Friday, December 3, 2010

When the Lights Come Out Along the Shores of Scotland

You know, one of the wonderful things about researching your family's history is the way you can end up going down paths to interesting places and historical events in which you never had any interest before. It is as though your ancestors are taking you along with them to show you around. My 3rd Great Grandfather, David Waters, was a lighthouse keeper in Scotland from the 1840s-1880s.
Royal ancestry is usually the first thing we hear from our elders about our history. I am not really sure why since our colonial ancestors wouldn't have been very keen to admit such a thing. But, that is always the bit of information that survives generations, accurate or not. In this case, we were told that we were descendants of Bonnie Prince Charlie and were part of Clan Stewart, all coming from Scotland. Well, I haven't found any connection there yet. But I am thoroughly intrigued by my lighthouse keeper GGG grandfather and the lighthouses in which he and his family lived all around Scotland.

Bell Rock
My Uncle Lee told me that our immigrant Daniel Waters'(1841-1919) father was David and that he was a lighthouse keeper at Arbroath, Scotland on the North Sea. 

Google is a genealogist's best friend, and sure enough I found several very good websites about the lighthouse at Arbroath, which is called Bell Rock. And on the one web site it actually listed our ancestor David Waters as the lighthouse keeper from 1855 to 1857. Had there been no web site I would have had a very difficult time confirming that. Scottish census, like the US census, are only taken every 10 years. In Scotland they are taken in the years ending in "1". His time at Bell Rock fell between the two census in 1851 and 1861 and I wouldn't have been able to confirm where he was at that time without this information.

Robert Stevenson
Bell Rock was one of many, many Scottish lighthouses that were all built by Robert Stevenson. Robert Stevenson, his father-in-law, his son, nephews, siblings all were engineers building Scotland's lighthouses for over 150  years. Robert Louis Stevenson was Robert the Engineer's grandson. RLS was a disappointment to his family when he chose not to take his place in the family business, but rather write for a living. It is said that Kidnapped and Treasure Island were both inspired in part by the time he spent in and around lighthouses in his boyhood.

Bell Rock was particularly challenging for Engineer Robert Stevenson. It is literally on a submerged reef much of the time hidden under 12 feet of water. How difficult the conditions must have been when GGGGrampa Waters was the Lighthouse Keeper. He lived at the shore station part of the time, with his wife and six children. When it was his turn to be out there on the rock for 6 weeks at a time, off he'd go, leaving them 11 miles behind on shore. They could see the lighthouse from their home, perhaps just a small speck on the horizon in the sea, or maybe at night each time the beacon swept toward Arbroath they would think of him.

And he could see the shore and the signal tower above where they slept each night. I wonder if they worked out a signal of some kind with a lantern? Or maybe each night at the children's bedtime they would look out toward each other across the North Sea.

Bell Rock Signal Tower and Shore Station
 Every lighthouse keeper in training had to spend 6 weeks on Bell Rock. The resident lighthouse keepers were paid extra for training them. I suppose my idea of a lighthouse keeper was from some Shirley Temple movie, but I thought he would be a gristled, hard drinking old retired sea captain living by himself, seldom leaving his posts and seeing no one but the odd orphaned granddaughter when she had no place else to live.

But, it seems they led respectable family lives at home when it was their turn on shore, going to church and raising their children like everyone else. While on duty in the lighthouse, they were keeping their quarters clean, and tidy, holding church services on Sunday when they were on the "rock" and no liquor was ever allowed out there.
Floor Plan of Signal Tower and Shore Station at Bell Rock where families lived

Here is a link to a list of duties for the lighthouse keepers on Bell Rock from 1823, about 30 years prior to David's service there. It gives you a better idea of who they were and how they lived while on the rock: Click here Orders to Lighthouse Keepers on Bell Rock 1823 (click "back" on your browser to return to my blog after you read them)

Bell Rock is the oldest sea-washed lighthouse in existence. Next year, 2011, they are holding a year-long celebration in Arbroath commemorating it's 200th anniversary. I have already contacted their committee who asked for anyone whose ancestors were in someway connected to Bell Rock to send them an email weighing in as part of the celebration. Many of these lighthouses in Scotland are now B&Bs or restaurants and museums. How fabulous it would be to go for a visit sometime next year. Hmmm....

But in addition to Bell Rock, I found our David (1818-1898) stationed all over Scotland at various lighthouses. I have been reading up on some of them and it was a tough life in some very remote areas. I can't imagine his wife and small children following him around, but they are all listed with him at these addresses so I assume they remained together, as they did in Bell Rock.

In 1851, age 34 he was Assistant Lighthouse Keeper at Buchanness Lighthouse in Aberdeen

Buchanness Lighthouse
In 1861, age 44 he was Principal Lighthouse Keeper at Dunrossness, Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, southern Shetland

In 1871 David was in Durness, Cape Wrath Lighthouse, that even today takes 3 hours to hike up the "country's highest sea cliff".
Cape Wrath Lighthouse

In 1881 we find David in Kilbride Parish, on the Isle of Arran, County Bute, off the west coast of Scotland at Holy Isle Lighthouse. Today, it's a Buddhist Retreat.

Holy Isle Inner Lighthouse Lamlash Bay Isle of Arran
 And in 1891, 7 years before his death, we find David, an Annuated (pensioner) Lighthouse Keeper, living with his daugher Jane and her husband Nevin Kerr (fabulous name), who is the Principal Lighthouse keeper at Kinnaird Head Lighthouse in Fraserburg, Abedeenshire.

Kinnaird Head Light

Later that year, Nevin and Jane, David's daughter returned to the place of her childhood and until his retirement in 1901, her husband Nevin served as Principal Lighthouse Keeper of Bell Rock.

The Bell Rock Lighthouse by JMW Turner

"There is scarce a deep sea light from the Isle of Man to North Berwick, but one of my blood designed it.
The Bell Rock stands monument for my grandfather;
the Skerry Vhor for my uncle Alan;
and when the lights come out along the shores of Scotland,
I am proud to think that they burn more brightly for the genius of my father."
Robert Louis Stevenson


DianaR said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peg said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Linda McCauley said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
cdboy2002 said...

Hi Suzie. My name is Matt and I'm a project manager at Sumburgh Head Lighthouse in Shetland - the site is currently being turned into a visitor centre. One of my roles is to research all the lighthouse keepers who have worked at the Head. Thanks to Google, I came across your blog and it looks like your GGG Grandfather David Waters has also come up in my research. I have used the 1861 Census and also have access to the Lighthouse keeper records held at the National Archives in Edinburgh and other records held at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh. I've come up with a few slight differences - I have that he was age 42 in the 1861 Census and that he was recorded at Holy Isle in 1881. However, I shall re-check all my information at a later stage. I also have details of his wife and five children, plus ages, and the family who lived with David as assistant keeper. If I come across anything else, I'll let you know. If you have any additional information that you think I may find useful, please get in touch. My email address is and my business website is

Thanks, Matt.

Callum MacEwan said...

Hi Suzie

Indeed google is your friend when researching family. My GG Grand father was born in a Lighthouse. His father Niven Kerr and Wife Jane nee Waters gave birth to a boy called William John Kerr who married Elizabeth Barclay and sailed to New Zealand with their Daughter and Son



Callum MacEwan said...

Hi Suzie

My GG Grand father was born in a lighthouse to Niven Kerr and Jane Kerr nee Waters in 1877, their son William John Kerr and family moved to New Zealand. How many Neven/Niven/Nevin lighthouse keepers can there be?



Callum MacEwan said...

Hi Suzie

My GG Grand Father was born in a Lighthouse to Niven and Jane Kerr nee Waters their son William John Kerr married Elizabeth Barclay who then had a daughter Ivy Heather Kerr. The family moved to New Zealand. could this be the same Niven and Jane Kerr