Rock of Ages: The Bell Rock standing tall after 200 years
• Bell Rock Lighthouse, which sits on a reef 12 miles of the coast at Arbroath, Angus, celebrates its 200th anniversary today. Picture Ian Rutherford
'THERE it is." I can't see a thing. I am staring at the horizon, partly for my first sighting of one of the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, and partly to ward off queasiness. I was not made for a life at sea.
The boat's deck-hand, who looks as steady as if we were still moored in the harbour, passes me a pair of binoculars and points over my left shoulder to where the Bell Rock Lighthouse has appeared, a fleck of white and black sandwiched between two expanses of blue.
The binoculars jump as the boat skips over the waves and the biting wind makes my eyes water, but I manage to catch a glimpse. At first, it just looks tiny, a vulnerable speck in the vast sea, but as we get closer – the crossing from Arbroath takes about 35 minutes – there's something else. Standing there, the waves slapping against the black, granite base, with no trace of the rock upon which it stands visible, the Bell Rock Lighthouse is defiant and proud. Rising from the sea as if by magic, it looks at once like an ancient stone stack, or something conjured by a surrealist imagination.
Built 11.2 miles (18km) off the Angus coast, Bell Rock Lighthouse is the oldest sea-washed lighthouse in the world. Known the world over and celebrated as a towering achievement of engineering and ambition, tomorrow will mark 200 years since the lighthouse began operating and the beginning of Arbroath's Year of the Light, a programme of events created by members of the local community which aims to celebrate not only the lighthouse but the town of Arbroath and the Angus region.
On the boat heading across the water, wrapped up against the wind in scarves and hats, a handful of the people involved in the Year of Light are on their way to see, some for the first time, the structure that they've been working for two years to celebrate.
The brainchild of the legendary Scottish engineer Robert Stevenson, who oversaw the construction from 1807-1811 under the auspices of chief engineer, John Rennie, the Bell Rock Lighthouse is a towering achievement, an almost incomprehensibly ambitious edifice. Sticking up from the sea, indefatigable, unflappable, the 35-metre tall (115ft) structure – 90 courses of granite and sandstone – is a staggering example of engineering but also of ambition. It may have come in at 50 per cent over its budget of 42,685 (some things apparently do not change), but in the past 200 years it has more than earned its keep.
The stones that stand in the choppy waters are the same ones that were laid just over 200 years ago.
There has been some modernisation and adaptation, mainly of the light itself and the living quarters, and a fresh lick of paint last year, but the masonry, overlapping stones held in place with wooden pegs, is original and untouched.
For Lord Southesk, patron of the Year of the Light, the structure shows the achievements of Stevenson but it symbolises more than that.
"What (the Stevensons] did, collectively and individually, was quite remarkable. It epitomises the best of Scotland. There they were performing these incredible feats of engineering and they did it largely out of a commitment to the public good. They were expressing to the world their confidence and abilities. It was that kind of mindset that set so many Scots on the road to becoming world figures and gave us such a great reputation abroad."
As the twin-engined boat powers across the waves it's hard to imagine just how treacherous this stretch of water is. But at the turn of the 18th century, the Inchcape Rock, a shelf that sits just 4m (14ft) beneath the surface at high tide, was responsible for wrecking up to six ships every winter. In one storm alone, 70 ships were lost, but it was the sinking of a military vessel, HMS York, and the loss of her entire crew of nearly 500 in 1804 that suddenly gave impetus to Stevenson's proposal to construct a lighthouse – a suggestion which had for several years been ignored as too costly and radical – on the rock.
As we draw near, the skipper cuts the engines to allow us to bob close by. After all the chat on the journey over, about the plans for the celebration and the hopes for what they might achieve, now everyone is quiet. We stare at the lighthouse, marvelling at the white sandstone that gleams in the winter sun. Cormorants perch on the windows, ignoring the gawping visitors. By North Sea standards, the swell isn't anything, but it's enough to make us lean against the rails and totter as the boat pitches from side to side.
When Stevenson first set sail from Arbroath in 1807 with the 60 local men hired for the project, they lived for months at a time on a ship moored a mile from the rock. Concerned about the impact of blasting the rock, the foundation was created by pickaxe (Stevenson had hired a blacksmith so the tools could be sharpened out at sea). The layers of interlocking stones that would make the outer walls were built on land and then brought by boat (sail and oar-assisted) to the site where they were laid.
It took Stevenson's team three and a half years, working during the two to three hours that the rock is exposed when the tide ebbs, to build the lighthouse. In all weather conditions, often working waist-deep in sea water, they toiled. Looking around the boat as we bob around the structure, it's clear that everyone is moved by what they see. Frankly, it's impossible not to be awe-struck by the sheer audacity of it.
"To build that out in these hostile waters, 200 years ago, is phenomenal," says Harry Simpson, chairman of the steering group that's created the Year of the Light programme. "To even try and do that in this day and age, I couldn't see it being done, not like they did it. The unbelievable strength of it." He shakes his head, lost for words.
Angus Community Planning Officer, Janet Russell, feels the same way. "I'm just in awe of it," she says. "How did this happen? You can't really put it into words. You try to figure out how they did it and you can't help but wonder if we could do it now? It's really wonderful."
As the sun turns orange and pink daubs smear the sky, the lighthouse glows yolky-yellow in the fading light. Behind the structure the moon appears, and what was already picture-perfect becomes breathtakingly beautiful. Perhaps the real magic of Bell Rock is that it brilliantly combines brawn and beauty, the hard-headed rigour of engineering encompassed in an almost impossibly elegant form.
"I'd like people in Arbroath and further abroad to recognise what an achievement it is," says Lord Southesk. "I'd also like to think that it might help people to think in the same sort of terms that they thought then when they were determined to advance themselves and their country, advance humankind and knowledge. The lighthouse is an example of people doing that and perhaps we as a people can do that again."
As the light fades it's time to head for shore. The engines fire up and we lurch towards the harbour. As the lighthouse becomes smaller, it's impossible not to think of the men who, until the light was automated in 1988, were stationed on the Rock; the lighthousekeepers who tended the light and weathered the storms and squalls rolling in off the North Sea. I suspect none of us would want to be left out there in the inky blackness.
Half an hour later and we've reached the harbour wall. The full moon is high and the air is icy cold. Above us as we moor is Harry Simpson's boatyard, where he's worked for 43 years, looking at the lighthouse from his office window and then after work, from his window at home high up on the hill above the town. During our journey, the lighthouse has flashed every five seconds, as regular as a heartbeat.
Back on dry land the eeriness of the boat as darkness fell has been replaced by something entirely different, a feeling of security. The knowledge that out there, in the ever-shifting sea, stands a lighthouse that for two centuries has kept boats safe from the rocks, and cast its bright eye on the ancient town of Arbroath.
• The Bicentenary celebration of Bell Rock Lighthouse begins tomorrow, 1 February, with a firework display at Inchcape Park adjacent the Signal Tower Museum in Arbroath, starting at 7:30pm. Full details of the events planned for year can be found at www.angusahead.com/bellrocklighthouse. For more information about the lighthouse compiled by David Taylor, great-great-great-grandson of Captain David Taylor, who commanded the ship where the builders stayed while constructing the Bell Rock, log on to www.bellrock.org.uk .