“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" 
- John Monypenny (1633)

Inchcape or Bell Rock was one of the most feared hazards to navigation on the Fife coast of northeastern Scotland.  It lay some 11 miles off Arbroath obstructing the path of ships approaching the Firth of Forth.  Bell Rock was said to be so feared by sailors that as many ships had perished going aground trying to avoid it as had actually struck the rock itself.  The reddish sandstone rock was only barely visible at low tide and was completely submerged the rest of the time. Bell Rock had been responsible for the destruction of hundreds of ships over the years. By the end of the 1700's the demands from ship owners, Captains, sheriffs and merchants had risen to such a level that the Scottish Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) was forced to take action. 

Previous attempts at marking Bell Rock had met with dismal failure. These included the Abbot of Aberbrothock's attempt in the 1600's by to install a bell on the rock, that was cut down by the pirate, Sir Ralph the Rover.  In 1799, Captain Joseph Brodie, made several attempts to construct a light on Bell Rock,  the longest of which lasted five months before being washed to sea by a winter storm.  Some members of the NLB felt that the construction of a lighthouse on Bell Rock was impossible. 

“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.”

“Inchcape Rock” by Robert Southey

Things came to a head in 1804, when the British man-of-war, HMS York, struck the Bell Rock and was lost with all hands on board. In 1806, the Northern Lighthouse Board passed a bill authorizing the sum of £25,000 for the construction of a stone tower on Bell Rock. Politics played a role from the project's inception.  Robert Stevenson (grandfather of the author Robert Louis Stevenson) was the assistant to Thomas Smith, the Engineer for the NLB.  Robert, the patriarch of the Lighthouse Stevensons, had been studying the feasibility of constructing a lighthouse on Bell Rock since his first visit to the rock in 1800.  He had also been lobbying the members of the NLB relentlessly on behalf of the project, a move which may have been counterproductive.  In the event, John Rennie, a contemporary of Robert's was named Chief Engineer on the project, with Robert assigned to assist him.  Time and determination prevailed however and over the course of the next three years Robert so completely managed the design and construction that he, rather than Rennie is usually given most of the credit. 

“To build a tower high enough to carry a warning light and stable enough to house three men to watch it, on a rock 11 miles from land, and buried under 16 feet of water twice every 24 hours in a sea much liable to storms, was not a task to be lightly undertaken.”

Robert Stevenson , from his account of the Bell Rock lighthouse

Construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse consumed the next five years and were filled with almost unimaginable hardships.  Just walking on the slippery surface of Bell Rock was a difficult task and it was commonplace for an entire day's work to be washed away by a single huge wave.  Not the least of the problems was that no one even knew it was possible! Constructing a tower on a scrap of sandstone whose foundation was underwater most of the time and would be expected to withstand almost unimaginable forces of wind and seas year after year was more like pioneering than engineering.  Even the most basic tasks such as transporting materials and landing them on the rock required considerable ingenuity.  Dynamite had only just been introduced as a builder's tool and was not yet considered trustworthy, concrete hadn't been invented yet, there were no hydraulic cranes and every scrap of building material had to be hauled to the site on a boat manned by sailors with a deeply seated and well founded instinct that Bell Rock was a place to be avoided at all costs.  Despite these daunting obstacles, and many others, work commenced on 16 August 1807 and continued, weather permitting, until the light was lit on the first of February 1811.

Credit for the design for the Bell Rock lighthouse goes primarily to Robert, though it certainly draws on the work of John Smeaton who designed the stone tower of the Eddystone lighthouse in 1759. Although Robert clearly drew on Smeaton's work, the demands of the Bell Rock project were much more extreme and Robert was forced to invent many completely new construction techniques.  The design of the Bell Rock tower is a study in ingenuity, and a sobering reflection on the forces of nature.  

Initially, a circular "foundation pit," about a meter deep was chiseled  by hand  into the surface of the rock.  Eighteen "foundation blocks" were set to level the bottom of the pit.  Carved granite blocks were then laid to form the first full "course" of 123 interlocking stones that filled the circular foundation pit. Each stone was dovetailed to lock it into the others, like a puzzle, and strengthen the entire form.  Each course was also keyed to the one above and below it, using trenails (oak dowels), wedges and a minimum of mortar. The design of each course varied to realize the exterior shape of the tower. The first twenty five courses of the tower were solid dovetailed granite stones, forming a ten meter high base for the hollow, habitable portion of the tower above it. Above this solid foundation, the building material switched from granite to sandstone.

Since each stone weighed up to a ton, the work progressed slowly. During the first year of work, three complete courses were set, consisting of 400 stones. The 80 men on the project under Stevenson's supervision worked seven days a week, as much as 16 hours per day. The working season on Bell Rock ran roughly from May to August though it varied according to the weather.  For the first year, the men shuttled between the rock and the Smeaton. During that year, a temporary quarters called the Beacon House was constructed to facilitate the effort. 

Once the foundation was complete, the pace of the work increased. The second year of construction, 1809 brought completion of the 26th stone course, the last of the solid courses. 1810 marked completion of the tower itself, with the last stone of the 90th course, the lintel of the Light Room door,  being laid on the 30th of July.  Robert Stevenson marked the occasion with the following invocation:

“May the Great Architect of the Universe, under whose blessing this perilous work has prospered, preserve it as a guide to the Mariner.”

The year 1811 brought completion of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.  On the first of February, the unique alternating red and white light was installed and the tower commenced its mission of warning approaching ships away from the dangers of the rock on which it stood.  Since that time, the Bell Rock light has been in nearly continuous operation, despite being attacked by enemy aircraft during World War II, struck by a RAF helicopter, set afire by a faulty gas pipe, and withstood innumerable storms. The lighthouse was fully automated and the final crew of lightkeepers relieved on the 26th October 1988



1  The Northern Lighthouse Board: http://www.nlb.org.uk
2 Bell Rock Lighthouse website:
3 Diagrams showing the pattern of interlocking stone courses:
4 Links to lighthouse resources: http://webtech.kennesaw.edu/jcheek3/lighthouses.htm

Three Great Books about the Lighthouse Stevensons

"A Star for Seamen - The Stevenson Family of Engineers" by Craig Mair (1978)
"The Lighthouse Stevensons" by Bella Bathurst (1999)
"Bright Lights - The Stevenson Engineers - 1752-1971" by Jean Leslie and Roland Paxton (1999)

Here's that famous lighthouse picture that lighthouses always make me think of (Goog it for the image)

"Phares dans la Tempete - La Jument" Jean GUICHARD