WE can feel its power from miles away. The history books talk about it. Poets and novelists have been inspired by it. And every sailor and seaman knows its sometimes dark story: all the lives that have been saved, and all the lives that have been lost.

We’re starting the journey early at 7am and already the sea is looking like it’s in a bad mood. Down in the harbour, the little boat that will take us out to the rock is being bullied by the water and the conditions are forecast to get a lot worse later. We need to get going.

Once on board the boat, the skipper shows me a passenger log listing the people who’ve been out to the rock before – and there are lots of names from all over the world. I ask him why they come here. Because they love the Bell Rock, he says. We look to the horizon and there it is, 11 miles out, a swab of black where the grey of the sky meets the grey of the sea.

Accompanying me on the three-hour round trip out from Arbroath to the Bell Rock is the conservationist, writer and lighthouse lover Tom Nancollas, who has just written a history of rock lighthouses like the Bell. Tom cares very much about preserving important buildings but he cares particularly about lighthouses and especially the lighthouses built in the middle of the sea, those sea-lashed towers, constant and strong.

Talking on the boat about the history of the Bell, it’s easy to understand Tom’s admiration. The lighthouse was built because of the dangerous 1400ft-long reef it sits on, once known as the Inchcape rock, which is only fully exposed at the lowest spring tides. In the winter, the rocks used to claim around six ships a year and from the 14th century onwards there were attempts to protect seafarers from the dangers.

The first was said to have been by the Abbot of Arbroath who attached a bell to the rock (hence the name), the idea being that it would be rung by the waves to warn passing ships. It’s hard to see how it could have been effective, but the bell inspired the poet Robert Southey. “A sound as if with the Inchcape Bell,” he wrote, “The Devil below was ringing his knell.”

By the late 18th century, there was a clamour to do something about the rock which is when the idea emerged of putting a lighthouse on it. Robert Stevenson, one of the famous Stevenson family who were devoted to building lighthouses and making Britain’s dangerous seas safer, believed a light on the Bell Rock was possible, and so, with the chief engineer on the project, John Rennie, an ambitious – some said impossible – plan was drawn up.

You get an idea of how hard it would have been when you’re close up to the reef. Bits of it stick up from the water, like rotten teeth, and the skipper says it’s too dangerous to attempt a landing today. But imagine for a minute: more than 200 years ago planning to build a huge stone tower here, 11 miles from the shore, and then doing it.

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Tom points out what looks like a small railway line that runs round part of the rock. This was used to move the granite that had been shipped from the mainland and, remarkably, still survives more than 200 years later; a large wooden house on stilts was also built on the site so the workmen did not have to return to the shore every night.

The work began on Tuesday 18 August 1807 and in his book, Seashaken Houses, Tom describes that remarkable day. “It was half past five on a perfect summer’s morning. The waves lapped about quietly, but would not fully uncover the reef for another half-hour or so. While they waited, the excited masons were regaled with a glass of rum by the ship’s steward; by six in the morning, the tide was fully out and they got to work, cheeks flushed. They had two hours before it immersed the reef again, so they hacked quickly at the rock. After waiting the whole day aboard their boat, they managed a further two hours’ work at the evening low tide.”

Standing at the front of the boat looking out to the reef 200 years later, Tom talks about just how extraordinary that effort by the Victorian masons was. “In those days there was none of the health and safety regulations that protect lives now but there were surprisingly few deaths,” he says. “Building the Bell Rock, there were only five deaths in total [out of a workforce of up to 100], which considering the extreme conditions, was a testament to how well planned it was.”

Tom says the whole enterprise had to be incredibly carefully planned. “Stones would come once a week,” he says, “having been carved on land, they would be unloaded with these ingenious timber frames with pulleys. They weighed up to five tons and they were carved into precise shapes so if you knocked them against something, you would have to do it again. The Bell Rock as a jigsaw puzzle and that’s what has given it the resilience that it has.”

It’s this mix of ingenuity, strength and blood that helps explain the love that Tom and many others feel for the Bell and other lighthouses. Building this great tower was a miserable occupation, he says, but a heroic one too. This is not like building a house on the land, he says; this is something bigger and more important. So strong is the tower’s allure and power close up that it’s easy to start getting romantic about the whole thing, but Tom warns against it. As he was writing his book, he says, he was always looking for romance, myth and love but the lighthouses kept telling him the truth: much of the story is horrible.

Joan Boath knows just how horrible. He was the last principal keeper of the Bell Rock and when I talked to him about his job he told me how, when he was working there, he would sometimes walk about on the rocks at low tide just visualising the work that went into building the lighthouse. But he also told me just how hard it the job was.

"The Bell was tough,” he said, “and was responsible for a lot of men resigning, but in those days it was your job and you got on with it. There was no use mumping about it. I would say to my wife, 'Don't phone with any problems – you'll have to deal with them yourself.'"

The rota Boath and his colleagues worked to was four weeks on and four weeks off and even getting into the lighthouse was tough. Unlike other lighthouses, there were no steps up to the door; instead, the keepers had to be winched across from a boat and inside there were no baths or showers and water had to be rationed. Tom also points out that the diameter of the rooms was only abut 12ft which meant you couldn’t walk more than that in a straight line. It was a weird, tough existence; a life lived in circles.

When the Bell Rock was first built, however, there was one extraordinary nod to luxury and elegance. Just below the lantern room was a library and guest room described by the writer RM Ballantyne as being decorated in a style worthy of a lady’s boudoir. There were handsome chairs, a large bookcase, an oak table, and a domed ceiling painted to represent stucco panelling, and above the window a bust of one of the men who made it possible, Robert Stevenson.

For Tom, it is one of the most interesting parts of the Bell Rock’s story. “Nothing else like it existed at the time or has existed since,” says, “A circular library decorated like an Edinburgh New Town drawing room in the middle of the sea. It’s a lovely idea that you pour everything into a design even though few people will ever appreciate it for what it is.”

Sadly, when the lighthouse was modernised in 1964 and the light was converted from paraffin to electric, the library was stripped bare and part of the purpose of Tom’s books is to remind us of the extraordinary achievement of putting it there in the first place. However, the book is also about the wider story of all 20 of the rock lighthouses of the British Isles, four of which are in Scotland: the Bell, as well as Skerryvore 12 miles off Tiree, and Dhu Artach 18 miles west of Colonsay, and Oxcars on the Firth of Forth.

Standing on the boat in front of the Bell and braced against the thumping of the sea, Tom talks about what he sees as some of the symbolism and power of these great rock lighthouses. Part of their appeal is down to their architecture and technology, particularly in Scotland where our designers were among the world’s great pioneers.

For Tom, though, there is a less tangible but no less powerful appeal to rock lighthouses and he explains it as we stand bobbing up and down on the water next to the rock. “Lighthouses have a particularly strange depth to them,” he says. “The Bell Rock has a daytime identity and a night-time identity – by day, it’s a big tower, and the sturdiest thing possible, and by night it’s a very intangible, fragile light and it has these different presences. The whole story of lighthouses is this layering of good and evil, difficulty and ease, heroism and tragedy and few other building types have that mixture. There is also a spiritual quality to the light itself – here is a light in the darkness to guide you.”

Tom is also confident about the future of these buildings. Up close, what strikes you about the Bell Rock is the remarkable lack of wear and tear for a building that was conceived and constructed during the reign of King George III. Maintenance is always necessary – and believe it or not, keepers like John Boath use to hang in a bosun’s chair to paint the outside of the building – but the shape of these lighthouses means they dissipate the force of the waves. The Bell is also built from a thousand tons of the strongest stone imaginable – granite – and has withstood the salt and the water and the wind for over 200 years. Tom is confident it will withstand another 200 and what’s more will still be used despite advances in technology that might seem to make a stone tower old fashioned.

“In the medium term, they are secure and we will absolutely need them,” he says. “And what they offer – what only a thousand tons of granite can offer is the certainty of a warning when you need it. Intangible methods of navigation, such as radio and so on, are useful and good but they are no fail safe by any means.”

There are no keepers in these lighthouses any more, of course – at least not ones that still live in the towers. There are retained keepers who usually have responsibility for several lighthouses and visit them a few times a year to maintain them (in the case of the Bell Rock, there is one annual trip by helicopter). As for the lights themselves, they are controlled by a small team at the headquarters of the Northern Lighthouse Board in Edinburgh.

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The Bell Rock was one of the last lights to be automated, in 1998, but the fact that the light is controlled via a little digital sensor has done nothing to diminish its power. You can feel it 11 miles away standing in the harbour at Arbroath but close-up it is even more impressive and daunting. In particular, there is something about it that can awaken the superstitious in you and there are stories of ghosts and eerie lights and ethereal music heard by the stonemasons. There is myth in the stones.

Standing in the boat as we circle the Bell, Tom Nancollas says there is also a positive power in the tons of granite. A rock lighthouse, he says, is a symbol of tolerance and altruism, of assistance made available to those in need regardless of their nationality. It is also a type of building that is not introspective, but outward-looking. It deserves to thrive, he says, and on the boat 11 miles out to sea we think of the special prayer Robert Stevenson commissioned during the building of the Bell Rock. He petitioned God to “prosper, we beseech thee, the work in which we are engaged. May it remain long after our eyes have ceased to behold it.”

Seashaken Houses by Tom Nancollas is published by Particular Books at £16.99


Between 1698 and 1904, 27 rock lighthouses were built to mark the most dangerous hazards to shipping in the seas around the British Isles and of these 20 survive today, and 18 of those still show their lights. First lit in 1811, the Bell Rock is the oldest working building to remain standing upon its reef. The other three are:


Built 12 miles off Tiree, Skerryvore has been called the most beautiful lighthouse in the world. Two hundred years ago, before it was built, the rocks wrecked many ships every year and there was money to be made from collecting the wreckage that regularly swept up on the beaches of Tiree. Work began in April 1841and was completed in July 1842. Some called it the noblest of all the lights. It was automated in 1994.

Dhu Artach

Sitting on the Torren reef 18 miles west of Colonsay, Dhu Artach lighthouse was designed by Thomas Stevenson, the father of Robert Louis Stevenson who later used the reef as the place where David Balfour and Alan Breck are shipwrecked in Kidnapped. Work began in April 1867 and it was lit in 1872


Designed by David and Thomas Stevenson to protect shipping on the Firth of Forth, Oxcars was originally lit by an oil burner and attended by keepers. It became the first of the Scottish lighthouses to be automated when it was converted to gas in 1894.