Stevenson remembered

Wednesday 8th June comments: Today marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Stevenson. The Steveson family designed most of Scotland’s lighthouses including our very own on the impressive Isle of May.  

Scotland’s oldest lighthouse is called the beacon and it served the isle of May well for 179 years but gradually it limitations were proving decisive. Following the tragedy of two Royal Navy boats which were wrecked in 1810, the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) finally took note and took action. In 1814 the Board purchased the Isle of May from the Duke and Duchess of Partland and called on their engineer Robert Stevenson to design and build a new lighthouse on the island. Construction work commenced soon after and by early 1816, the main lighthouse was fully complete and operational. During this time, the old Beacon was decommissioned and reduced to the ground floor but remained for historical context.

The main lighthouse was an impressive building, standing 78ft (24 metres) in height and was a showpiece for the Northern Lighthouse Board with its castellated tower reflecting influences of Sir Walter Scott. Unlike many other lighthouses built on wave swept rocks, Robert Stevenson was allowed to build the lighthouse to a grand design with a fine open-well newel stairway complete with mahogany handrail and carpet; the only carpeted lighthouse in Scotland.

From its roots in 1816, the lighthouse still stands and is still fully operational to this day beaming across the Firth of Forth.  Looking through the history certain dates stick out and as in 1843 the original fixed beam light was replaced by a revolving flash operated from oil but in 1885 that all changed. Work began to alter the light to operate on electricity and on the 1st December 1886, the Isle of May lighthouse became the first lighthouse in Scotland to be powered by this form of energy. Converting to electricity was not cheap, to a fine tune of £16,000 but the new light had some impressive power as it beamed at 25,000 candle-power and gave four quick flashes in quick succession followed by an interval of 30 seconds. The highest recorded distance at which the light was visible was an impressive 61 nautical miles.

As a result of this change, more staff were needed and additional accommodation complete with boiler house, engine rooms and workshop were constructed in a small valley nearby. This also included a small dam to produce a fresh-water loch for cooling of engines. The engine room was then fitted with two 4.5 ton steam-powered engines which powered the light. These buildings later became known as Fluke Street and still stand today as they are home to the reserve staff who live on the island.

The island certainly has close links to its lighthouses and we’ll raise a glass tonight in honour of the family you designed the impressive building which still stands today.  

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