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 Lightroom of 1811

Only the very best

Whatever else was certain, Stevenson intended that only the very best would do for his Bell Rock lighthouse - and that included the most up-to-date equipment available at the time. No expense would be spared!

The lightroom

The lightroom contained the 24 reflectors, which were placed on a rectangular revolving chandelier or frame. The two major sides had 7 each arranged in 3 rows - from top to bottom - 2, 3 and 2. The two minor sides, 5 each - 2, 1 and 2. To achieve the red flash of Bell Rock's unique light sequence, panes of red-coloured glass were placed in front of each of the reflectors on the minor sides.


When the Northern Lighthouse Board was first set up in 1786, the Com- missioners chose as their first engineer Thomas Smith, a "tin plate worker in Edinburgh" and an "ingenious and modest man", who had been responsible for "lighting-up" much of old Edinburgh.

However, on the lighthouse side of things Smith had long been in favour of lamps enhanced as reflectors, and for the first four lighthouses he built and perfected the parabolic shape, placing inside them a mosaic of mirrored glass to increase the "reflectivity".

A  Lantern
Reflector showing the Argand burner
and oil reservoir

For the Bell Rock, however, the drive for improvement in parabolic reflectors had moved on. In this instance, the inside of the reflectors were coated with a silver compound - a techique which had been proven successfully at Inchkeith. Each reflector was made from a sheet of copper measuring, when flat, 26¼ inches square, and weighing about 11½ lbs. Each plate was then moulded (by a "very nice process of hammering", as Stevenson put it) into a parabolic shape of 25 inches in diameter and set within a ring of brass.

During the building of the lighthouse it was Smith who looked after lightroom operations at the Edinburgh works.

This style of reflector continued until 1849, when Thomas Stevenson (the father of RLS) developed a completely new hemispherical lamp with a Fresnel-type lens with prisms in front.


Oil lamps were introduced into Scottish lighthouses in the late 1780s. Prior to that date such lighthouses that were around at the time were lit by coal fires - the Isle of May at the mouth of the River Forth being the earliest.

Argand-burners were used at the Bell Rock. Invented by a Swiss, Ami Argand (born Geneva 1755) in about 1781, they became the preferred illuminant, and by 1820 had been installed at most of Britain's lighthouses. They had a circular wick about three-quarters of an inch in diameter housed within a glass chimney or funnel. Each burner had a cylindrical fountain (or reservoir) of brass, containing 24 oz of oil (spermaceti), and had a burning capacity for 18 hours, or equal, according to Stevenson, to the longest night in the Shetland Islands to the north of Scotland!

To illustrate Stevenson's thoroughness, and his attention to detail, he made minor improvements to the reflector/burners. D. Alan explains: "he included a small tray below the burner to trap surplus oil and a tiny frost lamp which was lighted in cold weather to warm the main lamp, thus to assist combustion 'when the oil was liable to turn thick.' To ensure accuracy Stevenson had the reflector curves drawn by Professor Leslie and their moulds made by the optician Adie."

In 1874, spermaceti oil (and subseqently the vegetable-based oil colza) was replaced in favour of the "mineral" oil, paraffin, and it wasn't until 1885 that electricity was used experimentally in certain lighthouses as the mean of illuminating the lens.

Winding mechanism

The Winding Mechanism
The winding mechanism which controlled the revolving lights and fog warning bells

The concept of a revolving light did not arrive until the late 18th century. Even as early as 1801, Stevenson was keen to have it for the lighthouse at Pentland Skerries, but it was Start Point (1806) which ultimately had the honour of becoming Scotland's first revolving light. The Bell Rock (1811) was second.

The winding mechanism lay immediately below the light chandelier within the lower part of the lightroom and on a level with the Balcony. It consisted of a drum around which a weighted rope was wound. However, it was not practical to allow the rope to pass directly though the middle of the House. From the lightroom it was diverted down the sides of the top 4 apartments, and realigned again at the floor of the Provision room to contine its drop through the remaining part of the building.

The action of the descending rope, and the consequent turning of the drum, gave power to the revolving light. By means of a series of gears, levers and connecting rods, the chandelier could be stopped and started when necessary. During foggy weather the same mechanism also gave action to the hammers of the fog bells. Each bell weighed 5 cwt!

It took 8 minutes for the light mechanism to complete a full 360 degrees turn.

The instructions for the maintenance of the above equipment can be found under "Instructions for the Bell Rock Light-keepers".


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