From “The Story of our Lighthouses and Lightships” by W.H. Davenport Adams, 1891. This content is part of the preservation of the TAMH Project.
When Mr Robert Stevenson made his first landing on the rock in 1800, he discovered in almost every chink and cranny painful proofs of the sad disasters of which it had been the cause, such as bayonets, musket balls and innumerable fragments of iron. All the more perishable materials had been swept away; and a silver shot-buckle was the only vestige of wearing-apparel to speak of the loss of many who had here met their unexpected doom. Nor was it simply on the unbeaconed and unlighted rock that ships were destroyed; not a few were cast on the neighbouring shores, from the anxiety of their pilots to avoid the dreaded danger.
Mr Stevenson records a melancholy example. During a three day’s gale in 1899, a large fleet of vessels were driven from their moorings in the Downs and Yarmouth roads, and from their southward courses. Borne north by the fury of the blast, these ships might easily have reached the anchorage of the Firth of Forth, for which the wind was favourable; but night came on and fearing the Bell Rock, their ill-fated steersmen resolved to keep at sea, but drifting before a pitiless storm on a dark December night, they lost their reckoning and were hopelessly wrecked, two of them on the Bell Rock, and about seventy on the Eastern shores of Scotland, where alas! many of their brave crews perished.
This fatal catastrophe, says Mr Stevenson, is the more to be lamented when we consider that a light upon the Bell Rock, by opening a way to a place of safety, would infallibly have been the means of preventing it. And that this opinion was justifiable we know from the fact that not a single ship has been lost on the rock since the lighthouse was completed – three quarters of a century ago.
It was not until 1786 that a Lighthouse Board for Scotland was established. At that time the chief lights on the Scottish coast were the chauffer and coal-fire on the Isle of May, in the estuary of the Forth, and a similar chauffer on the Little Cumbrae in the estuary of the Clyde.
But the dangerous character of the Bell Rock soon attracted the attention of the Commissioners and they began to contemplate the erection of a lighthouse upon it. In 1806 they obtained an Act of Parliament authorising them to proceed with it; and in the following year operations were begun under the superintendence of Mr Robert Stevenson, who was chosen to carry out the design and plans furnished by the celebrated engineer, Mr (afterwards Sir John) Rennie.
The execution of the work, attended as it was with exceptional difficulties, occupied almost four years, and the outlay involved amounted to £61,331 9s 2d, toward which Government advanced a sum of £30,000.
Bell Rock Lighthouse
Once feared as the most dangerous spot on the East coast of Scotland, it supposedly held a bell fixed upon it it by an abbot of Arbroath and cut loose by a Dutch pirate who was later dashed to pieces on the same reef. The story commemorated in Southey’s poem, Sir Ralph the Rover (below).
Robert Stevenson, the renowned lighthouse engineer, first surveyed the rock in 1800. A prodigious engineering feat was completed on 29 July 1810, and the light first illuminated on 1 February 1811. The lighthouse is 115 feet high with a cast-iron light-room, octagonal in shape, twelve feet in diameter and fifteen in height.
The Keepers’ House
The Signal Tower in Arbroath, now Arbroath Museum, served as accommodation for the off-duty lighthouse keepers. At the top of the tower was an 18′ copper signal ball, matching one on the lighthouse, and used to signal all was well.
The Signal Tower was home for the lighthouse keepers of the Bell Rock lighthouse and their families. A keeper would spend six weeks on the rock, weather permitting, and two weeks on land. In the 1890s the wage was from £50 to £60 a year ‘with a stated allowance of bread, beef, butter, oatmeal, vegetables, and small beer, and fourpence a day extra for tea. A suit of uniform is also provided once in three years.’
There was also a room for the master and crew of the cutter which took fuel and provisions to the light. A copper signal ball at the top of the tower was used for signalling to the lighthouse which had a similar ball. If the ball on the lighthouse was not raised, when particular supplies were needed, or one of the two keepers was ill, the tender would be sent out from Arbroath.
Scurdy Ness Lighthouse in Montrose
The entrance to Montrose harbour has outlying, and partially covered, rocks on one side and sandy shore on the other causing great navigational difficulties and, over the years, much loss of life. The Annat sandbank on the north side has also wrecked many vessels trying to reach the harbour.
Scurdy Ness lighthouse was completed in February 1870 and stands on solid rock at the point to the south of the harbour entrance. With granite foundations, it is 127 feet high, 23 foot 2 inches in diameter at the base and sixteen feet at the top.
The area around the lighthouse is also a rich source of agates, Scotch pebbles.