Robert Stevenson was born on the 8th of June, 1772.
Robert Stevenson, FRSE, MWS, FGSL, MICE, was a noteworthy Scottish civil engineer, but he is best known as a builder of lighthouses, such as the Bell Rock and Lismore. Stevenson is credited with practically inventing the Scottish lighthouse system, and was the inventor of the intermittent and flashing-light system now universally used by modern lighthouses. For over one hundred and fifty years Robert Stevenson and his descendants designed most of Scotland’s Lighthouses. Battling against the odds and the elements, the Stevensons constructed wonders of engineering that have withstood the test of time. That was an amazing achievement.
Robert Stevenson was born in Glasgow on the 8th of June, 1772, but when his father died of fever, two years later, the family moved to Edinburgh, where Robert was enrolled at the High School. His mother remarried, to Thomas Smith, an Edinburgh ironsmith and streetlight designer, and as a young man, Robert acted as assistant to his stepfather, who was involved in the supervision of such Scottish lighthouses as existed at that time. Those were few in number and crudely illuminated by coal fires, albeit Thomas Smith had already done much to improve them, through the introduction of oil lamps and reflectors.
Stevenson attended Anderson’s College and the University of Glasgow, and worked hard to qualify himself as a civil engineer. In 1791, as an early endorsement of his abilities, he was entrusted, at least in part, with the building of the lighthouse on Little Cumbrae, on the Firth of Clyde. Then, in 1794, Stevenson was delegated the superintendence of the erection of the Pentland Skerries Lighthouse. Stevenson worked as partner to his stepfather for the Northern Lighthouse Board and together they built nine lights, between 1786 and 1806. During his thirty-four years afterwards as sole engineer with the Board, Stevenson was responsible for designing eighteen more of Scotland’s lighthouses.
Perhaps Stevenson’s greatest achievement is the Bell Rock Lighthouse, which still stands, eleven miles out to sea off the east coast of Scotland, practically 200 years after it was first built. This incredible feat of engineering, over thirty meters high and precariously poised on a treacherous sandstone reef, has not required a single repair to its stonework since the day it was completed, in 1811. Many regard it as the finest lighthouse ever built and the most outstanding engineering achievement of the 19th Century.
Nevertheless, there remains a controversy over whether all the credit should go to Stevenson. Without doubt, it was his idea. He surveyed the reef in the summer of 1800 and devised a plan for a substantial stone tower, which he submitted to the Board. His plan was rejected at first, however, the debate stems from the Board’s decision, after the tragedy of HMS York, which was ripped apart on the Rock, to turn to another Scot; John Rennie.
Rennie had never actually built a lighthouse, but the Board was so impressed by his record that he was given the job of Chief Engineer, with Stevenson given the role of Resident Engineer. There can be no question that the two men collaborated on the design, based on Stevenson’s original plan, but when the twenty-four great lanterns were lit for the first time on the 1st of February, 1811, there was no question over who had actually built the Bell Rock Lighthouse – that was definitely Stevenson.
It was Stevenson who had endured the daily rigours, the back breaking hardships and the violent storms, for over four years, to complete the work, whilst Rennie only ever made two visits to the Rock during the entire period of construction, from 1807 to 1810. The minutes of a statutory general meeting of the Board of Northern Lighthouses following Stevenson’s death neatly sum up the facts: “[The Board] …desire to record their regret at the death of this zealous, faithful and able officer, to whom is due the honour of conceiving and executing the great work of the Bell Rock Lighthouse... .”
Robert Stevenson began a dynasty, which became known as the ‘Lighthouse Stevensons’. Between 1790 and 1940, eight members of the family planned, designed and built ninety-seven lighthouses around the Scottish coast. Robert was the father of lighthouse builders Alan, David and Thomas Stevenson, grandfather of David and Charles, and great-grandfather of Alan, who continued the dynasty.
Stevenson was responsible for the introduction of clockwork mechanisms to rotate the lighthouse beams and was indeed the inventor of intermittent and flashing lights. He received a gold medal from the King of the Netherlands for those flashing lights, but he was also involved in other forms of engineering. He was involved in canal building, harbour and railway construction, and suggested the use of flanged wheels and flexible rails for railways (as opposed to the brittle cast iron ones used beforehand). Stevenson also drained the Nor’ Loch, designed and built Regent Road around Calton Hill in Edinburgh, and the Hutcheson Bridge in Glasgow.
His grandson, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote, “Whenever I smell salt water, I know I am not far from the works of my ancestors. There is scarce a deep sea light from the Isle of Man to North Berwick, but one of my blood designed it. The Bell Rock stands monument for my grandfather, the Skerry Vhor for my Uncle Alan and when the lights come on at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.”
Robert Stevenson married Jean Smith who, curiously enough, was the daughter of his stepfather by an earlier marriage, which meant his ‘father’ was also his father-in-law. Robert retired, in 1843, and died on the 12th of July, 1850. He was buried in New Calton Cemetery, in Edinburgh, together with his wife and eight of his thirteen children, who sadly failed to survive into adulthood.