masterminding the tower: although Robert Stevenson’s name is most associated with the Bell, it is not disputed that he was but an assistant to the project’s chief engineer John Rennie. While history has favoured Stevenson, in the last ten years or so Rennie’s vital improvements to Stevenson’s plans are becoming more emphasised and recognised, particularly following Professor Paxton’s 2011 publication Dynasty of Engineers: one of many works published in that year to mark the Bell’s bicentenary. But if I wanted my book to do anything, it was to show that the history of the Bell Rock lighthouse spans more than 4 years: it is more than just Stevenson and Rennie!

    This new book is different for it purposely goes beyond Stevenson and Rennie to explore the wider history of the Bell Rock, charting how things have changed in the tower through time to the present day. Yes, Stevenson and Rennie have an important part in the book, but they are contained to only two chapters. The majority of the book instead focusses on another aspect of the Bell which in my view draws just as much interest and admiration from pharologists and novices alike: what was it like to live and work on the Bell Rock? The story of how the keepers’ lived on this lonely tower for over 175 years, marooned for six-week periods 12 miles off the Angus coast, is just as fascinating as the over-documented story of construction. The book allows readers to chronologically drop in on the lighthouse during certain periods to see how, in many cases, situations had improved from the previous chapters while in other cases see how persistent challenges remained in what was considered to be Scotland’s worst light to man.

    The interest in the Bell Rock led to the old Signal Tower in Arbroath being refurbished into a museum which tells the history of the lighthouse. (Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    It is acknowledged in the book that the job of light-keeping, particularly on the Bell, could be mundane: like at every other lighthouse there were long periods at the rock where very little changed and where the exact same vigils in the lightroom were carried out night-in and night-out. Such periods were, though, punctuated by the arrival of the engineers in their efforts to update and modernise the station. The more recent engineering challenges have been tackled by non-Stevensons and have been largely overlooked and ignored by pharologists and historians. Among those featured in the book are the four main ‘punctuations’ of the 20th Century: David A. Stevenson’s 1902 improvements; the Bell Rock adaptions for war; Hyslop’s 1963/4 modernization; and the Northern Lighthouse Board’s 1987/8 modifications for automation. While none of the above may match the gargantuan challenge and achievements of Stevenson and Rennie, they are important steps by the direct successors of those two men in the making of a modern and functional lighthouse. These engineering projects are just as fascinating a read and just as important to the history of the tower than those overseen by Robert Stevenson in the century before.

    Mr John Boath (left), last principal light-keeper of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, was interviewed by the author (right) for the book telling of his experience on the Bell. Pictured at Kinnaird Head Lighthouse (Photo: Ian Cowe, Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    The book is illustrated with 100 images which have largely been taken from the extensive collection of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh as well as from other institutions and private collections, with many historical internal views of the tower. Some of these images have never-before been published which should be of interest to fans of the Bell Rock, and fans of lighthouses in general. The images represent the best collation of Bell Rock images in a single publication on the subject, while the approach to chronicle the full history of the lighthouse represents a welcome break from the traditional and well-trodden focus of that lights prestigious past.

    Michael A. W. Strachan's new book Bell Rock Lighthouse: An Illustrated History is available for purchase now.

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