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 Works (cont.)

Operations of 1808

Pumping out the foundation pit and the smith hard at work at his forge
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, near Edinburgh.

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:

Protection 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 conditions.

A stone being landed on the Rock from one of the praams using the sheer crane
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 in darkness:

Works at night

"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 interlocking structure
The first complete course of 123 stones showing the complicated interlocking structure

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 tides.


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 had passed.

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 Peterhead.

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