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

This article first appeared in the Journal of the Northern Lighthouse Board and is reprinted by kind permission of the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses.

For those who have an interest in maps, a new book has recently been published - "SCOTLAND - MAPPING THE NATION" - (Birlinn; 2011), by Christopher Fleet, Margaret Wilkes and Charles W. J. Withers. It can be bought or ordered up from any good bookshop.

Acknowledgement and thanks are made to National Library of Scotland Map Room for the use of charts/maps used in this article. For more information on this valuable resource, see:

Maps NLS

What’s in a name: the Bell Rock over the centuries

by Peter Mackay

(Past Chairman of the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses)

Wagenhaer's map of 1583 is one of the earliest known maps of this part of the east coast of Scotland. It essentially shows the mouth of the Firth of Forth and, of course, the map is "lying" on its side! To get the correct perspective, it should be read orientated 90 degs counter-clockwise. "Tscaep", as shown at the beginning of the article, marks the spot on the map above.

ROBERT STEVENSON speculated in his 1824 book on building the Bell Rock lighthouse that the name Inchcape came from Inch, in Gaelic meaning an island, and that the Cape was Red Head, just north of Arbroath. This seems improbable in that there is no known record of Red Head being called a cape, and cape itself is almost unknown as a Scottish place name.

So what might the real roots of Inchcape be? We are all so used nowadays to the Bell Rock also being known as the Inchcape Rock that it comes as a surprise to learn that both names are relatively new. Indeed the first time that the Bell Rock is known to have appeared as such on a marine chart was in in 1785 — and then it was plural as "the Bell rocks" — and the Inchcape name appeared briefly on a chart in 1693 and then disappeared. So the history of the changing charted names gives much room for speculation.


From a variety of old maps from the Map Room of the National Gallery of Scotland.

The Rock was first recorded as Inchcope , but not charted, by Alexander Lindsay in 1540. In 1583 the Dutch cartographer Wagenahaer plotted it on a chart , now in the National Library of Scotland , and named it "Tscaep" (which is roughly pronounced in Dutch as "Shcopp", not perhaps very different from Inchcope ) - which translates as "sheep rock", which seems unlikely for a rock 12 miles off shore which disappears on every tide.

Map of Scotland

This is part of a general map showing the relative position of the Bell Rock Lighthouse to the rest of northern Europe - probably dating from about the 1820s. It is interesting for it also pinpoints other lighthouses which were in existence at that time - Skerryvore (Tiree), Rhinns (Islay), Isle of May and Inchkeith (Forth), and a few others - Copyright David Taylor

It has been suggested recently by a member of the Scottish Place Names Society that perhaps the Dutch heard the rock described by Scots mariners as the "Scaup" - which is an old Scots word meaning a tidal rock or mussel bed. If so, the Cape in Inchcape, and even more Tscaep and Scape, might well be corruptions (or refinements) of "scaup" . Adair's chart of 1703 calls it the "Scape" ( echoes of Wagenhaer almost 120 years before), to be followed by Ainslie in 1785 who charts "The Scape or Bell Rocks".


More variations of the name. These maps can be accessed via the Internet.
It will save you a journey!!

The name Inchcape appeared on a 1693 chart published by Greenville Collins and surveyed by a Dundee navigator called Marr, but is not on Greenville Collins` chart of the Firth of Forth approaches where the rock is charted as "the Cap". By 1792 the great Scottish marine cartographer, Murdo Mackenzie , calls it "the Cape or Bell Rock", and that was the language used in the 1806 Act of Parliament which authorised the building of the lighthouse, although Southey`s famous poem of how Ralph the Rover met his end, is called the Ballad of Inchcape Rock and dates from 1802.

The first Admiralty chart published in 1815, dodged the issue , no doubt with relief, and the chart says only: "Bell Rock lighthouse". "Bell Rock" has been the dominant name ever since, and Inchcope, Tscaep, Scape, the Cap and others (even Inchcape) have, whatever their origin, disappeared into the mists of history and legend.

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