As R.W. Munro states, in his excellent book “Scottish
Lighthouses”: “To build a tower high enough to carry
a warning light and stable enough to house three men to
watch it, on a rock 11 miles from land, and buried under
16 feet of water twice every 24 hours in a sea much liable
to storms, was not a task to be lightly undertaken.”
The task of putting some form of beacon on the Rock had
long preoccupied the Northern Lighthouse Board and its young
engineer, Robert Stevenson. In December 1799, their minds
were once again focussed on the problem when a disastrous
storm struck the East Coast of Scotland. Seventy vessels
were known to have been lost or stranded, and certainly
a percentage of them came to grief on the Rock, or on the
nearby coast trying to avoid it!
The Bell or Inchcape Rock showing
proportions and extended reef
In 1800, Stevenson and his friend and architect, James
Haldane, made their first visit to the Rock. While they
were engaged in making initial sketches, the crew was busy
searching the crevices and holes for evidence of shipwrecked
vessels. By the time the tide overflowed, they had collected
2 cwt (101 kg) of old metal, consisting of various articles
that could be found on a ship. Stevenson kept a few of these
things, such as a hinge and lock of a door, a ship’s marking
iron, a piece of a ship’s caboose, a soldier’s bayonet,
a canon ball, several pieces of money, and a shoe buckle.
The heavier items included an anchor, cabin stove, crowbars,
etc, were consigned to the sea after it was decided the
material was too bulky to transport back to port.
The immediate result of this visit was a firm conviction
of the practicability of constructing a lighthouse built
of stone, the lower part of which would be solid. Previously
various ideas of a building on pillars or stilts had been
mooted, but these were now rejected as being quite unsuitable
to the situation. Stevenson then put forward drawings and
plans of a building using stones by dovetailing them laterally,
course upon course, as Smeaton had done at the Eddystone
Lighthouse in 1759.
Time dragged on and still there seemed to be little enthusiasm
on the part of the authorities in London to give support
to the project. However, in 1804 another disaster happened.
The 64-gun man-of-war, HMS York, was lost with all
hands on board. It had struck the Bell Rock.
In July 1806, after years of debating and persuasion,
the Act of Parliament, by which the Commissioners
of the Northern Lighthouses were empowered to undertake
the construction of a lighthouse at the Bell Rock, finally
received the Royal Assent.
The Great Work was about to begin.