For 200 years now Bell Rock, the oldest offshore lighthouse in the world, has been lighting the way off the Scottish coast. Its construction on a submerged reef has been called one of the seven wonders of the industrial world and started the career of Robert Stevenson, whose family produced 97 lighthouses and one poet.
The tide was rising and the 32 men were trapped on a piece of rock that was slowly, unstoppably sinking back into the North Sea. Robert Stevenson’s bold vision to build a lighthouse on Bell Rock, a treacherous reef near the entrance to the Firth of Tay on the Scottish East coast, seemed to be coming to a tragic end before it had even started. The jagged sandstone reef, named after the bell some medieval monks had placed there to warn passing ships, rises above the water’s surface for just two hours every tide, the rest of the time it is covered by up to four metres of water. Hidden in a crowded shipping route, the reef had cost the lives of many a seaman and now it seemed that it would cost the lives of those who had set out to save future ships by building a lighthouse. The engineer in charge, Robert Stevenson, had to make a decision.
Born in 1772, young Stevenson had come to work for the Northern Lighthouse Board, the authority responsible for building the lighthouses in Scotland, through his stepfather Thomas Smith. The senior light engineer had equipped many of the Board’s lighthouses with his oil lamps and reflectors – great improvements at a time when the beacons were still lit with candles. Touring the coast with Smith, Stevenson had heard about Bell Rock and, after a visit in 1800, confidently suggested that the Board build a lighthouse made of stone on the reef. Due to the horrendous cost of such a risky venture and the lack of experience on Stevenson’s part, the Board refused.
More ships crashed and nothing happened – even when the HMS York sank at the rock in 1804 and 491 lives were lost. Almost in desperation, Stevenson contacted John Rennie, one of the great civil engineers at the time, for support. Rennie very much approved of Stevenson’s plan and spoke with the Northern Lighthouse Board. Finally they decided to tackle the project – but with Rennie as chief engineer and Stevenson only as his assistant and executive engineer on site.
A Blueprint for Lighthouses
Both engineers unanimously agreed that the design of the Bell Rock lighthouse should be based on John Smeaton’s Eddystone lighthouse in the South of England, which had already been braving the waves for almost 50 years. In 1759, Smeaton had created what would become the archetype of a lighthouse: a stone tower shaped like an oak tree with a broad base and tapering in a slender curve towards the top. But it was not only the shape that was a work of genius; the masonry was, too. To prevent the stones from shifting out of place, Smeaton had designed each course as a giant circular jigsaw-puzzle of interlocking, dovetailed stones. Once the keystone was in place, no wave could break it. To prevent horizontal movement, large oak pins, so-called trenails, were then driven through holes into the underlying course of stones. In high praise for Smeaton’s work, Rennie and Stevenson faithfully adapted this design, only quarrelling about the angle of the base and the size of the dovetails. Ultimately, Rennie, as chief-engineer, overrode Stevenson’s design.
Out here on the rock with the rising tide eating away at the little island, the squabble with Rennie was Stevenson’s least concern. Without help, some of his men would certainly drown – long before the first stone had even arrived. In 1807, he and some 40 men had arrived at Bell Rock to start on the lighthouse. It was hard work; everything had to be done with pick and shovel because Stevenson was afraid he would damage the reef should he use explosives. The goal for the first season was to erect the base for the beacon, build a temporary structure for the worker’s quarters and bring in some of the building material.
The beacon would speed up work significantly. Their ship was anchored at a safe distance to the reef and the working party had to row back and forth each tide for the few hours of work. Just like today, but suddenly the wind had started freshening up and one of the rowboats went back to the ship to check its moorings. As soon as the boat reached the ship, she went adrift. The men were struggling to get the drifting ship under control and when they finally succeeded, they were too far away to reach their mates before the tide would swallow them. Stevenson was left with only two rowboats, not enough for all of his men. Some would have to cling to the gunwales with the risk of drowning in the cold water. But who?
He had to make a decision over life and death. His mouth went dry when he calculated the odds. What a relief when suddenly someone yelled: “A boat, a boat!” It was the mail ship. Unaware of the unfolding tragedy on the rock, its skipper had thrown anchor in the distance and leisurely started fishing while waiting for the mail to be picked up. Stevenson, his workers and the lighthouse were saved! It was a close call – but it wouldn’t be the last.
Building a Beacon
At the end of the first season, the beacon stood tall above the waves. Bell Rock couldn’t hide anymore; man had left his mark. But would the sea take the provocation, would the beacon survive the winter storms?
The lighthouse builders were relieved to see their beacon still standing when they returned to the rock in May, 1808. At last, they could start the work on the lighthouse itself. In the following months they cut out the foundation for the lighthouse: a circle, 13 metres in diameter and only 0.6 metres deep, which had to be bailed out again and again after each tide. Then they started on the giant jigsaw puzzle. Each stone had to be handled with utmost caution. A chipped edge, a broken dovetail meant that the stone would have to be recarved and precious weeks would be lost before the work could continue. When the storms and the cold arrived and forced Stevenson’s workers back on land, they had finished the first three courses.
In 1809, work continued rapidly, stone course after stone course was laid. The men were eager to get over the high tide mark. Although they used a special quick-drying mortar, half of the time it was washed away by the waves. Despite this nuisance, they managed to lay one complete course with 53 stones in a single day. At the end of the season the solid base of the tower was finished, rising ten metres above the reef and five metres above high tide. But even after three years of hard work, the tower, still missing 21 metres, was nothing more than an idea.
An idea which would finally become reality in 1810. On the 21st July, Bassey the horse, who had hauled all 2835 stones from the workyard to the harbour in Arbroath, did the trip for the last time. In a small ceremony a couple of days later, the finishing stone, the lintel of the lightroom door, was laid by Stevenson with due formality: “May the Great Architect of the Universe, under whose blessing this perilous work has prospered, preserve it as a guide to the Mariner.”
Red and White Flashes
But the sea wouldn’t give in without putting up a final fight. Less than a month after the ceremony, a violent storm hit the unfinished lighthouse, battering 20-metre high breakers at the beacon and the lighthouse. For eleven days the workers were cut off and battled the storm. When the sky finally cleared, the squalls and the waves had destroyed large portions of the beacon, but the men and their lighthouse were unharmed.
Now all that was left was the completion of the lightroom. 24 oil lamps with silver covered reflectors were fitted onto a revolving clock unit, which was powered, like a giant pendulum clock, by a weight descending through the tower. Some of the lamps had red glass disks fitted, giving the Bell Rock lighthouse a distinct red and white flashing light.
The light was first seen on 1st February, 1811 and it has been warning mariners ever since. Bell Rock has braved the sea for 200 years now with not a single stone knocked out of place. It’s the oldest off-shore lighthouse in the world and, without doubt, one of the most beautiful.
Although John Rennie was officially the chief engineer, Bell Rock became known as Stevenson’s lighthouse. It was he who spent four summers at sea, it was he who made all the decisions on site, who encouraged the men and battled with them. With Bell Rock Stevenson had completed his masterpiece and proved that he could build a lighthouse under the most extreme circumstances. He became engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board and built 17 more lighthouses.
More than that, he founded a whole dynasty of lighthouse builders. In the coming decades Robert Stevenson’s sons and grandsons would build a major part of the lighthouses on and off the Scottish coast. But, like in so many family businesses, the Stevensons, too, had a black sheep among them. One of Robert’s grandsons was a reluctant engineer who first turned to law and then, to everybody’s horror, to writing. They shouldn’t have worried. Although Robert Louis Stevenson, author of ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hide’, preferred to chisel words instead of stones, his work, like that of the rest of his family, stands out and shines to the present day.
Die offizielle Webseite des Bell Rock Leuchtturms mit vielen Informationen zum Bau des Leuchtturms und den Stevensons.
Artikel der BBC, der der Frage nachgeht, wem der Bau von Bell Rock zugeschrieben werden kann – John Rennie oder Robert Stevenson.
Flickr-Seiten von Ian Cowe mit atemberaubend schönen Bildern von schottischen Leuchttürmen und natürlich Bell Rock.
Robert Louis Stevensons literarische Aufarbeitung seiner Familiengeschichte mit Tagebuchauszügen seines Großvaters zum Bau von Bell Rock.
Webseite mit allen Feierlichkeiten zum 200 jährigen Geburtstags des Leuchtturms.
Kurzer Filmbeitrag zum 200 jährigen Jubiläum des Bell Rock Leuchtturms.
Bell Rock Homepage des Northern Lighthouse Boards.
The Lighthouse Stevensons
Dreams of Iron and Steel