The second of Charlie Riding's experiences
of life as an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper on the Bell Rock
during the 1980s
normal image of the Bell Rock is a thin, stained tower standing
in splendid isolation in the middle of the sea.
It is such an inspiring sight that most people would tend
to concentrate on what it must have been like to live inside
such a confined space, or perhaps what it must have been
like to stand on the high balcony and watch the waves crash
against the granite base.
What is often overlooked is that while the base of the
tower was submerged under 15 to 20 feet of water twice each
day, it obviously must follow that twice each day it was
NOT under water at all. This meant that, in theory at least,
it was possible to escape the confines of the wee circular
rooms and get out to stretch the legs. Twice a day only
in theory because one of those slack water periods was during
the night and the other had to have a certain set of circumstances
to be just right in order to be of any use.
For instance, it was no good even considering going outside
if there was a storm - simply far too dangerous. If slack
water during daylight hours occurred in the morning (we
did station work in the mornings) or in the afternoon when
a man was on watch then of course a walk was not an option
either. I don't mean to suggest that it was impossible to
go outside, far from it, just that it was perhaps not as
easy as you might imagine.
I think I might have mentioned before that the greatest
distance that it was possible to walk in a straight line
inside the tower was three paces. If the weather was particularly
fine and the keeper could be bothered to go to the great
effort of moving heavy stored stuff around, in order to
open both the North and South facing storm doors in the
radio room, then this distance could almost be increased
to five paces! After being confined like this for days on
end - sometimes weeks on end - the desire to stretch the
legs became so overwhelming for some of us that the prospect
of going outside for a proper walk began to dominate the
As soon as the circumstances of good weather, afternoon
low water and free time coincided, it was not unusual to
see a man striding out along the truncated metal walkway
that led from the tower base to the boat landing area next
to the helipad. This must have been the huge distance of
maybe 40 or 50 yards and I seem to remember that we had
it worked out just how many "back and forwards it took to
cover a mile". A lot!
There was not really a whole lot to look at either while
pacing the gratings. For a start the metal was quite slippery
unless it was totally dry and so care had to be taken not
to lose footing - which meant looking down rather than looking
elsewhere. Not that "elsewhere" comprised of much more than
grey sea mind you. Sometimes, if luck really held, the seals
would be sunbathing on the rocks and this was always a pleasure
to watch and at other times the sun might be shining in
a certain way that made the combination of colours of rock,
weed and water particularly pleasing to the eye but in general
there was only endless grey sea to look at.
Nevertheless it was still really lovely to get outside
and I can clearly remember those times I spent pacing back
and forward, counting off the miles. It was far more usual
for us to be out on the rocks in the morning though, because
if we had outside maintenance work to be done then we had
to take advantage of whatever opportunity the weather gave
Now the arrangement on the Bell was for the "junior" men
to do all the mid-day cooking. The PLK never did this and
the two assistants would take a week in turn to cook. This
of course meant that the available time to get outside was
even further reduced and so the opportunity was seized readily
when it occurred - even if the outside duty was unpleasant.
Upon reflection of that last sentence I do remember the
duty being so very unpleasant that I wished I were indoors!
We had suffered weeks of really violent weather and the
constant crashing of the seas had severely weakened the
metal walkway and gratings. This walkway was made from some
of the original sections of cast iron that had been placed
on the reef to form an elevated "railway" track when the
tower was being built in the early 1800's.
Precision shaped blocks of best granite would be landed
from an open rowing boat and manoeuvred along this track
using sheer muscle power alone. There was no such thing
as welding in those days and indeed, mass manufacturing
had not evolved to the point where such commonplace items
as nuts and bolts could be cheaply and accurately made.
This was one of the main reasons why metal wedges held the
whole complex structure together. These wedges, of perhaps
six inches in length, were hammered into elongated slots
in the gratings and metal uprights in place of bolts. They
supposedly they had the further advantage that they allowed
a bit of "give" to the structure when particularly heavy
seas were happening. That was a dubious advantage to my
mind though as I was never entirely convinced of that logic
but more to the point, this "give" had the unfortunate side
effect of causing various of these wedges to work loose
(if they didn't simply rust away) and it was a high priority
job to ensure that they were always tight.
After any protracted period of bad weather they had to
be checked and it was my unhappy lot one day after the bad
weather to spend time outdoors inspecting the gratings.
We didn't do all that very much that first morning as I
remember. We had a leisurely breakfast (well nothing unusual
in that certainly!) and John and myself went out onto the
Weeks of being stuck inside the tower had prompted us to
do more than our usual share of inside work and we had lots
and lots of waste material to dispose of.
It would be wonderful to be able to claim that we keepers
were environmentally aware but I am sorry to report that
this was not the case.
Our first job of the morning was to lower down open drums
of oily waste left over from cleaning the engine room. We
had this waste plus perhaps 10 gallons of used, black, dirty
engine oil to dispose of. There was a certain slight hollow
in the rock just in front of the gratings below the tower
ladder, and it was into this that John tipped the first
drum of oily rags and rubbish. He set fire to this and then
placed a fragment of a sheet of metal to balance over the
In a very short time the metal began to take on a dull
red colour as it got very hot indeed and John then began
to slowly pour - dribble to be more exact - the dirty engine
oil down over the outside of the sheet. The heat of the
metal caused the oil to first give off pure white smoke
before it vaporised completely and flashed into intense
flame. The incredible heat from this caused the metal sheet
to get hotter still which in turn allowed an increased amount
of oil to be poured over the surface.
In no time at all we had a mini inferno going on the rocks.
The heat was fierce and we constantly had to step away to
avoid getting burned. As the first drum of used oil came
to an end one of us, I can't remember who, after all this
time, picked up the second drum of oily waste and up-ended
it into the flames. I do remember the stunned silence and
the look of horror on John's face as he saw what had been
hidden among the old rags - I imagine my face looked much
the same to him as we both saw the unmistakable shape of
a disposable gas container.
We had "entertained" a technician from head office some
days before - he had visited briefly to repair some pipe
work and this was the remains from his gas torch. I suppose
we must have assumed he would know not to put such a thing
in the waste bucket and we certainly had not thought to
tell him. The look of horror was only short-lived as we
both turned abruptly and tried to put as much distance as
we could between the inferno and ourselves. It was no easy
matter to move quickly when wearing such heavy and cumbersome
clothes but we did our best and managed to cover a good
few yards before the container exploded.
I imagine it must have had a good deal of gas left inside
it judging by the way it blew bits of metal, blazing rag,
splintered rock and liquid fire into the air! We were very
lucky that neither of us was hit or hurt and the relief
of survival caused us both to begin to laugh hysterically
at a situation that was really not very amusing at all.
We were still laughing when John the cook appeared on the
balcony above our heads. I imagine the explosion must have
come as a bit of a shock to him as well as he hailed us
with the line "what the f*** are ye's up tae noo ye pair
o' daft bastards! Can ye no gie me ony peace even when ye
go ootside? If the dinner's ruined it'll only be yerselves
tae blame ye stupid buggers ye!!" It was a subdued
The next day the weather was still fairly good and so it
was decided that maybe it would be a good idea to make a
start with the metal wedges. The main task of the previous
day after all, had been to inspect the grating - the explosion
was purely incidental - and our observations confirmed what
we expected to find; that the grating was in need immediate
attention if it was to survive the month.
Now it was one thing to inspect the wedges but quite another
altogether to actually do repair work - for a start we needed
to get dressed. So after another leisurely breakfast - this
time perhaps even more protracted than normal as there was
a definite lack of enthusiasm in the air - John and myself
left Big John to his kitchen chores (he was pretending without
success that he was going to be very busy) and headed down
the ladders to the middle storeroom.
Time to get dressed to go out on a February morning at
the Bell Rock - a task that could consume an astonishing
amount of time. The basic problem of getting dressed to
go outside was really a variation on the problem we had
doing anything on the Bell - lack of space.
The available space in the place we laughingly called the
"store room" was ridiculously limited - yet we probably
had more room here than anywhere lower down the tower. This
"store" room with its internal diameter of only 11 feet
(3.4m) had to accommodate drinking water storage tanks,
floor to ceiling racks full of paint, nails, bolts, tools,
spares, cleaners, polish, rags - basically everything we
needed really. Then there was the ranks of bright red gas
bottles which were the core of the inert gas fire control
system which were next to the two small freezers which stood
alongside the sacks of vegetables and boxes of foodstuffs
which were sitting beneath the wall pegs which held our
outdoor gear, lifejackets, survival suits and sea boots.
Next to all this mass of equipment was a tiny toehold of
floor space sandwiched between the ladder from the engine
room below and the ladder to the bedroom floor above - this
was our dressing room.
Now realistically there was only room for one person to
get dressed at a time but of course we didn't do that -
what would be the fun in that! Naturally enough I had set
off downstairs already partially dressed for the rock. I
was already wearing my thick woollen thermal underwear beneath
my normal trousers, tee shirt and thick woollen jumper,
which I was wearing beneath my cotton coveralls. I had added
to this with two pairs of socks and I had a scarf and gloves
in reserve. John was wearing much the same of course and
so we now were evenly matched as we moved on to stage two.
First of all there was the extra pair of very thick sea
boot woollen socks - these also helped to subdue the bottoms
of the trousers and coveralls as we wriggled our legs into
our thigh length rubber boots. Next came the thick bib-and-brace
yellow plastic trouser bottoms. These were so thick that
they could stand up by themselves and it was a vicious battle
to get the better of them. The air was full of "ah fur
f***s sake" s and "Jesus Christ these are total bastards!"
- all this accompanied with bumps and bruises to the knees,
elbows and most other parts of the body as well.
If the waterproof bottoms were hard they were nothing compared
to the smock tops - these was no compromise in these at
all, they took no prisoners! The only feasible way to put
the top on was to raise arms straight up and have the damned
thing lowered down on you! To be able to do this, the secret
was to climb down a few steps on the ladder and have the
other keeper drop the thing over your arms and head. This
was all well and good but it was very hard indeed to return
the favour when completely encased in plastic and by this
point we seemed to have expanded in bulk to consume all
available space. The final touches were the woollen hats,
which were pulled low over the ears, the woollen scarf to
keep the draughts out, the woollen gloves and then the thick
rubber ones on top. We were ready!
We waddled and bumped our way down through both engine
rooms and then down the vertical ladder to the entrance
passage. A very tight squeeze here as we stopped to pick
up metal buckets full of steel wedges and big heavy hammers
before moving out for the final climb down the outer ladder
to the rocks. Let me tell you here that it is no joy at
all to wade through thigh-deep icy sea water when there
is a strong wind and bitter spray blowing - this is one
of the (many) images that simply don't spring to mind when
the average person has romantic thoughts of a lighthouse
We had to wriggle our footings through the weed and slowly
move along the metal gratings with the bucket of wedges
and hammer in one hand while the other hand gripped firmly
onto anything that was available. When a loose wedge was
discovered the bucket had to be lifted and lodged someplace
safe in order to leave two hands free to do the work.
The first thing to do was wriggle around and manoeuvre
the feet and body to make sure that a good safe stance was
achieved before ramming a new, fresh, wedge into the slot.
The process from then on simply involved battering away
at the wedge with the big hammer until it could be forced
no further. This process would not normally be especially
difficult of course but when icy water was splashing up
our yellow plastic clothes and finding every possible way
of trickling through to dribble down inside to soak our
bodies, it became a matter of urgency to be accurate with
the hammer in order to get to higher, more secure footings
as quickly as possible.
To further add to the general hilarity of the situation
was the driving spray I mentioned before. This seemed to
arrive horizontally and always at the very instant when
the hammer was about to make contact with the steel wedge,
with the inevitable consequence that the hammer would miss,
balance would be compromised and some other part of us would
get freshly wet!
A few hours of this and we were desperate to get back indoors!
In this respect the rapid rise of the tide was our good
friend I suppose, as at it severely limited the amount of
time that could be spent in this, the lowest possible level
at which work could be done on the Bell.
I remember well how much my admiration for the men who
built the tower was increased by doing things like this.
They must have been a much hardier bunch of men in the early
years of the 19th century!
Another task that required frequent repetition outdoors
was painting of course and while this generally did not
require us to be as comprehensively dressed as grating work,
it did nevertheless require even more agility I think.
In order for boat landings to be able to take place it
was necessary to have various marker poles set into the
rock. The water level would drop very quickly indeed with
the ebb tide and as all landings were made during this phase,
rather than on the flood tide (for good, sound, safety reasons)
it was essential that the coxswain of the boat had something
to gauge his position with.
You must understand that the route from the open sea into
the pool of deeper water beside the helipad was a tortuous
one and at the same time an invisible one to anybody steering
the boat. The poles were essential to avoid hitting the
sharp protruding rock.
By lining up various combinations of poles and markers
the experienced boatman could find his way in - always a
remarkable achievement I thought and one made all the more
so if I happened to be on the boat! The poles themselves
were perhaps the height of a man and were painted a particularly
vivid shade of fluorescent red. The trouble was that they
were positioned for navigation rather than convenience of
maintenance and while it only took a matter of minutes to
paint one it took an awful lot longer to actually get to
Now you must remember that the Inchcape reef is classed
as semi-submerged. The rocks (and base of the tower) are
under around 15 feet of seawater twice every day. Almost
all the rocks were covered with a brown broad bladed weed
that grows to maybe 6 ft long. When the tide was full these
weeds would wave back and forth to catch nutrients but when
the tide went out the weed would collapse in heaps and so
gained the name of "tangles". I have no real idea of the
proper name for this stuff but "tangles" is a very apt description.
The tangles were very slippery indeed and great care was
needed when walking over the rock, as I was one February
day, while trying to reach a marker pole that needed repainted.
The secret to safe passage was to push in with the toe of
the thigh-length sea-boots and wiggle around until you had
firm rock under your foot.
Progress was slow but this technique was essential nevertheless
- especially so when carrying a paintbrush in one hand and
a large can of paint in the other. It was just a matter
of chance that I had the job of painting the furthermost
pole - perhaps I painted faster than John or perhaps I painted
slower - neither of us painted with any degree of enthusiasm
in any case.
I set off on the journey to the pole - The Journey to the
Pole sounds like a romantic Arctic prospect when I use those
words, but the reality was a very slow and very careful
shuffle over the rocks. I was passing the edge of a deep
pool called the "Johnnie Gray" (every rock and pool had
a name from a 19th century map) when I took perhaps less
care than was needed in finding a secure foothold and I
slid straight in.
The shock of the icy water was something else altogether!!
Fortunately I didn't go completely under water as I managed
to grab a handful of tangles on the way down. I immediately
tried to pull myself up out of the water but the higher
I rose, so the more the weight of water now filling my sea
boots pulled me back down. I almost got out but the weight
was just too much. My strength gave way and I just slid
slowly back into the water. It was SO cold!!
The survival time for immersion in the North Sea in Winter
is not measured in hours! It felt like someone had opened
a valve to allow all my energy to drain away. I could actually
feel myself perceptibly getting weaker by the second. I
had another attempt at pulling myself out but it was hopeless;
no matter how hard I pulled I just could not get far enough
up the rock. There was no place to use my feet for leverage
and it was all I could do to just hold on.
Now it was a rule that we were not allowed to go out on
the bare rock on our own - for obvious reasons - and I was
no more glad of this commonsense than now. John had seen
me fall in and not wanting to do the same thing himself,
he was super-cautious in his approach to the Johnnie Gray,
and seemed to take hours to reach me although I know for
sure it could not have been more than 3 or 4 minutes.
He heaved and with the very, very last of my strength I
managed to get far enough out for the water to drain from
my boots and so I was saved. It took me 2 full days to regain
normal body temperature.
We did break out the medicinal brandy bottle when we got
upstairs. Quite the worst thing to do I know but I only
got a third share of this in any case - I didn't feel too
bad about that as I most certainly would have wanted a share
if the either of the others had fallen in as well!
So there you are - excursions outdoors at the Bell Rock.
I do have lots of very, very happy memories of being out
on the rocks however but as these tended to take place in
the warmer months of the year then perhaps I might tell
of them as well.
Charlie Riding - March 1998