Write Around Scotland

Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer



The Bell Rock Lighthouse

2017-01-07 11:53:26

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

Read More


On Safari in the Highlands

2016-11-02 20:44:42

Occasionally there are days of shimmering heat across Scotland’s West Highlands when the sunlight seems to be brilliantly luminous. On such days the countryside appears to radiate colour.

There are countless shades of green, of grass and leaves. The blue of the sky is mirrored in sparkling lochs while the gold of gorse and yellow on the broom looks to be lit from within.

Gleaming white patches of snow still linger in distant mountain corries.

For some wild creatures, this may be the perfect time to relax, to doze in the warmth, out of sight of potential predators.

For wild life spotters, the chances of spotting this same wild life may be thought to be less. However, should they join knowledgeable guide Ian MacLeod on one of his Wild West Safaris, they are guaranteed, whatever the weather, to catch sight of the Big Five – Scotland’s iconic wild life species - and all in the one day!

Ian’s safari tours start from Fort William. After collecting participants from various points he drives his smart mini-bus out of town along the A830, the road to Mallaig, to the jetty on Loch Shiel.

On the way, we learn a little about the geology of the area, of the unimaginably powerful forces within the earth’s crust which formed the surrounding mountains. Millions of years of weathering and the weight of enormous glaciers reduced the height of these mountains and scraped out Scotland’s lochs and glens.

At the jetty on Loch Shiel we leave the mini-bus and board the cruise boat the MV Sileas and are now in the capable hands of Jim Michie. Some passengers opt to sit in a covered area while others choose to sit in the open, at the prow or along the sides of the boat. After a last look back to the head of Loch Shiel and the Glenfinnan Viaduct made famous in the Harry Potter film, ‘The Chamber of Secrets’, we are sailing, awed by the surrounding beauty.

Loch Shiel is relatively narrow and hemmed in at the north end by high mountains. As the boat chugs along, Jim uses a microphone to tell us about people who had lived along this loch.

Small parties of hunter gatherers arrived here some 8000 years ago. The hillsides were heavily wooded then with oak, Scots pine and birch trees. There are still fragments of the ancient Caledonian forest but large coverings of Forestry Commission conifers dominate the lower hillsides. Higher up, sheep and deer have left the slopes bare.

Our first wild life sightings are not too exciting. Common gulls, though they’re not so common nowadays despite the name, crowd on to a small island of rock.

But then, all eyes and binoculars are trained on a black speck in the blue sky above a mountain ridge. A golden eagle it’s agreed! All aboard are wishing this dot in the sky would come much closer, be more convincing, show its impressive wingspan and curved beak – but it doesn’t happen.

However, further along the loch, there is a definite sighting – this pair of birds are arguably even more magnificent. Jim stops the boat. There are two White Tailed Eagles in a nest near the top of a tree. The male flies off, doesn’t reappear but is probably still close by, perched on another tree. The female looks to be hunched over. Is she sheltering chicks?

The birds are relatively safe here as the loch sides are almost empty of people. There’s only one full time resident now. One other cottage belongs to author Mike Tomkies who left a very different life behind to come here to study the wildlife, particularly wildcats.

We leave the boat at the southern end of the loch at Acharacle, a small village that manages to support a bakery and a general store.

When we are seated in the mini-bus again we are driven the few miles to Loch Sunart, a fiord - like sea loch with numerous bays which otters are known to inhabit.

We look for signs of these elusive creatures - but here on this beautiful day, for us, there’s no show!

Our next stop is the Forestry Commission Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide. It’s a well - appointed wooden building with an approach ramp suitable for wheelchair users, wall mounted benches, information boards and windows overlooking an island in Loch Sunart . Here the wild life watchers talk in whispers.

Some way below us seals are easily spotted. There’s much splashing in the water as pairs rise and cavort before disappearing into the depths.

As we continue motoring along Loch Sunart, passing trees that may be three hundred years old, our guide draws our attention to the striking rock falls and formations, the birdlife and two small herds of red deer.

One grouping is moving slowly, mere specks of dark brown on the hillside. Another group of stags and hinds is closer to the single track road. They appear unperturbed by the sight of humans. They watch us watching them – then carry on grazing.

At each stop, as well as pointing out the wildlife including dragonflies, Ian tells us about the importance of some of the flowers at our feet. These plants may now be dismissed as weeds, but were important to local people who could make use of them.

Silverweed is a hairy, silvery creeping perennial with yellow flowers which is plentiful, common and was cultivated from late prehistoric times. The roots were boiled, baked or even eaten raw. During the famine in these parts, Silverweed was used as a substitute for potatoes.

Our last stop is at another wildlife hide. It’s really a high, sturdy wooden fence with holes cut out to accommodate viewers’ different eye levels. We look through into the forest. On a tree not far away, a red squirrel is safely ensconced in a little wooden shelter attached to a feeder with a plentiful supply of food.

Here’s another definite sighting.

Ian leaves us with details of where we might still spot otters on the shore in Fort William.

On this safari we’ve not managed to see all of Scotland’s Big Five. But the searching has been splendid on a glorious day and there’s still time.

Read More



2016-10-18 09:32:12

Each time I visit Durisdeer, the pretty hamlet makes me think of a mythical Brigadoon.

The approach road is narrow. Only occasional, well-spaced passing places allow for two cars meeting, or a tractor and a car, before easing past each other.

You’re nearly there before you actually see the substantial church. It appears to be watching over its surrounding huddle of a few houses.

In front, in the middle of what may have been a small village green in bygone days, stands a war memorial. The slab of granite has a carved outline of a soldier. Inscribed on the commemorative plaque is a list of war dead, local surnames. Why so many, you might wonder? You may also ponder on the size of the church. Was there ever enough of a congregation to justify this considerable building?

Part of the answer lies a short distance away. Two minutes will take you out of Durisdeer, through a gate and onto a rough path. Go just a few steps along the path then a little way up Durisdeer Rig - the big hill on your right.

Looking back, most of Durisdeer is already hidden behind trees. Far ahead, you’ll see the path cut into the slope of the hillside.

For much of the way, this path is bordered on the low side by a head - high, dry stane dyke. The quarrying, carting, lifting and careful placing of each differently shaped lump of rock must have been physically demanding. Constructing this wall would have been the work of a very large squad of men. Could it be that at the end of a long working week, Durisdeer Church being nearby could then take care of the workers’ spiritual needs?

From late summer ‘til late autumn this heathery hillside is clothed in deepest purple. When the blossom fades and eventually dies back the bees are left with little to eat. That’s when they become a little tetchy. As a beekeeper I met on the hill explained, while warning me not to get too close, his bees will need feeding in their hives through late autumn and winter. He’ll keep this regime going except when the weather turns really cold. If that happens, the bees will bunch together in an attempt to keep warm and hibernate.

From where we’ve stopped on Durisdeer Rig we can look across the path, over the dyke and the valley below, to the range of hills opposite.

Durisdeer now lies to our left at the foot of Castlehill. As the name suggests, there was a castle here at one time. Though no trace of it now remains, its early existence may have been the reason why the aristocratic residents had such an impressive church built nearby.

Seemingly, little consideration was given to the rest of the faithful of this widespread rural parish who could only get to the church with some difficulty.

Back on the path, we’ll go a short way before crossing the wall by climbing a wooden stile.

Our track now leads us along the valley bottom. It rises gently to a grassy hillock. There’s not a lot to see here, apart from some dips and bumps, but these outlines are what remain of a Roman Fortlet.

The garrison would have been protected by a wooden palisade. Since the immediate surrounding land falls away steeply, this would have been an easy position to defend - even from attack from the hills on either side.

These same hill tops also offered the Romans suitable sites for their flaming beacons. Their signals could then be seen at other distant encampments

After all this stravaiging, let’s get back on the path. We could keep heading north - west, further into the Southern Uplands, along what was the old Roman Road. But for now, let’s head back down for a wander round Durisdeer churchyard.

Many of the stones are weathered and moss covered. The oldest discernible is 1540 but doubtless some are of even more ancient date.

In a room behind the church, a tomb contains the remains of James and Mary, Duke and Duchess of Queensbury and Dover. The tomb lies beneath their two highly ornate effigies. Commonly known as the ‘Durisdeer marbles’, they are still brilliant white. It is believed they were the work of an Italian artist named Roubilliac, one of the most distinguished sculptors of the time.

Unfortunately, he never saw his works in place. According to an old legend, he was thrown overboard and drowned while sailing from Italy to deliver the goods. The work was never paid for!

Now here’s a real treat. For a few years now, throughout the summer months, the ladies of the parish have been offering Sunday afternoon teas (until the end of September) in a room of the church building. Part of the proceeds goes towards the running costs of the church and a local youth club. The remainder goes to charity. What’s more - you don’t have to scramble to the top of any of the hills behind Durisdeer before enjoying this splendid home baking.

Further Information: Durisdeer nestles in the Lowther Hills in Dumfries and Galloway about 1 mile off the A702 - 11 miles south of Elvanfoot and 3 miles north of Carronbridge on the A76.

Read More


Stars over Galloway

2016-10-16 16:39:39

It was dark. A cold wind whipped the last of the leaves from the trees. With a torch beam to light our way, my guide led me down a curving gravel path to a shed at the bottom of his garden. Once inside, we hardly heard a sound.

This garden shed is no ordinary storage space for bikes or tools. With a pull on an outside rope the whole roof slides open to reveal innumerable pinpoints of light glistening in the night sky.

My guide, Mike Alexander has studied the stars since 1969 when his early interest was sparked by blurry black and white pictures of the moon landing shown on televisions across the world. A book on astronomy at Christmas 1971 led to further study and a desire to keep learning more.

‘I just had to find out about the stars, the planets and whatever else is up there,’ said Mike.

Now the Galloway Astronomy Centre, run jointly by Mike and his wife Helen, attracts visitors who also want to know more about what is up there. Their cottage can accommodate a small number of paying guests usually on a Bed and Breakfast basis though some guests prefer to arrive in time for dinner as well. ‘We organise everything around our guests’ needs,’’ said Mike.

‘If we have a group of absolute beginners who may not be able to recognise the shape of The Plough in the sky, I’ll happily start there, very slowly. ‘Then I’ll explain the origin of constellations such as Leo the Lion or Aquarius the Water Carrier which are groups of stars that appear as tiny bright dots in the sky alongside umpteen other tiny bright dots. The constellations don’t readily make shapes looking anything like the descriptive names given them by the ancient Greeks so they can be difficult to pick out.

‘Then using the Centre’s telescopes, I can point out other wonders of the night sky such as planets, the craters of the moon, ring of Saturn, or the moons of Jupiter.

‘Looking much further into space our stargazers might be able to see the distant clouds of gas where new stars, perhaps one thousand light years away, are forming at this very moment.

‘We may even be able to pick out other galaxies that are several million light years away!’’

Mike points out that the Galloway Astronomy Centre is unique in Scotland. ‘I don’t just leave our guests to play with a telescope. I’m there with them in the observatory, guiding them across the night sky.’

Like a teacher pointing at a blackboard, Mike uses a laser pen to shine a beam that appears long enough to pick out individual stars. From them he can then trace the shapes of constellations.

Mike readily acknowledges that people who may be interested in observing the night sky often assume they’ll need expensive equipment and especially a large telescope to get started. But that’s not the case.

First of all, prospective stargazers need to get to a place where it’s dark enough to actually see the stars. Then with the naked eye they’ll be able to see millions of heavenly bodies and a few passing satellites. A pair of relatively inexpensive 10x50 or 7x50 binoculars will help even more, along with a good star map.

Not so long ago, our ancestors would have been aware of the night time sky. Today it’s good to know there are still places where we can be amazed by this nightly wonder.

Dark Sky ParkGalloway Forest Park lies a few miles north of the Galloway Astronomy Centre. A number of measurements have been taken there, in different parts of the park, to assess the light pollution, or more accurately, the lack of light pollution.

These measurements prove that certain areas of the park are especially dark and are particularly good for observing the night sky.It’s worth noting that only a few sites in the world have been given this dark sky grading.As the population of Galloway is small, with most people living in a few largish towns and lots of small villages there’s not overly much light created. So it’s reasonably easy to find areas where the sky is dark. These parts of Galloway are also fairly accessible, unlike other parts of the world where people have to travel a distance to get away from the light sent upwards from buildings, city streets or shop fronts.

For further information: The Galloway Astronomy Centre


Tel: 01988 500594

WWW.Galloway Dark Sky Park

Read More