The Lighthouse Stevensons: How One Family Lit Up the Coast of Scotland | History Hit

The Lighthouse Stevensons: How One Family Lit Up the Coast of Scotland

Scotland's Dubh Artach Lighthouse, designed by Thomas Stevenson
Image Credit: Ian Cowe / Alamy Stock Photo

Scotland’s coast is dotted with 207 lighthouses, the majority of which were designed by multiple generations of one famed engineering family: the Stevensons. The most famous member of the family, Robert Stevenson, set off a chain of events that eventually led to him and his descendants designing many notable Scottish lighthouses over some 150 years.

Notable among the Stevenson engineered lighthouses are the tallest Scottish lighthouse at Skerryvore (1844), the most northerly lighthouse at Muckle Flugga in Shetland (1854) and the most westerly lighthouse at Ardnamurchan (1849).

As well as the sheer number of lighthouses the Stevensons contributed to, the family also championed key engineering developments that fundamentally changed the course of lighthouse building forever. Read on for the story of the ‘Lighthouse Stevensons’ and their invaluable contribution to lighting up Scotland’s coastlines.

Robert Stevenson was the first to build lighthouses in the family

Robert Stevenson (lighthouse engineer)
From Biographical Sketch of the Late Robert Stevenson: Civil Engineer, by Alan Stevenson (1807-1865).

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Robert Stevenson was born in Glasgow in 1772 to Alan and Jean Lillie Stevenson. His father died while Robert was still young, so he was educated at a charity school. His mother remarried Thomas Smith, a lamp maker, mechanic and civil engineer who had been appointed to the inaugural Northern Lighthouse Board in 1786.

Though Robert’s mother initially hoped that he would become a minister, he ultimately followed in his step-father’s footsteps and was employed as an assistant to the engineer. In 1791, Robert supervised the building of the Clyde Lighthouse in the River Clyde.

The first formal mention of Robert Stevenson in connection with the Northern Lighthouse Board was when his step-father entrusted him with the Superintendence of the building of Pentland Skerries Lighthouse in 1794. He was then adopted as Smith’s partner until he was made Sole Engineer in 1808.

Robert Stevenson is most famous for the Bell Rock Lighthouse

During Stevenson’s term as ‘Engineer to the Board’, in 1808-1842, he was responsible for the building of at least 15 significant lighthouses, the most important of which was the Bell Rock Lighthouse, which, owing to its sophisticated engineering, was Stevenson’s magnum opus. He built the lighthouse alongside chief engineer John Rennie and foreman Francis Watt.

The environment made the construction of Bell Rock Lighthouse challenging. Not only was it built into a sandstone reef, the North Sea created hazardous and very limited working conditions.

Stevenson also developed lighthouse apparatus that was fitted in Irish lighthouses and lighthouses in the colonies, such as rotating oil lamps placed in front of parabolic silver-plated reflectors. Most notable was his invention of intermittent flashing lights – marking the lighthouse as the first to use red and white flashing lights – for which he received a gold medal from the King of the Netherlands.

Stevenson was also known for developing city infrastructure, including railway lines, bridges such as Scotland’s Regent Bridge (1814) and monuments such as the Melville Monument in Edinburgh (1821). His contribution to engineering is deemed to be so significant that he was inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame in 2016.

The Melville Monument in Edinburgh.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Robert Stevenson’s children followed in their father’s footsteps

Robert Stevenson had 10 children. Three of them followed him in his footsteps: David, Alan and Thomas.

David became a partner in his father’s firm, R&A Stevenson, and in 1853 moved to the Northern Lighthouse Board. Along with his brother Thomas, between 1854 and 1880 he designed many lighthouses. He also designed lighthouses in Japan, developing a novel method to enable lighthouses to better withstand earthquakes.

Dioptic lens designed by David A. Stevenson in 1899 for the Inchkeith Lighthouse. It remained in use until 1985 when the last lighthouse keeper was withdrawn and the light was automated.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

During his term as chief of the Northern Lighthouse Board, Alan Stevenson built 13 lighthouses in and around Scotland between 1843 and 1853, and over the course of his life designed over 30 in total. One of his most notable builds is the Skerryvore Lighthouse.

Thomas Stevenson was both a lighthouse designer and meteorologist who designed over 30 lighthouses over the course of his life. Between the three brothers, he arguably made the biggest impact in lighthouse engineering, with his meteorological Stevenson screen and lighthouse designs ushering in a new era of lighthouse creation.

David Stevenson’s sons carried on the Stevenson lighthouse building name

David Stevenson’s sons, David and Charles, also pursued lighthouse engineering from the late 19th century to the late 1930s, building nearly 30 more lighthouses.

By the late 1930s, three generations of the Stevenson family had been responsible for building more than half of Scotland’s lighthouses, pioneering new engineering methods and techniques and developing new technologies in the process.

It has been claimed that Fidra Island on the east coast of Scotland inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

However, the engineers within the family weren’t the only ones to find fame. Robert Stevenson’s grandson, Robert Louis Stevenson, was born in 1850 and went on to become a famous writer known for works such as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island.

Lucy Davidson