This is story about our coasts and waters a long time ago, the time before the Stevensons build their lighthouses. It starts in Arbroath, at the abbey, over 600 years ago.
The Abbot of Aberbrothok had visited the ‘necessarium’ and was now lounging in the 'lavatorium'. He certainly loved a long soak in the bath and it was his fourth bath and final bath of the year, hmmm … lovely!
However, he needed to get dressed for the midnight service and so he stepped into his robes and as he walked over to the abbey he could hear that the wind was getting up and a storm was brewing. His grey monks were busy getting everything ready for the service, sweeping the floor and lighting the candles, but it was the Abbot himself, the Abbot alone, who climbed the winding stairs higher and higher to the great 'round O', the round window that looked out over the sea. There he would light the candles on the window ledge. Looking out to sea he could see the moonlight reflecting on the white crests of the waves as they crashed against the shore. He was always concerned about the safety of sailors on the sea on stormy nights like this …
Why was he worried? Well, there were two reasons: the first was that he had ships of his own. He had built a harbour at Aberbrothok - Arbroath as it is now named - and his ships took all the fruit grown in Fife to sell in the markets of the cities all around the coasts, even over to France to his fellow monks, who were always particularly pleased to get the purple plums from Newburgh.
The second reason why he was concerned for the sailors at sea was that the Abbot had a brother who was a sea captain, and despite the fact that they had always argued all through their childhood, he was worried about his brother's ship and worried about his brother's soul, for his brother was a dangerous pirate – known as Ralph the Rover!
So, once lit, the great round window in the abbey warned sailors that they were approaching Arbroath, but there were other dangers that lurked beneath the sea, so what could they be? Monsters? Yes! Giant squid? Yes! Very sharp, jagged rocks sitting under the surface? Yes indeed – the 'Inchcape' Rock, or rocks, they lurked out there just below the surface and sharp enough to rip a hole in the best boat or most splendid ship!
And so many ships were wrecked on these rocks even in broad daylight. These rocks sat right in the middle of the channel that led to Dundee and Perth, and if you tried to avoid them then you might sail too close to the coast and be wrecked there!
The Abbot decided that something more must be done. He managed to persuade the merchants and shopkeepers of Perth and Dundee to part with their money and with the cash he had a big brass bell cast in Amsterdam. When it was ready it was sailed across to Arbroath, very carefully, and they built a wooden structure to hang it from. They floated the bell on its wooden cradle out to the Inchcape Rock and tethered it to the rocks with a strong rope.
As the tide turned, and the waves rose and fell, the cradle rocked and the bell swung on its mooring and the ringing of the bell warned ships from afar that they were close to danger. The bell was a great success and the bell saved many a sailor’s souls!
Hurrah for the Abbot of Aberbrothok!
His fame spread far and wide, the Abbot's name travelled all the way to the Barbary Coast of Africa, his fame travelled onto ships, on the lips of sailors, and right onto his brother Ralph's ship! Ralph the Rover was furious; his goody- two-shoes brother was more famous than him … well he'd see about that!
He set sail immediately to pay his brother's bell a little visit. The wind was against him and it did take weeks and weeks to sail his ship into Scottish waters, but once there the waves were rocking and rolling and a bell was tolling … his brother's bell!
'Bless that bell!' cried his crew …
'Bless that bell? Blast that bell,' cried their Captain …
He climbed down a rope ladder and rowed his small boat over to the Inchcape Rock; he climbed onto the wooden cradle and cut the rope that held the heavy bell, clank, clunk, splash! The bell rolled off the rock and sank to the bottom of the sea!
'Job done!' crowed Ralph and he laughed! 'Ho ho ho ho!'
Ralph the Rover sailed his ship up to Perth and sold his fine silks and perfumes to the shopkeepers there who asked him what he thought of the blessed bell and wasn’t he happy that the holy Abbot had saved his ship from danger? Ralph frowned, he said nothing about the bell or his brother, the Abbot of Aberbrothock, but some shopkeepers said that his face went red.
A few days later Ralph set sail again for Africa, and as his ship approached the waters around the Inchcape Rock, the wind dropped and all he could hear were the seagulls crying overhead … then … a crunch! Crack!
'Abandon Ship!' A crewman called from down below deck:
'Captain we’re sinking!'
The water poured in as the ship sank – they say that there was only one survivor, a young cabin boy, and he described the last moments the Captain tore his hair out in despair! He said that as the ship sank all the sailors could hear the spooky sound of a bell ringing under the waves … then nothing – silence apart from the salty seagulls screaming … 'Mine! Mine! Mine!'
Ever since that dreadful day, the Inchcape Rock has been known as Bell Rock, and 400 years later Stevenson's lighthouse was named the Bell Rock Lighthouse.
© Jan Bee Brown 2020