The Stevenson family’s involvement in lighthouse engineering began with RLS’s grandfather, Robert Stevenson (1772-1850).
Robert’s mother Jean Lillie (1751-1820) had married Thomas Smith (1753-1815) who was an engineer at the Northern Lighthouse Board.
(Note: The Board was founded in 1786 and still operates today. It’s aim is the safety of the mariner and the investigation into new “navigational technologies”. The Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) has an Edinburgh address at 84 George Street.)
Robert Stevenson soon followed in his step-father’s professional footsteps, becoming his assistant. In 1791 he supervised the building of the Clyde Lighthouse on Little Cumbrae in the River Clyde.
In 1794, Robert also supervised the construction of the Pentland Skerries Lighthouse. From 1797-1843 Robert acted as engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board. During this time he oversaw the construction of many lighthouses, the most famous of which was the Bell Rock Lighthouse.
Notably, Robert Stevenson invented intermittent and flashing lights. His invention earned him a gold medal from the King of Netherlands. Although most well-known for his lighthouses, Robert also engineered bridges, roads, and railways, among other things.
In 1797, Robert married his step-sister Jean Smith (1779-1846). The couple had 13 children, but only 5 survived into adulthood. Three of his sons, Alan (1807-1865), David (1815-1886) and Thomas (RLS’s father, 1818 – 1887) became lighthouse engineers as well.
David designed lighthouses for Japan as well as Scotland, working with Richard Henry Brunton (1841-1901).
Robert’s daughter Jane (1801-1864) illustrated the Bell Rock Lighthouse. Her illustrations appear in Alan Stevenson’s biography of his father: Biographical Sketches of the Late Robert Stevenson: Civil Engineer (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1861) – see below.
Alan Stevenson’s children, ‘Mab’ (Jean Margaret Alan, 1846-1900), Bob (Robert Alan Mowbray, 1847-1900) and Katherine (later Katherine de Mattos, 1851-1939), did not continue in the family business.
Although Thomas Stevenson wished his son would become a lighthouse engineer, RLS (1850-1894) knew he wanted to be a writer:
“Anstruther is a place sacred to the Muse [. . .] and I have there waited upon her myself with much devotion. This was when I came as a young man to glean engineering experience from the building of the breakwater. What I gleaned, I am sure I do not know; but indeed I had already my own private determination to be an author; I loved the art of words and the appearances of life; and travelers, and headers, and rubble, and polished ashlar, and pierres perdues, and even the thrilling question of the string-course, interested me only (if they interested me at all) as properties for some possible romance or as words to add to my vocabulary.”
(“Random Memories – The Education of an Engineer” in Across the Plains with Other Memories and Essays [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], pp. 189-90).
RLS was, however, fascinated by his grandfather and wrote about him in “Records of a Family of Engineers” (1896).
David Stevenson’s sons, however, did carry on the Stevenson name in lighthouse engineering. David Alan Stevenson (1854-1938) and Charles Alexander Stevenson (1855-1950) designed numerous lighthouses from the late nineteenth century to the late 1930s.
Below you will find listings of the lighthouses designed by the Stevenson family:
Bell Rock Lighthouse, 1811 (Inchape, off of the east coast of Scotland near Dundee and Fife)
Isle of May , 1816 (north of the outer Firth of Forth)
Corsewall, 1818 (Corsewall Point, Kirkcolm, Dumfries & Galloway)
Point of Ayre, 1818 (Isle of Man)
Calf of Man, 1818 (off the southwest coast of the Isle of Man)
Sumburgh Head, 1821 (Shetland Islands)
Rinns of Islay, 1825 (Orsay, Inner Hebrides)
Buchan Ness, 1827 (near Boddam, Aberdeenshire)
Cape Wrath, 1828 (Sutherland, Highland)
Tarbat Ness, 1830 (near Portmahomack, Highland)
Mull of Galloway, 1830 (Wigtownshire, Dumfries & Galloway)
Dunnet Head, 1831 (Caithness, Highland)
Girdle Ness, 1833 (Aberdeen)
Barra Head, 1833 (Berneray, Outer Hebrides)
Eilean Musdile, 1833 (both Robert and his son Alan, near Lismore)
Eilean Musdile, 1833 (both Alan and his father, near Lismore)
Little Ross 1843 (near Meikle Ross, Dumfries & Galloway)
Skerryvore, 1844 (a reef off the west coast of Scotland)
Covesea Skerries, 1846 (south coast of the Moray Firth, near Lossiemouth, Moray)
Chanonry Point, 1846 (Moray Firth between Fortrose and Rosemarkie, Black Isle)
Cromarty, 1846 (northeast tip of the Black Isle)
Cairn Point (also known as Loch Ryan), 1847 (Cairnryan, Dumfries & Galloway)
Noss Head, 1849 (near Wick in Caithness, Highland)
Ardnamurchan Point, 1849 (Lochaber, Highland)
Sanda Island, 1850 (Argyll & Bute)
Hestan Island, 1850 (Solway Firth, Auchenairn Bay, Dumfries & Galloway)
Hoy High and Hoy Low Lighthouses, 1851 (Graemsay, Orkney Islands)
Arnish Point, 1853 (Stornoway Harbour, Isle of Lewis)
Whalsay Skerries, 1854 (Shetland Islands)
Out Skerries, 1854 (Shetland Islands)
Muckle Flugga, 1854 (Shetland Islands)
Davaar Island, 1854 (off the east coast of Kintyre, Argyll & Bute)
Ushenish, 1857 (South Uist, Outer Hebrides)
South Rona Island, 1857 (Inner Hebrides)
Kyleakin, 1857 (Isle of Skye)
Ornsay, 1857 (Eialean Sionnach islet, off the Isle of Skye)
Rubha nan Gall, 1857 (Sound of Mull)
Cantick Head, 1858 (Isle of Hoy, Orkney Islands)
Bressay, 1858 (Bressay Sound, Shetland Islands)
Ruvaal, 1859 (Isle of Islay)
Corran Point, 1860 (Corran Narrows, Ardgour, Highland)
Fladda, 1860 (one of the Slate Islands, Argyll & Bute)
McArthur’s Head, 1861 (Isle of Islay)
St Abb’s Head, 1862 (St Abb’s, Berwickshire, Borders)
Butt of Lewis, 1862 (Isle of Lewis)
Holborn Head, 1862 (Caithness, Highland)
Monach Islands, 1864 (Outer Hebrides)
Skervuile, 1865 (Sound of Jura)
Auskerry, 1866 (Orkney Islands)
Lochindaal, 1869 (Isle of Islay)
Scurdie Ness, 1870 (near Montrose, Angus)
Stoer Head (Ru Stoer), 1870 (Lochinver, Highland)
Dubh Artach, 1872 (on Dhu Heartach skerry, west coast of Scotland)
Turnberry, 1873 (Turnberry, South Ayrshire)
Chicken Rock, 1875 (Isle of Man)
Lindisfarne, 1877, 1880 (Holy Island, England)
Fidra , 1885 (David A Stevenson constructed this lighthouse with Thomas Stevenson, Firth of Forth)
Oxcars, 1886 (David A Stevenson constructed this lighthouse with Thomas Stevenson, near Aberdour, Fife)
Ailsa Craig , 1886 (David A Stevenson constructed this lighthouse with Thomas Stevenson)
Skroo (or Fair Isle North), 1892 (Shetland Islands)
Helliar Holm (or Saeva Ness), 1893 (Orkney Islands)
Sule Skerry, 1895 (Orkney Islands)
Rattray Head, 1895 (Buchan, Aberdeenshire)
Stroma, 1896 (Stroma Island, Pentland Firth)
Tod Head, 1897 (Catterline, Aberdeenshire)
Noup Head, 1898 (Westray, Orkney Islands)
Flannan Isles, 1899 (Eilean Mor, Outer Hebrides)
Tiumpan Head, 1900 (Portvoller, Isle of Lewis)
Killantringan, 1900 (Wigtownshire, Dumfries and Galloway)
Barns Ness, 1901 (off Dunbar, East Lothian)
Bass Rock, 1903 (off North Berwick, East Lothian)
Hyskeir, 1904 (off Canna and the Isle of Rhum)
Eilean Trodday, 1908 (off the Isle of Skye)
Neist Point, 1909 (Isle of Skye)
Rubh Re, 1912 (west coast of Sutherland, Highland)
Milaid Point, 1912 (near Leumrabhagh, Eilean Siar, Outer Hebrides)
Maughold Head, 1914 (Isle of Man)
Copinsay, 1915 (Orkney Islands)
Clyth Ness, 1916 (near Lybster, Caithness, Highland)
Duncansby Head, 1924 (most northeasterly part of Scottish mainland)
Esha Ness, 1929 (Northmavine Peninsula, Shetland Islands)
Tor Ness, 1937 (Pentland Firth, Orkney Islands)
Photos courtesy of Alan Marchbank. Top left drawing courtesy of University of South Carolina. Sketch of the Bell Rock Lighthouse by Jane Stevenson, from Alan Stevenson, Biographical Sketches of the Late Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1861).