The Bell Rock Light

Posted on Mon 08/11/2008 by


The Bell Rock Light at Inchcape. Stock image. Click on image to open in a larger window.


Sometimes we tend to concentrate so much on the lives and daily occurrences of movie stars, and singers, that we really forget the things in life that are relegated to mere footnotes in History. We pay $17 Million for photographs of a famous movie star couple’s new baby twins, and some things that actually have a stirring history are not even known.
So, in effect, we are caught between Scylla and Charybdis. This is a really old saying, one supposedly from Greek mythology.
Two serpents inhabited one each side of the Straits Of Messina, and the Straits were virtually impassable. You could avoid the hard route through, almost impossible by sailing down one side or the other. Scylla was the monster on one side inhabiting a cave on the land side, and the six headed monster regularly ate sailors who ventured too close. Charybdis was a seaborne monster with a large gaping maw who sucked in huge amounts of water and belched them out, continuously causing whirlpools. To get through the Straits, you had to choose one monster or the other. Odysseus chose to sail close to Scylla, reckoning that he would lose only some of his crew, while choosing the other meant his ship would surely sink.

The modern day equivalent of this old saying is ‘caught between a rock and a hard place’, and sometimes we concentrate on the easy task of following the lives of those movie stars rather than concentrate on things from history that are far more stirring than what some starlet might be doing.

A real life ‘rock and a hard place’, also has some links to the original Scylla and Charybdis, just minus the monsters of course.
Personally, I think that engineers are far more interesting than movie actors because they do things that are important, things however that are exceedingly boring. You know, things like The Panama Canal, Hoover Dam, and to a lesser extent maybe, the construction of that boring old Brooklyn Bridge that New Yorkers might take so much for granted. One of those modern engineering wonders is the one I’d like to talk about today. The Bell Rock Lighthouse on Inchcape Rock off the coast of Scotland, between those two river inlets, The Firth Of Forth and The Firth Of Tay. Hence the real life link to Scylla and Charybdis.


Inchcape lies 11 miles offshore between the two great Tays. It is a shoal of dangerous rocks that over the years had claimed numerous ships. In those years before the construction, the average was 11 ships each Winter, wrecked on those stormy shoals. The problem lay in the fact that at high tide the shoal was covered by twelve feet of water, and looking for all intents and purposes just like open sea, albeit a little rough. At low tide, the rocky shoals were out of the water, but only by four feet, so they were still dangerous. Often, the hard to see shoals ripped the bottoms out of boats that ventured too close, without careful and detailed knowledge on where the shoals were, being eleven miles from the shore as they were. In one wild storm alone, 70 ships were lost off that area of coastline of Scotland alone, most at Inchcape.
It was originally called Bell Rock, because the legend is that in the fourteenth Century, an abbot from nearby Arbroath sailed out and mounted a large bell on the biggest rock. The bell lasted one year before a Dutch pirate stole it.
Each year the shoals claimed their bounty of ships and men, and in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s a civil engineer, Robert Stevenson, had this wild dream to construct a light on the largest rock in the shoal.
It took three years to construct, and the story is not only remarkable, but ingenious considering it was started in 1807.

Stevenson selected 60 men for the work and they set sail in August of 1807 when they started construction. The first task was to construct a barracks on the rock to nullify the long trip by rowboat each day to and from the ship. The largest rock selected for the Light was only out of the water for four hours every day, so that was the only time when any work could be done. That first Summer of work lasted for only the two good months when work could be carried out. Stevenson had problems with the workers, something that nothing to do with the Unions but that he wanted the men to work on the Sabbath, something the men refused to do, fearing that God would not look kindly upon them. That first Summer saw the construction of the frame for the barracks, mounted on wooden stilts well out of the water.
During the following Winter, Scottish stone masons carefully cut the large granite masonry blocks for the construction.

In 1808, Stevenson and the men could only accomplish 80 hours work in the stormy Summer. The living complex was completed and the first three courses of granite blocks were secured to the rock.
During Winter, masons again crafted the carefully designed blocks.

In 1809, work on the structure continued and when the weather closed in again, a large part of the structure was completed. The large and heavy rocks had to be brought from the ship to the rock individually by rowboat and then carefully fitted to the structure like a large jigsaw puzzle.

In 1810 the structure was completed. It used 2500 granite blocks and had the light housing and fittings attached to the top. The structure stood 115 feet tall, and the light was turned on in 1811. The light was one of the newer designs, (for the time) with an alternating white and red light, and after being turned on, the light was highly visible at sea, and from as far afield as 35 miles inland.

The lighting mechanism, the lamps and reflectors, were changed in 1843, and a further 155 years later in 1998, the keepers finally moved out and the light became fully automated, operating as it always had, in conjunction with a shore station at nearby Arbroath.
The tower itself was so well constructed, that the interlocking granite stone masonry has not been changed to this day, 198 years after its construction.
It still stands operating as it first did, the oldest surviving sea washed lighthouse on Earth.
The construction difficulties encountered from the outset rank this structure as one of the modern wonders of the Industrial World.