Scotlands History

The Lighthouse Stevensons

The increase in trade around the British coastline meant more and better navigational aids were needed to help shipping. Robert Stevenson (1772-1850), only son of a West Indies merchant, was the first of a remarkable dynasty of engineers. At only 19 years old, he supervised the construction of his first lighthouse, on Little Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde. Aged 25, he was appointed engineer to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses.

One of Stevenson’s most challenging projects was the building of the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the entrance to the Firth of Tay. This was to replace a bell on a rock that had claimed many shipwrecks. In 1799 alone, 70 vessels were lost in the Firth of Tay.

Stevenson’s genius in design finally overcame the many problems of stormy weather and off-shore construction (11 miles off Arbroath). He went on to devise specialised lighting for lighthouses, and solved many other engineering problems with canals, harbours and roads.

His sons Alan (1807-65), David (1815-86) and Thomas (1818-87) followed their father into the family business of taming the sea, and they continued to accomplish amazing feats of off-shore construction, such as Muckle Flugga (‘the impossible lighthouse’, at the north end of Shetland) and Skerryvore (between Mull and Tiree).

One of his grandsons was the famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

  • Engraving of the Bell Rock Lighthouse in rough seas

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