Celebrating the Bell Rock Signal Tower
By David Taylor, FSA.Scot
[Reprinted from the Northern Lighthouse Board Journal]
(with minor additions)
TWO YEARS AGO, on the 1st February 2011, the Bell Rock Lighthouse celebrated its 200th anniversary. Completed in 1811, it remains one of Scotland’s finest engineering feats of the 19th century, and is now recognised as an Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
This year (2013) also celebrates the Bicentennial of the Signal Tower, originally the lighthouse's shore station, and home to the Lightkeepers and Crew of the Bell Rock Tender. The building is now a museum and mostly dedicated to the construction to the lighthouse!
Here, the great-great-great-grandson of one of the sea captains, who worked alongside Stevenson on its construction, recounts the life and times of his ancestor.
"On the 8th June 1841, Capt. David Taylor, for many years crippled with arthritis, wrote to Robert Stevenson (then Engineer to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses), tendering his resignation as Lighthouse Storekeeper at Leith, at the advanced age of 72 years:
“In the month of November 1807 I entered the Lighthouse Service as Master of the “Sir Joseph Banks”, the Tender for the Artificers of the Bell Rock; at the conclusion of that great Work in 1811 I was put in command of the “Smeaton”, Bell Rock Tender; and in 1816 the “Pharos” was built and I was in Command of her until the year 1821, when I was appointed Storekeeper in Leith, making my period of Service nearly 34 years. You know my Services better than I can describe them, and I need not say more than that infirmity and old age renders me incapable of performing the duties of Storekeeper . . .”
"However, in Stevenson’s eyes, when preparing for the commencement of operations in 1807, Capt. Taylor was an important man. From the outset Stevenson required the services of a local ship’s master, who was not only totally conversant with the sea conditions in and around Arbroath, but equally with the dangerous currents and eddies off the Inchcape or Bell Rock - as yet unmarked. He was also looking ahead to when the work was complete, as the knowledge and expertise of a local sea captain was essential to the well-being of the lighthouse’s shore establishment at the Signal Tower . . . not only for delivery of stores and oils essential to the maintenance of the Light, but also the safe transport of the keepers to and from the House. The Master of the Tender was on call 24 hours a day, and was always ready to set sail at a moment's notice should an emergency arise. He was, indeed, the light-keepers’ lifeline!
"Certainly, the welfare of the Bell Rock was always paramount in Stevenson’s thoughts. In a letter to Capt. Taylor (dated Feb. 1813), he states that regardless of his other duties the “state and supply of things for the use of the Light-house must always be kept in mind, and that no service is of higher importance to the “Smeaton” than attending the Bell Rock Lighthouse.”
"Stevenson was also mindful of the health and problems of his men. Those who were unfortunate enough to be injured while working on the lighthouse eventually took on jobs as keepers. He was concerned, too, about Capt. Taylor who on occasion suffered from gout:
“I am very sorry to learn that you are again laid down with your old complaint . . . however, as I have said before you must have patience and do not use freedoms with yourself while in trouble that may be hurtful to a speedy recovery.”
"During the actual construction of the Lighthouse, life at sea, albeit only 11 miles off the coast of Angus, was full of dangers, and not necessarily from the storms, gales, reefs and skerries. The Impressment Service (better known as the Press Gang), due to the pressures of war with France, was at its height about that time, especially in and around Arbroath, Dundee and Aberdeen. It was necessary, therefore, to have protection medals for the 35 seamen who served on the five vessels belonging to the Northern Lighthouse Board. As it was, one man (on shore leave) did fall foul of the Press Gang and it took Stevenson several months to effect his release.
"During the last year of the Lighthouse’s construction, even mutiny had all but manifested itself among the crew of the Tender - over their daily rations of beer! Fortunately, the captain of the day did not suffer the same fate as his famous counterpart, Capt. Bligh of the “Bounty”! Capt. Taylor, who commanded the vessel at that time, thought the allowance was ample, and added that “if those who now complained were even to be fed upon soft bread and turkeys, they would still not think themselves right.” The ringleaders were eventually singled out, and although they were shown the daily schedule of allowances (which incidentally for beer was 3 quarts per man per day), they refused to continue work without an increase in the amount, and were subsequently dismissed from the Service.
"On completion of the work, the artificers, consisting of masons, joiners, millwright, smith and mortar-maker, prepared to leave the Rock for Arbroath. The “Sir Joseph Banks” tender and its crew had by this time been six months on station without a break. Before they set sail for Arbroath, Robert Stevenson “took occasion to compliment the great zeal, attention and abilities of Mr Peter Logan and Mr Francis Watt, foremen, Captain James Wilson, landing-master, and Captain David Taylor, commander of the Tender, who, in their various departments, had so faithfully discharged the duties assigned to them, often under circumstances most difficult and trying.”
"That evening Stevenson invited his Clerk of Works, Foremen and Captains of the Service, and several of their friends, to one of the local inns, where they spent a congenial evening together, at the end of which a toast was given: “To the Stability of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.”
"Today, the Lighthouse can be seen much as Stevenson left it. As we now embark on the new Millennium, the future of the Bell (now unmanned and automatic) is as important now as it was then to the men who navigate our coasts; and is, indeed, the true memorial to those who built it."
Footnote – Capt. Taylor went on to become Lighthouse Storekeeper in Leith in 1820 and is known to have commanded other ships of the fleet.
© David Taylor 2013
Capt. David Taylor was born at Broomhill, in
the parish of Arbirlot, some two miles from the Royal Burgh
of Arbroath, on the 4th Nov. 1768, the eldest son of David
Taylor (handloom weaver) and Ann Christie. The Taylors had
lived for generations in the parish.
farmhouse of Broomhill,
near Arbirlot village
Even when records began in 1632, there were already
families of that name established in the area. Little is
known of Capt. Taylors early years, but in the 1790s
he married Janet Hay. The Hays were an important old-established
family in the town. Her father John Hay (a ships
master and master mariner) was heritable proprietor of lands
in the Copegate (the lower High Street) which he had acquired
Although the preparations for building the lighthouse actually
started in August 1807, it wasnt until the
November of that year that Capt. Taylor entered the service
of the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners. The records suggest
that Stevenson was in need of a locally-based sea captain,
who, after the lighthouse was complete, would be needed
to supply the lightkeepers with provisions and stores to
maintain the light.
Capt. Taylor commanded the Sir Joseph Banks
tender, the vessel used to house the artificers during the
progress of the works. Afterwards he became the first
Superintendent of the Shore Establishment based at the
Signal Tower in Arbroath.
Effects of the seas on the lighthouse
Whilst the lighthouse was under construction there was
a continual stream of Correspondence between Stevenson and
Capt. Taylor; invariably instructions and queries, which
the captain answered dutifully by return; and this continued
long after the lighthouse was completed. One interesting
letter from Stevenson concerned the effects of adverse
weather conditions upon the house.
On 15th Dec. 1813, he wrote to Capt. Taylor:
Upon receipt of this letter, or as soon thereafter
as possible, you will be so good as to favour me with all
your remarks regarding to, or interesting about, the Bell
Rock lighthouse after so long a stay upon it in the depth
of winter. I mean that your remarks should be extended at
some length and that they should embrace whatever may have
appeared to you as interesting to a stranger either regarding
the effects of the sea upon the rock or lighthouse. Likewise
that you take notice of the chief conveniences or disadvantages
connected with the building or the condition of the Lightkeepers.
To which Capt. Taylor duly replied on the 30th December:
"The Bell Rock
Lighthouse" - by J M W Turner
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Scotland
Owing to the state of the weather being so very
fine for the most part of my stay there, I have no remarks
of any consequence to inform you of. Have had several strong
breezes from the south and eastward but these chanced to
be in the time of the neap tides and there being but little
water on the Rock, the force of the sea was always broke
before it came to the building. After these breezes began
to take off and the weather became more moderate, the sea
then came rolling along the Rock in a solid body and broke
in full force upon the house about the upper part of the
granite, and the spray sprang up from 70 to 80 feet and
had a most beautiful appearance as ever I beheld in my life
when looking down from the top of the house, and several
times when sitting at the kitchen fire when these heavy
seas struck the east side of the house clouds of spray swept
round the north and south sides of it and darkened the windows
- by that time you may depend upon it our lower and middle
deck ports were all shut in. As to the conveniences or conditions
of the Lightkeepers. In my opinion everything is as well
as possible can be to make them comfortable which I really
believe they are - as for my part I took very well with
it and time passed away very pleasant by what it was wont
to do on board the Float rocking and tumbling about . .
Stevenson replied characteristically:
I duly received your letters giving me a very interesting
account of your stay at the Bell Rock, which I have read
oftener than once with great pleasure . . .
Not all Capt. Taylors duties revolved round the Bell
Rock and its well-being. Correspondence shows him at various
times to be in Peterhead, Aberdeen, Newcastle, Greenock
and the Orkneys on lighthouse business. He also was
responsible for supplying provisions to Inchkeith, Isle
of May and Kinnaird Head lighthouses.
By 1819, Capt. Taylors health was giving problems.
In the Engineers Report of that year - under Shipping
- And having taken into consideration the case of
David Taylor, the master of the Pharos, who is stated
to be the subject of gout, the Commissioners Remit to the
Standing Committee, to consider whether he could be employed
in any situation in this service in which he would suffer
less from exposure.
In 1821, Capt. Taylor was appointed Lighthouse Storekeeper
at Leith, a move very much opposed by his wife and family,
who understandably had no great desire to leave Arbroath.
This post, however, also gave him the position of Ships
Husband to the Regent Yacht.