Riding served on the Bell during the mid-1980s, and
was among the last of the keepers stationed there before
automation in 1988. Here he describes a typical watch in
the early hours of the morning.
I quickly waken when the hand touches my shoulder.
"It's 2 o'clock, are ye awake Charlie?"
"Aye, I'm ok Peter" I answer as Peter the Principal Light
Keeper softly closes the door to my "bedroom". I can hear
him climbing the metal steps to the "kitchen" and carefully
closing the hatch cover as I quickly get out of my bunk.
Experience has taught me that it is fatal to close my eyes
again even for a second at this time of the night; I must
get out of bed straight away. I climb down from my bunk
and start dressing. My bunk is the middle one in a tier
of three in the "north bedroom". It's the second half of
my month out here so I have the room to myself. I can indulge
myself by being untidy for two weeks. Not that untidy though;
even with only one occupant, the "bedroom" is severely cramped.
God it's cold - it's always cold out here - so I put on
my thermal underwear, two pairs of socks, two woolly jumpers
and my body warmer. There is no heating in the bedroom flat
during the night - the generator does not have enough output
to run much more than the main light and the heater in the
"kitchen." I softly close the door and follow Peter upstairs.
With an unconscious piece of neat footwork, I step off
the ladder, twist my body and carefully lower the metal
floor hatch. The hatches must always be kept closed. If
a fire occurred out here, the tower would act like a chimney.
I never want to think of this happening - where could we
escape to? The hatches also reduce the noise in the tower
and, to some small extent, reduce the draughts.
"Morning Peter" I say as I walk the two steps to the sink
to clean my teeth.
"Morning" he replies, "it's a cauld yin this morning"
I mumble an agreement through a mouthful of toothpaste,
that it is indeed a cold day. The kettle, as always, is
softly bubbling on the stove and the teapot is on the table
- mugs stand ready to be filled. I quietly drink my tea
as Peter talks. The tea has been made with dried milk added.
Fresh milk (fresh anything apart from fish) is impossible
out here. I'm used to the taste, however, and actually quite
enjoy the slightly odd flavour. Peter talks on. It's the
usual rubbish about what he watched on TV, what Sandy (the
other Assistant Light Keeper) is currently complaining about,
what the weather is going to do (a favourite topic this),
what needs painted next. It's just conversation that requires
little more from me than the odd murmur of agreement. We
know each other's habits intimately and Peter is only really
talking to ensure that I am wide-awake. As I slowly come
to life so Peter slowly fades. At about twenty-five past
two it's time for him to go to his own bunk. He's had the
most popular watch and will be able to lie in until nine
am, lucky man. Still, it will be my turn for the ten till
two watch in two days time. We count our time out here by
the number of particular watches we have completed and have
still to do. A month at the Bell is only ten or eleven,
ten till two, watches. Somehow that seems better than thirty-odd
days. Peter wishes me goodnight as I watch his head sink
below floor level. The hatch quietly closes and I am on
First things first, I fill the kettles. We have two large
kettles; each holds about six pints. They are not quite
identical however, as one has a wound cord handle that was
carefully added by some previous keeper some time in the
past. I take this kettle and fill it from the blue tap.
We also have two taps at our tiny sink. The blue tap is
cold fresh water that comes from the storage tanks above
my head in the lens room. This water is precious. We once
worked out that the cost of getting a pint of fresh water
to the Bell gave it the equivalent value of a pint of whisky.
Needless to say, while we would rather have had the whisky,
we are VERY careful with water. The second kettle I fill
from the red tap. This tap is connected to another storage
tank that holds rainwater. The water is collected from the
dome of the light. This water bonus is somewhat reduced
in value as the dome, being one of the very few horizontal
(ish) surfaces out here, is a favourite resting-place for
the gulls. The gulls do what they have to do with the result
that the rainwater is heavily polluted with bird droppings.
This gives it a rather distinct smell - especially when
boiled. Hence the two kettles. It's a cardinal sin to get
them mixed up but then, no one ever does - we all live by
routine. The kettles on to boil, I have fifteen minutes
to spare before my first duty so I pour another cup of tea
and pick up a book.
Twenty to three and I climb the ladder to the watch room.
The hatch is always left open here. Probably against regulations
but we do it anyway as it allows the man on watch to remain
in the kitchen. While the kitchen is cold, the watch room
is freezing. The radios are set loud enough to be heard
from the kitchen and the lens has had a little DIY addition
in the form of a tiny striker and bell. As the lens turns,
protruding flanges move the striker and cause it to hit
the bell. The "tink-tink", pause, "tink-tink", pause sound
is invisible background noise but instantly noticeable when
it stops. In this way we can hear the lens turning. If the
light itself were to fail, the power surge would trip the
main circuit breaker and the whole tower would shut down.
We would notice that from the kitchen! I don't need to look
to know that the weather is foul. The force six wind is
rattling the north balcony door and I can hear rain hitting
the lens room glass. I pull on an oilskin jacket, pick up
a torch and go out through the south door. Unlike a balcony
at a shore lighthouse, this one is action-packed, organised
chaos. Space is at a premium out here so every square inch
is used. I work my way north into the rain through a tangle
of gas bottles, lashed crates and canvas shrouded shapes
to reach the weather box.
This box holds the wet and dry thermometers. It's too wet
and windy to write a note so I memorise the readings and
hurry back inside. Time to "do the weather". The Bell is
a major weather station and accurate readings are required
every hour at ten minutes to the hour. I open the weather
log and quickly start coding the readings. Wind speed, direction,
cloud layer, type and cover, visibility, precipitation,
barometric pressure and tendency, humidity, dew point and
of course, wet and dry temperatures. This information is
entered as five-figure groups. My timing is spot-on; the
radio comes to life as I enter the last reading.
"Bell Rock, Bell Rock, Bell Rock, this is Leuchars, Leuchars,
Leuchars, do you read me - over"
Leuchars, Leuchars, Leuchars, this is the Bell Rock, reading
you loud and clear - over"
"Bell, Leuchars, go ahead please"
"Leuchars, Bell, - 00241, 00241; 25192, 25192; 04353,
I slowly and carefully read out the groups. "Bell, Leuchars,
received loud and clear, talk to you in a hour, Leuchars
I go back down to my now boiling kettles, taking an empty
plastic provision box with me from the watch room.
Privacy at the Bell is a commodity as precious as the water.
I am going to use some of both now by having a wash. Various
laughable attempts have been made at rigging a shower in
the past. They usually involved a plastic garden pressure-spray
bottle and improbable pieces of hose. The inevitable result
was an inadequate wash and almost certain hypothermia. Standing
naked to the world 120 feet above the sea outside on the
balcony is a novel experience to say the least. I settle
this time for the tried and tested plastic box. The box
is bright red and about 30 inches long by 18 inches wide
- not much of a bath but it will have to do. I fold up the
table and place the box in the now seemingly vast space
created. I fill this with the fresh kettle and turn the
bird water down to simmer. Adding fresh cold, I wash my
hair first before quickly stripping off and stepping in.
The water is gorgeous but it's far too cold in the kitchen
to be naked for long. A quick wipe all over with a wet flannel
and my toilet is complete! I quickly inspect my new bruises.
What a lovely shade of purple they are! Space is so restricted
out here that hardly a day goes by without me bumping into
something or something bumping into me. I pull on clean
socks and underwear and then get fully dressed as quickly
as I can. Now I really am wide-awake but I feel great. I
add soap powder to the plastic box, throw in my dirty underwear
and socks and top it up with the bird water. The two till
six watch is also laundry day.
There is not enough storage space at the Bell for numerous
changes of clothing but, then again, there is no real need
for them either. It's not as if we were planning a night
out after all. Under the circumstances, personal hygiene
is difficult to say the least. It's now halfway through
my month and I am getting very grubby. This is no real problem
as the other two men are as well. I can't wash heavy clothing
but I can wash socks, underwear and tee shirts. I do this
now in the plastic box and rinse in freezing, but fresh
water. I wring out the clothes and head upstairs. Hanging
clothes outside to dry is just a long-winded way of throwing
them into the sea. It would take metal clamps instead of
clothes pegs and even then it would inevitably rain. No,
the only solution is the light room. The light at the Bell
is a hand-made bulb about fifteen inches tall. It is similar
to a domestic bulb except for its size and it's power consumption
- three thousand, five hundred watts! The bulb is very bright
but equally important to us, it also gives out a huge amount
of heat. There is a raised platform round the lens that
covers our fresh water tanks. This platform has a handrail
on the lens side and this is ideal for hanging out wet washing.
I push some other drier clothes out of the way and hang
mine up. Should be dry in a few days.
Back to the kitchen and I start to tidy up - pausing only
to put the fresh kettle back on. The logistics of having
a bath are such that the actual wash takes very little time
compared to the preparations. By the time all is straight,
the kettle has boiled and I have just enough time for another
cuppa before the next weather. I pick up my book.
Four a.m. and I'm back from the watch room. The wind is
veering and strengthening. Force 7 and now from the north-east
- the worst direction for us. The temperature is falling
as well and so I have switched off the single bar electric
heater in the watch room and switched on an extra bar here.
The wind is rattling the balcony doors upstairs and I strain
to hear if anything has worked itself loose. All sounds
normal so I huddle round the heater with my book and another
cup of tea. The weather is worsening but visibility is still
good. I saw the lights of a ship away to the east when I
was outside so at least we will all be spared the need for
the fog siren tonight. That IS good news! This is the time
of the morning that we usually get a call from the "Summer
Rose". Chay is the skipper of this small lobster boat
that has fished the Inchcape Reef for many years. We used
to wave occasionally when we saw him but one morning, some
months ago now, the radio burst into life with a new (and
very broad Scots) voice. Somehow Chay had managed to "acquire"
a VHF "crystal" that allowed him to (illegally) use the
lighthouse frequency. As VHF signals are "line-of-sight"
this meant that, due to his very low elevation, only we
could hear him. The entire world could hear us though, and
all they heard was a cryptic one-sided conversation. We
were all waiting to hear from the "Summer Rose" as Chay
had indicated that he had a big surprise for us. No matter
how much we pestered him, he was only going to tell us when
all was ready. Well it would have to wait for another day
because he wouldn't be out in weather like this - the Inchcape
is dangerous at the best of times. The time passes slowly
now and I find myself looking at the clock more often. Fortunately
there is absolutely no chance of falling asleep in this
temperature - if this gets worse I will need another woolly
jumper. The clock crawls round to twenty to five - time
for the weather again.
Oh it was miserable outside that time. I only slipped the
oilskin on when I really should have taken the extra time
to button it. I thought I was going to take off! I got soaked
before I could get back in - I should have known better.
The watch room was like a morgue as well. The single bar
heater seems to have no effect until it is switched off
- the temperature difference is really noticeable. Well
it will just have to be cold up there because I have to
warm up. I'm so close to the heater now that "steam" can
be seen rising from my clothes. It's almost daylight; the
light is scheduled to be switched off at twenty past five
today. I decide to leave it until half past, as it's a very
overcast dawn. Yet another cuppa and back to my book. I'll
be glad to get this watch over and get back to my bunk -
even if it will only be for less than three hours.
Half past five and it's bright enough to see the horizon.
It's difficult to tell what actually is the horizon though
as it is so overcast - eight parts low stratus, with visibility
of about seven miles. Lots of rain as well. The sea is a
field of "white horses" with driving spray. The kitchen
suddenly seems cosier. I go downstairs this time, three
floors down to the auxiliary engine room. This always seems
the most cramped place in the tower. The walls are completely
hidden by machinery, tanks and store cupboards. A small
myford lathe is folded up next to the ladder - my favourite
retreat in the afternoons. The room is dominated by a large,
single-cylinder, diesel generator set, our day engine. I
glance at the diesel header tank indicator to make sure
that it was topped-up by Peter at midnight - naturally it
was. I adjust the automatic de-compressor gear, press the
starter and the engine bursts into life. It has a totally
different beat to our main engines on the floor below. These
are twin-cylinder units that provide enough power for the
main light. It would be wasteful on diesel to run these
through the daylight hours when the output of the single
is adequate. Back up three floors trying to be as quiet
as possible. I've left the single running to warm up. I
put the kettle back on as I pass through the kitchen and
then up the ladder again and up higher to the light room.
The view from here now is really depressing - a 360 degree
panorama of grey sea. I've seen it all before so I waste
no time in turning off the main light controls - bulb then
motor. As soon as the bulb is switched off the Power load
comes off the main diesel. I can hear the engine revs rise
as I return down five floors. This time as I enter the auxiliary
flat I put on ear protectors - the noise of two diesel engines
is deafening. I go to the main circuit board and switch
the Power load over to the day engine. This causes the speed
of the engine in here to instantly fall with a corresponding
increase from the twin cylinder downstairs. I adjust the
frequency and voltage output in an attempt to get it as
close to mainland power as possible - 50Hz and 240V. It's
never possible to be accurate; electric clocks in the tower
are useless at keeping time but the rest of the electrical
equipment seems to work well enough. I go down one more
floor to the main engine room and close down the twin. The
drop in noise level is dramatic. We have two main engines
and they are used on alternate nights. I must remember to
note that the indicated hours on number two is reaching
the limit. An oil and filter change will be required later
My timing has been good. Switching off the light has taken
ten minutes so it's quietly back up five floors to do my
last "weather" - kettle turned down to a simmer as I pass.
A new operator is on duty at RAF Leuchars and he is keen
to chat. We talk about the weather - what else! I sign off
from Leuchars at exactly six am and go down to the bedroom
flat. Into the south "bedroom" where the air is less than
wholesome - it's just too cold to open the brass-dogged
window. Sandy is snoring gently as I give him a shake. I
hope that this is not going to be one of his bad mornings.
He grunts something that I presume means "I'm awake". I
quietly leave and return to the kitchen. A quick tidy up
before he appears. The place is always neat but that's only
because we are forever just giving the place a "quick tidy".
"A place for everything and everything in its place" - that's
a tower light exactly. I glance at the clock and it's nine
minutes past six. I fill the teapot, put milk and sugar
in the mugs and sit down as Sandy pushes the hatch open.
He's having a good morning as he has responded to my first
"shout". Bad time-keeping causes bad feeling and this is
something we all try to avoid at all costs. There is not
enough space out here to fall out with someone.
"Morning Charlie" he says as he walks the two steps to
the sink to clean his teeth.
"Morning" I reply, "it's a cauld yin this morning"
Sandy quietly drinks his tea as I talk. I talk the usual
rubbish about what Peter (the PLK) is currently complaining
about, what the weather is going to do (a favourite topic
this), what needs painted next. It's just conversation that
requires little more from him than the odd murmur of agreement.
We know each other's habits intimately and I'm only really
talking to ensure that Sandy is wide-awake. As he slowly
comes to life, so I slowly fade. Another watch ends at the
Charlie Riding - March 1998