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Skerryvore Lighthouse

A Most Beautiful Lighthouse

A masterpiece of both engineering and tenacity, Skerryvore Lighthouse
is also an enduring work of beauty.


As a teenager I often found myself listening, initially by accident but increasingly by design, to the shipping forecast broadcast just before the BBC evening news. Sea area Viking I could cope with -- no doubt it had something to do with previously unwelcome Norsemen. Humber and Thames were definitely off England's east coast, but Finisterre and Sole had me floundering. And then, towards the end, came Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, and I realized that the announcer's rhythmic tones had worked us clockwise round the coast of Britain towards the islands and ragged coastline of western Scotland. All this exerted a powerful hold on my imagination as I experienced, by proxy, gales and surging waves in the North Atlantic.

A few years later a group of students coaxed an elderly Morris 8 from London via Perth to Skye, a Hebridean island whose magic still haunts me. My wife and I met there and we have since ranged widely, from Islay and Jura in the south to Harris and Lewis in the north, hillwalking, camping, tempting trout in isolated lochs, and island hopping on the ubiquitous CalMac ferries.

In the early days I was more or less unaware of lighthouses. Of course, like every English schoolboy I had heard of Grace Darling, the lighthouse keeper's daughter who in 1838 helped her father rescue shipwreck survivors in appalling weather and row them back to the safety of the Longstone lighthouse.

Later I chanced upon several fine lighthouses in the west of Scotland, from the Rinns of Islay in the south to Stoer Head in the far north, but had no idea who had designed and built them, or when. Back in England I visited the tower of John Smeaton's famous Eddystone Rock lighthouse, first lit in 1759 and subsequently rebuilt for tourist inspection on Plymouth Hoe, and on one occasion encouraged our young family up a dizzy staircase in the Old Light on Lundy Island. Otherwise, ignorance prevailed.

Then a few years ago a friend suggested Bella Bathurst's book The Lighthouse Stevensons as a thoroughly rewarding account of the early Scottish lighthouses and their builders. I was introduced to the Northern Lighthouse Board and its first Engineer, Thomas Smith, who built 11 lighthouses in the period 1787-1806, and Robert Stevenson, Engineer from 1808 to 1842, who added 14 of his own, including the iconic Bell Rock off the east coast of Scotland. I learned about his eldest son Alan -- the principal hero of this story -- and the remarkable Stevenson family dynasty that for well over a century continued to design and build one of the finest historical collections of lighthouses in the world. All told, the Stevenson engineers accounted for around 200 lights and transformed the survival chances of mariners risking their lives in Scottish waters.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2017 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo © Ian Cowe