The Isle of May Light, at the mouth of the
Firth of Forth, is generally regarded as being the earliest lighthouse
constructed in Scotland. It was built in 1635 by James Maxwell of
Innerwick and John Cunninghame of Barnes. Other lighthouses and
similar buildings on the Scottish coast, such as bell towers, were
simple structures and were built and maintained principally by individual
burghs or by local acts of parliament. Concern at the number of
wrecks due to severe storms in 1782 led the Convention of Royal
Burghs and a House of Commons committee to recommend legislation
to set up a body to fund, build and supervise lighthouses in Scotland,
similar to Trinity House, the lighthouse authority for England,
Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar.
Northern Lighthouse Commissioners
An act of 1786 (26 Geo. III c.101) founded
the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, who had the power to
borrow money, purchase land, levy dues from ship owners, and to
construct lighthouses. The jurisdiction of the Commissioners was
extended by statute to include the Isle of Man (in 1815) and lighthouses
established by burghs and other local authorities (in 1836). The
latter Act - 1836 (6&7 Wm. IV c.79) - made plans for new lighthouses
to be built by the Commissioners subject to approval of Trinity
House. The powers of Trinity House were strengthened and the funding
of lighthouses consolidated into the Mercantile Marine Fund in 1853.
The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 confirmed the Commissioners of
Northern Lighthouses as the authority for lighthouses in Scotland
and the adjacent seas and islands, and the Isle of Man. The Merchant
Shipping Act of 1979 freed the Commissioners from the supervision
of Trinity House.
The Lighthouse Stevensons
Much of the early building work was undertaken
by two innovative engineers: Thomas Smith, an Edinburgh ironsmith
and streetlight designer, and his stepson, Robert Stevenson. They
built 9 lights between 1786 and 1806. Under Smith and Stevenson
many improvements were made to light design, including oil lamps,
reflectors, clockwork mechanisms to rotate the beams, and increased
height of the lighthouse buildings. Robert Stevensonís sons, David,
Alan and Thomas, followed their father into engineering. His grandson,
Robert Louis Stevenson, served three years as an engineering apprentice,
but turned to legal studies and writing.
Location of records
Records relating to lighthouses in Scotland
are held by various archives in Scotland and the Public Record Office
in England, but the principal source of information is the records
of the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, held by the National
Archives of Scotland (reference NLC), with the exception of the
Northern Lighthouse Board Drawings Collection, which is held by
the National Monuments Record for Scotland. The records of the Clyde
Lighthouse Trust are held by Glasgow City Archives (reference: T-CN40-44).
For a list of other collections in Scotland containing records relating
to lighthouses, consult the introduction to the NLC catalogue at
the National Archives of Scotland. The National Library of Scotland
holds the business papers of Robert Stevenson and Sons, lighthouse
engineers (Acc. 10706). The Public Record Office (PRO), in London,
holds records relating to Scottish lighthouses in Ministry of Transport,
Admiralty and Treasury records. For further details see the
Links and bibliography
R W Munro, Scottish Lighthouses (Stornoway,
1979); K Allardyce and E Hood, At Scotlandís Edge (Glasgow,
& London 1986); K Allardyce, Scotlandís Edge Revisited (1998);
B Bathurst, The Lighthouse Stevensons (London, 1998); J Hume,
Harbour Lights (1997); J Leslie and R Paxton, Bright Lights:
The Stevenson Family of Engineers 1752-1971 (1999); C. Mair,
A Star for Seamen: the Stevenson Family of Engineers (1978);
R L Stevenson, Records of a Family of Engineers (1896).
Sheila Mackenzie (National Library of Scotland);
David Brown (National Archives of Scotland) Joanna Baird, Robin
Urquhart (both SCAN).
Where can I find information about lighthouse keepers and other
Where can I find information for a school project on lighthouses?
Where can I find information about Robert Stevenson and his family?
Where can I find plans of a particular lighthouse?
Where can I find original records and other information about the
Flannan Lighthouse disaster?
Technical drawing of equipment at Sule Skerry
lighthouse from Northern Lighthouse Board records in the National
Archives of Scotland (NLC3/1/1).
Letterhead of the Northern Lighthouse Board
from correspondence in the National Archives of Scotland (NLC3/1/1).