The history of the Scottish lighthouses

It's pitch black outside and the air is thick and still.  There's a dense fog hanging over the surface of Buzzards Bay and even though I know where the Cleveland Ledge Lighthouse must be, there's no sign of it tonight.  Just darkness and the moist slightly rotten smell of fog.  Then, softly at first, but rising to a clear and sonorous bellow I hear the foghorn, steady and comforting, an auditory beacon for the ships transiting the Cape Cod Canal.  Even in this day of pinpoint navigational accuracy available on the cheap thanks to the network of GPS satellites hovering unseen above us, it's comforting to know the lighthouse is there, doing its lonely job.

The lighthouse era may be drawing to an close, but both as a sailor, and an aficionado of clever engineering, I find the story of the design and construction of these monuments to nautical safety a fascinating study.  The "Lighthouse Stevensons," played a role in that story that characterizes the combination of pragmatism, determination and relentless optimism that was common in the late 1700's but is so rare today.  

Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Kidnapped, Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is the most famous member of the family but he was not necessarily the most accomplished.  He is quoted as saying, "Whenever I smell salt water, I know that I am not far from one of the works of my ancestors," a reference to the four generations of his family who dominated the field of lighthouse design, optics and construction for over 150 years.  Louis himself was trained as an engineer and expected to follow his father's footsteps in the Scottish Northern Lighthouse Board.  He wrote in The Education of an Engineer,  that he had, "a private determination to be an author." He persevered in this to the world's acclaim, but clearly felt an admiration for the numerous accomplishments of his family .  In a letter to his publishers in 1886, he expressed this sentiment in reference to his father's contributions in the field of lighthouse design and construction, "I might write books till 1900 and not serve humanity so well.

The Northern Lighthouse Board1

The importance of the work done by the Lighthouse Stevensons, can only be understood in the context of the times.  In the late 1700's, ships were the primary engines of commerce.  Ships and the sea provided a major source of employment, sustenance and political power. Increasing shipping trade inevitably resulted in a proportional increase in the demand for improvements in maritime safetyNavigational technology had improved to the point where ship captains could cross the oceans confidently.  Coastal navigation hadn't kept pace and the absence of accurate charts was a constant complaint. To a large extent near shore navigation still relied almost entirely on the ability of the Captain to recognize the shoreline on approach. Given a clear day and calm seas, bringing a ship into port safely was within the capabilities of any competent captain.  However when the vagaries of fortune forced a nighttime arrival, and the weather turned foul, the chances of a safe arrival decreased dramatically.  Despite the advances in navigational techniques, the sea still killed men in great numbers every year.  

The 4500 mile coastline of Scotland had a particularly bad reputation.  Sandwiched between the North Sea and the Atlantic, the Scottish coast is prone to fogs and violent storms and cursed with treacherous rocks and tricky tides and currents.  Over seventy ships were wrecked in the Firth of Tay during the year 1799 alone. Making matters worse were the bands of "wreckers," who lived off the plunder of ships gone aground, and in some cases even luring ships to disaster by destroying navigational landmarks, or creating false ones.  Lloyd's of London estimated that a ship a day was lost around the English coast and by the late 1700's the demands of the ship owners and merchants who suffered financial loss from this dire situation drove the government to action.

The Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) was founded in 1786 in response to this problem.  The NLB had the power to borrow money, buy land, build lighthouses and staff them  To pay for all this, the NLB also had the right to levy dues from ship owners whose vessels traveled the coastline protected by the lights. 

Robert Louis Stevenson, the elder (1772- 1850)

The Lighthouse Stevensons dynasty began with the first Robert Louis Stevenson, who was the grandfather of the famous author and, ironically, a man who professed a distain for literature.  The elder Robert Louis Stevenson joined his stepfather Thomas Smith in 1786 who was then the engineer to the NLB. 

Robert Stevenson was born in Glasgow in 1772, the son of Alan Stevenson & Jean Lillie. His father died when Robert was 22 years old.  After moving to Edinburg, Jean met and eventually married Thomas Smith, whose career with the NLB was already well established.  Initially, Robert was engaged in assisting Thomas with the operation and maintenance of the existing lighthouses, such as the Isle of May Lighthouse, at the mouth of the Firth of Forth.  In 1807 he was given the his most important position as the engineer-in-charge, for construction of a new lighthouse to be built on the treacherous Bell Rock off the coast of Arbroath, Scottland, a project that many of the NLB commissioners felt was impossible. 

Robert was appointed the sole Engineer for the NLB in 1808 and subsequently went on to create 18 lighthouses prior to his retirement in 1843: 

Bell Rock (1811)2, Toward Point (1812), Southerness (1812), Isle of May (1816), Corsewall (1817), Point of Ayre (1818), Calf of Man (1818), Sumburgh Head (1821), Rhinns of Islay (1825), Buchan Ness (1827), Cape Wrath (1828), Tarbat Ness (1830), Mull of Galloway (1830), Dunnet Head (1831), Douglas Head (1832), Girdle Ness (1833), Barra Head (1833), Lismore (1833).

Alan Stevenson (1807-1865)

Alan, Robert's eldest son is probably most noted for the construction of the Skerryvore Lighthouse, another feat that many considered impossible at the time.  Skerryvore, like Bell Rock is a craggy rock some 12 miles off the Scottish coast near Tiree.  Alan's father called Skerryvore "the noblest of all extant deep-sea lights", and it is considered by experts to be the world's most elegant and perfect lighthouse.  Alan was responsible for the following lighthouses prior to his retirement in 1853:

Little Ross (1843), Skerryvore (1844), Covesea Skerries (1846), Chanonry Point (1846), Cromarty (1846), Cairn Point (Loch Ryan) (1847), Noss Head (1849), Ardnamurchan (1849), Sanda (1850), Heston Island (1850), Hoy (1851), Stornoway (Arnish Point) (1853).

David Stevenson (1815 - 1886)

David was the younger son of Robert and Jean, and like Alan, he was groomed to enter the family business and on his elder brother's retirement in 1853, David assumed responsibility.  Despite bad health, David presided over what are termed the "Golden Years" of lighthouse construction.  David and his wife Elisabeth had eight children, two of whom, David Alan and Charles Alexander became lighthouse builders.  Prior to his retirement in 1883, David (with his brother Thomas) was credited with the following lighthouses:

Whalsay Skerries (1854), Out Skerries (1854), North Unst (Muckle Flugga) (1854), Davaar (1854), Ushenish (1857), South Roma (1857), Kyleakin (1857), Isle Ornsay (1857), Sound of Mull (Rubha nan Gall) (1857), Cantrick Head (1858), Bressay (1858), Ruvaal (1859), Corran (1860), Fladda (1860), McArthur's Head (1861), St Abb's Head (1862), Butt of Lewis (1862), Holborn Head (1862), Monach (1864), Skervuile (1865), Auskerry (1866), Lochindaal (1869), Scurdyness (Montrose) (1870), Ru Stoer (Stour Head) (1870), Dubh Artach (1872), Turnberry (1873), Chicken Rock (1875), Holy Island (1877 and 1880).

Thomas Stevenson (1818 - 1887)

Thomas was the youngest of Robert's sons to enter the lighthouse business and despite his many accomplishments, will probably be best remembered as the father of the author Robert Louis Stevenson.  Although he showed little interest in the family business initially, he subsequently came around and made significant contributions to the field.  After his brother David retired, Thomas took over the operation of the family business and completed the construction of the Dubh Artach light, a tricky project reminiscent of the Bell Rock light.  Thomas (with his brother David) is credited with the following lighthouses:

Whalsay Skerries (1854), Out Skerries (1854), North Unst (Muckle Flugga) (1854), Davaar (1854), Ushenish (1857), South Roma (1857), Kyleakin (1857), Isle Ornsay (1857), Sound of Mull (Rubha nan Gall) (1857), Cantrick Head (1858), Bressay (1858), Ruvaal (1859), Corran (1860), Fladda (1860), McArthur's Head (1861), St Abb's Head (1862), Butt of Lewis (1862), Holborn Head (1862), Monach (1864), Skervuile (1865), Auskerry (1866), Lochindaal (1869), Scurdyness (Montrose) (1870), Ru Stoer (Stour Head) (1870), Dubh Artach (1872), Turnberry (1873), Chicken Rock (1875), Holy Island (1877 and 1880).

David Alan Stevenson (1854-1938)

David Alan, the eldest son of David Stevenson, along with his younger brother Charles were well on their way to partnership in the family business by the time they had graduated from Edinburgh University in 1877.  In 1890, the two brothers assumed full responsibility for the firm and David took the position of Engineer with the Northern Lighthouse Board, a post he retained until his retirement in 1938. David had the primary responsibility for the following lighthouses:

 Fidra (1885), Oxcar (1886), Ailsa Craig (1886)

Charles Stevenson (1855-1950)

David Alan's younger brother Charles is best known for his pioneering work in lighthouse optics and foghorns.  He also developed a rudimentary form of wireless radio even before Marconi perfected and popularized his system. Charles, with is wife had one son, named David Alan after his brother, who continued in the family business.  Charles is credited with the following lighthouses:

Skaddan and Skroo (Fair Isle) (1892), Helliar Holm (1893), Sule Skerry (1895), Rattray Head (1895), Stroma (1896), Tod Head (1897), Noup Head (1898), Flannan Isles (1899), Tiumpan Head (1900), Killantringan (1900), Barns Ness (1901), Bass Rock (1903), Hyskeir (1904), Trodday (1908), Neist Point (1909), Rubh Re (1912), Milaid Point (1912), Maughold Head (1914), Copinsay (1915), Clyth Ness (1916), Duncansby Head (1924), Esha Ness (1929), Tor Ness (1937).

D. Alan Stevenson (1891-1971)

D. Alan, the namesake of his uncle David, was the last member of the Stevenson family to be actively involved in the design and construction of lighthouses.  He was educated at Edinburgh Academy and seemed to accept from an early age that he would enter the family business.  In 1919, he became a partner in the family firm, the eighth consecutive member of the family to ply the lighthouse trade. Due primarily to the fact that his uncle stayed in the post of Engineer for the Northern Light Board until he was in his 80's, D. Alan never officially had the job, but he was active in the field for his entire life and by the time he died in 1971, he was considered one of the world's greatest experts on lighthouses.

Sostratus, the son of Dexiphanes, the Cnidian, dedicated this to the Saviour Gods, on behalf of those who sail the seas.

Dedicatory inscription of the Alexandria Lighthouse circa 300 BC



1  The Northern Lighthouse Board:
2 Website dedicated to the Bell Rock lighthouse:
3 Links to lighthouse resources:

Three Great Books about the Stevensons

"A Star for Seamen - The Stevenson Family of Engineers" by Craig Mair (1978)
"The Lighthouse Stevensons" by Bella Bathurst (1999)
"Bright Lights - The Stevenson Engineers - 1752-1971" by Jean Leslie and Roland Paxton (1999)

Here's that famous lighthouse picture that I know this article will make you think of (Goog it for the image)

"Phares dans la Tempete - La Jument" Jean GUICHARD....

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.