Bell Rock Lighthouse and Smeaton's Tower

Year:1810 and 1759

Duration:3 years

Cost:£63,000 (£4.5m ) / £40,000 (£7.2m)

Country: Arbroath, Scotland

What did this project achieve?

Build a lighthouse to keep ships safe in dangerous waters

The Bell Rock Lighthouse, off the east coast of Scotland near Arbroath, is the world’s oldest, working sea-washed lighthouse. A sea-washed lighthouse is built out at sea, often on a rock or reef.

The structure was designed and built by Robert Stevenson on the Bell Rock in the North Sea. Engineer John Rennie is also credited with parts of its design.

The Bell Rock (also known as Inchcape) is a reef covered by 14ft of water at high tide. Before the lighthouse was built, it was notorious for shipwrecks - around six ships were lost on the reef every winter.

Completed in 1810, the light from the 115ft (35m) tall structure can be seen 35 miles (56km) inland. The lighthouse’s masonry work was of such a high standard that it’s not been replaced in over 200 years.

Designs for the lighthouse were closely based on Smeaton’s Tower – also known as the Eddystone Lighthouse – built on the dangerous Eddystone Rocks off the coast of Cornwall in 1759.

Smeaton’s Tower was moved to its current location in Plymouth in the early 1880s, when it was found that the sea was damaging the rock it stood on.

Difference the projects have made

The Bell Rock Lighthouse has been keeping ships safe off the east coast of Scotland for over 200 years.

Since it was built, the only recorded wrecks in the area have been HMS Argyll – during wartime blackouts in 1915 – and the cargo vessel Rosecraig. The Rosecraig ran aground in fog on the evening of 21 September 1908. Although the ship sank, her crew of seven was saved.

The design of Smeaton’s Tower influenced the construction of many other lighthouses – not least engineer Robert Stevenson’s structure at Bell Rock.

How the work was done

The 35m Bell Rock Lighthouse is made of four different types of stone. It has a 12.8m diameter at the base, tapering to 4.6m at the top.

Building the structure presented major challenges for Robert Stevenson and his team. The reef was 12 miles off the coast and only above water during low tide – two hours a day.

Stevenson directed construction himself, working on site in often bad weather conditions. To save time, he set up a work yard at nearby Arbroath, where stones for the tower – weighing up to 1.5 tons - were cut to shape before being shipped out to the rock.

Although it wasn’t ready until August 1808, workers built an 800ft (244m) long railway track to move stones from the shore to the reef – this speeded up construction for the rest of the project.

Workers used a manually-operated crane to put the stones in place. They were dovetailed to keep them in position.

The design of the earlier Smeaton’s Tower – on which the Bell Rock structure was based - was modelled on an oak tree. At 72ft (29.4m) high, it had a base diameter of 26ft (8m), tapering to 17ft (5m) at the top.

Designer and engineer John Smeaton used hydraulic lime – a form of concrete used in Roman times – for his lighthouse. The technique allowed concrete to set under water.

Granite blocks for the structure were cut at a site near Plymouth and carried out to the rocks on a 10-ton ship named Eddystone Boat.

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Both engineers [Robert Stevenson and John Rennie] agree in describing the lighthouse as being a copy of Smeaton's Eddystone Tower with sundry improvements in details and dimensions.

Cyril T.G. Boucher

biographer ‘John Rennie, 1761–1821: The Life and Work of a Great Engineer

Fascinating facts

Smeaton’s Tower was the third of four lighthouses on the Eddystone Rocks. In use until 1877 when it became unsafe, it was dismantled and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe as a memorial to the engineer.

The tower (referred to as the Eddystone Lighthouse) is mentioned twice in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel ‘Moby Dick’.

The Bell Rock Lighthouse was named as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Modern World’ in the 2003 BBC TV series of the same name.

People who made it happen

Bell Rock Lighthouse

  • Client: Northern Lighthouse Board
  • Designer and consulting engineer: Robert Stevenson, ICE member.
  • Engineer John Rennie also contributed to Bell Rock’s design.

Smeaton’s Tower

  • Designer and consulting engineer: John Smeaton

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