DURING April and May 1865, R. M. Ballantyne (1825-1894), a Scottish junenvile fiction writer, spent 16 days on the Bell Rock Lighthouse gathering material for his adventure story "The Lighthouse" - published later that year.
This is the complete diary of his stay there, and gives a wonderful insight into life in a stone tower standing high on the dangerous Inchcape Rock, constantly battered by crashing waves and treacherous currents of the North Sea.
Thanks also to Colin Stewart, recently retired 2nd coxswain of the Arbroath lifeboat, for his photograph of the lighthouse shrouded in fog.
(28th April - 13th May 1865)
Friday, April 28th:
I am seated in the library of the Bell Rock Lighthouse. It is a singular room in a very peculiar position. Eighty feet above the sea, near the summit of a pillar whose foundation is covered by the breakers on the Inch Cape Rock at all times except at low water.
It is night. The only sounds I hear are the roar of the surf below, the dash of the big waves that roll in from the North Sea before a stiff easterly breeze, and the slow regular stroke of the small bell that gives its warning note to the keeper watching in the lantern, assuring him that in regard to the machinery all it well. The keeper may read without fear during his long solitary watch up there, or mediate perchance of his wife and children in the “Signal Tower” on shore, so long as that bell continues its monotonous stroke; but if it should cease to beat he must at once be on the alert and found out what has gone wrong. While the bell rings he knows that the machinery continues to work, the framework of lamps to revolve and the lights to flash, red and white alternately, far and wide over the bleak sea to warn the mariner of this dreaded point of danger.
I left Arbroath his morning at two o'clock in the “relief boat” - a large one, manned by a chief-boatman and five men. It was very dark, and a slight breeze was blowing. When we cleared the harbour the bright blaze of the Bell Rock Light was visible twelve out at sea. As I knew that it would take us at least three hours to sail to it, I turned into a sort of box-berth in the stern of the boat and tried to sleep. The weather was cold, with a drizzle of rain. Wind easterly. About 5 o'clock we reached the rock, but no rock was visible! The lighthouse rose direct out of the water, which broke around it so heavily that we did not dare to attempt a landing – if getting into a hole (called a door) in a huge stone pillar may be called a landing. We anchored, therefore, under the lee of the building and awaited the falling of the tide. About seven o'clock the rocks began to show their crests, black and forbidding, above the snowy foam. Then we made preparation to land.
At this point a curious process was gone through. In the bottom of our boat lay another boat, a small one, in two halves, one half fitting into the other as one saucer might be placed within another. This curious affair, called the “twin-boat,” was hauled out of its place, one half at a time, and launched over the side, then
the two halves were clasped and screwed together, and they formed one excellent little boat, into which I embarked with three of the men, and we rowed to the rock. As we neared it I observed three men (the lightkeepers) moving actively about on an iron jetty, which was so
small and invisible that the men appeared to be walking amongst the breakers,
which still sent their foam up to the base of the pillar. It had been daylight for some time, and the lights were out.
Note a view you want to see if you're on a
large boat making its way down the east
coast of Scotland.
Photo: © C. Stewart
We had some difficulty in landing on the iron rail owing to the narrowness of the channel between the rocks. The men had been prepared for my arrival, received me cordially, and led the way to their abode.
The door of the Bell rock Lighthouse is 30 feet above the rock on which it stands, and is reached by a metal ladder with twenty-five steps. The first few steps slope a little, in conformity with the spreading base of the building, but the greater part of it is nearly perpendicular. Some visitors find this initial step a nervous one. Indeed, one of the commissioners who once screwed up courage to mount the ladder found it so impossible to make up his mind to descend that they had to get the crane-tackle out and lower him down like a sack! The door is an aperture of about six feet by 4, and the little passage leading to the heart of the column shows that at this point the walls are between between six and seven thick. All below the doorway is solid masonry. I was rather depressed by the narrowness of the spiral stair which we first ascended, erroneously supposing that the whole pillar must be equally narrow, but I found that the higher we went the thinner got the walls, and therefore the larger became the interior space.
After ascending the spiral stair we came to the
First Floor – This apartment is the storeroom. The walls here being still very thick, it is not a roomy place by any means, and its small dimensions are further curtailed by water-tanks, the crane machinery, and vegetable baskets, besides loaves of bread and other provisions. There are two windows to it, but one is at present closed up in consequence of being converted into a cage to imprison a strange bird with a red comb on its nose, which was recently caught here. Our next ascent was byu a wooden ladder or staircase of fourteen steps, so perpendicular as to render keeping one's balance a difficulty, and so narrow that a stout visitor would run a chance of sticking in the man-hole of the floor above. This brought is to the
Second Floor – This disagreeable smell as if of a steamboat's lower regions, proved this to be the oil-room. Here are ranged formidable brass-bound tin tanks of oil, covering an entire side of the apartment. Here also are a small carpentar's bench, with a vice screwed to it; various kinds of provisions and stores and tools; cans, pitchers, paints, flags, lanterns, waste, ropes, and oakum. Also a weighing machine, which proved me to be over ten stone in weight comma, and a window which proved to have dwindled to three feet thick. Leaving this. We ascended by another ladder to the
Third Floor, which is the kitchen; and a most excellent, clean, and admirably arranged kitchen-in-miniature, with a grate suitable for any (moderate) household in the land. There is in it a table, a dresser, a cupboard, several hole-and-corner presses, a coal hole, a bench, three stools, a pump, similar to those of tavern-taps, for drawing water out of the tanks below, a clock, a card containing instructions for the restoration of the apparently drowned, a telescope, a fiddle, a copy of Robert Stevenson's admirable book on the erection of this lighthouse, and a Bible. All the woodwork is of oak. The room is in the form of a three-quarters moon, owing to a flight being divided off by a partition as a sort of passage for the stair or ladder. Thus all the passages are divided off by partitions of oak in this manner;
Ascending the next stair, we came to the
Fourth Floor, which is the sleeping apartment of the men. In the passage window here I found a sweet-scented “apple” geranium in a pot, which I was told had been there for many years, and from which many shoots had been cut and planted successfully elsewhere. There are two roomy berths here after the manner of berths on shipboard, containing three beds each, and superior to most ordinary cabin berths in our best steamers. The next stair brought us to the
Fifth Floor, which is the library of the building, the room into which the commissioners are shown when they visit the rock, and which, through the kindness of the Board of Northern Lighthouses, is to be my abode for the next two weeks. It, like the kitchen, is a circle with a small small slice cut off it; but the flight in this case is a straight cut. There are three windows in it; a handsome oak table; a marble bust of Robert Stevenson, the engineer, over the centre window, a folding-up-bed; a cupboard; and a bookcase. The roof is dome-shaped, and the whole apartment is elegantly fitted up with Turkey carpet, oak chairs, etc. Below the centre window “above which is Stevenson's bust” a slab of marble is fixed to the wall with the following inscription:-
“The Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouses, at a meeting held at this apartment, on the 20th of July 1824, when the Right Hon. Sir Wm. Rae, Bart., Lord Advocate of Scotland, presided. Resolved – That a bust of Robt. Stevenson, engineer, be placed in the Bell Rock Library in testimony of the sense entertained by the commissioners of his distinguished talent and indefatigable zeal in the erection of this lighthouse.”
The iron chimney from the kitchen runs through this library, inside a cupboard, and helps to warm it a little.
Leaving the library, we ascend the last stair, which conducts to the
Sixth Floor, or Lantern. - This is much the same in all lighthouses – all glass, with a four-sided frame, two sides of which carry red and two white lights, the latter being placed diagonally. They revolve slowly and flash once every two minutes.
I wrote several letters to send ashore with the boat; then had breakfast with the men in the kitchen. The chief keeper offered to send up my meals to the library, but I have agreed to fraternise with the men in order to save trouble. They are chatty, agreeable fellows. Soon after breakfast the boat left us, and I felt that I was fairly a prisoner, for the next “relief” is not due till the 10th May, and boats very seldom touch at the rock at this time of the year.
The tide being out I spent the afternoon in rambling over the tangle-covered rock, trying to trace out out the site of the old beacon, which figures so prominently in Stevenson's book, and looking out for good sketching points. The rock being rugged and covered with seaweed, walking is difficult. The only promenade the dwellers have is an iron pathway or jetty, or pier, one part of it forming a right angle with the other. It extends about forty-five paces in one direction and twenty-three in another. This is used by the boat when landing, and is covered with barnacles. It is a sort of grating through which the water plays when the ride rises. At full tide it is about eight or ten feet under water.
The remainder of the day I spent in putting my room in order and preparing for work.
An interesting engraving showing the building of the lighthouse at night. Work was carried out at low tide even if it happened to be midnight! Stevenson tells us that 57½ doz (690) Flambeaux (flaming torches) were used for night work on the Rock.
I am writing in the kitchen to-night to get the benefit of the fire, and I have it all to myself, as two of the men are asleep in bed, and the third is watching in the lantern.
We began with breakfast to-day at eight o'clock. This is the regular hour. We dine at one, and have tea at six. No spirits allowed, only small – particularly small – beer. Joseph Agnew is a tall tea teetaler, by profession as well as necessity. William Wither is a medium-sized teetotaler by necessity, though not by profession. David Laidlaw is ditto, besides being stout and good humoured. All of them are quiet kindly fellows, and Wither plays the fiddle and the accordion. We shall get on famously together.
To-day I sketched and painted from morning till night. It was a splendid day, and, despite the light east wind, warm. Although nearly calm, a considerable swell comes in from the German Ocean, and this breaks in magnificent rollers on the rock. Some of them could not be less than ten or twelve feet high when they curled over the fell with a splendid crash on the rocks, and rushed round the base of the lighthouse. As the sea rose it drove me from my position on an outlying rock, where I had commenced an oil sketch of the lighthouse, so I took to pencil sketches of “bits”, as painters express it. Then I was driven to the iron-walk, or “rail”. Gradually the sea burst up between the bars and drove me to the foot of the ladder. Here I took to sketching the forms of the waves and masses of foam. It is a glorious opportunity for studying water in wild confusion. I retreated inch by inch before the advancing tide, disputing the ground until my toes were washed; then I retired to my elevated library and blocked in some colour to be ready for work on Monday, the instant the tide let me out of prison.
When the tide was full to-day some of the large waves came on and did not break until they fell upon the tower, which received a distinct and tremendous shock on each occasion of being hit by green water! What must it be in storm? Even to-day the spray rose the height of the kitchen window, which is sixty feet from the rock. The men spend their leisure time in reading, smoking, and playing drafts. They tell me that they often weary; but they nevertheless appear to be very happy and contented.
There is a curious fish in one of the pools, a sort of sucker, which is at present watching its wife's spawn and will not let go its hold of the rock on any account. The men pulled it gently today, and said that they have frequently done so, but it does not object or seem alarmed! I shall pay my respects to Mr Sucker daily at low tide. His wife has been seen once beside him. It is supposed that she takes the night watch, or brings him food.
Found several bits of old iron today that had belonged to part of the machinery of the old beacon. There are many rings and iron bars sunk into the rocks – relics of the building of the lighthouse fifty-five years ago. It was a great as well as a dangerous work. One of the men found a piece of tangle today which was nearly thirty yards long! It is a curious fact that the weather side (east side) of the tower is covered with mussels and green weed, while the sheltered side is free from them. The men were much interested with the news I brought. I wonder what news our next batch of papers will bring, and when we shall get them?
At nine to-night to-night I went down to the iron rail and had a short walk. The moon was in her first quarter and shed a faint ghostly light over the sea, which is always raging and roaring on the rock. It had just fallen enough to admit of walking, but kept rushing under the rails all the time I was out. It felt romantically dismal to stand above the rock, not yet visible, which has cost so many lives in days of old; and it was satisfactory to look up at the tall column and see the bright light blazing on the summit, giving guarantee that there shall be no more wrecks there now. It is indeed a light in a dark place. Yet nothing is certain here below. Only last week a steamer all but ran straight on the Bell Rock in a fog, but discovered her danger in time to back out. It was touch and go. The great fog bells were booming, but it is believed that their sound cannot be heard at any great distance. One of the seas which struck us to-day caused the tower to vibrate so much that the partition in the kitchen rattled again!
Rose betimes and breakfasted at nine o'clock. No church to-day – at least not of the wanted kind – but we had “church in the house” of that sort which is described in God's word as consisting of two or three met together in Christ's name. The chief keeper, Joseph Agnew, sang, read a chapter, and prayed, and we all joined. About twelve we met again in the library and had a short service. It was peculiarly interesting to join with such men in such an isolated spot to worship God.
Between breakfast and dinner the tide was out, so I wandered over the little rock, getting as much exercise out of it as possible. By 1.30 the waves drove me to take refuge in the lighthouse, and soon after the spot where I had been walking was a mass of the wildest foam. A pretty stiff and cold breeze has been blowing all day. Finding that the men here are fond of argument, I have met them more than half way!
Near Midnight. – I have been down on the “rails”, as the iron platform is called. The sea has just left the rock and is raging round it. What a sight! It is very dark, yet light enough to show the white foam bursting on the rocks and the weird desolation of the scene. It is positively awful. I had only to turn my back to the lighthouse and imagine it gone to enable me to realise as I have never done before what must have been some, at least of the sensations of those who were shipwrecked here in days gone by. The wind was chilling me fast; the waves were rushing close up to my feet all round; nothing was visible but the black sea and the foam. In a few hours these rocks would be deep under the water. What fearful thoughts to one in such a situation had there been no refuge nigh! Yet these or similar thoughts must often in former times have passed through the despairing breasts of hundreds who have perished on the Bell Rock. God have mercy on the shipwrecked, and God, for Christ's sake, put it into the hearts of those who dwell at home at ease and in comfort, to consider their terrible case. If we could get the nation concentrated into one individual, and cause it to pass one stormy night on the Bell Rock, there would be no occasion to plead the lifeboat cause in future!
J.M.Turner's "Bellrock Rock Lighthouse"
Monday, 1st May:
Rose at 7.30. Breakfast over and ready to work at 9, but the rails not show above water till 9.30, and the rock was not uncovered till near 11.
This morning the great event of cleaning the chimney came off! It had been smoking badly ever since I arrived. The kitchen is the only room with a fireplace in it. The chimney-top rises above the lantern, so the man who works the rope above has a giddy position to reach. The brush stuck in the chimney and occasioned a great amount of shouting, which when I first heard it sent my heart to my mouth, for we are usually so very quiet (as far as voices go), that I immediately thought of an accident, or the arrival of a boat from shore, either of which events would have been a telling break in the quiet monotony of our little world.
The day was cold and cloudy, so that I found painting outside very disagreeable work.
Got down to the rock about eleven, and had to give up about one. Just before dinner the men came down to take their daily exercise, having finished their work of cleaning lamps, etc, etc. They usually walk on the rails in single file. to-day one of them tried to catch fish, but failed. In a pool on the rock I saw two large fish of the sucker kind. They are grotesquely fat and round – about a foot long with disproportionately large heads. I put the bait before the nose of one, but he would not bite. Then I would the line round his body and gave it a tug in the hope of hooking him outside. The hook caught and turned him right round, but did not pierce the skin. He swam away quite unconcernedly to the other side of the pool after this rough treatment. I tried again with similar result. Then the dinner-bell ringing out from one of the windows, arrested further action in this line. Our dinner yesterday was roast beef and plum-pudding; to-day it was the roast beef cold with potatoes and butter. I had brought some essence of coffee with me. Got it out after dinner, and we had a cup all round. This we shall have every day. The men enjoyed it much. I find they are fond of music. Got out a psalm-book and a copy of Christy Minstrel melodies, and had quite a musical afternoon. Read Stevenson's book in the evening. Did not get my sucker visited to-day, as the tide drove me from the rock before I had thought of paying my respects to him.
The men watch alternately three hours at a time during the night. Thus: Joseph Agnew begins by lighting up about eight o'clock, and stays till nine, this being a short watch. He whistles down by means of a tub-whistle at nine, and David Laidlaw goes up to relieve him. The other two then turn in. Laidlaw watches till midnight, and whistles, when William Wither gets up and relieves him. Wither watches till three a.m., then whistles, and Agnew relieves him and watches till six, when it is time to put out the lights. They take the cooking alternately, and the man whose duty it is to cook is relieved during the day from all other work. This goes on for six weeks with each, when he goes ashore, and the fourth light-keeper comes off. Two weeks ashore and six on the rock is the regular routine for each man. There are four men attached to the Bell Rock Lighthouse, one being always on shore while three are on the rock.
Tuesday, 2nd May:
Got up and five this morning to paint a sky, just as the sun rose. The tide did not leave the rock till near twelve. The spot from which I am painting the lighthouse is a rock close to what is named on the chart of the Bell Rock “Port Hamilton”. to-day the neap tides began to tell. The tide did not go far back. While I was painting every wave sent foam to within a few inches of me, and one wash of the sea caught my left foot and drenched it. I had just commenced when one of the fishing-boats came to us. She entered “Port Stevenson” and rowed to the end of “Rae's Wharf”. A couple of letters were handed to me. News from home! I had not heard of the outer world since Friday last. Three days – it seems an age in these times of steam and telegraph!
Every ledge, and cove, and creek on this little rock is named. The names were given during the building of the lighthouse, in 1807-11. There are four channels on the four opposite sides of the reef, by which boats may approach the lighthouse at low water or half-ebb. These are, on the north, Wilson's Track, leading to Port Boyle, in which is Duff's Wharf; also to Port Stevenson, in which is Rae's Wharf. The said ports being small holes just sufficient to float a boat when the tide is half out, and the wharfs being iron gratings, or ways, of immense strength to resist the sea. The bars that support them are bars of iron two-and-a-half inches square. Yet these are sometimes carried away by large rocks thrown up in storms. Rocks of several tons weight are now lying in one of the channels, and will have to be blasted out of the way. Then there is Gloag's Track, leading to Port Hamilton, on the east; Macurich's Track, on the west; and Taylor's Track, or the Fair Way, on the south. Both of these lead to Port Erskine and Hope's Wharf. The ledges are too numerous to enumerate; but I may mention Sir Ralph the Rover's Ledge, Pillan's Ledge, Cunningham's Ledge, Balfour's Ledge, the Abbot's Ledge, and the Last Hope. This last is a ledge on the east side, and was so named because it was the point to which the men crowded, or were driven, by the rising tide on the memorable occasion when one of the boats had been carried away, and the two remaining were not able to hold all the party. The men on this occasion would in all probability have fought for these two remaining boats, because it was certain that a number equal to one boat's crew must have been left on the rock to perish. But succour was mercifully sent at the last moment. A fishing-boat came past and rescued them. Made a sketch in oil of the Last Hope, with the sea breaking furiously over it.
Map of the Bell Rock. Every pool and ledge was given a name.
From Stevenson's "Account . . . " of 1824.
Our dinner to-day was an Irish stew, made by William Wither, and most excellent is was – although his first attempt. Had the essence of coffee after it, as usual. The men evidently appreciate this beverage. After dinner I again painted till the tide drove me into the tower. We purchased a few small codlings and poddlies from the fishermen. Fish have not yet come to the rock, it is too early in the season; but there are plenty in the summer. The tide forbids a visit to the suckers. Next week we shall have the spring tides again.
We captured a bird. It is a stupid creature, but is in very unfavourable circumstances for the exhibition of its powers, mental or physical, except those of eating and drinking. This evening Wither got out his song-books, and we sang duets for an hour. He has a good voice and a good ear. Our view here is enlivened sometimes by ships and solan geese. Read my psalm this morning in the lantern. The sun was shining brightly, so I tried the reflectors and found them to be powerful burning-glasses. Wither told me that he knew a light-keeper once who was one day standing in the lantern cleaning the windows with his back to the reflectors, when he became suddenly aware of an usual heat, and clapping his hand to the part he found that his trousers were on fire. I believe the story, for I myself set fire to piece of tow by means of one of the reflectors to-day.
As the cat watches the mouse so do we watch the tide. It is no sooner out than we rush forth and revel on the rocks like seals as long as possible. But there is something sternly peremptory, though slow, in the manner in which the tide orders us back to prison; and there is something ludicrously unwilling, yet obedient, in the manner in which we go.
Wednesday, 3rd May:
A wet forenoon and very cold. Painted a little, notwithstanding. The tides do not fall low now. The rock at Port Hamilton was not fairly above water; could not visit the sucker in consequence. The men call the fish a “paddle”. Studied the waves to-day. There were some splendid ones, accompanied by wild, broken seas on the eastern part of the rock (Sir Ralph the Rover's Ledge), all day. I found them uncommonly difficult to understand, but, by dint of prolonged, steady staring, gathered a few facts and committed them to canvas. When the tide was out I searched along the pools for small fish, but found none. The season too early. Gathered some specimens of seaweed, however. Rambling on this narrow islet, and looking down into the deep pools left by the tide, reminds me of some scenes, described by Elliot, among the coral islands of the Pacific.
Looked over the old books in which visitors have inscribed their names. The volume containing Sir Walter Scott's handwriting and signature has been carried off. The oldest date here in 1818. Sir Walter visited the rock in 1814. I found that the carpet of this library was laid in 1823, and that the man who called to take dimensions of the room did so in 1821! Rather slow! It (the carpet) is in good condition yet, and, if my memory serves me faithfully, its pattern is similar to that of the carpet which covered my father's drawing-room for many years, and which is mixed up with my own earliest associations.
It is worthy of note that the fish which we had for breakfast to-day spoiled our appetites! It was good, but, somehow, none of us ate much of it, and we could not thereafter take our usual quantum of buttered toast. Among my pleasing associations of the Bell Rock buttered toast shines out pre-eminently!
Splendid day. Wind S.W. A stiffish breeze, but no sea on the rock to speak of. Evidently it requires easterly wind to raise the swell. Yet there is surf enough to keep up the perpetual roar which, I believe, never ceases here. Tried fishing from the door this morning with a bit of fish for bait. Did not get a nibble. Too early. The wash of the sea, too, kept sweeping the line round the tower. In summer they catch fish in large numbers with fly, from a stage erected on the ladder to enable the men to cast. One cannot cast from the doorway. At low water they catch poddlies and cod off the rocks. William Wither's bird does not improve either in sense or affection. He (Wither) is anxious to know what it is. I cannot enlighten him. It is less than a small bantam hen; black body, sharp beak, with a red comb, or patch, extending from the head half way to point, large spreading feet, not webbed, and legs rather long than otherwise. It took refuge on the tower one foggy night.
They tell me that thousands of land birds take refuge on the lantern, not so much in stormy as in foggy weather – blackbirds, thrushes, larks, crows, owls, and others. They seem to get lost in the fog, and when night comes on they see the light and flock to it in dozens. The men go out, catch and kill them to eat. Some of the birds made excellent stews. Laidlaw said he caught seventy one night, and might have got more if he had chosen. It seems cruel to treat the birds thus, but what can be done? The lighthouse cannot be converted into an asylum for strayed birds. They usually sit on the sills of the lantern windows and peck at the glass, trying to get in to the cheerful light. Poor little things! It is comforting to know, however, that when morning comes they usually take flight for the shore. Wither says he has seen so many of these little birds of all kinds fly past in foggy weather that the air seemed darkened by them. Large birds seldom come near this lighthouse. But in some of the others ducks fly against the lantern and are killed. In the Girdleness a duck once came right through the lantern and fell inside, smashing the glass to pieces, and its mate was found dead outside, having struck the stonework of the tower. On another occasion a duck flew straight into the tower through one of the open windows.
The rails on which we take exercise are so narrow that two cannot walk abreast. We are therefore obliged to go in single file, and turn right-about face on getting to the end of our promenade.
At dinner to-day the men gave it as their decided opinion that this lighthouse is weak at the library floor, and they assure me that if the building ever goes it will snap off at that point “like a carrot”. This is consoling to a man who sleeps in the library. However, I'm easy. It has stood for more than half a century. Perhaps it will last another week. Made a sketch of the kitchen to-day, also a portrait of Joseph Agnew, which has been pronounced “good”. Read Stevenson's “Bell Rock” at night. It will keep me going all my spare time, being a ponderous volume.
A beautiful day. No wind. The sea like a sheet of glass. There are few objects in nature – to my mind – so captivating as a perfectly calm sea. I tried to paint it, but failed. After breakfast set to work at a painting of “Fishing from the Stage” with portrait of Agnew introduced. The men seem much interested in this picture. Made a pencil sketch of William Wither, with a view to introduce him also. The sea did not let us out of prison till three to-day, but, as if to compensate for this, it fell decided lower than it has done for two days past, and allowed us to ramble extensively over the rocks. The whole area on which we can scramble at the lowest of spring tides does not exceed one hundred yards by fifty, or thereabouts. I gathered some specimens of seaweed in the pools, some shells, and chipped off several pieces of rock to carry away as memorials of my visit. While thus engaged the men called me to look at two “paddles” swimming in a pool. They were curious fish, immensely stout, a foot long “one of them”, and nearly half a foot deep and thick; little barrels, in fact, covered with sharp projecting spikes. They swam so close to the rock that I was tempted to roll up my sleeve and try to catch one. It was easier than I had anticipated. I brought out the little one in my hand, examined it, and put it back. Then I dipped again and put my hand gently under the big one. It did not make the smallest effort to escape. I did not require to grasp it; merely lifted it gently out and laid it on the rock, where it lay like a lamb, with a countenance which seemed to express unutterable amazement. “Make a picture o'd”, said Wither. I took the hint, got my paints, and sketched him then and there, giving him a dip once or twice to refresh him, after which I put him back into the water, and he swam away as leisurely as if nothing whatever had happened!
I have been a week here today. Next Friday I must leave. It has been an uncommonly interesting week, the men with whom I am associated being intelligent, pleasant companions.
Port Hamilton was accessible to-day. Hope to finish the sketch tomorrow.
A raw wet day. Wind N.W., light. This morning Withers bird was reported to be dying. We went to see it, and found it evidently sinking. As it was certain it would die where it was, we thought it best to give it a last chance by putting it in the sea in the hope that the water might revive it, and, possibly, “it might be able to swim!” The shock of the splash, however, put an end to it altogether. I feel sad of this death in our small community.
Our converse at breakfast to-day had reference to masters and men, strikes, piece-work and time-work, etc., in regard to which I was glad to have the opinion of working men who have ample time for thought, and are regularly supplied with newspapers and periodicals. Agnew and Laidlaw were bred blacksmiths.
Spent the forenoon sitting in the doorway painting the sea. Did not get down to the rock till four. The tide fell much lower than usual, permitting me to ramble over the rock and visit my old haunts. I had not been able to get round to the north side of the building for three days. It seemed quite an age! As for the sucker, I have not seen him for half a century – four days, at least! Might have sketched from Port Hamilton to-day, but weather too bad, so I advanced the sketch of the “Last Hope” from Rae's Wharf. Saw a sucker a foot long in a pool; put in my hand, lifted him out, looked at him, and put him in again. Shortly after saw another, whose body in places was coloured so intensely – scarlet, pink, purple, etc. - that I resolved to paint him. Lifted him out, laid him on the rock, seized my palette, and set to work as fast as I could, not wishing to kill him. It rained while I was at work, but I went on. After a few minutes I stopped, put the fish in a hole, and gave him a rest. “The model” having rested, was pulled out again and resumed his sitting. Thus, in a quarter of an hour I had his portrait taken in oils, and returned him to his native element, not a whit the worse for his adventure! If sketching this lighthouse during the short intervals of low water is so difficult, what must the building have been!
The signal-ball has been up all day. This signifies “All well”. The order is to leave it up each day until we have seen the signal-ball on shore hoisted in recognition. It is foggy, and we have not seen land at all, so the ball has been up all day. If our ball were not hoisted any day the look-out on shore would instantly send off a boat and telegraph to the office in Edinburgh “something wrong at the Bell Rock”. On the return of the boat they would then telegraph what was wrong, so we are well looked after.
A little bird like a wren came twice to the rock to-day – the first land-bird I have seen since coming here. It hopped about for a time, and then flew merrily away over the sea. The nearest land is twelve miles off, yet it seemed quite strong on the wing. The men are making to-morrow's plum-pudding to-night. Saturday is an “extra” day, in order than Sunday may be, as much as possible, a day of rest. Took Laidlaw's likeness. Have got all three now.
The sun shone so brightly at six this morning that I got up and ran down to the rails, over which the tide was rising fast, to have a walk before breakfast. Managed to keep out for an hour. It cost me some care and a little jumping. As the sea rose it washed up in bursts between the bars at the farther end, thus curtailing my walk. Then it gradually began to splash up everywhere. By watching the waves, however, I saw when a splash was about to take place under me, and by giving a little jump managed to evade it; each splash being momentary, it passed out of the way while I was in the air! Thus I gained ten minutes extra, a matter of some importance considering the limited amount of exercise I enjoy. An unobserved wave caught me at last, however, wetted my left foot, and drove me to the tower of refuge. The morning was so charming and the sea so calm that I threw off my clothes, scrambled down the ladder, and plunged into the sea at Port Stevenson. It was cold, but enjoyable. At breakfast a thick fog came on. This called into play (for the first time since I came here) the great fog-bells. These are worked by the same machinery that drives the light-frame, and one of them strikes every half-minute. They have been booming all day, and are sending forth their solemn knell while I write. They had an appropriate and familiar sound on this the Sabbath morning, especially when we assembled in the library for prayers and for service at noon. Yet how different their object from the church bells on shore! These warn the sailor away from the rock of danger; those invite the sinner to come to the “Rock of Ages”. Agnew conducted worship to-day. At noon I conducted it, and read part of the third chapter of Matthew, with Scott and Henry's Commentary thereon. This Commentary forms part of the library. I observed last Sunday that the light-keepers put on their uniform in honour of the day. I therefore changed my own garments out of respect to their feelings – but it was only a change from one travelling suit to another!
We had roast beef and plum-pudding for dinner. At four the tide fell sufficiently to let us go on the rails. This is the first day I have been able to take advantage of double tides. Had about three hours' exercise altogether. Poor Wither spoke to me to-day about the death of his only child. In regard to this isolated situation, he said that the worst was the uncertainty of what might be going on ashore. He knew that his child was ill, but had to wait several days for the arrival of the relief-boat before he could learn anything about it or his young wife. When the boat drew near at last he felt eager, yet afraid, to know how matters were ashore. It was not till the men landed that he was told the child was dead. It had died on Sunday, but the poor father did not know his loss till Tuesday.
What a night I have had! The great bells have been going all night on account of the fog, and as they are not above twelve feet over my head they have kept me half awake and half dreaming all night! I dreamed once that I was in St Giles's Church, Edinburgh, and that the bells were ringing horribly. Besides this the machine that keeps them in motion had had to be wound up much more frequently than usual, and as the rope passes down through a wooden box or pilaster at my feet it has added to the din. The surf outside, too, has helped; so that it was like being at sea in a storm – happily, without the motion and sickness! The day was raw and foggy with a cold easterly wind, though not much of it. During breakfast a small Tomtit came to the kitchen window. It had evidently got lost in the fog, for it looked cold and dishevelled, especially about the head. The heat from the kitchen – for the window was open – made it perk up a bit, shake its little body and clean its beak in an imbecile sort of way. It flew off when I approached, but came back again soon after. It is gone again. Perhaps it may return. Laidlaw told me that a robin had taken refuge in the tower last winter. They did not disturb it, but let it fly about wherever it pleased and laid down crumbs on the windows for it. A week it stayed with them. At the end of that time there came a sharp frosty night. Unfortunately poor Robin had arranged to sleep in the doorway that night. This was an exposed spot, and was too much for him. He was found lying dead on the threshold in the morning. The day cleared up towards afternoon and I had a good hour or two of sketching. Tried fishing with a long line at high water from the door, without success; but the men caught several codlings in the pools at low water. This is the first appearance of fish on the rock this season.
The most important event of to-day was the arrival of a boat with letters and newspapers. Cold and stormy weather, so that sketching was next to impossible. Had a tough argument, however, with Agnew, who is a thinking man. Solaced myself with letters and news. It is blowing a gale outside tonight. The sea is at flood-tide. I opened the window and looked down. The seething foam that encircles the tower is magnificent. It surprises me to think of any man daring to built a residence on such a spot. The wind rushes past in one continuous roar, but it is northerly, so that the waves, although wild enough, are not very high.
In looking over the old visitors' book I saw a few “Remarks”, which amused me. One visitor writes of the lighthouse:- “Greatly pleased; never saw anything like it.” Another writes the short but emphatic sentence, “On a Wedding Tour”. I should be inclined to think this man a “queer fish”, to select such a spot for a visit on such a tour. Another writes, “Came to paint the outside of the tower”. Only those who have seen the tower, and who know that painting it involves being slung over the side by a rope, can properly estimate the heroism of this man – this painter – I might almost say this brother artist, for I too have painted the outside of the tower on canvas . Another writes, “Highly delighted; view surpasses that from St Paul's“. This visitor must refer to the view from St Paul's when a sea of fog rolls below. If not, his comparison bespeaks him a lunatic.
It blows a regular gale from the N.W. to-day. The sea from the library window is magnificent. The waves are stupendous; some of them appear in to be nearly fifteen feet high. Acres of pure white foam round the tower, especially to leeward, where the ocean resembles milk. Attempted a pencil sketch of the waves at low water, from the rails, and was nearly blown away. The relief boat is due to-day, but it will certainly not come. For me this is fortunate, for it compels me to stay beyond my legitimate time; but for poor Wither it is a misfortune. It is his turn on shore for two weeks, and each day that he is detained is a day cut off his sojourn on terra firma with his wife. I hope to-morrow may be more favourable. In the doorway to-day I found a swallow sitting. It was so knocked up that it did not attempt to fly away, but permitted me to take it up. I warmed it at the fire, gave it a drink of water out of my mouth, and put it in a cupboard with some crumbs and water.
Much perplexed, and in great distress about the swallow. Wither suggests that I should kill and stuff it, but I have not the heart to kill it. Yet it will certainly die, for it is too weak to fly, and it won't eat or drink. What is to be done?
There is fascination in the mighty waves. The gale continues unabated. Indeed it has increased. There is no chance of the boat, it could not live in such a sea. Saw a great northern diver to-day, knocked about by the waves in a curious way. When overwhelmed it struggled to the surface and then sank, struggled up again and was again overwhelmed, more like a drowning bird than anything. It must have been wounded, for divers ought to be particularly at home in the water. It was closely attended by a gull. A solan goose soon after joined the gull, and all three were quickly out of sight. I never before had such a capital view of the sea, for I see it above me as well as below. In the library there is a slab of polished white marble above the window which supports the bust of the architect of this wonderful edifice. As I lie in bed in the morning I look up at this slab, in which I see the reflected breakers rushing round the tower as well almost as if I were looking at themselves.
Went up to the lantern to see the reflectors cleaned. The noise there is absolutely horrible. The natural roar of the gale is increased by the ventilator, through which it howls incessantly. Yet the men care nothing for it. I went out on the balcony, and could scarcely force myself to windward, even although I hauled myself hand over hand by the rails. Agnew got a fright to-day by seeing what he imagined to be a man in the sea. It turned out to be a seal with a large white skate or turbot in its mouth, which at a distance looked like a man's naked shoulders. I find that my friend the sucker is still hard and fast to the rock in the old place. He is a most exemplary papa! I wonder if mamma relieves him and mounts guard occasionally. The swallow is still alive, but won't or can't eat. I have just put my head out at the kitchen window (I write in the kitchen for the sake of the fire). The gale is as hard as ever. What a strange contrast it is to look out and look in. The wind seems about to tear the hair out of one's head. Its noise, coupled with that of the surf, is deafening. I look down; nothing is visible in the darkness save the glancing of the foam that circles round and leaps upon the tower. Beyond, as far at least as I can see, is a waste of desolate waters that words cannot describe. I draw in my head and shut the window. Words are here equally powerless to describe the cosy comfort of this snug kitchen, with its dark oak partition, panelling, and presses; its blazing fire, which glitters on the polished brass knobs and hinges; its camp-stools, its lamp, its pots, and mugs, and kettles; and, in short, every conceivable comfort that can by any possibility be crammed into a semi-circular apartment of 12 feet diameter. Finished the last morsel of our fresh beef to-day. We shall have to go on salt meat until the gale is over and permits the relief boat to come off with supplies.
Was awakened earlier this morning (Friday, 12th) by Wither telling me that the relief boat was coming at last. The gale is worse than yesterday. I did not know that a little boat could live in such a sea before. The light-keepers say that it is foolhardy in the boatman to have attempted it. She anchored in the lee of the rock about eight o'clock and soon got out the “twin-boat” and made for the “fairway”. We looked on with much anxiety for nearly an hour, during which time they struggled manfully to get to the landing rails, but without success. They were undoubtedly in great danger.
The keepers say they never saw the relief boat come off in such a storm before. The “twin-boat” was so tossed about in the breakers that we expected to see it upset every moment – in which case it is probable that every man would have been lost. Once or twice a monster billow swept right over the field of rocks (the boat can only come in at low water), burst into the sheltered “fairway”, and, towering towards the boat, hid her from our sight. On each of these occasions we thought she was gone, but she reappeared next instant on the crest of the foam. At last they put about - evidently beaten, - but some one on board must have remonstrated, for again they came head to wind and once more made for the landing.
After a long hard pull they found it impossible to advance against wind and sea, so they returned to the large boat – took the ”twin” on board, hoisted their sail, and returned to Arbroath. Wither and I were not sorry, for we are both bad sailors! How long we may be imprisoned here remains to be seen. I hope it won't be long, for we had salt junk for dinner and no potatoes! At tea we finished our last loaf. Tomorrow we breakfast on sea-biscuit. All our vegetables are done. In fact the larder is empty with the exception of salt beef and biscuit. In these circumstances it is some comfort to know that the gale is beginning to abate and that the boat will probably be off again with supplies, and take Wither and me ashore, to-morrow.
My respect for engineers has been much increased of late. I did not think that any building made by man could have withstood the terrific sea that has been, and still is, swirling and roaring round and pounding against us. I never tire of looking at the waves, and always wish that they were bigger, although they are giants to anything I have ever seen on any shore.
Wither and I had a concert this afternoon. Of late I have been practising the violin – Wither's violin. Having only had two weeks' practice altogether, I perform with unutterable difficulty and hideously out of tune. Wither's concertina has two notes out of tune, and one note, that won't shut, keeps up a perpetual drone through everything, but we don't mind that. We play duets. It is quite refreshing! The men are a little afraid that the relief boat having come off in such a storm shows that something is wrong ashore with their families. I trust not.
The boat has made a second attempt to reach us, and with success. So, now, adieu to the Bell Rock. My brief sojourn has been a very pleasant one. I have seen a new phase of human life, and have had additional evidence of the might and majesty of Him who rules the wind and sea.