Bell Rock Lighthouse is the world's oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouse and was built on Bell Rock (also known as Inchcape) in the North Sea, 12 miles (18 km) off the coast of Angus, Scotland, east of the Firth of Tay. Standing at 35 m high, the light is visible from 35 statute miles (55 km) inland.
The masonry work on which the light house rests was constructed to such a high standard that it has not been replaced or adapted in almost 200 years. The lamps and reflectors were replaced in 1843, with the original equipment being used in the lighthouse at Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland where they are currently on display. The working of the lighthouse has been automated since 1998.
The lighthouse operated in tandem with a shore station, the Bell Rock Signal Tower, built in 1813 at the mouth of Arbroath harbour. Today this building houses the Signal Tower Museum, a visitor centre detailing the history of the lighthouse.
The challenges faced in the building of the lighthouse have led to it being described as one of the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World.
By the turn of the 18th century, it was estimated that the rocks were responsible for the wrecking of up to six ships every winter. In one storm alone, 70 ships were lost off the east coast of Scotland. The Scottish engineer Robert Stevenson had proposed the construction of a lighthouse on Bell Rock in 1799, but cost concerns and the relatively radical nature of his proposal caused it to be shelved. However, the loss of the warship HMS York and all on board in 1804 resulted in a furore in Parliament which eventually led to legislation being passed in 1806 enabling construction to begin.
The lighthouse was built by Stevenson between 1807 and 1810 and the lamp was first lit on 1 February, 1811. The design has some similarities to the earlier Eddystone Lighthouse designed by John Smeaton which was also built on an offshore reef using interlocking stones, but also contained newer features, such as rotating lights alternating between red and white. Later, the Chief Engineer on the project, John Rennie, disputed the amount of credit that Stevenson received for the design -- Rennie claimed that Stevenson's curve on the base of the lighthouse was inappropriate, though Stevenson had created the earlier designs based on the Eddystone.
For 20 hours of each day, while the rock was covered by up to 12 feet of water, the men lived on a ship moored a mile off the rock. The first task was to build a beacon house on tall wooden struts, so the men would have a place to stay on the island, instead of the time-consuming row to and from the ship each day and after an incident whereby one of the boats came adrift. The foundations and beacon legs were raised during the first season. During the winter, stonemasons cut rocks for the lighthouse out of Aberdeen granite.
During this time a worker by the name of Wishart had his legs crushed in an accident, preventing him from working further on the project. He asked Stevenson if he could be appointed lighthouse keeper and this was ultimately arranged.
During this final period of construction the lighthouse became something of a tourist attraction. On a more sober note, worker Charles Henderson was lost during a storm near the end of the project, and his body was never found.
Work was finally completed, with a total of about 2500 granite stones used during the construction.
Helicopter from Leuchars base on routine training flights frequently passed over the Bell Rock and occasionally as a friendly gesture would lower a bundle of newspapers, magazines and such like to the keepers, provided the weather and sea conditions made it possible for the Lightkeepers to receive the gifts while standing on the landing grating well clear of the tower. This exercise was much appreciated by the keepers and no doubt provided useful experience for the Airmen. On 14 December 1955 a helicopter circled the rock and the indications were that the crew intended to drop something, but as heavy seas were sweeping over the landing grating it was not possible for the keepers to venture there.
The airmen thereupon elected to embark on a hazardous and intricate operation, namely to lower what they had intended to deliver on the top of the dome, where the three keepers went to accept delivery.
While manoeuvring into position over the lighthouse something went wrong and the keepers were horrified to see that helicopter plunged out of control in their direction; by a miracle the keepers escaped uninjured, but the "copter in its descent hit the copper dome a glancing blow denting but not piercing the plating, ripped off a large section of the cast iron gutter surrounding the lantern, wrenched off the steel ladder between the balcony and the dome, demolished a number of plate glass lantern panes, distorting some of the bronze astragals, and carrying away handrails and other fittings before crashing on the rock base of the tower 130 feet below.
The three lighthouse keepers scrambled down the lantern framework as best they could and made the their way down to the lighthouse doorway, and from this vantage point about 30 feet above the rock, looked down on the battered wreck of the helicopter, partially submerged and being buffeted by the heavy seas breaking over the reef.
It became apparent that the wreck could not remain for long under the existing weather conditions, it was also apparent that one of the RAF men was still in the wrecked machine, but to reach him under prevailing conditions was seemingly impossible; nevertheless an attempt was made.
Mr Wood was the smallest of the three lightkeepers, but what he lacked in stature he more than made up for in courage, fastened a life line round his middle while the other assistant held the rest of the line. He then proceeded down the bronze ladder from the doorway into the maelstrom below, watched his chance between the oncoming seas, made a dive for it, and managed somehow to enter the swaying wreck. Unfortunately the airman had not survived the crash and there was nothing Wood could do except make his way back to the safety of the lighthouse doorway if he could; his luck held and he had barely joined his companions when a huge wave swept over the reef, lifted the wrecked machine bodily and carried it away into deep water. It was never seen again.
The tragic loss of the RAF crew cast a gloom over the Bell Rock, as it undoubtedly did over the Leuchars base. The friendly flashing light from the lightroom was extinguished as a result of the accident (as though it too was in mourning for the loss), and was probably the only time the light was not exhibited during the 158 years of its existence, except for periods during the war years
The Bell Rock without its customary light created a very real danger to shipping and a warning to mariners was broadcast accordingly and immediate steps were taken to have a temporary light installed until repairs to the building could be carried out and the main light made serviceable. This however was greatly hampered by a succession of gales which prevented a landing being made.
It was not until 20 December that weather conditions eased sufficiently for a landing to be effected with a motor boat from MV MAY and another from MV PHAROS standing by in case of emergency.
All materials for the installation of the temporary light were successfully landed, together with tarpaulins for wrapping round the damaged lantern to exclude the high winds, also the materials required for reglazing the lantern, and two artificers: R L Naylor and J M Danskin, who were to carry out the work.
The work commenced at once to install the temporary light which took the form of two large sized buoy lanterns, one erected on the west side of the lighthouse balcony and the other on the east side, operated from gas cylinders and a master flashing device to regulate the two lights and promote simultaneous flashing.
The temporary lights were brought into use within a couple of days and proved satisfactory; the work of repairing the damage to the lantern was next tackled by the artificers ably assisted by the keepers. This was a more difficult assignment carried out under vile weather conditions. Removing broken glass from the astragals of a lighthouse lantern in freezing gale force winds with occasional sleet showers thrown in for good measure, and fitting the new triangular glass panes in place at times during the hours of darkness, could not be described as an occupational treat. Nevertheless within a week this part achievement was brought about not by "working to rule" as is common-place in some spheres at the present day, but by breaking every rule in the book (although perhaps not many of those directly relating to safety).
The structural damage was unrelated to the operation of the light and fog signal and in no way impaired the efficiency of the lighthouse, and therefore received attention at a later date when replacements could be obtained, and more favourable weather conditions could be expected.
One would have thought that the tragic loss of the helicopter crew would have placed the Bell Rock out of bounds for all other crews, but this was not the case.
On Christmas Day (Sunday) in the early afternoon, another helicopter visited the rock. On this occasion for once the sea was calm, the wind a gentle breeze the tide low and the landing grating high and dry — excellent conditions for landing anything.
The ’copter hovered over the grating and something resembling a large milk churn was winched down to the three keepers who received it and had it hoisted up into the kitchen for closer examination. The scene within the small circular kitchen was one of excited anticipation, the atmosphere somewhat over-heated by the coal burning range, and thick with tobacco smoke from the bunch of "overgrown youngsters" all wide-eyed and eager to see what Santa had dropped on their doorstep. The metal cylindrical container held a series of metal trays one on top of the other, and each tray was loaded with a choice assortment of delicacies usually associated with the Christmas season: roast turkey with all the trimmings; potatoes both mashed and toasted, brussels sprouts, Christmas pudding, etc., and all steaming hot. There was also a hundred cigarettes and a quart bottle of a well known brand of Scotch whisky.
The toast was to the generous kind-hearted RAF personnel at the Leuchars base of their handsome and acceptable gifts.