Share this story Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

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.


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)



Back to "Expert history articles" Category

22/12/2014 Share this story   Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Recent Updates

Moray student awarded scholarship for ground-breaking archaeology research

A Moray student is to undertake new research into the fate of farms which were set up on marginal land after ...

Two Scottish visitor attractions pass 2 million visitors landmark

Two of Scotland's most popular visitor attractions each welcomed more than 2 millions visitors during 2017, ...

The Tempest Database - exploring five centuries of extreme weather in Scotland

A new website which allows users to browse five centuries of weather data for Scotland and the rest of the UK ...

When is Tartan Day?

Find out when Tartan Day is, and how this special day is celebrated in Scotland, the original home of tartan, ...

Other Articles

Artefacts recovered from the Castle Midden and Back Walk in Stirling - Scottish archaeology news

A range of artefacts recovered from two sites on the edge of the medieval burgh and castle at Stirling sheds ...

New research uncovers the story of the first Chinese Scotsman

As the world prepares to celebrate Chinese New Year, new research has been released which reveals the ...

Spotlight on Abertay Historical Society

Founded in 1947, Abertay Historical Society exists to promote interest in, and the study of, interest in the ...

The best Scottish castles to visit in springtime

Enjoy a trip to a Scottish castle during Spring, with our pick of castles around Scotland, as voted for by ...