Bell Rock Lighthouse is the oldest remaining operational sea-washed tower, built in 1811.
The reef on which the lighthouse stands is also known as the Inchcape Rock. It took the name Bell Rock from a warning bell placed on the reef by the Abbot of Aberbrothock in the fourteenth century.
Legend has it that a local pirate removed the bell, hoping that more vessels would founder on the reef, only to be wrecked on the reef himself shortly afterwards.
The reef is completely covered to a depth of around 16 feet at high water, and the surface of the rock is only uncovered for a few short hours at low water. This presented some challenging conditions for building a lighthouse. Robert Stevenson was commissioned to build the light under the watchful eye of John Rennie.
Work commenced in 1807, and during its construction, a temporary floating light named Pharos was moored just off the rock and was first exhibited on 15th September. Initially, men would stay on board a ship and row over to the reef at low water to begin work. Subsequently, a beacon house elevated on stilts was built alongside the site of the lighthouse. This temporary structure offered shelter for those building the lighthouse.
Such were the difficulties of building a tower on a reef uncovered for only a few hours a day that construction was not completed until 1810. The lighthouse was finally established on 1st February 1811.
During the First and Second World Wars, a light would only be exhibited when allied ships passed. On 27th October 1915, the Captain of the Argyll sent out a routine message asking for the Bell Rock Lighthouse to be lit that evening. As the lighthouse had no radio, all messages were delivered by boat. However, heavy seas made it impossible on this occasion, and the Argyll was wrecked, though fortunately with no loss of life.
During the Second World War, the lighthouse was gunned by enemy aircraft, and a bomb dropped at the base of the tower. No one was injured, although a few panes of glass in the lantern and some lens prisms were damaged.
Before radio communications, the keepers relayed messages to shore via the Signal Tower at Arbroath. This base also housed the keepers’ families until the Northern Lighthouse Board built a new shore station at Granton, Edinburgh.
On 15th December 1955, an RAF helicopter, on a routine training flight from Leuchars, attempted to lower newspapers and goodwill supplies to the keepers, as occasionally they would do.
Heavy seas swept over the landing on the reef, so the helicopter crew attempted to lower supplies on top of the lighthouse dome, where the keepers were awaiting delivery.
However, the helicopter manoeuvre failed, and the helicopter crashed out of control, causing some damage to the lantern. The keepers were unhurt, but the helicopter crew were killed. Assistant Keeper R T Wood received the Queen’s Commendation for Gallantry in his efforts to try and save the men.
On 3rd September 1987, the lighthouse caught fire from a fuel pipe, causing extensive damage to the kitchen and lantern. The keepers were rescued by helicopter.
The lighthouse was automated on 26th October 1988.