The lighthouse on Skerryvore and its engineer Alan Stevenson
Author Paul A. Lynn explores the history of ‘the world’s most elegant lighthouse’ and the talents of the remarkable Victorian engineer who designed and built this masterpiece.
The lighthouse on Skerryvore is the tallest ever built in Scotland and has been described as the most elegant in the world.
It stands proud on a vicious rocky outcrop in the North Atlantic, twelve miles off the coast of Tiree. Alan Stevenson, the Scottish engineer who designed and built it between 1837 and 1844, was a remarkable character, a man of many parts who took over from his father Robert Stevenson as Engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board.
A MASTERPIECE OF ENGINEERING
Unlike his single-minded father, who had completed the iconic Bell Rock lighthouse in the North Sea, Alan was far from robust. A natural modesty prevented him from singing his own praises and his finest achievement, Skerryvore, has remained relatively unknown to the public.
Yet it is a masterpiece of Scottish engineering that has protected countless lives in some of the world’s most dangerous waters.
Alan Stevenson was a true original. He could have based his Skerryvore design on the Bell Rock, with its extensive and expensive dovetailing of granite blocks; instead he returned to first principles and asked what was actually necessary to achieve strength and stability in a lighthouse assaulted by Atlantic storms. He came up with a structure of majestic proportions, described by the Institution of Civil Engineers as ‘the finest combination of mass with elegance to be met within architectural or engineering structures’.
The Herculean task of dressing and transporting 4,000 tons of granite across wild seas from Tiree to Skerryvore, and capping the tower with the most sophisticated light ever installed in a British lighthouse, was a challenge accepted and overcome against stupendous odds.
There is far more to the story of Alan Stevenson. Delicate as a child, he gave his mother much anxiety. At school and university in Edinburgh he was torn between the arts and sciences and only settled for an engineering career after years of pressure from his father. He wrote and loved poetry throughout his life, became a friend of William Wordsworth, and knew Sir Walter Scott.
He was an accomplished linguist, completely at home with Ancient Greek and Latin, and highly proficient in French, Italian, and Spanish.
Virtually imprisoned by storms on the jagged rocks of Skerryvore, and responsible for teams of stone masons, artificers, and labourers, he would console himself with poetry, classic literature, and a profound appreciation of the natural world.
A natural artistic sensibility ensured that Skerryvore and his other lighthouses were embellished with architectural and decorative features that added beauty to utility. As a young man he designed cast-iron birds, crocodiles and a rustic balustrade with animal feet for his father’s lighthouse at Girdle Ness.
He spent a lot of time and thought on Skerryvore’s cornice and added delightful hand grips in the form of sea serpents. Later, he decorated his Ardnamurchan lighthouse tower in Egyptian style to reflect his admiration for the ancient Pharos of Alexandria. Engineering, for him, was an art as well as a science.
The Skerryvore years damaged, some would say destroyed, his health. Appointed Engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board shortly before Skerryvore was lit, Alan battled against increasing muscular paralysis and was forced to retire in 1853 at the age of 46. A long period of decline was softened by the love of his wife and family, and the appreciation of friends and colleagues.
When he died in Edinburgh in 1865 the Commissioners recorded ‘their deep and abiding regret for the loss of a man... whose genuine piety, kind heart and high intellect made him beloved’. Few men are granted such an epitaph.
Paul A Lynn is the author of The Lighthouse on Skerryvore to be published by Whittles Publishing. The book is an inspiring engineering story that also discusses the personal background and complex personality of the remarkable Victorian engineer, Alan Stevenson, who designed and built it.
(Photo copyright Ian Cowe, Flickr)