Section Index
Bicentennial - 2011
Visiting the Rock
Underwater Life
at the Bell Rock

"Inchcape Rock" by Robert Southey
Light-keeper's Duties "1823"
The Bell Rock Prayer
Sir Joseph Banks and Mutiny on the Bounty
Sir Walter Scott's visit, the "Pharos Loquitur"
"The Year without a Summer"
"Death of HMS Argyll"
Pharos Experience
Preparing for Automation
Life in the Bell Rock
Lighthouse (1865)

A Keeper's Account
'"A Quiet Night In"

A Keeper's Account
"Outdoor 'Excursions'"

North Carr Lightships
Lighthouses of the Forth
The Bell Rock Tartan

A Keeper's Account

The second of Charlie Riding's experiences of life as an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper on the Bell Rock during the 1980s

Outdoor "excursions" at the Bell

Working on the HelipadThe 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 thoughts.

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 us.

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 rocks.

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.

Disposing of waste

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 fire.

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 lunch!

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 keeper's life.

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!

Painting the markers

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 one.

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.

An unexpected dip

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

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