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Bell Rock Lighthouse feature article from the pages of Scottish Life Magazine

The Bell Rock Lighthouse

One the great engineering achievements of the 19th century, the Bell Rock Lighthouse
still inspires awe two centuries later.

BY JIM GILCHRIST

Even in an age of automation, 12 years after the last Scottish lightkeeper locked the door behind him, lighthouses cast a unique, almost elemental spell, their evening glimmer from distant headlands evoking a mixture of edge-of-the-world isolation and comforting reassurance. Two hundred years ago this coming February, the light first beamed out from a structure which is still regarded as one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of the 19th century. In the annals of lighthouse construction, they don't come much more iconic than the Bell Rock.

The greatest achievement of Robert Stevenson, the first of the famous dynasty of Scottish lighthouse engineers (of whom the author Robert Louis Stevenson was a scion), the Bell Rock is the oldest existing "pillar rock" lighthouse in Britain, and arguably the world's first truly offshore lighthouse. However, a controversy has long simmered over the respective contributions of Stevenson, who was actually appointed assistant engineer to the project, and John Rennie, another eminent Scottish civil engineer who, much to Stevenson's chagrin, was appointed the project's director by the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB).

Rearing from its knuckle of rock 11 miles off Arbroath, the 115-foot high sandstone and granite pillar warns mariners of the notorious reef on which it is perched, the Inchcape, which became known as the Bell Rock when, according to tradition, the local Abbot of Aberbrothock had a warning bell placed on the reef as far back as the 14th century. The bell didn't last long, however, and the reef, hidden at high tide, remained a much feared hazard to shipping -- so much so that it was said that more ships were wrecked on nearby shores trying to avoid it than by actually striking it.

It wasn't until after the formation of the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1786 that an attempt was made to build a light on the rock. The board's initial request for a government loan of £30,000 for the project was turned down. However, there was continued lobbying from east coast town councils and traders, and then in 1804 the man-of-war HMS York struck the rock and went down with the loss of 500 men. Two years later an Act of Parliament empowered the lighthouse board to embark on the daunting task of building a lighthouse on a reef which twice a day at high tide is covered by as much as 12 feet of water.

Today, despite the advent of radar and GPS technology, the Bell Rock continues to be treated with considerable respect by seafarers, says Sean Rathbone, master of the Northern Lighthouse Board's buoy tender Pole Star, as we steer carefully around the white-painted tower. "GPS and all that are all very well, but they do malfunction, but your eyes don't and you can always see a light to keep you from danger.

"I'd better take us a bit to port or we'll be the first boat in a long time to go on the rock. That would be embarrassing," he smiles, as a flight of gannets skims across our bow with supreme elegance. It's a bright, calm day, with just a slight swell -- not at all like the conditions evoked in Turner's famous painting of the Bell Rock, depicting the lighthouse battered by huge waves. Ahead of us, however, a long sweep of white water on either side of the lighthouse indicates the presence of the reef. "If it wasn't for the lighthouse, you wouldn't know that anything was there and you'd just go straight over it, as so many ships have done in the past."

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2010 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo © Peter Clarke / Scottish Viewpoint