The North 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