Now a museum, this remarkable building was for a time one of the most unusual examples of council housing in the UK but its original purpose was as a warning to shipping. Located in the coastal town of Arbroath, Scotland, the tower was built around 1813 and was used to house the keepers and their families of the Bell Rock Lighthouse. It also provided a base of operations for some of the shore staff. Its name is derived from the signalling equipment installed at the top of the tower and used to communicate from the tower to the lighthouse. The tower had a small observatory fitted with a powerful telescope through which the signalling equipment on the lighthouse was monitored during the day. It was common practise for fishing vessels from Arbroath to regularly carry non urgent supplies to the keepers at the lighthouse and bring back messages to the shore station.
At night the light would be observed and any changes to its signalling would mean a boat would have to be launched and its crew would have to investigate the problem. A system was used known as the ‘ball system.’ Wireless communication had not been invented so a manual signal was sent from the lighthouse by the staff.
The ‘Master of the Tender’ or one of his staff watching from the signal tower would wait to see the keepers hoist the ‘ball’ up the top of the pole which meant all was well. This would happen between 9am and 10am daily. If the weather was foggy the process would be postponed until 1pm. If the tower did not see the ball rise this meant something was wrong such as illness or another emergency and they would have to send a boat to investigate.
The Disaster of 1915
On a stormy night in October 1915 disaster struck. The British battle cruiser, HMS Argyll, was sailing to the naval base at Rosyth. On board was Captain James Tancred with a crew of over 600 men. The ship neared the Inchcape Rock, where the Bell Rock Lighthouse stands.
Captain, Tancred asked the naval base at Rosyth to send instructions to the lighthouse ordering the keepers to light the lamp. This was only done in wartime under special command to prevent enemy attack. Rosyth sent a torpedo boat but the storm forced it back to port. The Queen Mary tried to get to the lighthouse but she too failed.
Rosyth failed to inform HMS Argyll that attempts had been unsuccessful and, sailing on unaware of the situation, she hit the Inchcape reef. The Bell Rock keepers thought they were under attack from the Germans and took refuge in the lighthouse.
They were relieved to hear, by means of a loud hailer, that the Argyll was a British ship in trouble and promptly threw a line to her. Two destroyers were sent from Dundee and rescued all the crew. The Argyll was later blown up to prevent it falling into enemy hands.
The introduction of helicopters and fast motor boats meant the practise of staffing the lighthouse was unnecessary and the control of the light was moved to Leith, headquarters of the Northern Lighthouse Board.
Council Housing to Museum
The Northern Lighthouse Board eventually took the tower out of active service and handed it over to Arbroath Town Council where they used it for 15 years as council housing.
In the 1970s it was converted into a museum exhibiting and documenting relevant history about Arbroath and the surrounding area.
Camping and Caravanning Club Site
Scone Palace Caravan Park, Stormontfield Road, Scone
Tayside, Scotland, PH2 6BB
+44 (0)1738 552 323
- Address: Ladyloan Road, Arbroath, Angus, Scotland, United Kingdom, DD11 1PU
- GPS: 56.55464722,-2.586513889
- Phone: 0044 (0)1241 435 329
- Part of UK: Scotland
- Sat Nav Postcode: DD11 1PU
- Entrance Fees: Free Access / Opening times may change without notice.
- Disabled Access: Good
- Visibility from Road: Excellent