My fascination with the story of the Bell Rock and its lighthouse began in my teens when the Royal Tay Yacht Club had a race to the rock and back.
The rock which lies abut 11Nm off the East Coast of Scotland was so called because in the 14th Century the then Abbot of Arbroath had had a bell placed on the rock to warn seafarers of its presence – it lasted but one wnter.
Even though ‘The Bell’ had over the years claimed dozens of ships over the years and perhaps thousands of lives it took approaching 500 years when, in 1804, at the start of the 19th century a Royal Navy ship, HMS York, foundered on the rock with a loss of all 500 of her crew.
This brought such an outcry in the British Parliament that finally the Northern Lighthouse board commissioned the building of a lighthouse on the rock. The size of this challenge cannot be underestimated as, not only did the reef lie 11 miles off, it also, apart for a few hours each tide (about 2 hours), lay below the waves.
Critical to the success of the lighthouse was its curved base which, instead of resisting the force of winter gales, diverted the power of the waves upwards in what is now almost standard lighthouse design. How well did it work? Well the lighthouse was completed in 1810 and it still stands proud today, 210 years later and shows no sign of reaching the end of its life.
About 30 years ago a couple of friends and I sailed from The Forth to The Tay and as we approached the rock I was cast adrift in the inflatable to get pictures of the light with the boat included. The North Sea provided benign enough weather for the exercise but it was an eery place with the reef having no seeming connection to the land and we were well aware the human cost this lump of rock had wrought over the years.
A BBC documentary screened many years ago and is a well dramatized account of the building and is now available on Youtube.
I was reminded of this story thinking about the time the world is going through right now and It gives an idea of the seemingly unsurmountable challenges man can overcome, and not just the brighter brains either as although conceived by brilliant engineers, the task was completed by ordinary artisans. All played their part.
As testament to the building, since the light was lit only two ships have stuck the rock. One in wartime blackout and a second in fog. How many lives has this wonder of man’s ingenuity saved over the two centuries is almost incalculable.
With modern aids like RADAR and GPS this magnificent structure is perhaps now a bit more of a tourist attraction than a navigational aid but having also sailed past her at night the white light flashing every 5 seconds and which can be seen for 18 miles and reminding sailors of the reef it stands on is strangely reassuring. A little like the mask we should all still be wearing perhaps, even with the vaccination programme well under way. – SS.
Title inspiration thanks to LL Cool J.