Articles - History
Have you ever noticed road signs on the M74 pointing the way to Chatelherault near the town of Hamilton? Like thousands of others you may have wondered where the unusual name came from.
It’s derived from the French town, Chatellherault. The Duchy of Chatellherault was a gift from King Henry 11 of France to the 2nd Earl of Arran, a Hamilton, for his part in the betrothal of Mary Queen of Scots to the French heir in 1548.
Later, the 5th Duke of Hamilton used the similar name for a building that has served as a hunting lodge, a summer palace and a dog kennel. Essentially though, Chatelherault, which is only one room deep, was especially designed as a sort of ostentatious terminus to catch the eye at the end of the tree-lined Grand Avenue stretching south from Hamilton Palace which was once the largest non-royal residence in Britain, possibly even in Europe and the main residence of the Dukes of Hamilton from at least 1591 until 1919.
Unfortunately, Hamilton Palace is no more. It became a casualty of Lanarkshire coal mining operations and had to be demolished in the 1920’s. Chatelherault meanwhile, was also falling into disrepair.
Today however, after extensive restorations, it has been brought back to its former glory and now forms the impressive centre-piece where visitors usually begin their explorations of Chatelherault Country Park.
Let’s start from the front door with a turn along the paved path that edges the borders on three sides of the pink sandstone building. These borders contain some trees and ornamental bushes but it was mainly herbs that were grown here.
The Duke’s table in the 18th century would have been fairly dull without them. In fact, flowers rarely got room in his garden unless they were edible. Among the herbs for use in his kitchen were parsley, thyme, rosemary and basil. Some plants were also cultivated for drying before being spread on the floors to mask the smells of everyday living. Others were used to scent the air. There’s nothing new in today’s pot pourri!
Herbs were also grown for medicinal purposes. Rosemary twined in your hair was thought to be an aid to better memory. Lemon balm, it was believed, given every morning, ‘will renew youth, strengthen the brain and relieve languishing nature’. If only it was that easy!
At a gap in the border there is a low gate in the garden wall. Behind it, patterns have been created in the grassed area with low box hedging.
Continue along the path and the views stretch all the way to the towns of Hamilton and Motherwell with the distant hills of Ben Lomond and Drumgoyne beyond.
From the lawn area at the back door it’s a steep drop down to a much lower green sward. This different level is the result of quarrying in the past. In fine weather the space is enjoyed by children playing and picnicking. What, I wonder, would the Hamilton aristocracy have made of all this fun and games? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the local populace were seen merely as a source of income while they dug out sand and mined the coal on the Duke’s estate.
The women in this collier population were serfs or slaves like their husbands, fathers or brothers and worked with them in the mines. ‘Muscular strength in a female, not beauty was the grand qualification by which she was estimated and a strong young woman was sure of finding a husband’. If the women attempted to escape, they were liable to be seized and brought back to servitude.
However, in a letter written to the Duchess of Hamilton dated January 2nd 1851, the Duke’s factor, Robert Brown, who must have been more enlightened, described how an Act of Parliament passed on 13th June 1799 changed a way of life. In his letter he was attempting to persuade the Duchess to finance the education of these young women. Education, he pointed out, would be their saving. Their refinement would benefit the whole country and prosperity would follow.
Off to one corner at the rear of Chatelherault stands a small, square red sandstone building. Over the years it has served many purposes. Most times it was just a posh garden shed but along the way it became known as the Leopard House where the Palace leopard was kept. On other occasions it housed the 6th Duke’s polar bears! Other animals known to have used the facility included a monkey, wolf, eagle, peacock and peahen.
Before completing your walk of the square and returning to the front door of Chatelherault, look out for a small herd of Cadzow cattle. They may be seen grazing amongst the sheep in the distance. The estate is one of only a few places in the country where this rare breed with white coats and long, black - tipped horns are kept. They are possibly the descendants of wild cattle that roamed the ancient Caledonian Forest which once covered large areas of Scotland.
Wild white cattle were the sacrificial beasts of the Celtic Druids and the Romans. When the Romans left Britain, large numbers of these beasts were turned loose to roam the forests. Tradition has it that King Robert the Bruce hunted wild bulls around here in 1320 as did James 1V of Scotland two centuries later.
But never fear! As you wander the woodland paths, keep in mind that the cattle of old were rounded up and driven into parks more than three hundred years ago during the time of the enclosure of the great estates. Wild things to look out for now include bluebells, butterflies and birdlife. Stroll out to the Duke’s Bridge and you may spot, far below, a grey heron standing stock still studying the slow flow of the Avon Water.
This twisting path runs past the remains of Cadzow Castle and further on, the venerable Cadzow Oaks. Some of these trees are thought to be up to nine hundred year old remnants of the great Caledonian Forest. Although they are hollow they still support a vast amount of insects and other wild life.
Chatelherault Visitor Centre has a wealth of information in the display area covering the natural history of the Clyde Valley and work that took place here on the estate.
In the banqueting room and Duke’s room you’ll have to crane your neck to appreciate the marvellously restored plaster work on the ceilings and walls.
Now try and imagine what life was like here for the bright young aristocrats who charged on horseback through the Chatelherault woods by day and danced at parties in these rooms by night. A dog’s life in the dog kennels? Not a chance
Further information: The visitor centre has a shop and a café/restaurant and information on the various woodland walks. At the entrance to the Country Park there is a play area for children.
In Celtic folklore, kelpies were believed to take the form of fearsome, powerful horses. When one of those beasts was seen, it would be easily identifiable by its white and sky blue colouring and constantly dripping mane.
It was also believed a kelpie could swim, keeping just one scary eye out of the water before changing its form to become a beautiful woman, all the better to lure men into a trap.
The Kelpies seen near Falkirk of late may therefore have been wrongly named as large numbers of people have been getting up close, unafraid, craning their necks for a better look!
These particular Kelpies, representing two horses’ heads, are a massive work of art made of thousands of pieces of stainless steel. Glinting in the sunlight, about 30 metres tall, they stand on either side of a new extension of the Forth and Clyde Canal.
From some angles, perhaps like the mythical creatures they have been named after, they appear benign, caught in two vaguely realistic poses – one head is downturned while the other reaches for the sky. And possibly because the sculptures are so big, some curious visitors are happy to pay to take a guided tour to ‘see the horse’s insides’ as it were.
As well as being monumental, complex pieces of engineering, artist Andy Scott’s Kelpies also commemorate the thousands of heavy horses that worked with their handlers during the construction of the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals.
The cutting of the first sod signalling the start of this endeavour took place in 1768 near Grangemouth at the River Forth end of the excavation that would become the Forth and Clyde Canal. It would be 1790 before this vast undertaking was completed at the village of Bowling on the River Clyde. As well as being a magnificent feat of engineering, this linking waterway between two great rivers was of immense importance in Scotland’s industrial past.
The Union Canal was built later, mainly to carry coal and building stone to Edinburgh. Goods and equipment could then be hauled across country between Glasgow and Edinburgh by barges pulled by heavy horses while sailing ships were saved a long, often arduous journey, round the north coast.
For the itinerant labourers who dug what were essentially elongated trenches, conditions must have been desperate. Consider the enormity of their task when picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, plus a few horses and carts were the available tools.
Labouring across this ‘waist of Scotland’ was nothing new, of course. Centuries earlier, the Roman Army had built a line of forts roughly parallel to where the Forth and Clyde Canal now runs. To better these defences against enemies to the north, Emperor Antonius Pius in AD140 ordered the building of a wall. It consisted of a wide, deep ditch and an earthen rampart interspersed with new forts and platforms for beacons. Though it was abandoned some 20 years later, the Antonine Wall replaced Hadrian’s Wall for a time, as the far northern frontier of the Roman Empire.
After circling the Kelpies, you might want to extend your walk or cycle (the sculpture is no distance from the Helix Park car park) along that part of the Forth and Clyde Canal in the immediate area, or explore the extensive paths in the newly created Helix Park.
Another option is to take a bus, or drive the four miles, for a look at the remains of the Antonine Wall on your way to the iconic Falkirk Wheel. In the passing you might notice the Union Inn, sited where the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal were first connected by a flight of locks at Lock 16.
It was from the basin at Lock 16 that the Charlotte Dundas, the world’s first practical steamboat, headed for Glasgow in 1803.
By 1836 the number of passengers travelling on the canals had risen to 200,000. Just as today, some of them would have enjoyed a meal or perhaps a small libation in the Union Inn beside Lock 16 before continuing their journey.
Sailing between Edinburgh and Glasgow took around 7 hours in boats called ‘swifts.’ Slower night boats, the ‘hoolets’ (Scots word for owls) were popular with honeymoon couples.
In 2002, the No.16 Lock gates were superseded by the Falkirk Wheel when the world’s first rotating boatlift was opened by H.M. Queen Elizabeth. Like the Kelpies, the Falkirk Wheel is a marvellous feat of engineering. From a basin off the Forth and Clyde Canal, it can lift 8 boats at a time (more usually 1 boat full of visitors) and deposit them some 25 metres higher on the Union Canal.
While gazing up at this mechanical marvel, also keep in mind there may be objects still more mysterious overhead. This area, particularly the town of Bonnybridge, west of Falkirk, has a reputation for witnessing many occurrences of unidentified flying objects.
The canal towpaths can be walked in sections or on one long trek from end to end. Considering that the waterway runs through some of what was Scotland’s industrial heartlands, much of it is now gratifyingly rural with expansive views. From the Union Canal towpath you can look over Falkirk to a distant, silver sliver of the River Forth, to the Ochil Hills beyond and further still to the peaks of the Highlands.
Swans and herons and a variety of ducks seem unperturbed by passing footsteps while stretches of woodland on each side are alive with noisy birdlife. Anglers are welcome, as are other water users such as rowers and canoeists.
In places, speeding trains on the nearby rails are reminders of the progress that led to the early demise of these canals. But in a recent turnaround, for the first time in years, material has been transported by barge instead of by road or rail.
With the opening of the new Forth and Clyde Canal extension which runs between the Kelpies, the waterway is now ready for vessels arriving from or making for the North Sea and beyond.
The Kelpies were officially opened to the public on the Easter Weekend of 2014 with a spectacular sound show and late evening blaze of lights.
Days later, the John Muir Way, running between the towns of Helensburgh in the west and Dunbar in the east, was also opened.
Now this latest long distance trail which makes use of some sections of the Union and Forth and Clyde Canals is ready for walkers, cyclists, or riders on horseback.
Look at a map of Scotland. Notice the position of the Isle of Islay. It lies near the Isle of Jura, off the coast of Argyll. From this fairly central base, independent of the Kings of Scotland, the Lords of the Isles ruled over a vast territory. This included the Outer Hebrides to the north and the Isle of Man to the south as well as much of the northwest coast of the Scottish mainland.
Cutting into the Isle of Islay in the south, Loch Indall runs far inland. Similarly, Loch Gruinart on the north coast would have provided shelter for galleys seeking a safe harbour from that direction. It is likely that a retinue with horses would have met returning warriors, the nobility at least, to transport them the last few miles to the security of their island home on Finlaggan Loch.
Nowadays most people sail to Islay on a big, comfortable ferry. They leave the mainland from Kennacraig, at the top of the Kintyre peninsula, and disembark either at Port Ellen or Port Askaig. From Port Ellen the two lane road runs north, roughly following the shoreline of Loch Indall to Bowmore, the ‘capital’ of the island. A few miles on at Bridgend, one fork of the road turns south and heads down the west side of Loch Indall while the other branch leads to Port Askaig in the northeast corner of Islay.
Nearing Port Askaig, most drivers probably speed past the sign to Finlaggan. It points down a narrow farm road with a few widened places that allow traffic to overtake. The road ends at an old cottage, now refurbished as the Visitor Centre of the Finlaggan Trust, a voluntary organisation set up in 1984. The Trust works to combat the deterioration of this valuable site, encourages research relating to it, and assists in its preservation.
Behind the Visitor Centre, Finlaggan Loch is not especially beautiful or set in dramatic scenery. The surrounding hills are not overly steep or high. But it’s easy to imagine soldiers guarding the approaches to the islands in the loch. For it was here, on Eilean Mor (Gaelic: large island) that the Lords of the Isles had their headquarters. It is assumed they built on the site of an earlier Christian monastery established by Irish monks led by Findlugan, a contemporary of St Columba (born 521).
Today, from the Finlaggan Trust Visitor Centre, you can walk along a grass path to the loch side then cross by a wooden walkway onto Eilean Mor. The first noticeable ruins are the remains of the church. Inside the crumbling walls, gravestones found nearby have been laid horizontally. According to ancient tradition, Eilean Mor was the burial place for the wives and children of the Lords of the Isles while the Lords themselves were interred on the Island of Iona. The stones are now protected from the worst of the weather by sheets of glass. One carved stone shows an effigy of a man in armour clutching a sword with an image of his galley beneath his feet. He is wearing an aketon, a quilted garment that would have been worn over his armour. In one hand he is clutching a sword.
From the church, it’s only a few steps to the remains of the grand hall. Now a mere overgrown outline, it was once used by the Lords of the Isles as a place for feasting and social entertainment.
The next ruin, with gable ends still standing, is assumed to have been the residential quarters of the Lords of the Isles. Like the other structures, it appears to present - day eyes at least, to have been somewhat less than grand.
Lying further out in the loch is another smaller island linked to Eilean Mor by an underwater causeway. This is Eilean na Comhairle (Gaelic: Council Island), where the Lords of the Isles and their Council of fourteen members deliberated at a stone table. They issued edicts, instructions, and rulings affecting their territories, as well as administering justice.
The Isle of Islay had attracted settlers from the northern shores of Ireland from at least the 3rd century. They were known as Scots by the Romans but called themselves Gaidheil or Gaels.
From Norway came Viking raiders who sailed across the North Sea bringing terror and destruction. After them, in the late 8th century, came more peaceable Norse settlers to colonise the Sudreys, or Southern Islands, which included the Isle of Man. Islay was central in this island kingdom.
Where large scale Norse settlement took place, the intermingled population was given a new name by Gaels in neighbouring parts of Argyll free from Norse settlers – the Gall-Gael or foreign Gaels. Their allegiance, which included their military and social organisation, was to prove crucial as the Scottish and Norwegian Kings competed for territory in the Western Isles.
It was the offspring of a mixed marriage, the son of a Gaelic father and a Norse mother, who ‘turned the tide’ of Norse political and military influence and reasserted Gaelic control in the Western Isles. This was Somerled, universally acclaimed by Gaelic tradition as the founder of the Lordship of the isles.
According to tradition, Somerled’s father was Gille-Bhride, a descendent of Angus of Islay, the son of Fergus of Dalriada. Gille-Bhride took a Norse wife and their son was named Sumarlidi, the Summer Traveller – a common name amongst Vikings who used the summer months for their voyages. When Somerled reached maturity, so the story goes, he exhorted his father and supporters to action. They outmanoeuvred Norse garrisons in Morvern, and by AD 1156 had driven the Norse men out of mainland Argyll and defeated the galleys of Olaf, the ruler of the Isle of Man.
Marine historians have pointed out that the Hebridean galley, or ‘biorlinn’ (Gaelic: short blade), was eminently suited to coastal trading in the Western Isles and Irish Sea but could not hope to match the Viking longship as a fighting machine. Somerled seems to have built a fleet of newly designed ships incorporating features that made it possible to outmanoeuvre the Norse longships at close quarters. These new ships had a hinged rudder and a fighting top at the masthead, and were known as Nyvaig (Gaelic: Naibheag: little ship). The new design can be seen on Somerled’s seal on a charter given by his son Ragnall (Reginald - sometimes Ranald) to Paisley Abbey in1175.
In a subsequent settlement, Somerled made peace with Olaf, gaining control of the southern Hebrides, including Islay. He married Olaf’s daughter, Ragnild (Ragnhilda) to consummate the bargain. From this union are descended the MacDonalds and the MacDougalls.
Somerled was killed at Renfrew, near Glasgow, in 1164, on what is now the site of Glasgow Airport. He was assassinated in his tent during the night while preparing to negotiate with and, if necessary do battle with the Scottish King Malcolm 4th. Their argument was over policies of the Scottish court which had been put in place years earlier.
On Somerled’s death, his lands were divided amongst his sons. Dugall got the islands except for Islay, and the mainland district of Lorn - from him was descended the Clan MacDougall. Reginald (Ranald) ruled in Islay and Kintyre and inherited Somerled’s navy. The third son, Angus held Arran and Bute.
To protect the fleet, Somerled’s grandson Donald, (son of Ranald), from whom the MacDonalds claim descent, built a castle on Lagavulin Bay on the south coast of Islay. Nothing can be seen of this stronghold today but there are visible remains of Dunivaig Castle built later on the site, probably in the 16th and early 17th centuries.
The ruling line continued down the years. The 17th century historian, Hugh MacDonald in a much - quoted passage has given a valuable description of the ceremony of installation of the Lords of the Isles.
‘Sometimes seven priests were present but a bishop was always present along with the chieftains of all the principal families, and a Ruler of the Isles. There was a square stone seven or eight feet long with the shape of a man’s foot cut into the stone where the Ruler of the Isles stood, denoting that he should walk in the footsteps and uprightness of his predecessors and that he was installed by right in his possessions.
He was clothed in a white habit, to show his innocence and integrity of heart; that he would be a light to his people and maintain the true religion. The white apparel did afterwards belong to the poet by right. Then he was to receive a white rod in his hand, intimating that he had power to rule, not with tyranny and partiality, but with discretion and sincerity. Then he received his forefather’s sword, signifying that he was obliged to protect his people and defend them from the incursions of their enemies in peace as in war.
After this ceremony there was a Mass. After being blessed by the bishop and seven priests the people prayed for the success and prosperity of their new - created Lord.
When they were dismissed, the Lord of the Isles feasted them for a week thereafter; gave liberally to the monks, poets, bards and musicians. You may judge that they spent liberally without any exceptions of persons.’
John, First Lord of the Isles, known as Good John of Islay, largely because of his beneficence to religious communities, assumed the title Lord of the Isles from circa 1354 -1380. By paying lip service to the kings of the mainland, he kept his lands safe and by clever changes of support of various factions he expanded his territories by treaties as well as by marriage alliances.
John reroofed the chapel on Eilean Mor and is believed to have founded the churches at Kildalton and Kilnave on Islay, as well as encouraging the carving of stone crosses. He died aged at least eighty years old, at Ardtornish Castle on the Sound of Mull. He left behind a large and scattered Lordship linked by the sea. Peace reigned within its borders and continued for the next hundred years though increasingly there were wars on the mainland.
In the 15th century the Lords of the Isles claimed the earldom of Ross through marriage. The earldom consisted of the Isle of Skye and much of the north of Scotland. The claim was disputed which led to the Battle of Harlaw, a few miles from Aberdeen, in 1411. Donald, Lord of the Isles headed an army against the royal forces under the Earl of Mar. Though both sides claimed victory there seems to have been no definite outcome. The earldom was eventually acquired by Alexander, (son of Donald), in 1433.
John 2nd (Fourth Lord of the Isles 1449 – 1493) also became very involved in wars against the Scottish crown and was eventually overcome. The lands of the Lordship were forfeited in August 1493 and this time it became permanent.
Determined to put an end to a challenge that had been a thorn in the side of Scottish kings for two hundred years, James 4th of Scotland undertook a series of campaigns in the west after 1493. Unfortunately, but with the best of intentions, he distributed the forfeited lands amongst lesser lairds and chiefs who immediately set in motion a couple of centuries of unrest in their efforts to establish themselves in the struggle for power.
It was left to James 6th ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’ to sort out the bloody mess. In 1603, after the Union of the Crowns, James sent Lord Ochiltree to the Island of Mull to secure the castles and provide a safe base for further action against his fractious, unwilling subjects. Ochiltree then invited all the Hebridean chiefs to a conference at Aros Castle to discuss ways and means of bringing Hebridean violence to an end. When the chiefs duly arrived, being eager to air their grievances, Ochiltree slammed them into the hold of HMS Moon which had been anchored conveniently for that purpose. The chiefs were then taken to Edinburgh and imprisoned in the castle until they came to their senses. Eventually, reluctantly, they signed an agreement that would ensure peace in the Isles.
The title Lord of the Isles was inalienably annexed to the Crown in 1542 and is now one of the titles of the present Prince of Wales.
First published in The Highlander Magazine
The Magazine of Scottish Heritage
TheNorth Sea can be bitterly cold, a dark, heaving, hostile world where huge waves, whipped up by storm force winds, will batter everything in their path. At such times, even sizeable ships might be at the mercy of the elements. In December 1799, a gale lasting three days destroyed over seventy vessels around the Scottish coast. HMS York ran aground on the Bell Rock. Caught off guard, the warship sank with the loss of all on board.
The Bell Rock, a sharp sandstone reef the size of five football pitches lies in the North Sea, twenty seven miles east of Dundee and eleven miles south of Arbroath. For hundreds of years, this natural hazard caused the deaths of numerous seafarers who were attempting to negotiate a way past it in foul weather. At high tide the rock could not be seen when it was under a few feet of water. At low tide, rugged projections jut just above the surface. Except for the occasional gleam of spray and tell tale break of white water there was not much to give away its presence – until the 1st February 1811. Then the Bell Rock Lighthouse shone out into the darkness sending a clear beam over the sea, ‘like a star of the first magnitude’.
Constructing the lighthouse, probably Robert Stevenson’s greatest legacy had not been a straightforward engineering project. In fact, such was the fearsome reputation of the Bell Rock as a wrecker of ships it was thought that building a lighthouse on the site could not be done. And ever since the Northern Lighthouse Board had been established in 1786, the Commissioners had given umpteen reasons for ignoring the pleas of ship owners, sea captains, sheriffs and land owners to have a light built on the Bell Rock.
However, Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) had visited and studied the work of John Smeaton, the Yorkshire man who had built the Eddystone Lighhouse on a terrifying, ship-wrecking reef fourteen miles south-west off Plymouth. Smeaton’s lighthouse was strong and flexible, shaped, as he visualised it, ‘like an oak tree.’ It was ‘broad at its base, curved inwards at its waist, becoming narrower towards the top.’
The Eddystone was constructed of close fitting blocks of stone fastened together with trenails (small oak pins). Its design and construction was far superior to the earlier efforts that had burnt down, or had been washed away. But to bring Smeaton’s pattern to perfection, it needed an inspired designer. Robert Stevenson was convinced he was that man. His test would be the construction of a lighthouse on the Bell Rock.
From 1800s onwards, he pressed the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouse Board for the chance to design and build a suitable lighthouse. When his initial estimate came to £42,685, he admitted constructing the Bell Rock Lighthouse would be expensive but, he argued, it would be counterproductive to try to cut costs in such a ‘matter of importance to the whole mercantile interest of Great Britain.’
Stevenson’s report left the Commissioners unmoved. However, since there were others making a case for this particular lighthouse, the Commissioners unbent enough to allow a Bill to be presented in Parliament in 1803. It was thrown out by the House of Lords.
Despite this setback, the Board went on to seek advice from other more experienced engineers. Thomas Telford, famed architect of Highland roads and bridges supplied an estimate which was much lower than Stevenson’s. However, Telford pled overwork and left to concentrate on his own projects.
The Board’s next choice was John Rennie. Born and raised in East Lothian, he had trained first as a millwright then worked as a jobbing engineer on bridges, canals and steam power. Rennie had designed and built the Crinan Canal in Argyll and had been jointly responsible for widening the River Clyde to allow deeper- hulled vessels to reach the Glasgow ports. As yet, he had no experience of building lighthouses but to the Board he appeared to be the perfect candidate. Stevenson, of course, was deeply disappointed at getting passed over.
But armed with a definitive opinion from Rennie in favour of a stone lighthouse, as well as Stevenson’s earlier report, the Board began making preparations for a second Bill. It was eventually passed.
On the 3rd December 1806, the Commissioners announced that ‘the building to be erected for the purpose of a light house on the Bell or Cape Rock shall be of stone and the work shall be vested under the direction of John Rennie Esq, Civil Engineer, whom they hereby appoint Chief Engineer for conducting the work.’
Robert Stevenson was authorised to proceed along with Mr Rennie and should ‘endeavour to procure a yard and the necessary accommodation.’
Though he was upset by the Commissioners’ indifference to his efforts, Stevenson persisted in adapting and refining his designs, making allowances for the different conditions on the rock and his knowledge of local materials. He bombarded Rennie with reports and queries about the stone to be used, measurements, tools, the workmen’s accommodation and much more besides.
As Rennie was often away on other widely scattered projects it became more and more difficult for him to keep up with the vast amounts of correspondence covering proposed changes and amendments which Stevenson sent him. As it was, Stevenson felt justified in ignoring many of his chief engineer’s suggestions and blithely went his own way. As well, over time, he managed to persuade the Board that his designs were better fitting than those offered by Rennie. He gave up his other engineering jobs and for the next two years concentrated on organising his workforce and the necessary materials for an undertaking worthy of his abilities.
Over a hundred men, many of whom had worked on previous light house projects had to be appointed and trained. A work yard was established at Arbroath and a vessel, named the Smeaton, was commissioned to ferry the builders, joiners, smiths and mortar men to and from the rock.
Stevenson was keenly interested in every detail of the ongoing work and expected the highest of standards. He was meticulous in his planning.
The work place established in Arbroath lay a short distance from the harbour. Stevenson had intended the whole of the lighthouse to be granite built but such a hard-to-work stone could not be cut and shaped quickly enough to keep up with the demand. Granite from Aberdeenshire was used for the outer surface of the lower part of the lighthouse. For the rest of the tower, sandstone was brought from Milnfield Quarry in Dundee and from Craigleith Quarry, Edinburgh.
Each block of stone for the base of the lighthouse weighed more than a ton. The blocks were not rectangular but were cut into unusual shapes with acute angles, dovetailing together to form a sort of three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Each block was tested to ensure a good fit on a 14.5m (44 feet) platform in the Arbroath yard before being numbered and transported to the building site on the rock. The road way to the harbour was rough. Great care was necessary. This difficult job was made easier with a working horse called Bassey who hauled all 2835 stones the short distance.
For the first month on the rock, some men chipped out the foundation for the tower while others began erecting the iron pillars for the workmen’s barracks and constructing the temporary beacon. The sooner the beacon could be lit, the sooner charges could be levied on passing ships to help pay for the lighthouse.
The men could only work between tides and in the early days had to get off the slippery rock and board an unsteady boat until work could restart.
The first squad was contracted to stay for four weeks without returning ashore. Some men were often seasick and took to eating a seaweed called dulse (Fucus palmatus) to cure the sickness. Being dictated to by the tides sometimes meant having to work in the dark by torchlight, staying until the tide was creeping up to thigh level.
Stevenson employed blacksmiths at the rock to sharpen and repair the tools. ‘While his feet were immersed in water,’ he wrote of one smith, ‘his face was not only scorched but continually exposed to volumes of smoke accompanied with sparks from the fire.’
Conditions were grim for much of the time. However, in calm weather, at least when the men were fed and resting aboard The Smeaton, moored a short distance from the rock, they enjoyed an occasional carefree evening. ‘For according to practice,’ noted Stevenson, ‘every man must play a tune, sing a song, or tell a story. In this manner, Saturday nights in particular passed away in a very happy manner with much boisterous mirth and loud peals of laughter.’
From the hold of the Smeaton stones were winched onto the praam, the decked boat built for the purpose, before being towed to a floating buoy. The praam was then made fast until the proper time of tide for taking her into one of the creeks of the rock.
On one heart stopping occasion, when there were thirty two men on the rock, the Smeaton drifted away from her moorings. There was not a lot of time before the rock would be covered by the incoming tide. Fortunately, the workmen, busy at various tasks, didn’t notice the imminent danger – but Stevenson did. Struck dumb with fright, now with his men looking to him for instructions (there were two smaller boats left that were normally only used to transport provisions) it was more than fortunate that the supply boat happened to be arriving with a consignment of letters. The frightened men boarded hurriedly, realising some of them would surely have drowned if they had stayed much longer.
Although afterwards he was outwardly calm about the close call, Stevenson remained haunted by the experience for the rest of his life. The near disaster was a constant reminder of his responsibilities. James Spink, captain of the supply boat, was rewarded later with a lifelong pension and a full lighthouse uniform.
After the first winter when Stevenson was sure of its safety, he allowed some men to stay in a hut built on the beacon tower so they did not have to board the ship at high tide. There were four small rooms for eating, sleeping and washing above a working area for the blacksmith and another for mixing mortar. An iron walkway was built later connecting to a lower section of the tower.
Getting the blocks of stone from the cargo boat to where they were intended in the building process was troublesome, a very dangerous procedure. Stevenson tried various solutions and eventually had a cast iron railway constructed around the site of the lighthouse. The tracks had to be supported at varying heights from the rock to be kept level. Now, loaded wagons could be wheeled from several landing places.
Work stopped in late September or October before the worst of the winter gales were expected. John Rennie, prone to seasickness, made only three visits to the Bell Rock during the four years of the Lighthouse construction.
As well as being able to work on a grand scale, Robert Stevenson took great care over the smallest details of his many innovative engineering projects. He also shared his workers’ difficult workplaces and was ahead of his time in his consideration of safe working practices. He made sure his men were well fed and was aware of the benefits of small, frequent celebrations, when they toasted the completion of each stage of their important task.
To Stevenson’s credit, only two lives were lost during the building of the lighthouse. One man was crushed when a jack gave way in the Arbroath work yard. Another man drowned after falling from the rope bridge between the lighthouse and the beacon.
The Bell Rock lighthouse is testimony to Robert Stevenson’s methods. After two hundred years withstanding the poundings of the North Sea, it still shines a warning.First published in The Scots Magazine February 2011