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Stevenson Family of Engineers

The Building of the Bell Rock

The following is taken from chapter 3 of Records of a Family of Engineers by Robert Louis Stevenson:

Off the mouths of the Tay and the Forth, thirteen miles from Fifeness, eleven from Arbroath, and fourteen from the Red Head of Angus, lies the Inchcape or Bell Rock.  It extends to a length of about fourteen hundred feet, but the part of it discovered at low water to not more than four hundred and twenty-seven.  At a little more than half-flood in fine weather the seamless ocean joins over the reef, and at high-water springs it is buried sixteen feet.  As the tide goes down, the higher reaches of the rock are seen to be clothed by Conferva rupestris as by a sward of grass; upon the more exposed edges, where the currents are most swift and the breach of the sea heaviest, Baderlock or Henware flourishes; and the great Tangle grows at the depth of several fathoms with luxuriance.  Before man arrived, and introduced into the silence of the sea the smoke and clangour of a blacksmith’s shop, it was a favourite resting-place of seals.  The crab and lobster haunt in the crevices; and limpets, mussels, and the white buckie abound.

According to a tradition, a bell had been once hung upon this rock by an abbot of Arbroath, {1} ‘and being taken down by a sea-pirate, a year thereafter he perished upon the same rock, with ship and goods, in the righteous judgment of God.’  From the days of the abbot and the sea-pirate no man had set foot upon the Inchcape, save fishers from the neighbouring coast, or perhaps - for a moment, before the surges swallowed them - the unfortunate victims of shipwreck.  The fishers approached the rock with an extreme timidity; but their harvest appears to have been great, and the adventure no more perilous than lucrative.  In 1800, on the occasion of my grandfather’s first landing, and during the two or three hours which the ebb-tide and the smooth water allowed them to pass upon its shelves, his crew collected upwards of two hundredweight of old metal: pieces of a kedge anchor and a cabin stove, crowbars, a hinge and lock of a door, a ship’s marking-iron, a piece of a ship’s caboose, a soldier’s bayonet, a cannon ball, several pieces of money, a shoe-buckle, and the like.  Such were the spoils of the Bell Rock.

From 1794 onward, the mind of my grandfather had been exercised with the idea of a light upon this formidable danger.  To build a tower on a sea rock, eleven miles from shore, and barely uncovered at low water of neaps, appeared a fascinating enterprise.  It was something yet unattempted, unessayed; and even now, after it has been lighted for more than eighty years, it is still an exploit that has never been repeated. {2}  My grandfather was, besides, but a young man, of an experience comparatively restricted, and a reputation confined to Scotland; and when he prepared his first models, and exhibited them in Merchants’ Hall, he can hardly be acquitted of audacity.  John Clerk of Eldin stood his friend from the beginning, kept the key of the model room, to which he carried ‘eminent strangers,’ and found words of counsel and encouragement beyond price.  ‘Mr. Clerk had been personally known to Smeaton, and used occasionally to speak of him to me,’ says my grandfather; and again: ‘I felt regret that I had not the opportunity of a greater range of practice to fit me for such an undertaking; but I was fortified by an expression of my friend Mr. Clerk in one of our conversations. “This work,” said he, “is unique, and can be little forwarded by experience of ordinary masonic operations.  In this case Smeaton’s ‘Narrative’ must be the text-book, and energy and perseverance the pratique.”’

A Bill for the work was introduced into Parliament and lost in the Lords in 1802-3.  John Rennie was afterwards, at my grandfather’s suggestion, called in council, with the style of chief engineer.  The precise meaning attached to these words by any of the parties appears irrecoverable.  Chief engineer should have full authority, full responsibility, and a proper share of the emoluments; and there were none of these for Rennie.  I find in an appendix a paper which resumes the controversy on this subject; and it will be enough to say here that Rennie did not design the Bell Rock, that he did not execute it, and that he was not paid for it. {3}  From so much of the correspondence as has come down to me, the acquaintance of this man, eleven years his senior, and already famous, appears to have been both useful and agreeable to Robert Stevenson.  It is amusing to find my grandfather seeking high and low for a brace of pistols which his colleague had lost by the way between Aberdeen and Edinburgh; and writing to Messrs. Dollond, ‘I have not thought it necessary to trouble Mr. Rennie with this order, but I beg you will see to get two minutes of him as he passes your door’ - a proposal calculated rather from the latitude of Edinburgh than from London, even in 1807.  It is pretty, too, to observe with what affectionate regard Smeaton was held in mind by his immediate successors.  ‘Poor old fellow,’ writes Rennie to Stevenson, ‘I hope he will now and then take a peep at us, and inspire you with fortitude and courage to brave all difficulties and dangers to accomplish a work which will, if successful, immortalise you in the annals of fame.’  The style might be bettered, but the sentiment is charming.

Smeaton was, indeed, the patron saint of the Bell Rock.  Undeterred by the sinister fate of Winstanley, he had tackled and solved the problem of the Eddystone; but his solution had not been in all respects perfect.  It remained for my grand-father to outdo him in daring, by applying to a tidal rock those principles which had been already justified by the success of the Eddystone, and to perfect the model by more than one exemplary departure.  Smeaton had adopted in his floors the principle of the arch; each therefore exercised an outward thrust upon the walls, which must be met and combated by embedded chains.  My grandfather’s flooring-stones, on the other hand, were flat, made part of the outer wall, and were keyed and dovetailed into a central stone, so as to bind the work together and be positive elements of strength.  In 1703 Winstanley still thought it possible to erect his strange pagoda, with its open gallery, its florid scrolls and candlesticks: like a rich man’s folly for an ornamental water in a park.  Smeaton followed; then Stevenson in his turn corrected such flaws as were left in Smeaton’s design; and with his improvements, it is not too much to say the model was made perfect.  Smeaton and Stevenson had between them evolved and finished the sea-tower.  No subsequent builder has departed in anything essential from the principles of their design.  It remains, and it seems to us as though it must remain for ever, an ideal attained.  Every stone in the building, it may interest the reader to know, my grandfather had himself cut out in the model; and the manner in which the courses were fitted, joggled, trenailed, wedged, and the bond broken, is intricate as a puzzle and beautiful by ingenuity.

In 1806 a second Bill passed both Houses, and the preliminary works were at once begun.  The same year the Navy had taken a great harvest of prizes in the North Sea, one of which, a Prussian fishing dogger, flat-bottomed and rounded at the stem and stern, was purchased to be a floating lightship, and re-named the Pharos.  By July 1807 she was overhauled, rigged for her new purpose, and turned into the lee of the Isle of May.  ‘It was proposed that the whole party should meet in her and pass the night; but she rolled from side to side in so extraordinary a manner, that even the most seahardy fled.  It was humorously observed of this vessel that she was in danger of making a round turn and appearing with her keel uppermost; and that she would even turn a half-penny if laid upon deck.’  By two o’clock on the morning of the 15th July this purgatorial vessel was moored by the Bell Rock.

A sloop of forty tons had been in the meantime built at Leith, and named the Smeaton; by the 7th of August my grandfather set sail in her -

‘carrying with him Mr. Peter Logan, foreman builder, and five artificers selected from their having been somewhat accustomed to the sea, the writer being aware of the distressing trial which the floating light would necessarily inflict upon landsmen from her rolling motion.  Here he remained till the 10th, and, as the weather was favourable, a landing was effected daily, when the workmen were employed in cutting the large seaweed from the sites of the lighthouse and beacon, which were respectively traced with pickaxes upon the rock.  In the meantime the crew of the Smeaton was employed in laying down the several sets of moorings within about half a mile of the rock for the convenience of vessels.  The artificers, having, fortunately, experienced moderate weather, returned to the workyard of Arbroath with a good report of their treatment afloat; when their comrades ashore began to feel some anxiety to see a place of which they had heard so much, and to change the constant operations with the iron and mallet in the process of hewing for an occasional tide’s work on the rock, which they figured to themselves as a state of comparative ease and comfort.’

I am now for many pages to let my grandfather speak for himself, and tell in his own words the story of his capital achievement.  The tall quarto of 533 pages from which the following narrative has been dug out is practically unknown to the general reader, yet good judges have perceived its merit, and it has been named (with flattering wit) ‘The Romance of Stone and Lime’ and ‘The Robinson Crusoe of Civil Engineering.’  The tower was but four years in the building; it took Robert Stevenson, in the midst of his many avocations, no less than fourteen to prepare the Account.  The title-page is a solid piece of literature of upwards of a hundred words; the table of contents runs to thirteen pages; and the dedication (to that revered monarch, George IV) must have cost him no little study and correspondence.  Walter Scott was called in council, and offered one miscorrection which still blots the page.  In spite of all this pondering and filing, there remain pages not easy to construe, and inconsistencies not easy to explain away.  I have sought to make these disappear, and to lighten a little the baggage with which my grandfather marches; here and there I have rejointed and rearranged a sentence, always with his own words, and all with a reverent and faithful hand; and I offer here to the reader the true Monument of Robert Stevenson with a little of the moss removed from the inscription, and the Portrait of the artist with some superfluous canvas cut away.

Chapter III, Part I - Operations of 1807

{1}  This is, of course, the tradition commemorated by Southey in his ballad of ‘The Inchcape Bell.’  Whether true or not, it points to the fact that from the infancy of Scottish navigation, the seafaring mind had been fully alive to the perils of this reef.  Repeated attempts had been made to mark the place with beacons, but all efforts were unavailing (one such beacon having been carried away within eight days of its erection) until Robert Stevenson conceived and carried out the idea of the stone tower.  But the number of vessels actually lost upon the reef was as nothing to those that were cast away in fruitless efforts to avoid it.  Placed right in the fairway of two navigations, and one of these the entrance to the only harbour of refuge between the Downs and the Moray Firth, it breathed abroad along the whole coast an atmosphere of terror and perplexity; and no ship sailed that part of the North Sea at night, but what the ears of those on board would be strained to catch the roaring of the seas on the Bell Rock.

{2}  The particular event which concentrated Mr. Stevenson’s attention on the problem of the Bell Rock was the memorable gale of December 1799, when, among many other vessels, H.M.S. York, a seventy-four-gun ship, went down with all hands on board.  Shortly after this disaster Mr. Stevenson made a careful survey, and prepared his models for a stone tower, the idea of which was at first received with pretty general scepticism, Smeaton’s Eddystone tower could not be cited as affording a parallel, for there the rock is not submerged even at high-water, while the problem of the Bell Rock was to build a tower of masonry on a sunken reef far distant from land, covered at every tide to a depth of twelve feet or more, and having thirty-two fathoms’ depth of water within a mile of its eastern edge.

{3}  The grounds for the rejection of the Bill by the House of Lords in 1802-3 had been that the extent of coast over which dues were proposed to be levied would be too great.  Before going to Parliament again, the Board of Northern Lights, desiring to obtain support and corroboration for Mr. Stevenson’s views, consulted first Telford, who was unable to give the matter his attention, and then (on Stevenson’s suggestion) Rennie, who concurred in affirming the practicability of a stone tower, and supported the Bill when it came again before Parliament in 1806.  Rennie was afterwards appointed by the Commissioners as advising engineer, whom Stevenson might consult in cases of emergency.  It seems certain that the title of chief engineer had in this instance no more meaning than the above.  Rennie, in point of fact, proposed certain modifications in Stevenson’s plans, which the latter did not accept; nevertheless Rennie continued to take a kindly interest in the work, and the two engineers remained in friendly correspondence during its progress.  The official view taken by the Board as to the quarter in which lay both the merit and the responsibility of the work may be gathered from a minute of the Commissioners at their first meeting held after Stevenson died; in which they record their regret ‘at the death of this zealous, faithful, and able officer, to whom is due the honour of conceiving and executing the Bell Rock Lighthouse.’  The matter is briefly summed up in the Life of Robert Stevenson by his son David Stevenson (A. & C. Black, 1878), and fully discussed, on the basis of official facts and figures, by the same writer in a letter to the Civil Engineers’ and Architects’ Journal, 1862.

Chapter III Part 1 - Operations of 1807

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