History

Illuminating Scotland: The story behind the Stevenson lighthouses

The vision of Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather was integral to the development of the beacons that have protected Scotland’s shores for centuries

Words by Fiona Laing

A necklace of light adorns the Scottish coastline. For mariners – on mighty cruise ships or humble fishing craft – these lighthouses are priceless gems of navigation. They are the legacy of four generations of one Edinburgh family whose work spanned 150 years, the Stevensons: the very same family who spawned one of Scotland’s literary greats, Robert Louis Stevenson.

From the late 1700s, it was the Stevensons who dominated the planning and construction of lighthouses, the advances in light technology and the establishment of the service that maintained them. “Robert Stevenson was without doubt the father of the Scottish lighthouse service,” says Michael Strachan, collections manager at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. “The innovations he made in his own time were the building blocks for the Stevenson dynasty. I think it’s impossible to overrate his contribution to the safety of the mariner in Scotland, even today.”

A vintage photograph of Dubh Artach Lighthouse southwest of Mull, c.1890. Credit: Niday Picture Library/Alamy
Born in Glasgow in 1772, Robert had moved to Edinburgh as a young child with his widowed mother Jean. They became friends with the family of Thomas Smith, a prosperous lamp maker who was steadily adding lights to the city streets. Robert showed an interest in Smith’s business and by the 1790s was working for him. 

Looking to improve the efficiency of his streetlights by experimenting with reflectors, Smith also saw the potential of his innovations for the lighthouses, which were being talked about for the coast of Scotland.

The sea became increasingly important as the Industrial Revolution took root and trade grew, but safety beacons were scarce, and the treacherous coast of Scotland was taking its toll on shipping. In 1786, the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) was established by Parliament to build and oversee lights in Scotland. Today, the NLB operates and maintains 206 lighthouses around Scotland and the Isle of Man.

Skerryvore Lighthouse off the Isle of Tiree. Credit: Ian Cowe/Alamy

Tasked initially with building four lighthouses, the NLB needed someone to provide the lights and it was Smith – although with no direct experience – who won the board’s confidence and the work. Appointed Engineer to the Board, his first project was Kinnaird Head Lighthouse at Fraserburgh on Scotland’s northeast coast.

Although only 15, Robert is said to have visited Kinnaird Head while the lantern was being added to a castle which, in 1787, created the first lighthouse on mainland Scotland. As he learned the business and continued his studies, Robert gained experience. At 19, he was installing reflector lights on Smith’s behalf and by 22 had overseen the completion of the twin lights at Pentland Skerries.

By the time the original lantern at Kinnaird Head was replaced in 1822, Robert had succeeded Smith as NLB Engineer, overseen eight new lights and made his name with the Bell Rock. Robert first suggested building a lighthouse on the Inchcape – or Bell Rock – in 1799, a year when 70 ships were lost off the east coast of Scotland in one great storm. He was not alone in making the suggestion, but building on a submerged reef 11 miles offshore in the tempestuous North Sea was something many doubted could be done. It was not until 1807 that the political support, finance and plans were in place.

An illustration of the Bell Rock Lighthouse from Lighthouses and Lightships, c.1870. Credit: Cannasue/iStock

The plan for Bell Rock owes much to John Smeaton’s 1759 light on Eddystone off Cornwall, which Robert had visited in 1801. However, the NLB had given the contract to design and build the lighthouse to John Rennie, one of the leading engineers of his day. Robert was appointed as his chief assistant, though on the ground, Robert took charge.

Accounts of the challenges and struggles of the construction of the Bell Rock make for gripping reading. Gouging out foundations from rock only uncovered for a few hours each day, then building a graceful but strong 130-foot tower from huge, precisely cut stones – all using hand tools and brute strength – is almost unimaginable today. Robert’s force of character, attention to detail, hands-on enthusiasm and the respect of his team were key to carrying the enormous project through.

With the light lit on 1 February 1811, Robert made sure he was recognised for his work and the Bell Rock became something of a tourist attraction, with author Sir Walter Scott famously accompanying Robert on a visit in 1814. Manning an offshore lighthouse was another challenge. Land-based lights originally had a single keeper, who was probably assisted by his family. Robert hated that system, believing it was open to abuse, preferring two keepers who would make sure they both did their job properly.

“Robert’s first introduction to making the Lighthouse Service professional was with Bell Rock, when he proposed the ‘outlandish’ idea that there should be four separate keepers for the one lighthouse. His thinking was that for a rock station there should always be three men present and one man onshore to change with,” explains Strachan. He went on to establish a service based on Naval discipline, detailed instructions and plenty of gleaming glass and brass.

The Mull of Galloway Lighthouse in Galloway. Credit: H Athey/shutterstock

Robert, who married Smith’s daughter Jane in 1799, had 13 children, but only five survived. He retired, aged 70, in 1842, having been responsible for 18 new lights after Bell Rock, and many other civil engineering projects across Scotland. His three sons, two grandsons and a great-grandson followed in his footsteps, each leaving their own mark.

Of his sons, it was Alan who tamed the sea-swept Atlantic reef of Skerryvore in 1844, while David and Thomas lit the equally daunting Dubh Artach rocks nearby in 1872. Of Robert’s grandsons, David A was the last Stevenson NLB Engineer and he and his brother Charles added two dozen lights to the Scottish coast. Robert Louis – who went on to find fame as a celebrated author – also studied engineering and spent time in the family business.

Great-grandson D Alan continued the Stevenson tradition. Most notably his personal research paved the way for an Indian lighthouse authority. In 1929, using radio signals, he and his father Charles invented the Talking Beacon.
What drove these men? Strachan points to an obsession to get the most brilliant light. However, they were not exactly inventors, more innovators that refined ideas and improved existing techniques.

Robert improved Smith’s reflectors and introduced the revolving ‘flashing’ light to Scotland at Start Point, Orkney, in 1806, before improving it for Bell Rock. Then he used his own intermittent light at Mull of Galloway in 1830. As Strachan explains: “You can’t turn an oil lamp off and on. What he invented for Mull of Galloway was a system of shades around the lantern interior that would open and close at certain periods to create the light and dark periods.”

At Sumburgh Head, Robert had made a detailed survey to identify the best place to build. He chose the top of a cliff and, with a relatively short tower, the light could be seen for 24 miles in 1832. “Some lights never made that distance even in the 20th century,” observes Strachan.

His sons progressed lighting further: Alan was an energetic advocate of the French Fresnel lenses, which replaced reflectors; and Thomas invented the holophote lens. The innovation continues and today the NLB, having introduced new fuels and automation along the way, is switching to LED lighting, continuing the Stevenson quest to provide the best possible guiding lights for mariners.

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