I HAVE probably been a lighthouse enthusiast since birth. Growing up in a seafaring community on Scotland’s north-east coast, I was never far from a lighthouse and have many happy memories of pestering my folks to take me to see some of these. My father and grandfather were both trawlermen and there was always a tale to be told about the lighthouses they had seen when they returned from their trips on the open seas.
As a young boy, I loved reading the stories of the building and manning of these sentinels of the sea. There was something quite awe inspiring about the struggle in the most adverse of conditions to make our coastline a safer place for mariners.
In my 20s and early I 30s travelled extensively around the globe. However, conscious there were large swathes of Scotland which I had never explored, including most of the lighthouses I’d read so much about in childhood, I decided to try and photograph some of the more famous lights on the west coast and Northern Isles. This soon grew into a quest to photograph all the lighthouses which the Stevenson family of engineers built.
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The photographs in my new book, Scottish And Manx Lighthouses: A Photographic Journey In The Footsteps Of The Stevensons, are the result of seven years of travel by foot, car, boat, plane and helicopter. There have been many early morning alarm calls to catch the dawn light and roaming in the twilight after capturing a wonderful sunset.
By accompanying me on a journey from St Abb’s Head on Scotland’s east coast all the way round to Chicken Rock off the Isle of Man, I hope readers will gain a greater appreciation of Scotland’s rich lighthouse heritage and be inspired to discover some of these places for themselves.
To the lighthouse: my journey to the Bell Rock
The Bell or Inchcape Rock is a dangerous reef lying 11 miles off the coast of Angus, which claimed many ships heading for the Firths of Forth and Tay prior to the lighthouse’s construction. The Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) appointed the eminent civil engineer John Rennie as the project’s chief engineer, and Robert Stevenson as the on-site resident engineer for the works. Stevenson was until recently given the main credit for the lighthouse’s design; however, research has suggested that he downplayed John Rennie’s influence. What cannot be disputed is that Stevenson arranged and supervised the actual building works and endured the many hardships experienced by the workmen.
Construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse began in 1807. As the rock was fully submerged twice a day, Stevenson designed a special barracks so that the workmen could remain on the rock at high tide. Although he experienced considerable resistance when he asked them to work on Sundays, most were eventually won over by Stevenson’s argument that the need to save sailors’ lives would be a more godly pursuit than keeping the Sabbath in this case.
Shortly after work on the rock started, Stevenson suffered great personal tragedy and lost three of his children to disease within a year. His dogged determination to continue overseeing the project further gained the respect of his men.
First lit on February 1, 1811, the Bell Rock is the world’s oldest continually operating seawashed lighthouse (ie its foundations are completely covered at high tide).
During the First World War, the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Argyll ran aground on the rock, but miraculously not a single life was lost. In 1955 a RAF helicopter collided with the tower killing all those on board, and in 1987 the lighthouse had to be evacuated after a fire broke out causing damage to the upper levels of the lighthouse.
Today, the Bell Rock is arguably the most famous of all the Scottish lights and I’m keen to land there to see the lighthouse up close. Much to my disappointment a planned trip with the NLB a few years ago was cancelled due to fog.
Conditions for my visit today could not be better. It’s a beautiful spring morning with calm seas and clear blue skies. After landing on the seaweed-covered helipad, I make my way carefully along the old cast iron railway, don the obligatory harness and clip myself in to the fall arrest system before climbing up to the platform outside the entrance doorway. Tucked away behind the top rung of the ladder, I can see the date of 1809 inscribed in the stonework. This marks the year the solid base of the tower was completed.
The writer RM Ballantyne provides a fascinating description of the original lighthouse interiors during a two-week stay in 1865. He describes a narrow stone spiral staircase leading up to the first floor, fine oak fittings in each room and a library (“Strangers Room”) near the top of the tower, furnished with a handsome table, fine Turkish carpet and a marble bust of Robert Stevenson (the table and bust are now in the foyer of the NLB’s Edinburgh headquarters).
Some 150 years later, the interior bears no resemblance to this. The Bell Rock feels the most cramped of all the pillar rock towers I’ve seen. The spiral stone staircase to the first floor has been removed and the lower rooms are packed with engines, tanks and electrical equipment. Each floor is connected by a vertical ladder and it’s a tight squeeze getting through the fire-rated hatches with my camera equipment. One floor is divided into two (very) small bedrooms, each with three-tier bunk beds much like you’d find in a ship.
The floor above, which once housed the library, now has a modern kitchen curved to fit the profile of the walls. Looking up, I admire the outlines of the dovetailed stones on the domed ceiling.
The balcony is on the next level and I have a look outside. The giant hairnet installed after automation to keep birds away from the solar panels does not appear to have prevented them from doing their business on them.
I go back inside and have a look in the lightroom. There are a few dents and signs of repairs on the underside of the dome, probably the result of the 1955 helicopter accident.
The tide is well out by the time I make my way back down the tower and explore the rock below. I can see holes in the sandstone where the posts for the wooden barracks were sunk. Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of the sandstone reef as “a pleasant assemblage of shelves, and pools, and creeks, about which a child might play for a while summer without weariness” feels very apt. On a day like this, it’s difficult to imagine what is must be like out here during a storm or the terror that sailors would have felt whilst journeying up the east coast in the days before the lighthouse was built. However, the green slime on one side of the tower reminds me of the waves that crash against the structure at high tide.
The storms of the past winter have also carried away some of the heavy gratings from the railway track. Beyond the helipad I can see what appears to be part of a ship’s engine. Before boarding the helicopter I take a final look at the intricately carved stones which make up the elegantly curved base of the lighthouse. A young seal plays in the water next to the helipad, apparently oblivious to the helicopter’s downdraught.
Dark clouds appear as we head back towards the coast; a hailstorm starts soon after we touch down at Dundee Airport. The timing of my visit could not have been better.
This is an edited extract from Scottish And Manx Lighthouses: A Photographic Journey In The Footsteps Of The Stevensons by Ian Cowe, published by Whittles, £20. Profits from this limited edition book go to the Northern Lighthouse Heritage trust, which works to retain lighthouse heritage in Scotland www.whittlespublishing.com