LIGHTHOUSES have operated in Scotland for hundreds of years, giving vessels warning of their proximity to potentially hazardous waters and providing solace to sailors come rain, shine or strong gales.

Without lighthouses, it is certain the waters surrounding Scotland would be home to far more than the 20,000 shipwrecks that, according to researchers Ian Crawford and Peter Moir, currently dot its coast.

The Beacon, which still sits proudly at the pinnacle of the Isle of May in the north of the outer Firth of Forth, is considered Scotland’s oldest lighthouse. Constructed in 1636, it was designed to warn ships of the hidden dangers lurking just below the water as they headed for Edinburgh. Vessels were charged a tonnage-based fee for the privilege, but Scottish ships were only required to pay half the amount levied on those belonging to other countries.

In the late 1700s, Scotland’s economy boomed, largely as a result of rapid, widespread industrialisation. The country became a world leader in a host of industries, from textiles to iron, shipbuilding to banking.

The Bell Rock, designed by Robert Stevenson

As a result of this, and owing to the establishment of prosperous trade routes with the West Indies, Scotland’s waters became increasingly crowded.

In order to protect goods and human lives, a spate of lighthouses were built along the Scottish coast over the span of just a few decades. Between 1749 and 1810 no fewer than 13 permanent stone lighthouses were built, and the clamour for lighthouses only accelerated during the 19th century, with a new one being erected on average every 18 months.

The mastermind behind a great number of these creations was Robert Stevenson – widely regarded as one of Scotland’s great engineering minds – who was born 250 years ago this year.

He designed at least 19 Scottish lighthouses – as well as six major bridges – but it is for the creation of Bell Rock Lighthouse that he is perhaps best remembered.

Bell Rock, which sits just off the Angus Coast, is the oldest existing (and still operating) rock lighthouse in Scotland, or indeed anywhere in the British Isles, and is considered by many to be Stevenson’s masterpiece.

It was then, and remains today, a work of pioneering genius. Completed in 1810, Bell Rock stands as a testament to Stevenson’s ingenuity, dedication and craftsmanship.

When it was being on a sandstone reef 12 miles off the coast, Stevenson and his team were forced to contend not only with working far from shore, but also with the tricky obstacle of, at high tide, the reef being entirely underwater. In fact, the reef sits above water for just two hours every day, so for the majority of the build, labourers worked while partly submerged.

Given the abundant challenges, it is quite astounding that Bell Rock took only three years to build, and that, due to the exceptional degree of its masonry work, has not had to be replaced or adapted in the 200 years since.

However, according to Michael Strachan, collections manager at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, Stevenson – whose sons Alan, David and Thomas also become revered lighthouse designers – deserves to be acknowledged for far more than simply designing one of Scotland’s most iconic structures.

“It was Robert who made the lighthouse service in Scotland a professional and respected institution around the world,” Strachan said.

“He wrote the light-keeping rule book which was eventually emulated globally. His impact on the lighthouse service in Scotland can never be overstated.”

The Bell Rock, designed by Robert StevensonLighthouse engineer Robert Stevenson

Today, the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) operates 207 lighthouses across Scotland and the Isle of Man. For much of their history, these lighthouses were permanently manned, with keepers routinely spending four weeks at a time isolated and trapped indoors, and compelled to remain awake throughout the night to ensure the light operated correctly.

It was a lonely, specialised job, with keepers needing to be adept at mechanical repairs, radio operation, cooking and, from time to time, assisting with search and rescue missions. They also had to be hardy, content in their own company and accepting of the idea that they could be dragged into the sea at a moment’s notice.

March 3, 1998, when Fair Isle South became fully automated, signalled the end of the traditional lighthouse keeper role. Since then, the vast majority of people who have stepped inside working lighthouses have been part of NLB maintenance teams, and tend to stay for hours rather than weeks. This, according to Strachan, is the most notable difference between how lighthouses operated during Stevenson’s time, and how they are managed today.

“If we take Kinnaird Head in Fraserburgh as an example, it previously required three men working full-time to keep the lighthouse operating. Now, it requires one man to attend once a month, or whenever an issue arises,” Strachan said. “Although automation of lighthouses is sometimes portrayed in a negative light for putting men out of work, lighthouses – particularly ones offshore – are now safer and more economical to run.”

Aside from keeping Scotland’s lighthouses functional, one of the NLB’s core motivations is to introduce efficiencies wherever possible. Through the installation of high-powered LED marine lanterns, and by using solar power at its lighthouses and on all of its statutory navigational buoys, the NLB is updating its lighthouses for the modern day, while carefully retaining each property’s unique character, and protecting the legacy of some of Scotland’s most iconic buildings.

“Lighthouses have a special place in the hearts of Scots, particularly those of us who live around the coast,” Strachan said. “We punched above our weight on the world stage through the work of the Stevenson family. Their unique designs are not only admired here in Scotland, but around the world.”

The Bell Rock, designed by Robert StevensonKyleakin lighthouse

Scotland’s proud history of lighthouse innovation is something Donald S. Murray, author of For the Safety of All: A Story of Scotland’s Lighthouses, is equally keen to promote.

“There is no doubt that lighthouses are integral to the Scottish perception of ourselves in a way they are not always elsewhere,” Murray told The National. “They are still important for psychological reasons. They remind people of where they are in a much more crucial way than any map or reminder on a screen. They also often inform people that land is close at hand. This can often be a comfort, especially in stormy seas.

“Lighthouses played a major role in my life as a child. Even today I sometimes have the sense that they’re following me. A lighthouse – the one on Bressay in Shetland – still gleams through my kitchen window today.”