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 1809

State of works as at September 1808
State of works as at September 1808

During January the east coast of Scotland had been subjected to particularly heavy seas, and no landing could be made until the 20th. When they got to the Rock they found that several iron supports of the railway had come apart.

No less than 10 of the bracing chains of the Beacon had completely loosened, but they were pleased to see there had been no substantial damage to the Beacon itself. Three huge boulders (one weighing upwards of a ton) had been washed onto the Rock by heavy seas. These came to be known as Travellers. Eventually they would be washed into the sea again, but, at that time, it was of concern that they might be dashed, by the force of the sea, against the Beacon and Railways rather like a battering ram, therefore causing serious damage to both structures. So in early March they were broken up into smaller pieces and removed from the area.

Back in the workyard the Ninth course was complete, and the Tenth had already started. Mylnefield, however, was still at a standstill due to the prolonged frosty weather. In early March, another shipwreck was averted. A large brig from Gothenburg on its way to Liverpool narrowly missed the Bell Rock. Had it not been for the watchful eye of the Floating Light they might well have struck the reef.

Another vessel, the sloop "Patriot", was purchased from a Kirkcaldy shipbuilder to cope with the increased work expected with this season’s operations. This boat had scarcely completed her first trip when she was found to be taking in water and was pronounced “unseaworthy”. Repairs were put into effect immediately. Two more praam-boats were also launched in Arbroath, the "Fernie" and the "Dickie".


The newly-built "Sir Joseph Banks" tender set sail on the 20th with the Hedderwick praam-boat in tow. On board were 15 artificers, consisting of millwrights, joiners, smiths and masons, to be employed in extending the Railways and fitting-up the Beacon-house for the workmen. Over the next few days little work was achieved due to the state of the weather. During this time the "Smeaton" was employed chiefly with the quarries at Mylnefield, and the Alexander with those in Aberdeenshire.

At Arbroath work was progressing well with the preparation of the courses. The 19th was now complete, and the dressed timber for the upper part of the Beacon was ready for shipment. Accordingly the Tender left Arbroath with Mr Francis Watt (the Foreman Joiner) and 18 artificers. At low tide they continued refitting and extending the Railways. When the tide overflowed the Rock they moved up into the Beacon and continued their work there. The fitting up of the Beacon was a great relief especially for those seriously affected by sea-sickness. It would also put an end to the inconvenience (as RS put it, “the plague”) of having to boat the men to and from the Rock by day and night.


The first three weeks of the month were virtually taken up with getting on with the Railways and completing the Beacon-house, as well other important chores, such as fixing mooring rings and laying down small floating-buoys as guides for the approaching loaded praams. In particular the completion of the circular Railway (55 feet in diameter) round the entire site of the Light-house was paramount.

The “big crater” at Rubislaw Quarry, Aberdeen, before closure in 1971.
The “big crater” at Rubislaw Quarry, Aberdeen, before closure in 1971.
The depth was 430 feet (131m)

On May 23rd, things were now in readiness to commence building operations for the season. The Smeaton arrived with 26 blocks of stone for the Fourth course, as well as a few casks of pozzolano, lime, sand, cement, trenails and wedges, and other materials connected with the building. The sheer crane, used for lifting the stones from the praams onto the rock, was erected at the eastern landing. The Railway, however, was still only two-thirds complete. Over the winter months, the upper course of the building (the Third) had acquired a thick coating of seaweed which was duly cleared, and on the 28th of the month, five stones of the Fourth course was laid. The building was once more underway.

On the last day of May it snowed so heavily that there was 3 inches on the decks of the vessels. RS remarked that April and May had been particularly cold months with temperatures seldom exceeding 40 deg.F (5 deg.C). He was also full of praise for his various Heads of Department for their ardour and zeal in their work.


The beginning of the month saw a very severe gale hit the coast. The "Smeaton" had once more to flee for shelter in the Frith of Forth. RS’s concern was for the 11 artificers who had been working on the Rock and who had not been able to get off before the winds changed direction. Fortunately, they were now able to shelter in the Beacon, which at that time was still incomplete and without bedding or a proper fireplace. It was difficult to say who had the worst of it. If it had been uncomfortable on the Beacon, RS thought, they certainly would have been no better off in the Tender. The following morning a relief boat managed to land with provisions for the men who had not eaten properly for almost 30 hours. For good cheer, “a tea-kettle full of mulled port wine” was included.

No substantial damage had been done to the Beacon, although on one occasion the whole fabric shuddered when a large wave struck the building during high water. The sea entered the lowest apartment (the Mortar Gallery) and washed away lime casks and anything moveable that happened to be there. One of the joiners, James Glen, who, recounting his own tales of hardship during earlier travels, kept up the spirits of the men, during what must have been a very fearful time for them.

That morning, RS managed with great difficulty to land on the Rock. He found that three of the stones had lifted 3 inches off their beds. The sheer crane at the landing site had lost two of its four legs, but fortunately the moveable beam crane on the Lighthouse site itself was still intact. The weather continued in a boisterous state for most of the month. Once again, on the 17th, the artificers found themselves overnighting in the Beacon-house. Fortunately, this time it was in a more complete state, now with bedding, but still with no cooking facilities. During high water, however, the men found the shaking and shuddering a somewhat unnerving experience.

By the 25th, the work on the Building was now 10 feet in height. It was found that a rope ladder (known as Jacob’s Ladder) was possible between the Beacon and the Lighthouse site. This was an important innovation because it allowed transport of the mortar buckets, by means of a pulley system, between the two buildings, and work could now continue even when the Rock was substantially under water. At this time of year the days were at their longest; therefore, when the masons landed on the Rock at 3 am, as was necessary on occasions, it was already daylight. By 9.30 pm, the Seventh course was complete.

On the 30th June, one of the principal builders, Michael Wishart, met with a serious accident. The moveable-beam crane collapsed whilst positioning one of the stones, and unfortunately Wishart was caught underneath the falling machinery. Bleeding seriously from the injury, he was quickly transported back to Arbroath with instructions to procure the best surgical aid. He made a full recovery, and eventually became a Lighthouse Keeper (second-in-command at the Bell Rock) when the Lighthouse was completed in 1811.

The harbour area showing the Bell Rock workyard
The harbour area showing the Bell Rock workyard


The first days of the month saw the Building gradually rise out of reach of the sea. The Ninth course, consisting of 71 stones, was now complete. RS visited Michael Wishart in Arbroath and was pleased to find him on the road to recovery. The completion of the Tenth course saw the building now clear of high water at neap tides. This was considered an important milestone by RS, and, as always with these occasions, flags were hoisted on all vessels and a glass of rum was served to all hands.

At this time RS visited Shotts Iron Works with plans for a new design in cranes, called the Balance Crane, to be used in the construction of the upper part of the Building. After the accident involving Wishart it was obvious that the Moveable Beam Crane was unsuited to the task.

The 15th saw the most successful day spent on the Rock so far. The artificers landed at 7.15 in the morning and continued through to midnight, working 16½ hours in all. No fewer than 52 stones had been laid, the Twelfth course was complete, and the height of the building now stood at 15 feet above the foundation stone. The beacon-house was also nearing completion. Tarpaulin was chosen to line the roof, a material more suitable on this occasion than the normal lead sheeting. The wooden exterior was given three coats of white lead paint and the walls were insulated with moss to ensure against dampness and draughts. Its interior was then lined with a green baize cloth, giving it altogether a very comfortable appearance. A few days later the entire complement of artificers (23 in all) moved to their new quarters in the Beacon-house.

Another unfortunate accident occurred in the workshop when a stone fell on one of the labourers who was trying to support it with a prop. William Walker, a married man with a young family, died a few hours later after sustaining a broken thigh.

On the 22nd an embargo was placed on all shipping around the coasts of Britain. This was due to the war with France, and in particular the intended Expedition to Walcheren. No exception could be given to any vessel, even those engaged on Bell Rock service. It was another 10 days, after an appeal to the Lords of the Treasury, that the embargo was lifted.


On the first day of the month, 78 blocks of stone where landed, of which 40 went to completing the Fourteenth course. By the 6th Aug. the Seventeenth course, consisting of 60 blocks, was completed.

At daybreak, much to the amazement of everyone, a large schooner, the "Fly of Bridport", bound from London to Dundee, was seen to be almost on top of the Rock. The crew of the vessel was strange to the coast and not realised the danger they were in. After discussions with the Landing-master they were conducted to the Frith of Tay.

On the 11th, such were the heavy swells that no boat could get anywhere near the Rock. Again one of the legs of the sheer crane had been broken. The gales continued with such severity that 12 of the artificers on the Beacon asked to be relieved and taken on board the Tender. This was done with the utmost of difficulty. Although it was the policy, up till now, to allow each man to choose whether or not to remain on Beacon or the Tender, it was now thought too inconvenient to split them in this way. Ultimately the men who came off the Beacon were returned to the workyard in Arbroath.

The gales had scattered various pieces of equipment all over the Rock, and once again the sea had created havoc in the mortar gallery on the Beacon. The blacksmith’s anvil was found lying on the rock below, while his bellows and the lime and cement casks were completely washed away. RS, however, was able to take possession of his own apartment in the Beacon-house, which he found most convenient instead of being obliged to return to the Tender in all weathers, day and night. On Saturday, the 19th, the Twenty-first course, consisting of 45 stones, was completed, bringing the height of the building to 25 feet.

The following day, the Twenty-second course was built entirely in one day. As this was the first occasion that this had happened, three hearty cheers were given. Being Sunday, at 12 noon, prayers were read for the first time on the Bell Rock. Those present, 30 in all, crowded into the top apartment of the Beacon, and two artificers joining hands supported the Bible.

Stones from the Smeaton being transferred to a praam-boat
Stones from the Smeaton being transferred to a praam-boat

On the 22nd, the Floating Light once more broke from her moorings due to the strong winds. She was obliged to anchor about a mile away until better weather allowed her to return to her original station. On the 25th the solid part of the building (the Twenty-sixth course above the Rock) was completed. It also ended the granite outer casing; from here on the building would be constructed only of sandstone. The height was now 31 feet 6 inches above the rock, and about 17 feet above high water of spring tides. At this point the building operations for the season were concluded.

There were several reasons for halting at this time. Firstly, the next stage of the building would be the door and inner staircase area of the house. RS considered it better to leave well alone than subject the void (as he put it) to the rigours of the winter winds and storms, even though the level of the building was now 8 to10 feet above the normal height of the waves. Secondly, the balance crane was not yet perfected. This would be attended to over the winter months. And thirdly, the beginning of September had in the past been notorious for very strong gales. RS was taking no chances.

At the end of August, the men returned to Arbroath on the Tender. “The vessel being decorated with colours, and having fired a salute of three guns on approaching the harbour, the workyard artificers, with a multitude of people, assembled at the harbour, when mutual cheering and congratulations took place between those afloat and those on the quays. The Tender [Sir Joseph Banks] had now, with little exception, been six months on the station at the Bell Rock, and, during the last four months, few of the squad had even been ashore. The artificers having made good wages during their stay, like seamen upon a return-voyage, were extremely happy, and spent the evening with much innocent mirth and jollity.”

RS, full of praise for his workmen, continues: “They always went from Arbroath to their arduous task cheering, and they generally returned in the same hearty state. While at the Rock, between tides, they amused themselves in reading, fishing, music, playing cards, drafts, etc, or in sporting with one another. In the workyard at Arbroath, the young men were almost, without exception employed in the evening at school, in writing and arithmetic, and not a few were learning architectural drawing, for which they had every convenience and facility.”

The operations at the Rock continued with further securing the lower part of the Beacon and the Railways. Already RS was considering using alternate red and white lights, so he visited the Lighthouse at Flamborough Head, the coast of Yorkshire, England, which only recently had exhibited an arrangement of this kind. Come the beginning of November, all bulky material was battened down for the season, and RS, making his usual arrangements for having the Rock visited during the winter months, left the works on the 8th.

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