Pumping out the foundation pit and the smith hard at work
at his forge
Whereas Stevenson described the operations of 1807 more
of a preliminary nature, 1808 saw the commencement of the
Works in earnest. During the early part of the year another
schooner was built specially for Bell Rock service. The
"Sir Joseph Banks" (83 tons), named after the
man who had helped to procure the loan necessary to build
the lighthouse and who had sailed with Captain Cook on many
of his explorations, was considered to be one of the finest
ships that had ever been built in Scotland.
It was capable of sleeping 40 artificers, as well as 15
crew members. It also had accommodation for the engineer’s
assistants, the landing-master, and the captain of the tender.
RS’s own cabin was situated at the rear of the vessel. Stevenson
also describes the vessel as a "Store Tender and Tender
of Safety" - a reference no doubt to last year's near-disaster
which would still have been very much uppermost in his mind.
The praam boats, an odd name which describes a certain
shape of Norwegian boat with rounded stem and stern, were
employed in taking the stones from the main vessel to the
Rock itself. A more complete list of shipping and their
crews can be found in the section “The Builders”.
At this time the Railways, which would be used to transport
the blocks from the point they were landed on the Rock to
the site of the Lighthouse itself, were being made at the
Shotts Iron Works. The other implements and building materials
necessary to the construction works were also being prepared:
viz. waggons, cranes, sling cart, winch machines, moulds,
pumps, carpenter’s jacks, Lewis bats, mortar mixes (pozzolano,
lime and sand), cements, trenails and wedges. As well as
ensuring a regular supply of granite from Aberdeen and Peterhead,
and sandstone from Mylnefield, near Dundee, and Craigleith,
RS visited the beacon-house in March and found that the
paintwork had been discoloured by the action of wind and
waves over the winter months; also the gulls and cormorants
had now made the beacon a natural place on which to perch.
Otherwise the building had survived well over the months
with no signs of any movement in any of the joints (exception
a loosening of the bracing-chains), and that the site was
pretty much as they had left it last October.
However, uppermost in his mind had been the near-disaster
of last year and how to secure the safety of the men should
such a situation ever happen again. On seeing how well the
Beacon-house had fared over the winter, he was resolved
that, apart from its uses as a workplace for the smith or
a possible emergency refuge, it could also serve as permanent
accommodation for the artificers. He immediately set in
motion plans to strengthen the supports. Although the Beacon-house
was ready for habitation by the beginning of the 1809 season,
in wasn't until July of that year that RS and the artificers
eventually took up permanent residence.
The Impressment Service (better known as the Press Gang),
due to the pressures of war against France and the Northern
powers, was at its height about this time, especially in
and around Arbroath, Dundee and Aberdeen. In a way it had
benefited the Lighthouse work, for the seamen, who otherwise
might not have taken on the job by choice, considered that
the work was the “lesser of the two evils”. It became necessary
to get protection for the 35 seamen who served on the five
vessels belonging to the Northern Lighthouse Board. Below
is an example of the ticket:
“Bell Rock Work-yard, Arbroath, 31st March 1808
“ John Pratt, seaman in the service of the Honourable the
Commissioners of the Northern Light-houses, aged 35 years,
5 feet and 8 inches high, black complexion, and slightly
marked with the small-pox.
“Engineer for Northern Light-houses,”
“The bearer John Pratt, is serving on board of the Sir Joseph
Banks Tender and Craft, employed at the erection of the
Bell Rock Light-house.
The signature of the Master of the Tender, DAVID TAYLOR.
The signature of the bearer, JOHN PRATT.”
The supply of granite, from which the outer casing of the
lower courses would be constructed, had become critical.
Mr Skene of Rubislaw, whose quarries were to supply the
stone, had underestimated in his contract with the Board,
and had run into financial difficulties. RS took immediate
steps to rectify the situation, by increasing the price
of granite per cubic foot from £3 3s to £5. At Mylnefield,
due to the severity of the winter, the quarrying of sandstone
had also been at a standstill for several weeks.
During the month, the number of artificers in the workyard,
consisting of masons, smiths, mill-wrights, joiners and
labourers, amounted to 60. On the 25th, at the beginning
of the season, RS embarked at Arbroath on board the "Sir
Joseph Banks" for the Bell Rock along with Mr Logan,
Sen., the foreman builder, and 12 masons and 2 smiths, together
with 13 seamen, including the master, mate and steward.
The winter had left no significant problems on the Rock,
except that the six blocks of granite that had been landed
there last September were now scattered in different directions.
The proposed foundation pit was examined and it was deemed
necessary to excavate to an average depth of 14 inches over
the entire area. Sea-sickness was still a problem with the
men, and there were misunderstandings over the rate of pay
for Sunday working. The mortar gallery was fitted out in
the beacon in preparation for the building work, and men
were employed clearing up the chips of stone which accumulated
while the foundation pit was being cleared. These shivers
or chips were used as ballast for the Smeaton, and when
the material was landed at Leith, many pieces of stone were
taken by interested passers-by as souvenirs of the work.
By 4th June the first entire course was completed at the
workyard at Arbroath. RS remarked that it might seem strange
that only one course had been prepared considering that
the operation had been under way for almost a year. This
was partly due to the difficulty of obtaining granite of
suitable proportions. However, the complete First course
(measuring 42 feet in diameter), though only foot in thickness,
contained 508 cubic feet of granite (52 stones) for the
outer casing, 876 cubic feet of sandstone (71 inner stones),
in all weighing 104 tons. Sixty stone cutters at that time
were employed in the workyard.
The time of low tide always dictated when work would start
on the Rock. On June 7, the ship’s bell was rung at 3 o’clock
in the morning. If the landing was made before breakfast,
it was customary that the men be given a dram and a biscuit.
All who worked on the rock in the early days, turned their
hand to whatever job needed to be done, whether they be
artificiers, boatmen or sailors. As RS says: “We had
no such character on the Bell Rock as the common labourer.”
At this time the excavation of the foundation pit was proving
difficult due to the unexpected hardness of the rock. Also
keeping the site clear of water became more and more troublesome.
On the 8th they were beset once again by gales, and the
"Sir Joseph Banks", under the command of
Capt. Taylor, broke adrift from her moorings. It was therefore
considered advisable that they make with all haste to the
Leith Roads for shelter until the weather improved. The
following day, the artificers, 44 in all, still in their
working clothes, much tattered and stained with the red
colour of the rock, were allowed ashore and enjoyed the
experience exploring the streets of Edinburgh. On returning
to the Rock, the seas were such that landing could only
be achieved with the greatest of difficulty. Once again,
the men showed a distinct unhappiness to land on the Rock
when subjected to what they considered life-threatening
A stone being landed on the Rock from one of the praams
using the sheer crane
On 21st, 58 workmen landed on the Rock, but due to the
state of tides and the fogginess of the weather, little
work was done. RS, however, noted that, in conditions of
thick and foggy weather, it would be necessary to also have
large bells on the lighthouse to warn approaching vessels
of imminent danger. The following day the materials for
making mortar were landed in preparation for laying the
first course of stones.
Preparations continued on the foundation pit. At this time
it now measured about 2 feet in depth and 42 feet in diameter.
Every time the tide receded the area had to be drained.
However, by using pumps it was possible to drain the water
off in about half an hour. On Sunday, 10th July, a day of
great rejoicing, the Foundation Stone was ready for
laying. It was a square stone of some 20 cubic feet and
had the date of 1808 simply inscribed on it. RS describes
the scene: "The stone was then hooked to the tackle
and lowered into its place, when the writer, attended by
his assistants Mr Peter Logan, Mr Francis Watt, and Mr James
Wilson, applied the square, the level, and the mallet, and
pronounced the following benediction: 'May the Great Architect
of the Universe complete and bless this building,' on which
three hearty cheers were given, and success to the future
operations was drunk with the greatest enthusiasm."
The railway from the site of the building to the eastern
landing place was almost complete, but there were problems
in the workyard in Arbroath. A number of granite blocks
for the first four courses were still awanting. RS was prepared
to increase the price of the stones again as an incentive
to the quarriers, but, regardless, it was obvious that only
2 or 3 courses were going to be built that season.
On the 28th the last of the 18 stones which comprised the
Foundation course were laid. This brought the whole
surface to a uniform level. On the same day the Smeaton
was loaded up with 20 stones of the first complete course.
As stated earlier, the state of the tides always dictated
when work on the Rock (weather permitting) commenced. The
urgency to forge ahead meant that all were expected to work
during the hours of darkness when necessary. In all, 57½
dozen (690) torches were used over the four seasons of the
lighthouse's construction. Landing and getting back to the
boats in rough weather was always perilous. Stevenson describes
one occasion when preparing to leave the rock in heavy seas
"The wind being at SE this evening, we had a pretty
heavy swell upon the rock, and some difficulty attended
our getting off the rock in safety as the boats got a-ground
the creek and were in danger of being upset. Upon extinguishing
the torchlights, about 12 in number, the darkness of the
night seemed quite horrible; the water being so much charged
with the phosphoresecent appearance which is familiar to
every one on ship-board, the waves, as they dashed upon
the rock, were in some degree like so much liquid flame.
The scene, upon the whole, was truly awful."
The early part of this month was taken up with laying the
first course. Although the stones were dovetailed into position,
the secure fixing of the stones could not be left to gravity
alone. RS decided that the best method of “locking” the
lower courses would be that used by John Smeaton, when he
built the Eddystone Lighthouse in 1759; that is, using oak
trenails and wedges. In the first course alone, 246 trenails
and 378 pairs of wedges were used.
The first complete course of 123 stones showing the complicated
On the morning tide of the 11th a group of visitors from
Leith narrowly escaped drowning when their boat capsized
on trying to land on the Rock. All were flung into the water,
but fortunately they were all rescued and no-one was lost.
The following day the men completed the entire First
course of 123 blocks of stones to three hearty cheers.
One of the best masons in the workyard, a Hugh Rose, suffered
a serious accident when a block of between two and three
tons slipped from the carpenter’s jack and landed on his
knees. He was so disabled by the injury that the Lighthouse
Board settled an annuity of £20 per annum upon him.
There were still problems in getting a regular supply of
granite from Aberdeen. The Second course, consisting
of 136 stones and weighing 152 tons, was now ready for shipment
out to the Rock. This course was 18 inches in thickness
and the granite stones measured from 4 to 7 feet in length
and varied in breadth from 3 to 4½ feet. The weather being
extremely favourable enabled the course to be laid in 7
One of the masons, John Bonnyman, almost lost a finger
while working with the moveable beam crane on the Rock.
He was quickly despatched to Arbroath, but ultimately the
finger had to be amputated. This accident afterwards qualified
him to become a lighthouse keeper. By the 11th work had
stopped on the building due to the lack of granite. On the
13th heavy seas had lifted two stones from the unfinished
Third course. Fortunately the blocks had not been washed
into deep water. The stones were laid again, taking extra
precautions to secure them against further movement. The
cranes were also battened down until the worst of the gales
On the 19th heavy swells created difficulties in landing
at the eastern creek. RS observed that the western railway
(not yet built) would have been greatly beneficial on these
occasions, and would allow landing at the alternative western
creek. In exceptionally good weather conditions, the stones
could be landed during high water, but this involved dropping
or lowering them though the water onto the Rock, and great
care had to be taken to ensure that they came to no damage.
The loss of a single stone meant a return to the workyard
and its replacement re-cut, involving delays which had to
be avoided at all costs.
Due to the continuing bad weather, it was proposed to terminate
the building activities for the season. However, the "Smeaton"
unexpectedly returned from the Rock, so at midnight the
remaining 17 stones for the Third course were carted down
to the harbour, and they duly set sail for the Bell Rock
at 2.30 am, arriving at her moorings at 6.30 am. That day
saw the unfortunate loss of James Scott, one of the young
seamen on board the Smeaton. He and the mate Thomas Macurich
had been making fast a hawser when, due to the fast tides,
the buoy on which they were attempting to attach their mooring
suddenly broke free and collided with their boat with such
force that they were both thrown into the water. Macurich
was saved but Scott, who seemed to have been knocked unconscious,
was drowned. Scott’s younger brother, Alexander, took his
brother’s place on board the Smeaton.
The entire Third course was duly completed, which
ended the building operations for the season. The tally
for this season, therefore, was calculated to be about 388
tons of stone, consisting of 400 blocks connected with 738
trenails and 1215 pairs of wedges. The number of working
hours spent on the rock amounted to about 265, of which
80 were employed in actual building work.
During the winter months, a small squad of workmen went
out to the Rock during Spring tides to check and repair
any damage which the Railways or Beacon might have sustained.
In the workyard the masons were employed in cutting the
stones for next season’s operations. The Tender was occupied
in transporting the workmen to and from the Rock, and supplying
the Floating Light with provisions; while the sloop "Smeaton"
made several trips to the granite quarries at Aberdeen and