The Arbroath Signal Tower Museum stands on the south side of the entrance to Arbroath harbour. The Signal Tower is an attractive landmark and interesting building in its own right. It serves as an excellent museum celebrating the maritime heritage of Arbroath and its fishing, as well as at lighthouses and, in particular, at the Bell Rock Lighthouse. There is good reason for this focus on one particular lighthouse. The Signal Tower was built in 1813 to serve as the shore station for the Bell Rock Lighthouse. This stands 11½ miles to the south east, warning mariners of a treacherous rock in the shipping lanes approaching the Firth of Tay.
Bell Rock had for many centuries been feared by mariners. It is covered by the North Sea at high tide, and by the end of the 1700s was the site of up to six shipwrecks every year, with enormous loss of life. It is said that the first attempt to place a warning on the rock was by an Abbot of Arbroath Abbey in the 1300s, who had a bell attached to it. This was apparently successful, until the bell was stolen a year later by a Dutch pirate.
In 1799 the Scottish engineer Robert Stevenson proposed building a lighthouse on Bell Rock using a very radical design and building method. Too radical for the powers that be, it seems, because his plan was shelved. In January 1804 the 64-gun HMS York struck Bell Rock and sank, with the loss of all 491 men and boys aboard. This provided new impetus to the idea of a lighthouse, and in 1806 Parliament approved legislation paving the way for construction to begin. The Northern Lighthouse Board awarded the contract to design and build the lighthouse to the well established engineer John Rennie, with Robert Stevenson as his assistant.
The lighthouse that emerged from a difficult partnership is usually credited mainly to Robert Stevenson. He was the man who seems to have done most of the design work and oversaw the actual construction, though he did so in frequent consultation with John Rennie. Work began in 1807 and the Bell Rock Lighthouse was illuminated for the first time on 1 February 1811. Working conditions during construction were exceptionally difficult, mainly because Bell Rock is covered by anything up to 12 feet or 3.7m of water for up to 20 hours every day.
Work was undertaken from a temporary beacon house built on wooden legs, where up to 15 men could shelter between low tides. The lighthouse itself was built from layers of interlocking stones carefully shaped on land before being transported to the site. Today, Bell Rock is the world's oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouse, and such was the strength of its design and build that the main structure has never needed major repairs.
The Bell Rock Signal Tower was built in 1813 to provide a shore station for the lighthouse; to provide accommodation for lightkeepers' families; and, as the name implies, to give a communications link to the lighthouse itself using flags and balls. The lighthouse virtually eradicated completely the loss of shipping on Bell Rock. In the last two centuries the only losses have been a cargo vessel in 1908, whose seven crew were saved when it struck the rock in fog, and the cruiser HMS Argyll, which struck the rock on 28 October 1915 while the light was turned off to avoid assisting German U-boats. Again, there were no fatalities.
The Arbroath Signal Tower continued in use until 1953, when lightkeepers' families were relocated to purpose built housing near Granton Harbour, Leith. It then spent two decades as local authority housing before opening as a museum on 1 August 1974. The museum was renovated and modernised to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the first lighting of the lamps on 1 February 2011.
Your visit begins by strolling through the gateway into the enclosed courtyard in front of the main building and tower. The museum itself is distributed amongst the rooms across the two floors of the main building. On the ground floor, one room gives a focus for activities for group and school visits, while another looks at the problems posed by Bell Rock before the lighthouse was built. The final room on the ground floor has exhibits about the construction of Bell Rock Lighthouse, including a superb explanation of the way the stones interlocked.
Upstairs are more exhibition rooms, though en route make sure you take in the interesting scene of birdlife on the local cliffs, and the model and large photos of Arbroath fishwives that greet you on the upstairs landing. Upper floor rooms look at Arbroath's fishing industry; its maritime trade; lighthouse life; and lighthouse development.
Everyone will find their own favourite exhibits. We particularly liked the large cutaway model of the lighthouse in an upstairs room, and the model showing construction in progress on the ground floor. We challenge anyone to look at that model and not wonder how it must have felt for the workmen spending their time between low tides in the temporary beacon house, with the waves crashing over the rock outside and between the wooden supports beneath them.