Building the Bell Rock Lighthouse

Bell Rock Lighthouse elevation detail
Bell Rock Lighthouse.
Full elevation image

Our treasures display about the building of the Bell Rock Lighthouse ran from 12 January to 28 February 2011.


On 1 February 1811, the Bell Rock Lighthouse lanterns were lit for the first time. Now regarded as one of the seven wonders of the industrial world, the lighthouse took Robert Stevenson and his men four years to complete.

Our small display chronicled the epic construction story, as part of a nationwide programme of events celebrating a great engineering achievement.

On show were letters, drawings, ledgers and plans from the business archive of Robert Stevenson & Sons.

We also screened films of the Northern Lighthouse Board's annual inspection of lighthouses from the 1960s.


Bell Rock — a dangerous reef

Section showing top of lighthouse
Bell Rock Lighthouse
Full cross-section image

The Bell Rock Lighthouse is a white tower over 115 feet (35 metres) tall standing in the North Sea off Scotland's east coast. Only at low tide is the Bell Rock, or Inchcape, itself visible.

Before 1811, this dangerous reef about 11 miles out from Arbroath was responsible for thousands of lost lives.

Glasgow-born engineer Robert Stevenson visited the rock in 1800, and was convinced that a lighthouse could be built there. He submitted plans to Parliament which were accepted in 1806, after advice was sought from John Rennie, one of the most influential engineers of the time.


Appalling conditions

Cross-section of the lightroom
The lightroom.
Full lightroom image

Building began in 1807, but progress was slow. Because of tides and weather, work could only take place in the summer months, and initially only for two hours at low tide.

Conditions were appalling and often dangerous. The supply vessel, 'The Smeaton', could not land on the rock, so stones and other building materials had to be ferried to the rock on small boats and lifted off by crane. More than 2,800 stones were needed to complete the building — and some weighed more than a ton.


Shining monument to Stevenson engineering

It is a testament to Stevenson's engineering skill that the masonry remains intact and unaltered since construction finished in 1810. Although the lights have been changed and the interior modernised, the Bell Rock Lighthouse is much as it was when it was built.

Two hundred years on, the world's oldest standing rock lighthouse still warns shipping away from the reef's razor-sharp rocks.


Images of construction

Illustration showing floors in lighthouse
Section showing floors.
Full image of floors

Plan of fourth floor of lighthouse
Plan of fourth floor.
Larger fourth storey

Our display features illustrations showing the lighthouse at various stages as it rose from the rock. They range from the plans drawn up by Stevenson and Rennie to cross-sections showing the interior floors of the finished tower.

Among other exhibits are:

  • Robert Stevenson's address to the Lighthouse Board Commissions in December 1800 describing his ideas for a lighthouse after his visit to Bell Rock
  • A striking panorama showing the scale of works in 1810. G C Scott's 'View of the Bell Rock Works upon an enlarged scale' even includes the boats delivering material, and workers hauling stones along the specially constructed 'railway'. A figure in front of the lighthouse has been identified as Robert Stevenson.
  • Stevenson's own copy of his book 'An account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse' (1824), with extensive handwritten revisions and corrections he made in preparation for the second edition of the book
  • Stevenson's account from 1850 of the annual inspection tour round the coast of Scotland in 1814, when he and the Lighthouse Board Commissioners were accompanied by Sir Walter Scott
  • Watercolours by author R M Ballantyne, made in 1865 when he visited Bell Rock as research for his book 'The lighthouse'.


Stevenson collections at NLS

Find out more about material in our collections that relates to Robert Stevenson and the family business:



The treasures display in our George IV Bridge Building is a small sample of the millions of items in our collections. We change the display several times a year.

Past treasures displays



Treasures page

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