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Robert Stevenson- Scottish designer and builder of lighthouses

Tijana Radeska
Robert Stevenson

Stevenson was born in 1772, in Glasgow. His father died when he was an infant and his mother soon remarried Thomas Smith, a Scottish businessman, and an early lighthouse engineer.

Stevenson started learning the crafts of lighthouse engineering when he was 15. At the age of 19, Stevenson was appointed to supervise the erection of a lighthouse on the island of Little Cumbrae in the River Clyde.

Bust of Robert Stevenson by Samuel Joseph, commissioned 19 July 1824 by the Northern Lighthouse Board. Photo credit

Bust of Robert Stevenson by Samuel Joseph commissioned 19th July 1824 by the Northern Lighthouse Board. Photo credit

 

Robert Stevenson's grave, New Calton Cemetery. Photo credit

Robert Stevenson’s grave, New Calton Cemetery. Photo credit

He was devoted to becoming a civil engineer and worked tirelessly to fulfill his ambitions. Before attending lectures at the Andersonian Institute at Glasgow, Stevenson had regularly practiced his architectural drawing. When he enrolled in the Institute, he enriched his knowledge with lectures in mathematics and physical sciences.

Later he enrolled in the University of Edinburgh where he studied many subjects but didn’t earn a degree due to his poor knowledge of Latin and Greek. In 1799, Stevenson married his stepsister and the following year became Smith’s business partner. By that time, he had also been appointed an engineer to the Lighthouse Board.

Watercolour of the lighthouse by J. M. W. Turner (1819), Scottish National Gallery collection

Watercolour of the lighthouse by J. M. W. Turner (1819), Scottish National Gallery collection

On the east coast of Scotland, near Dundee and the entrance to the Firth of Tay, there are hidden rocks beneath the waves that claimed the lives of many people and which are the reason for the wreck of 70 ships that have never been found. There is a legend that an abbot from nearby Arbroath Abbey had installed a warning bell on the rocks during the 14th century. But it wasn’t until 1789 when the construction of a lighthouse at the place was proposed by Robert Stevenson.

Shows the lighthouse under construction including half of the temporary beacon that was constructed alongside to accommodate the workers and serve as a temporary lighthouse

The lighthouse under construction including half of the temporary beacon that was constructed alongside to accommodate the workers and serve as a temporary lighthouse

 

Bell Rock Lighthouse with reef just visible. Photo credit

Bell Rock Lighthouse with the reef just visible. Photo credit

At first, the members of the Northern Lighthouse Board considered Stevenson’s idea impossible because of its required expenses. In 1804 the huge 64-gun warship HMS York and its crew of 491 got completely lost in the sea. Then, the Northern Lighthouse Board reconsidered Stevenson’s idea.

The construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse began in 1807, headed by Stevenson and 20 other men who worked 20 hours per day. They were exposed to numerous dangers during the construction of the lighthouse. By 1810 the construction was slowed down due to various factors, and Robert lost his twins and the youngest daughter who died of whooping cough. The lighthouse was finished the following year when it was lit for the first time.

The Bell Rock Lighthouse is the most important work of Stevenson’s life, but he’s also a recognized constructor of other lighthouses such as the Isle of Mary lighthouse, built in 1816, Corsewall Lighthouse built in 1817, Point of Ayre lighthouse, which is the northernmost point on the Isle of Man, as well as many others around Scotland.

Robert Stevenson's lighthouse on the Isle of May. Photo credit

Robert Stevenson’s lighthouse on the Isle of May. Photo credit

 

Corsewall Lighthouse and Hotel. Photo credit

Corsewall Lighthouse and Hotel. Photo credit

 

Point of Ayre lighthouse This lighthouse sits on the gravel spit at the most northerly point of the Isle of Man. Photo credit

The Ayre lighthouse. The lighthouse sits on the gravel spit at the most northerly point of the Isle of Man. Photo credit

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Stevenson died in 1850, at the age of 79 in Edinburgh.