Bell Rock
Bell Rock lighthouse
Bell Rock dhore station
Bell Rock Signal Tower

East Coast

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Find out more about the Bell Rock Lighthouse on this more than excellent website.

Place of the lighthouse

Bell Rock gets its name from the tradition that there had once been a wave-operated bell placed on the erstwhile Inchcape Rock to act as fog signal. Even in ancient times, this rock was a danger to navigation. The Inchcape Rock is a long and treacherous reef lying in the North Sea, some 22 km East of Dundee and in the fairway to and from the Firths of Tay and the Firths of Forth.

In his account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, Robert Stevenson, engineer of the Northern Lighthouse Board, declared: "There is a tradition that the Abbot of Arbroath placed a bell on the rock on a floating pontoon, which was playing by the wind and the sea, the mariners were warned of danger. The clock was taken by pirates, causing to frustrate the intentions of the Abbot.

Robert Stevenson noticed that it would have been interesting to have had authentic evidence of a clock and a pontoon on which a clock was placed. In the library of the Arbroath Abbey a variety of entries and acts have been preserved, from the middle of the 13th to the end of the 15th century. An investigation into this documentation has been made without finding a single track about the Bell Rock or related data about the clock. However, it is not an unlikely assumption that a clock on a pontoon ever existed.

Building of the Lighthouse

Bell Rock lighthouse
Bell Rock Lighthouse
Robert Stevenson undertook extensive feasibility work prior to the start of building the Bell Rock lighthouse for the Northern Lighthouse Board. His work consisted of establishing a design, a building method and the calculation for the cost of the construction. However, the Northern Lighthouse Board was unconvinced and hired John Rennie. There were important difficulties between the two engineers about costs and the way of development. It was John Rennie who saw the proposal through the necessary procedures of Parliament. The building of the lighthouse on the site began in 1807.

Robert Stevenson acted as site engineer and managed to take effective control of the project. The construction process was complicated both by the distance of the Inchcape rock from to the shore and the fact that the foundation was completely covered by the sea at every tide. The surface of the rock is uncovered only at low water while at high water it is submerged to a depth of some 5 meters.

Bell Rock lighthouse
Dovetailing of the Bell Rock Lighthouse

A large part of the workforce was stationed on the vessels Pharos and Smeaton, both moored near the site, making maximum use possible of the rock at low tide. And again during construction maximizing the use, a temporary wooden beacon was built on the rock. This also served as a storeroom, barracks and workshop, allowing a number of workmen and their tools to stay on site at all times, again maximizing the use of low tide.

The base tiers were constructed from carefully dovetailed and carved granite and sandstone blocks. This served both to strengthen the finished tower and to lessen the chance of the lowest tiers being washed away during high tides. It was a technique which was earlier used by the lighthouse engineer John Smeaton in building Eddystone lighthouse (Devon - England). The Bell Rock lighthouse on Inchcape is the oldest existing rock lighthouse in Scotland

The construction work of the lighthouse was ended on the 1st of February 1811 when the light was first exhibited. The tower, which is of stone, from the Myinfield quarry, near Dundee, and from Rubislaw, Aberdeen, is 35 meters in height, 12,8 meters is the diameter at the base, tapering to 4,5 meters in diameter at the top. It is of solid dovetailed masonry for the first 9 meters, half of which is below high water. Above the 9 meters are 5 chambers and the light room.

The lantern platform is corbelled with echinus shaped moulding, extended in 1960s by steel with welded brackets. Attached to a simple aluminium railing. From the same period are the Radar and television aerials. The gallery has been built out on the octant into the South-South-East for a solar panel when the light was automated in 1988.

The triangular-panelled lantern with copper dome, is now surrounded by a bird protection set on a light framework. The Smooth taper of the tower is interrupted by concrete projections on the S, E and W elevations, housing ventilation grilles for the generator room and the battery room.

INTERIOR: The tower has six levels of accommodation within the masonry tower. As from the bottom upwards: entrance chamber; salt-water lavatory; generator room; battery room; bedroom; kitchen/living room. The levels are separated by flat-vaulted floors of dovetailed ashlar. The ceiling of the kitchen / living room (at the base of the lantern platform) is similarly constructed, but is domed.

Following a fire in 1987 aluminium hatches were inserted in the original openings between the chambers. An aluminium ladder is bolted to the walls, between the different levels. Further acetylene light with a small triangular Fresnel optic was installed in 1988.

WALKWAYS: two walkways are constructed leading from the tower to the landing places, both with cast-or wrought-iron frames, with cast-iron grid inserts. Some grids and 1 section of the frame is replaced by steel.

Warning systems (Light, Fog horn, Radar Beacon)

Bell Rock lighthouse
Lightroom of the Bell Rock Lighthouse
The original optical system used at the Bell Rock consisted of twenty-four parabolic reflectors 63,5 centimetres' in diameter with their inner surfaces silvered to better reflect the light. Each reflector had, located at the focus, an Argand lamp having a circular wick of 2 centimetres' diameter. The reflectors were arranged in a rectangle with seven reflectors located on each of the major sides. The ten reflectors on the minor sides had red glass discs fitted to the outer rims such that the light emitted would be red in colour. The whole apparatus revolved by the action of a clockwork arrangement powered by a weight descending through the tower. The optical system revolved and gave a distinctive character of alternating red and white light. This was the first revolving light in Scotland.

The parabolic reflectors were later replaced by a 1st Order Fresnel lens in which a paraffin vapour burner provided the illumination. A Dalén optic in which a gas light is burned in a lens system was installed during 1888 with a range of 33,3 km / 18 nM. The paraffin vapour burner was replaced by an electric lamp in the mid-1960s. Nowadays the character is flashing white every 5 seconds (FlW 5s), replacing the existing electric light which was installed in 1964. The Lighthouse is unmanned after automation since the 26th of October 1988 and is remotely monitored by the NLB, 84 George Street, Edinburgh. In 1999 the system is converted to solar power. The lighthouse is also supplied with a Radar Beacon (Racon).

The Bell Rock - Stevenson's Account, Courtesy of the Northern Lighthouse Heritage Trust, Robert Stevenson's Account of the Building of the Bell Rock is now available in digital format giving the opportunity to read this fascinating account of the hazardous rock, the building of the beacon, railway and the light - the oldest by sea washed, rock lighthouse in the world.

Shore station

Bell Rock Signal Tower
Bell Rock Shore station - Signal Tower in Abroath
The Signal Tower was originally built in 1813 as a base of operations for the Bell Rock Lighthouse and to communicate visually with the lighthouse.

The Signal Tower also housed the families of the keepers stationed on the 'Rock', along with the vital shore staff who ran the lighthouse tender supplying the light. The shore station is a classical and castellated group of twin lodges with a signal tower of painted stone in between.

TOWER: The 4-storey castellated tower risis from centre of the 2-storey houses on both sides. The lower 2 stages of tower acting as bowed centre bay of house fanlit door at the ground floor with encircling Roman Doric portico. There are three windows at the 1st floor and windows in the flanking bays; The wall has head blocking course bowed around the tower. The upper stages has narrow round-arched windows, with dividing string course, quatrefoil detailed frieze and corbelled castellation at head. Flagpole and signal ball crowning tower.

LODGES: A pair of classical lodges flanking the entrance to the signal tower comprised of 2-storey centre bays with window on each floor, flanked by tall single storey blank, pined-roofed quasi pavilions. There are panelled coped gate pilasters to the inner side of the lodges. Small-pane timber sash and case glazing. The building have grey slate roofs.

Bell Rock Signal Tower
Original drawing of the Signal Tower

The ball on the signal towers flagpole rose and fell to alert the workers constructing the Lighthouse. The Signal Tower now functions as a museum and houses the later 19th century dioptric apparatus with Fresnel lenses which previously served as the lighthouse's source of illumination, moved here after the automation of the lighthouse in 1988.

The name Signal Tower comes from the signalling apparatus installed atop of the tower building that was used to communicate between the shore staff (the Master of The Tender) and the keepers of the lighthouse. An identical set of signalling apparatus was installed atop the lighthouse itself. In the Signal Tower was a small observatory outfitted with a powerful telescope; it was through this telescope that the signalling apparatus on the lighthouse was monitored during the day. In an age before wireless communications, the ball system employed by the Bell Rock was seen as state of the art technology. At night, any fluctuation to the light would see the supply vessel set sail for the 'rock' to investigate.

The signalling apparatus worked with a ball hoisted up and down a pole. The Master of the Tender or one of his staff was responsible for keeping watch between 9 am and 10 am, during which period the lighthouse keepers would hoist the ball up to the top of the pole if all was well. During foggy weather, the watch was postponed to 13 pm. If the ball did remain down, it usually signified a major emergency such as a chronic shortage of provisions or illness of one of the lighthouse keepers, in any case, the tender was launched and would sail for the lighthouse as soon as possible. In 1955, with the advent of helicopters and faster boats, staffing for the lighthouse was carried out from Leith, home of the Northern Lighthouse Board.

Fishing vessels from Arbroath would routinely carry newspapers, fresh rolls and other non-essential provisions to the keepers and would relay messages back to the shore station, either on behalf of the Master of the Tender or as a favour to the lighthouse keepers.

Painting J.W.M. Turner
Painting by J.W.M. Turner of the Bell Rock lighthouse
There is a painting by J.W.M. Turner painting this lighthouse during a storm. He and Sir Walter Scott, inspected the Bell Rock in 1814, in their course of his duties as one of the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouses, wrote the following short poem in the visitors' album:

"Far in the bosom of the deep
O'er these wild shelves my watch I keep
A ruddy gem of changeful light
Bound on the dusky brow of Night
The Seaman bids my lustre hail
And scorns to strike his tim'rous sail”





Historic events around the Lighthouse


HMS ARGYLL, During the first- and second World War, the lighthouse exhibited a light when vessels were expected to pass the Inchcape reef, which runs for 610 meters across vesselping routes of the Firths of Tay and Forth. It was on 27 October 1915 when the Captain of the "ARGYLL" (10,850 tons) one of the Devonshire Class Armoured Cruisers, sent out a routine signal to the Admiral Commanding the Coast of Scotland at Rosyth, requesting the Bell Rock be lit on the night of 27/28 October. The message was never passed on as the lighthouse had no Radar and all messages had to be delivered by boat. Heavy seas made this impossible. The "ARGYLL" sank but fortunately there were no casualties at all in the complement of 655 men.

The HMS Argyll was one of six Devonshire-class armoured cruisers built for the Royal Navy in the first decade of the 20th century. She was assigned to the 1st Cruiser Squadron of the Channel Fleet upon completion and was transferred to the 5th Cruiser Squadron of the Atlantic Fleet in 1909. Two years later, she was added to escort the royal yacht during King George V's trip to British India. The Argyll was assigned to the 3rd Cruiser Squadron of the reserve Second Fleet in 1913. Upon mobilization in mid-1914 her squadron was assigned to the Grand Fleet. The Argyll did not see any combats before she ran aground and wrecked in October 1915

World War II, In the Second World War the Bell Rock was machine gunned by an enemy aircraft on 31 October 1940, 30 March 1941 and on 5 April 1941. Also on 1 April 1941, one bomb was dropped, which exploded about 9 meters from the base of the tower, but did not cause any damage. No one was injured during these raids and the damage consisted total 9 bullet holes through the dome, 14 lantern panes were broken, 4 lens prisms damaged, 6 red shades smashed, 1 balcony tank and balcony rail damaged and 1 astragal damaged.

Helicopter accident, A Tragedy struck the Bell Rock in 1955 when the crew of the RAF Helicopter were lost while involved in a goodwill gesture. A description of the incident by C E Cadger, the Superintendent at the time was as follows:

- Helicopter from Leuchars base on routine training flights frequently passed over the Bell Rock and occasionally as a friendly gesture would dropping a bundle of newspapers, magazines for the keepers, provided the weather and sea conditions made it possible for the Light keepers 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 15 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 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 for the keepers it was horrifying to see the helicopter plunged out of control in their direction. By a miracle the keepers escaped to any injuring, but the helicopter 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 hit away handrails and other fittings before crashing on the rock base of the tower, 40 meters below.

Bell Rock


Character: Fl W 5s 28m 18M
(fl. 0.1s - ec. 4.9s)

Bell Rock lighthouse
Lightcharacter of Bell Rock (click to enlarge)
Engineer: Robert Stevenson (1772-1850)

Lat, Lon: 56°26.065' N, 002°23.230' W

Established: February 1, 1811
Character: Flashing White every 5 secs.
Range: 18 NM ~ 33.3km
Elevation: 28 meters above sealevel
Tower: 36 meters, 96 steps to the top
Init. Costs: £ 61,331, 9s. 2d.
Econ. Costs*: £ 305,600,000.
*) According to:

Automated: October 26, 1988
Last Keepers: J.W. MacKay - PLK
: E.J. England - ALK
: A.J.C. MacDonald - ALK
Fog horn: In early days they use a cannon/bell
: Tyfon, 1 blast every 50 s.
: Discontinued in 1988
RACON: M(-- --) 18M 72s

Status: Operationel
Authority: Northern Lighthouse Board
Remarks: Candlepower 200.000 cd
: Bell Rock Lighthouse
- Cat.A listed - nr: 45197 - 23/03/1998
: The Signal Tower
- Cat.A listed - nr: 21230 - 11/10/1971

Bell Rock lighthouse
Bell Rock lighthouse with NLV Pharos in the background

Bell Rock lighthouse
Construction of the Bell Rock lighthouse

Bell Rock lighthouse
Progress of the Bell Rock works

Video of the Bell Rock lighthouse

Bell Rock Lighthouse- Bell Rock website
Stevensons Account- Internet Archive
Bell Rock Lighthouse- Bell Rock Video