Northern Lights – Episode 39

MOST of the 32 men working on the Bell Rock that September morning were oblivious to the danger. The tide rose higher, washing into the blacksmith’s forge.

Two rowing boats lay at the moorings, each capable of carrying eight in safety. The Smeaton, broken free from her moorings, drifted three miles away with all sails set, battling vainly against the wind and tide.

Alec feared for his life as he stood with James Dove, the blacksmith, watching the sea flood in.

“What do we do?”

The smith looked grim.


Robert Stevenson arrived. The responsibility for the men’s safety rested on the lighthouse-builder’s shoulders and his drawn expression revealed the full extent of their plight.

He turned to Dove.

“Well, James, I’ve no doubt you’ve a clear notion of the danger.”

“Aye, sir, but the rest are unaware. There will be panic when they find out.”

More water sloshed in over the top of their boots and Robert Stevenson made a decision.

“They must be told.”

The smith’s cheeks paled.

“There will be a battle for a place in thae two boats. Otherwise it’s take to the sea and sink or swim.”

Alec could swim, but was no expert. Even striking out for the Floating Light a mile away was beyond him. He stared at the two small boats wallowing in a wide expanse of ocean. If he ran he might secure a place before the others came . . .

Terror plays tricks with the eyesight. As he stared out to sea, Alex blinked to clear his vision, then pointed a trembling finger.

“There’s a ship coming in, Mr Stevenson!”

The three hurried outside. A sail flapped in the breeze close by the rock as the vessel hove to.

“Thanks be to God!” Robert Stevenson breathed. “That’s the Bell Rock pilot cutter, delivering mail to the Floating Light. James Spink, the pilot, would have seen the Smeaton adrift, far out of position, and hastened here. God bless that man! He has saved many lives this day.”

After the rescue mission was accomplished, carpenters brought from Arbroath that morning gathered on the pilot cutter’s deck, watching the tide finally overflow the rock’s surface. When they realised how close they had come to drowning the mood turned ugly. There were angry shouts and fists shaken in Stevenson’s direction as he and the rock’s regular workforce headed back to the Floating Light.

“Fine fare and good pay are no’ worth an hour spent on that god-forsaken place, Mr Stevenson. You’ll no’ tempt me back, that’s for sure!” one yelled.

There were heartfelt cries of agreement as the pilot cutter’s sails carried the vessel home to Arbroath.

Robert Stevenson’s men began rowing towards the anchored vessel they now called home. Time passed before Stevenson spoke.

“I don’t blame them. Every man has a right to expect adequate safety measures. There’s a ship building in Arbroath shipyard at this moment, ready for duty by January as a safety lighthouse tender exclusively for those working on the Bell Rock.

“Meantime we must press ahead with all speed, building the wooden beacon-house. It will be a refuge for rock workers, and living quarters for the masons building the lighthouse. I’ll no’ rest easy till that is done, my lads!”

“Amen!” The men rowed with renewed vigour.

*  *  *  *

There were anxious households in Arbroath when news of the near disaster reached the town.

Maggie was particularly upset. She and Alec had shared a deal of anguish in their young lives and a strong bond had formed between eldest sister and the only brother.

Workmen in the bothy raised a glass of cider to James Spink, the Bell Rock pilot, hero of the hour. It was said that the Northern Lighthouse Board was to grant him a lifetime pension in gratitude for the lives he’d saved.

“The man’s a Spink. One o’ my husband’s Auchmithie kin,” Lilias told Fionah Creagh, who was by her bedside that morning. She was being taught how to knit. Lilias had expressed astonishment when the Highland lass admitted she could not.

“Fifteen and never held a knitting needle! Did your grandma no’ show ye?”

“There was no need for me to knit. My grandfather made a spinning wheel and I spun wool for a poor cailleach that knitted garments for a living.”

“What is a cailleach?” Lilias asked curiously.

Fionah smiled.

“It is chust an old woman in the Gaelic.”

“Like me?”

“Oh, never, Mistress Spink! You have more –” She paused, thinking.

“Spunk?” Lilias supplied.

The girl nodded.

“Yes. Spink has spunk!”

They laughed.

Lilias felt sad. She longed for a similar rapport with Maggie, her granddaughter. Could that ever be?

She turned her attention to the knitting session.

“You’ve mastered plain stitches, lass, now for purls.”

Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!