A seagull's view of the lighthouse
On Sept. 3, 1987, the lighthouse went on fire.
A fuel pipe had overflowed inside the building, and, as
the gas was on in the kitchen, the fumes ignited. The kitchen
was gutted and the light room and control room were extensively
damaged, but the lower floors only suffered smoke damage.
The structure of the building was still sound, and it was
luckily a question of only repairing rather than rebuilding.
Fortunately, the three keepers were unhurt, and were
taken off by a rescue helicopter from Leuchars even though
it was high water.
The Arbroath lifeboat was launched and stood by
in case it was required. This was not the first occasion
that the Bell Rock had suffered a fire. On Saturday, Sept.
20, 1811 (not long after it had been built) a temporary
stove in the kitchen went on fire and the heat caused some
panes in the light room window to crack.
In December 1955, a helicopter on a routine training
flight from RAF Leuchars, dropping newspapers and magazines
(unofficially) for the light-keepers, crashed into the lantern
tower. While manoeuvring into position over the lighthouse
something went wrong and the keepers were horrified to see
the helicopter plunge out of control. By a miracle the keepers,
who were at the top of the house at the time, were unhurt,
but the helicopter in its descent hit the copper dome a
glancing blow, denting but not piercing the plating.
It also ripped off a large section of the cast-ron guttering
surrounding the lantern, wrenched off the steel ladder between
the balcony and the dome, demolished a number of glass lantern
panes, and distorted some of the bronze astragals. It also
carried away handrails and other fittings before crashing
on the rock base of the tower 130 feet below. The helicopter
and its crew were lost and the light was out of action
for a week. Assistant Lightkeeper R. T. Wood, who tried
to rescue the airmen, received the Queen’s commendation
During the Second World War the Bell Rock was machine-gunned
by enemy aircraft on 31 October 1940, 30th March 1941 and
on 5th April. No-one was injured on these raids, and the
damage consisted of 9 bullet holes through the dome, 14
lantern panes broken, 4 lens prisms damaged, 6 red shades
smashed, 1 balcony tank and rail damaged and 1 astragal
Also on 1st April 1941, a bomb was dropped which
exploded about 10 yards from the base of the tower, fortunately
doing no damage. During 1941 the Bell Rock was not the only
lighthouse to receive visits from enemy aircraft. Kinnaird
Head, Pentland Skerries, Stroma, Out Skerries, Auskerry
and Fair Isle North and South were also on their list. The latter suffered badly (see below)
During the First and Second World Wars, the lighthouse
only exhibited its light when Allied shipping were
expected to pass the Bell Rock. On the 27th October 1915,
the captain of HMS Argyll (10,850 tons) one of the Devonshire
Class Armoured Cruisers, sent out a routine message to the
Admiral Commanding at Rosyth, requesting the Bell Rock be
lit on the night of 27/28th October.
The message was never received as the lighthouse had no
radio, and all messages had to be delivered by boat. Heavy
seas had made this impossible. The “Argyll” struck the west
side of the reef and became lodged within 420 feet of the
base of the tower. Fortunately there were no casualties
in the complement of 655 men. The wreck was salvaged down
to the water line, but propellers and other relics were
still being brought up by skin divers more than 50 years
later. For a detailed report, see "Death
of HMS Argyll"
Fair Isle South lighthouse in particular was badly hit. As much on the Front Line as anyone during World War II due to its importance to Allied shipping, it stood as a guiding light for the North American convoys. On two dates the Germans struck . . . on the first attack, killing a mother and injuring her daughter; secondly, killing the wife and daughter of the Principal Light Keeper. Also killed was the gunner who was manning an anti-aircraft gun nearby.
My thanks to Peter Mackay, past Chairman of the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, for highlighting this information and for the scan shown here. For better reading the full text can be seen below (right):
FAIR ISLE SOUTH LIGHTHOUSE
Engineer: David A. Stevenson
Automated: 31st of March 1998
During an air attack in December 1941, Mrs. Catherine Sutherland (aged 22), the wife of an assistant lighthouse keeper, was killed and their infant daughter slightly hurt.
On 21st January 1942 during a second attack, a bomb hit the west end of main block of houses. The building caught fire and was burned out. The wife of the Principal Lighthose Keeper, Mrs. Margaret Helen Smith (aged 50), and their daughter Margaret (Greta) Smith (aged 10), were killed. A soldier, gunner William Morris (aged 27), manning an anti aircraft gun nearby, was also killed. Extensive damage was done
by fire, blast and flying debris.
Mr. Roderick Macaulay, assistant keeper at Fair Isle North, walked through snow drifts and gale force winds to help restore the South Light. He received the B.E.M. for outstanding service.
IN MEMORY OF
MRS. CATHERINE SUTHERLAND
MRS. MARGARET SMITH
MARGARET (GRETA) SMITH
GUNNER WILLIAM G. MORRIS R.A.
This plaque is raised by
Scotlands Lighthouse Museum, Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh, and
The Northern Lightouse Board