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Early Lighthouses
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 PRO website.

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).

Scottish Lighthouse Museum
Northern Lighthouse Board
Trinity House
Bell Rock lighthouse
Ardnamurchan Lighthouse.

Sheila Mackenzie (National Library of Scotland); David Brown (National Archives of Scotland) Joanna Baird, Robin Urquhart (both SCAN).


Frequently Asked Questions

1. Where can I find information about lighthouse keepers and other lighthouse staff?

2. Where can I find information for a school project on lighthouses?

3. Where can I find information about Robert Stevenson and his family?

4. Where can I find plans of a particular lighthouse?

5. Where can I find original records and other information about the Flannan Lighthouse disaster?

Image 1

Technical drawing of equipment at Sule Skerry lighthouse from Northern Lighthouse Board records in the National Archives of Scotland (NLC3/1/1).

Image 2

Letterhead of the Northern Lighthouse Board from correspondence in the National Archives of Scotland (NLC3/1/1).