Read CHAPTER TWO of Personal Reminiscences in Book Making and Some Short Stories , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on


One of my most interesting experiences in hunting up materials for books was at the Bell Rock Lighthouse; interesting because of the novelty of the situation, the pleasant intercourse with the keepers, and the grandeur of the subjects brought under my observation.

The lighthouses of this kingdom present, in their construction, a remarkable evidence of the capacity of man to overcome almost insurmountable difficulties, and his marvellous power of adapting means to ends.  They also stand forth as a grand army of sentinels, who, with unobtrusive regularity, open their brilliant eyes on the great deep, night after night ­from year to year ­from age to age, and gaze ­ Argus-like ­all around our shores, to guard our shipping from the dangers of the sea, perhaps I should rather say from the dangers of the coast, for it must be well-known to most people that the sailor regards “blue water” as his safe and native home, and that it is only when he enters the green and shallow waters of the coast that a measure of anxiety overclouds his free-and-easy spirit.

It is when he draws near to port that the chief dangers of his career surround him, and it is then that the lighthouse is watched for anxiously, and hailed with satisfaction.

These observations scarce need confirmatory proof.  Of all the vessels, great and small, that annually seek and leave our ports, a large proportion meet their doom, and, despite all our lighthouses, beacons, and buoys, lay their timbers and cargoes in fragments, on our shores.  This is a significant fact, for if those lost ships be ­as they are ­a mere fraction of our commerce, how great must be the fleet, how vast the wealth, that our lighthouses guide safely into port every year?  If all our coast-lights were to be extinguished for only a single night, the loss of property and life would be terrible beyond conception.  But such an event can never happen, for our coast-lights arise each evening at sunset with the regularity of the sun himself.  Like the stars, they burst out when darkness begins to brood upon land and sea like them, too, their action and aspect are varied.  Some, at great heights, in exposed places, blaze bright and steady like stars of the first magnitude.  Others, in the form of revolving lights, twinkle like the lesser stars ­now veiling, now flashing forth their beams.

One set of lights shine ruby-red like Mars; another set are white, like Venus; while those on our pier-heads and at our harbour mouths are green; and, in one or two instances, if not more, they shine, (by means of reflecting prisms), with borrowed light like the moon; but all ­ whether revolving or fixed, large or small, red or white or green ­beam forth, like good angels, offering welcome and guidance to the mariner approaching from beyond seas; with God-like impartiality shedding their radiance on friend and foe, and encircling ­as with a chaplet of living diamonds, rubies, and emeralds ­our highly favoured little islands of the sea.

Lighthouses may be divided into two classes, namely, those which stand on cliffs, and elsewhere, somewhat above the influence of the waves, and those built on outlying rocks which are barely visible at high tide, or invisible altogether except at low-water.  The North and South Foreland lights in Kent, the Girdleness in Aberdeenshire, and Inchkeith in the Forth, are examples of the former.  The Eddystone, Bell Rock, and Skerryvore, are well-known examples of the latter, also the Wolf Rock off the Land’s End.

In one of the latter ­namely the Bell Rock ­I obtained permission, a good many years ago, from the Commissioners of Northern Lights, to spend a fortnight for literary purposes ­to be imprisoned, in fact, for that period.

This lighthouse combines within itself more or less of the elements of all lighthouses.  The principles on which it was built are much the same with those of Skerryvore.  It is founded on a tidal rock, is exposed to the full “fetch” and fury of an open sea, and it has stood for the greater part of a century exposed to inconceivable and constantly recurring violence of wind and wave ­not, indeed, unshaken, but altogether undamaged.

The Bell Rock lies on the east of Scotland, off the mouths of the Forth and Tay, 12 miles from the Forfarshire coast, which is the nearest land.  Its foundation is always under water except for an hour or two at low-tide.  At high tides there are about 12 or 16 feet of water above the highest ledge of the Bell Rock, which consists of a series of sandstone ridges.  These, at ordinary low-tides, are uncovered to the extent of between 100 and 200 yards.  At neap tides the rock shows only a few black teeth with sea-weed gums above the surface.

There is a boat which attends upon this lighthouse.  On the occasion of my visit I left Arbroath in it one morning before daybreak and reached the Rock about dawn.  We cast anchor on arriving ­not being able to land, for as yet there was no land!  The lighthouse rose out of the sea like a bulrush out of a pond!  No foundation rock was visible, and the water played about the tower in a fashion that would have knocked our boat to pieces had we ventured to approach the entrance-door.

In a short time the crest of the rock began to show above the foam.  There was little or no wind, but the ordinary swell of the calm ocean rolled in upon these rocks, and burst upon them in such a way that the tower seemed to rise out of a caldron of boiling milk.  At last we saw the three keepers moving amid the surges.  They walked on an iron platform, which, being light and open, and only a few feet above the waves, was nearly invisible.

When the tide was near its lowest ebb, so that there was a piece of smooth water under the lee of the rock, we hoisted out our little “twin” boat.  This was a curious contrivance, being simply a small boat cut across amidships, so as to form two parts which fitted into each other like saucers, and were thus rendered small enough to be easily carried in the larger boat.  When about to be used, the twins are put into the water and their sterns brought together and screwed tight.  Thus one little boat, sharp at each end, is formed.

Embarking in this we rowed between tangle-covered ridges up to the wrought-iron landing-place.  The keepers looked surprised as we drew near.  It was evident that visitors were not “common objects of the shore” out there!

There were three keepers.  One, the chief, was very tall, dark, and thin; of grave temperament and sedate mien.  Another was a florid, hearty young fellow, full of fire and energy.  The third was a stout, short, thick-set man, with placidity and good-humour enthroned on his fat countenance.  He was a first-rate man.  I shall call him Stout; his comrade, Young.  The chief may appropriately be named Long.

There was no time for more than a hurried introduction at first, for the fresh water-casks and fortnightly allowance of fresh provisions had to be hoisted into the tower, the empty casks got out, and the boat reloaded and despatched, before the tide ­already rising ­should transform the little harbour into a wild whirlpool.  In little more than an hour the boat was gone, and I proceeded to make myself at home with my new friends.

Probably every one knows that the Bell Rock is the Inch Cape Rock, immortalised by Southey in his poem of “Sir Ralph the Rover,” in which he tells how that, in the olden time ­

  “The Abbot of Aberbrothock
  Had placed a bell on the Inch Cape Rock. 
  On a buoy in the storm it floated and swung
  And over the waves its warning rung.”

A pirate named “Sir Ralph the Rover” came there one day and cut away the bell in a wicked frolic.  Long years after, returning with a rich cargo of ill-gotten wealth, retributive justice overtook Sir Ralph, caused his vessel to strike on the Inch Cape Rock ­for want of the warning bell which he had cut away ­and sent him and his belongings to the bottom.

Whether this legend be true or not, there is no doubt that the Rock had been so dangerous to shipping, that seamen often avoided the firths of Forth and Tay in bad weather for fear of it, and many captains, in their anxiety to keep clear of it, ran their vessels in the neighbouring coasts and perished.

Another proof that numerous wrecks took place there lay in the fact that the fishermen were wont to visit the rock after every gale, for the purpose of gathering wreckage.  It was resolved, therefore, about the beginning of this century, to erect a lighthouse on the Inchcape Rock, and to Mr Robert Stevenson, Engineer at that time to the Board of Northern Lights, was assigned the task of building it.  He began the work in August 1807, and finished it in February 1811.

I began my sojourn in the Bell Rock Lighthouse with breakfast.  On ascending to the kitchen I found Stout preparing it.  Mr Long, the chief, offered, with delicate hospitality, to carry my meals up to the library, so that I might feast in dignified solitude, but I declined the honour, preferring to fraternise with the men in the kitchen.  Breakfast over, they showed me through the tower ­pointed out and explained everything ­especially the lantern and the library ­in which last I afterwards read Mr Stevenson’s interesting volume on the building of the Bell Rock; a book which has been most appropriately styled the Robinson Crusoe of Engineering literature.

On returning to the entrance-door, I found that there was now no land!  The tide had risen.  The lighthouse was a mere pillar in the sea.  “Water, water everywhere” ­nothing else visible save the distant coast of Forfarshire like a faint blue line on the horizon.  But in the evening the tide again fell, and, the moment the rock was uncovered, we descended.  Then Mr Long showed me the various points of interest about the rock, and Stout volunteered anecdotes connected with these, and Young corroborated and expounded everything with intense enthusiasm.  Evidently Young rejoiced in the rare opportunity my visit afforded him of breaking the monotony of life on the Bell Rock.  He was like a caged bird, and on one occasion expressed his sentiments very forcibly by saying to me, “Oh, sir, I sometimes wish I could jump up and never come doon!” As for Long and Stout, they had got used to lighthouses and monotony.  The placid countenance of each was a sure index of the profound tranquillity within!

Small though it was, the rock was a very world in itself to the residents ­crowded with “ports,” and “wharves” and “ledges,” which had reference to the building-time.  There were “Sir Ralph the Rover’s ledge,” and “the Abbot’s ledge,” and “the Engineer’s ledge,” and “Cunningham’s ledge,” and “the Smith’s ledge,” etcetera.  Then there were “Port Stevenson,” and “Port Boyle,” and “Port Hamilton,” and many others ­each port being a mere hole capable of holding a boat or two.  Besides which there were “tracks,” leading to these ports ­such as “Wilson’s track,” and “Macurich’s track,” and “Gloag’s track.”  And then there were “Hope’s Wharf,” and “Rae’s Wharf,” and “Watt’s Reach,” and “Scoresby Point,” while, among numerous outlying groups of rocklets, there were the “Royal Burghs,” the “Crown Lawyers,” and the “Maritime Sheriffs” ­each and all teeming with interesting associations to those who know the Story of the Rock, ­all comprehended within an area of a few hundred yards ­the whole affair being wiped entirely and regularly off the face of nature by every rising tide.

Close beside Rae’s Wharf, on which we stood, Mr Long showed me the holes in which had been fixed the ends of the great beams of the beacon.  The beacon was a point of considerable interest to me.  If you had seen the rock as I saw it, reader, in a storm, with the water boiling all over and round it for more than a mile, like seething milk ­and if you had reflected that the first beacon built there was carried away in a gale, you would have entertained very exalted ideas of the courage of the men who built the Bell Rock lighthouse.

While the tower was building, Mr Stevenson and his men were exposed for many days and nights in this beacon ­this erection of timber-beams, with a mere pigeon-house on the top of it for a dwelling.  Before the beacon was built, the men lived in the Pharos floating light; a vessel which was moored not far from the Rock.  Every day ­weather permitting ­they rowed to the rock, landed, and worked for one, two, or three hours, when they were drowned out, so to speak, and obliged to return to their floating home.  Sometimes the landing was easy.  More frequently it was difficult.  Occasionally it was impossible.  When a landing was accomplished, they used to set to work without delay.  There was no time to lose.  Some bored holes in the rock for hold-fasts; others, with pick and chisel, cut out the foundation-pit.  Then the courses began to be laid.  On each occasion of landing the smith had to set up his bellows, light his fire, and work in hot haste; because his whole shop, except the anvil, had to be taken down, and carried away every tide!  Frequently, in fine weather, this enterprising son of Vulcan might have been seen toiling with his head enveloped in volumes of smoke and sparks, and his feet in the water, which gradually rose to his ankles and knees until, with a sudden “hiss,” it extinguished his fire and ended his labours for the day.  Then he was forced to pack up his bellows and tools, and decamp with the rest of the men.

Sometimes they wrought in calm, sometimes in storm; always, more or less, in water.  Three hours was considered a fair day’s work.  When they had the good fortune to work “double tides” in a day, they made five, or five-and-a-half, hours; but this was of rare occurrence.

“You see that mark there, sir, on Smith’s Ledge?” said Mr Long to me one day, “that was the place where the forge stood; and the ledge beyond, with the old bit of iron on it, is the `_Last Hope_,’ where Mr Stevenson and his men were so nearly lost.”  Then he went on to tell me the following incident, as illustrating one of the many narrow escapes made by the builders.

One day, soon after the men had commenced work, it began to blow hard, and the crew of the boat belonging to the attending vessel, named the “Smeaton,” fearing that her moorings might be insufficient, went off to examine them.  This was wrong.  The workmen on the rock were sufficiently numerous to completely fill three boats.  For one of these to leave the rock was to run a great risk, as the event proved.  Almost as soon as they reached the “Smeaton,” her cables parted and she went adrift, carrying the boat with her away to leeward, and although sail was instantly made, they found it impossible to regain the rock against wind and tide.  Mr Stevenson observed this with the deepest anxiety, but the men, (busy as bees about the rock), were not aware of it at first.

The situation was terrible.  There were thirty-two men left on a rock which would in a short time be overflowed to a depth of twelve or fifteen feet by a stormy sea, and only two boats in which to remove them.  These two boats, if loaded to the gunwales, could have held only a few more than the half of them.

While the sound of the numerous hammers and the ring of the anvil were heard, the situation did not appear so hopeless; but soon the men at the lowest part of the foundation were driven from work by the rising tide; then the forge-fire was extinguished, and the men generally began to make towards their respective boats for their jackets and dry socks.  When it was discovered that one of the three boats was gone not a word was uttered, but the men looked at each other in evident perplexity.  They seemed to realise their position at once.

In a few minutes some of that band must inevitably be left to perish, for the absent boat and vessel were seen drifting farther and farther away to leeward.  Mr Stevenson knew that in such a case, where life and death were in the balance, a desperate struggle among the men for precedence would be certain.  Indeed he afterwards learned that the pickmen had resolved to stick by their boat against all hazards.  While they were thus gazing in silence at each other and at the distant vessel, their enterprising leader had been casting about in his mind as to the best method of at least attempting the deliverance of his men, and he finally turned round to propose, as a forlorn hope, that all hands should strip off their upper clothing, that every unnecessary article should be removed from the boats, that a specified number should get into each, and that the remainder should hang on by the gunwales, and thus be dragged through the water while they were rowed cautiously towards the “Smeaton”!  But when he tried to speak his mouth was so parched that his tongue refused utterance! and then he discovered, (as he says himself), “that saliva is as necessary to speech as the tongue itself!” Turning to a pool, he moistened his lips with sea-water, and found immediate relief.  He was again about to speak when some one shouted “a boat! a boat!” and, sure enough, a large boat was seen through the haze making towards the rock.  This timely visitor was James Spink, the Bell Rock pilot, who had come off express from Arbroath with letters.  His visit was altogether an unusual one, and his truly providential appearance unquestionably prevented loss of life on that critical occasion.  This is one specimen ­selected from innumerable instances of danger and risk ­which may give one some idea of what is encountered by those who build such lighthouses as the Bell Rock.

Our rambles on the rock were necessarily of short duration.  We used to stand in the doorway watching the retreating waves, and, the moment the rails were uncovered, we hurried down the ladder ­all of us bent on getting as much exercise as possible on land!  We marched in single file, up and down the narrow rails, until the rock was uncovered ­then we rambled over the slippery ledges.

Sometimes we had one hour ­sometimes two, or even three hours, according to the state of the tides.  Then the returning waves drove us gradually from the rocks to the rails, from the rails to the ladder ­and so back into the lighthouse.

Among other things that impressed me deeply was the grandeur of the waves at the Bell Rock.

One enjoys an opportunity there of studying the form and colour of ocean billows which cannot be obtained on any ordinary shore, because, the water being deep alongside the Rock, these waves come up to it in all their unbroken magnificence.  I tried to paint them, but found it difficult, owing to the fact that, like refractory children, they would not stand still to be painted!  It was not only in stormy weather that these waves arose.  I have seen them during a dead calm, when the sea was like undulating glass.  No doubt the cause of them was a gale in some distant part of the sea ­inducing a heavy ground-swell; but, be the cause what it might, these majestic rollers often came in without a breath of air to help them, and with the sun glittering on their light-green crystal sides.  Their advance seemed slow and solemn amid the deep silence, which made them all the more impressive.  The rise of each wave was so gradual that you could not tell where it began in the distant sea.  As it drew near, it took definite form and swelled upwards, and at last came on like a wall of glass ­probably ten or twelve feet high ­so high, at all events, that I felt as if looking up at it from my position on the low rock.  When close at hand its green edge lipped over and became fringed with white ­then it bent forward with a profound obeisance to the Bell Rock and broke the silence with a grand reverberating roar, as it fell in a ruin of foam and rushed up to my very feet!

When those waves began to paint the canvas with their own spray and change the oil into a water-colour, I was constrained to retire to the lighthouse, where Mr Long, (a deeply interested student), watched me as I continued my studies from the doorway.

Mr Long had an inquiring mind and closely observed all that went on around him.  Among other things, he introduced me to a friend of his, a species of fish which he called a “Paddle.”

Stout called it a sucker, in virtue of an arrangement on its breast whereby it could fasten itself to a rock and hold on.  This fish dwelt in Port Hamilton, near Sir Ralph the Rover’s ledge, and could be visited at low-tide.  He happened to be engaged at that time in watching his wife’s spawn, and could not be induced to let go his hold of the rock on any account!  Mr Long pulled at him pretty forcibly once or twice, but with no effect, and the fish did not seem in the least alarmed!  While Mr Paddle did duty in the nursery, Mrs Paddle roamed the sea at large.  Apparently women’s rights have made some progress in that quarter!  It was supposed by Stout that she took the night-watches.  Mr Young inclined to the opinion that she attended to the commissariat ­was out marketing in fact, and brought food to her husband.  All that I can say on the matter is, that I visited the family frequently, and always saw the father “on duty,” but only once found Mrs Paddle at home!  The tameness of this kind of fish is very remarkable.  One day I saw a large one in a pool which actually allowed me to put my hand under him and lift him gently out!  Suddenly it occurred to me that I might paint him!  The palette chanced to be at hand, so I began at once.  In about two minutes the paddle gave a flop of discomfort as he lay on the rock; I therefore put him into a small pool for a minute or so to let him, breathe, then took him out and had a second sitting, after which he had another rest and a little refreshment in the pool.  Thus in about ten minutes, I had his portrait, and put him back into his native element.

I am inclined to think that this is the only fish in the sea that has had his portrait taken and returned to tell the tale to his admiring, perhaps unbelieving, friends!

Of course one of the most interesting points in the lighthouse was the lantern.  I frequently sat in it at night with the man on duty, who expounded the lighting apparatus to me, or “spun yarns.”

The fifth day of my sojourn on the Bell Rock was marked by an event of great interest, ­the arrival of a fishing-boat with letters and newspapers.  I had begun by that time to feel some degree of longing to hear something about the outer world, though I had not felt lonely by any means ­my companions were too pleasant to admit of that.  Our little world contained a large amount of talent!  Mr Long had a magnificent bass voice and made good use of it.  Then, Young played the violin, (not so badly), and sang tenor ­not quite so well; besides which he played the accordion.  His instrument, however, was not perfect.  One of the bass notes would not sound, and one of the treble notes could not by any means be silenced!  Between the two, some damage was done to the harmony; but we were not particular.  As to Stout ­he could neither sing nor play, but he was a splendid listener! and the sight of his good-humoured face, smiling through clouds of tobacco smoke as he sat by the kitchen fire, was of itself sufficient to encourage us.

But Stout could do more than listen and admire.  He was cook to the establishment during my visit.  The men took this duty by turns ­each for a fortnight ­and Stout excelled the others.  It was he who knew how to extract sweet music from the tea-kettle and the frying-pan!  But Stout’s forte was buttered toast!  He was quite an adept at the formation of this luxury.  If I remember rightly, it was an entire loaf that Stout cut up and toasted each morning for breakfast.  He knew nothing of delicate treatment.  Every slice was an inch thick at the least!  It was quite a study to see him go to work.  He never sawed with the knife.  Having a powerful hand and arm, one sweep of the blade sufficed for one slice, and he cut up the whole loaf before beginning to toast.  Then, he always had the fire well prepared.  You never saw alternate stripes of black and white on Stout’s toast; and he laid on the butter as he might have laid tar on the side of a ship, thick and heavy.  He never scraped it off one part to put it on another ­and he never picked the lumps out of the holes.  Truly, Stout was quite a genius in this matter.

The fisherman who brought off our letters could not have landed if the weather had not been fine.  Poor fellow! after I left, he lost his boat in consequence of being on too familiar terms with the Bell Rock.  He was in the habit of fishing near the rock, and occasionally ran in at low-water to smoke a pipe with the keepers.  One morning he stayed too long.  The large green billows which had been falling with solemn boom on the outlying rocks began to lip over into the pool where his boat lay ­Port Stevenson.  Embarking in haste with his comrade he pushed off.  Just then there came a tremendous wave, the crest of which toppled over Smith’s Ledge, fell into the boat, and sank it like a stone.  The men were saved by the keepers, but their boat was totally destroyed.  They never saw a fragment of it again.  What a commentary this was on the innumerable wrecks that have taken place on the Inch Cape Rock in days gone by!

Sometimes, on a dark stormy night, I used to try to realise something of this.  Turning my back on the lighthouse I tried to forget it, and imagine what must have been the feelings of those who had actually stood there and been driven inch by inch to the higher ledges, with the certain knowledge that their doom was fixed, and without the comfort and assurance that, behind them, stood a strong tower of refuge from the storm!

I was fortunate, during my stay, in having experience of every variety of weather ­from a dead calm to a regular gale.  It was towards the end of my visit that the gale came on, and it lasted two days.  No language can convey an adequate idea of the sublimity of the scene and the sense of power in the seething waves that waged furious war over the Rock during the height of that gale.  The spray rose above the kitchen windows, (70 feet on the tower), in such solid masses as to darken the room in passing, and twice during the storm we were struck by waves with such force as to shake the tower to its foundation.

This storm delayed the “Relief boat” a day.  Next day, however, it succeeded in getting alongside ­and at length, after a most agreeable and interesting sojourn of two weeks, I parted from the hospitable keepers with sincere regret and bade adieu to a lighthouse which is not only a monument of engineering skill, but a source of safety to the shipping, and of confidence to the mariners frequenting these waters.

In former days men shunned the dreaded neighbourhood of the Inch Cape Rock with anxious care.  Now, they look out for that: ­

  “Ruddy gem of changeful light
  Bound on the dusky brow of night, ­”

And make for it with perfect safety.  In time past human lives, and noble ships, and costly merchandise were lost on the Bell Rock every year.  Now, disaster to shipping there is not even dreamed of; and one of the most notable proofs of the value of the lighthouse, (and, indirectly, of all other lighthouses), lies in the fact, that not a single wreck has occurred on the Bell Rock since that auspicious evening in 1811 when the sturdy pillar opened its eyes for the first time, and threw its bright beams far and wide over the North Sea.