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Lighting Scotland's Coasts

A series of disastrous storms hit the Scottish coasts in 1782 and the lives of many fishermen were lost. Strong public interest in improving safety at sea led to the establishment of the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1786. By 1800 they had built their first four lighthouses in key locations. The board and Robert Stevenson, their engineer, then embarked on an ambitious programme for lighting the whole coast. Stevenson's most notable achievement was the construction of a lighthouse on the notorious Bell Rock at the northern approaches to the Tay and Forth estuaries.

Robert Stevenson's stepfather Thomas Smith was the first engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board. Robert was originally taken on as his partner and then succeeded him. He undertook the design and construction of the Bell Rock lighthouse. Stevenson was joined in his consulting civil engineering business by three sons, Alan, David and Thomas (father of Robert Louis Stevenson, the author). Each in turn acted as engineer to the board and contributed significantly to advances in lighthouse construction and illumination.

Although Robert Stevenson is best remembered for his lighthouses around the coasts of Scotland and elsewhere, he also practised widely as a civil engineer on land. Among his commissions were surveys for canals through Strathmore and from Arbroath to Forfar, and for railways in Strathmore and the Edinburgh area, including a line to Galashiels. By 1820 he was recognized as an authority on railways in Scotland, and he was the first to recommend wrought iron rather than cast iron rails.

Stevenson also engineered the eastern approach round Calton Hill to Princes Street, Edinburgh. He designed many bridges, devising a new form of suspension bridge which supported the roadway above rather than below the chains. His proposed bridge at Cramond, near Edinburgh, was not built, but the principle was later applied in the Hammersmith Bridge, London, and in Geneva and elsewhere in Europe.

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