Ever since the Bellrock Lighthouse was built there has
been ongoing controversy as to exactly who built the lighthouse
- did John Rennie in fact have more to do with its
design and construction than he has been given credit for?
Up till now the descendants of Robert Stevenson
have steadfastly maintained the family line that it was
Stevenson, and only Stevenson, who wholly conceived and
planned its every nut and bolt. However, in
a new publication Bright Lights - The Stevenson
Engineers 1752-1971 - an excellent history of
the Stevenson family, under joint authorship of Professor
Roland Paxton and Mrs Jean Leslie (whose mother incidentally
was a Stevenson), Prof. Paxton has broken ranks
with the familys long-held stance. The book points
out that Stevenson was less than fair, not
only whose design was ultimately accepted, but on other
aspects concerning the lighthouses construction.
D. Alan Stevenson (Mrs Leslies uncle), in his work
The Worlds Lighthouses Before 1820,
also deals at length with the matter. However, he firmly
comes down in favour of his great-grandfather, and in his
book he devotes an Appendix fully to the subject.
In fact, the Lighthouse Board had appointed Rennie as Chief
Engineer in 1806 and as such he (along with Stevenson)
duly submitted Designs and Reports for the Boards
consideration, although it would appear he actually visited
the site only twice during the years of construction from1807
to 1811. Rennies son, Sir John Rennie, claimed that
his father never received proper recognition for
his work concerning the lighthouse.
What is absolutely certain is that Robert Stevenson was
the engineer-in-charge. He undoubtedly
shared the considerable hardships and dangers along with
his men during the years of the lighthouses construction,
and that he attended to the day-to-day decisions concerning
all aspects of its building (as well as dealing with on-the-spot
problems) is unquestionable! There may be an element of
doubt on the design question, but that he built
it there can be little doubt!
If the truth be known, it was John Smeaton who actually
pioneered the building of the stone tower lighthouse in
modern times (as in the Eddystone of 1759). Admittedly
the situation of his lighthouse was somewhat different from
that of the Bell Rock in that even at high tide the water
scarcely ever reached the stonework. Whereas on the Bell
Rock the water only cleared the rock on average only 2 hours
every low tide and even at that only during spring tides.
It was his lighthouse, however, that both Stevenson and
Rennie freely admit to drawing on for their own designs
for the construction of the Bell Rock. The Eddystone could
well be described as the prototype or blueprint,
as it were, for the Bell Rock.
However, it is not the intention here to lay out again
the whys and wherefores and pros and cons
of the affair. If there has to be any doubts about the design,
it is perhaps what Stevensons Account
doesnt say which is most telling! Considering
that Rennie was appointed Chief Engineer and Stevenson as
his Assistant, there does appear to be scant reference to
the former in the text of the Account during
the years of the lighthouses construction! Nevertheless,
suffice it to say that on Robert Stevensons death
in 1850, at a Statutory General Meeting of the Board
of Northern Lighthouses, the following Minute was recorded:
The Board, before proceeding to business, desire
to record their regret at the death of this zealous, faithful,
and able officer, to whom is due the honour of conceiving
and executing the great work of the Bell Rock Lighthouse
. . .
When Robert Stevenson died in 1850, there is every chance
that the Commissioners pondered long and hard over the exact
wording of their Minute.
They were almost certainly well aware of the correspondence
which had appeared the previous year in "The Civil Engineer
and Architect's Journal" between Alan Stevenson and
Sir John Rennie, stating the claims of their respective
fathers about who should have the ultimate honour of building
the lighthouse. The letters in the Journal that year (1849)
saw the beginning of what might best be termed a gentlemen's
slanging match between the families of the two men.
So were the words used by the Board - ie "conceiving" and
"executing" - carefully chosen? Could this possibly have
been little more a diplomatic acquiescence on Board's behalf,
who really could not (under the circumstances) point out
that they had actually appointed John Rennie as Chief Engineer
to the Works, and who (for very obvious reasons) did not
feel inclined to say so in front of Robert's three sons
who had more than just a vested interest in what the Minute
was about to say about their late father!
Both "conceiving" and "executing" to a greater or lesser
degree can be open to interpretation, and may well be little
more than the proverbial "broad brush". It need not necessarily
mean "wholly responsible and totally involved in every aspect
of the Lighthouse's planning and construction - to the exclusion
of all others".
The stream of letters between Sir John Rennie and Alan
and David Stevenson published in the Journal are not included
here. They merely state the case in favour of their respective
fathers, and cannot be considered independent and unbiased
Bearing in mind the old saying that "no stone was left
unturned" by those who have already done considerable research
on the matter (ie, the relatives), it is perhaps best to
look at what other competent observers have to say on the
The first extract comes from Samuel Smiles' "Lives of
the Engineers - Smeaton and Rennie" (1860).
Whether or not Dr Smiles can be considered truly independent
and unbiased remains to be seen as he is obviously writing
about Rennie's achievements, so it can be argued that he's
not about to say anything critical against him!
Smiles gives an entire chapter to the Bell Rock within
the Rennie section of the book. As it was, the Stevenson
family (being very unhappy at what Smiles eventually had
to say) made representation to him, but although the book
ran into several editions, he was having none of it, and
did not find reason to change any of what he had said. Towards
the end of the chapter, he sums up:
"Notwithstanding the facts which we have stated, showing
that Mr Rennie acted throughout as the chief engineer of
the lighthouse - that he furnished the design, arranged
the details of the building, settled the kind of materials
to be used, down even to the mode of mixing the mortar,
and from time to time made various alterations and modifications
in the plans of the work during its progress, with the sanction
of the Commissioners - his name has not usually been identified
with the erection of the structure; the credit having been
almost exclusively given to Mr Robert Stevenson, the resident
engineer - arising, no doubt, from the circumstance of Mr
Rennie being in great measure ignored in the "Account of
the Bell Rock Lighthouse," published by Mr Stevenson several
years after the death of Mr Rennie.
"The following account was given by Mr Rennie himself,
in a letter to Matthew Boulton of Birmingham [dated 12th
March 1814, Boulton MSS], relative to his own and Mr Stevenson's
connection with the plans and erection of the lighthouse:
"Mr Robert Stevenson was bred a tinsmith and lamp-maker,
in which line he was employed by a Mr Thomas Smith, a considerable
manufacturer in Edinburgh, who had the care of the reflectors
and lamps belonging to the Commissioners of Northern Lights.
While in Smith's employment Stevenson married his daughter,
and Smith, advancing in years, employed Stevenson to look
after the Northern Lights. This he did for several years.
When Smith declined the situation, Stevenson was elected
in his place.
"When the Bell Rock Lighthouse was erected, Stevenson
was employed to superintend the whole. A regular head mason
and carpenter were employed under him. The original plans
were made by me, and the work was visited by me from time
to time during its progress. When the work was completed,
Stevenson considered that he had acquired sufficient knowledge
to start as a civil engineer, and in that line he has been
most indefatigable in looking after employment, by writing
and applying wherever he thought there was a chance of success.
"He assumed the merit of applying coloured glass to
lighthouses, of which Huddart was the actual inventor, and
I have no doubt that he will also assume the whole merit
of planning and erecting the Bell Rock Lighthouse, if he
has not already done so. I am told that few weeks pass without
a puff or two in his favour in the Edinburgh papers."
"Mr Stevenson was unquestionably entitled to great merit
for the able manner in which he performed his duties as
a superintendent in connection with the building of the
Lighthouse. Mr Rennie was always ready to acknowledge this.
But had any failure occurred in consequence of a defect
in the plans, Mr Rennie, and not Mr Stevenson, would have
been held responsible. As, however, the Lighthouse proved
a success, it is but fair that the chief engineer should
not be deprived of the merit which unquestionably belonged
to him. It is a matter of impossibility that engineers in
extensive practice should personally superintend the various
structures designed by them, and which are proceeding at
the same time in different parts of the country. Hence the
appointment, at their recommendation, of superintendents
or resident engineers, whose business it is to see that
the details of the design are faithfully carried out, and
that the work is executed in all respects according to the
chief engineer's designs and instructions.
"To take two instances - Telford's Menai Bridge and Stephenson's
Britannia Bridge - in the former of which cases Mr Provis
was appointed resident engineer, and in the latter Mr Edwin
Clarke. Both of these gentlemen afterwards published detailed
histories of these works; but neither of them ignored the
chief engineer, nor did they claim the exclusive merit of
having been the successful erectors of these magnificent
"During Mr Rennie's lifetime various notices were published,
claiming for Mr Stevenson the sole credit of having designed
and erected the lighthouse. At this Mr Rennie was naturally
annoyed; and the more so when he learnt that Mr Stevenson
was about to "write a book" without communicating with him
on the subject. "I have no wish," he says, in a letter to
a friend, "to prevent his writing a book. If he details
the truth fairly and impartially, I am satisfied. I do not
wish to arrogate to myself any more than is justly my due,
and I do not want to degrade him. If he writes what is not
true, he will only expose himself. I bethink me of what
Job said, 'Oh that mine enemy would write a book!' " The
volume, however, was not published till three years after
Rennie's death; and it was not until the publication of
Sir John's work on Breakwaters, that his father's claims
as chief and responsible engineer of the lighthouse were
fairly asserted and afterwards fully and clearly established."
The second comment comes from a book by C. T. G. Boucher,
PhD, MSc.Tech' ARIBA, AMIStructE, Lecturer in the Manchester
College of Science and Technology and the University of
Manchester: "John Rennie 1761-1821 - The Life and Work of
a Great Engineer" (Manchester UP, 1963).
After a detailed study of the arguments For and Against
he assesses three major issues:
"Firstly, with respect to the actual design, both
engineers agree in describing the lighthouse as being a
copy of Smeaton's Eddystone tower with sundry improvements
in details and dimensions, so that only a moderate degree
of credit attaches to the actual preparation of the design.
It is quite certain that Rennie prepared a design and submitted
this to the N.L.C. and this was the design upon which the
estimate was based and Parliamentary sanction obtained.
It was, however, supplementary to Stevenson's earlier drawing,
which it did not supersede as regards constructional details
but only with respect to dimensions and appearance. In the
event the finished lighthouse more nearly resembled Stevenson's
design than Rennie's.
"Secondly - and a point to which more importance attaches
than the production of the drawings - who was responsible
for the actual supervision? Here there can be little
doubt that Rennie was placed over Stevenson. The actual
minutes quoted, Rennie's visits and reports, all indicate
that he was in a position to give instructions or make alterations
as he wished. He was not on an equal footing with Stevenson,
and he was certainly not subordinate to the resident engineer,
otherwise his engagement would have been pointless. His
relationship is amply confirmed by going through Stevenson's
reports to Rennie. There are 82 in all, reporting progress,
seeking advice, asking for instructions and enclosing drawings
for approval. Although they do not fawn, some of them are
almost obsequious in their language, and all show that he
was dependent upon Rennie's verdict. We find Rennie in his
reports taking a real and active part in the supervision
of the work on the highest plane."
Dr Boucher quotes from one of Stevenson's Reports to Rennie,
showing clearly the true nature of the relationship between
them - dated 28th December 1805:
". . . In sending these plans I by no means wish
to be understood to do anything more than merely lay before
you a subject which has cost me much, very much, trouble
and consideration without supposing myself to have succeeded
fully, on the contrary, I am confident that your great experience,
and extensive practice, must render a subject of this kind
familiar to your mind, and be highly improved in your hands.
I shall only add that if you find any part of the communication
now made to you, useful, it will be highly gratifying to
me, and should you require any further explanation . . .
"Thirdly, what credit belongs to Rennie for the execution
of the works? Here the answer must be - little or none.
Stevenson faced the violence of the storm and the treachery
of the sea. There is no doubt that he was absolutely identified
with the work he undertook. He designed a floating light
which did duty until the tower was finished; he arranged
a floating workshop and living quarters to enable the men
to spend more time on the rock, and he himself did not go
ashore for months on end. In Rennie's reports no praise
was too high for the part played by Stevenson.
"It was perhaps natural that Stevenson became solely identified
with the work in the public eye. He was there on the spot,
and many another resident engineer has been given all the
praise for work which he has merely supervised.
"Neither Rennie nor Stevenson can claim all the credit
for the Bell Rock lighthouse. The two engineers worked throughout
in cordial harmony and mutual dependence. They were both
great engineers and their reputations were secure from their
other achievements in this field, had the Bell Rock lighthouse
never been built. It is a pity that their happy relationship
should have been embittered posthumously by their families.
In my own view, Stevenson's is the greater part of the credit
- for his skill, zeal and industry - but this would readily
have been conceded by Rennie, who deserves his own share
of credit as the chief engineer who held the ultimate responsibility
in guiding and controlling the overall plans."
Of the two extracts above, it is perhaps Dr Boucher
who comes nearer to the real truth! However, whilst he says
that the "two engineers worked throughout in cordial harmony
and mutual dependence", it seems that this state of affairs
related only to the actual years of the building of the
Lighthouse. Shortly afterwards (even as early as 1814) it
is obvious that Rennie was most unhappy about the situation,
as can be seen from his letter to Matthew Boulton, of Birmingham.
Dr Boucher also quotes from Rennie's notebooks after he
visited the Lighthouse on Sunday, 22 August 1818:
"I saw Mr David Logan on the 24th at Forfar. Mr Logan
was the clerk and draughtsman to Mr Stevenson at the Bell
Rock while the lighthouse was building - He says that Mr
Stevenson was not the inventor of the beacon or manner of
it. That it was entirely designed by Mr Francis Watt who
was the carpenter at the lighthouse, as well as all the
cranes, that he had my original sketches of those parts
of the lighthouse that were different from the Eddystone
- that he has preserved these different documents by which
he can show what share Stevenson had in the work - that
Stevenson was always angry whenever this was brought forward
as he wished to assume the whole merit of the work to himself."
- So is there a case for Robert Stevenson to answer?
- Was he less than fair about Rennie's involvement in the
- And did he take the credit for the design of the Beacon
house and the Cranes?
Stevenson, himself, certainly never made any comment in
public on the issue. Already an old man, he perhaps understandably
left it to his sons to answer Sir John's criticism.
However, it is also important to look at exactly what Stevenson
does say in his "Account" about John Rennie and
the role which he played in the building of the Bell Rock
As early as 1804, it is obvious that Rennie was already
deeply involved at the highest level in the forthcoming
project. Stevenson states:
"Amidst a diversity of opinion as to the practicability
of the undertaking, and especially as to the description
of the building, whether it should be of cast-iron or stone,
and in the form of pillars or solid, the Commissioners ultimately
determined upon submitting the several views of the subject
to Mr John Rennie, engineer. In the year 1804, Mr Rennie
and the writer accompanied Mr Hamilton, Sheriff of Lanarkshire,
one of the Commissioners, and who had turned much his attention
to the subject, on a visit to the Bell Rock. They made a
favourable landing; and Mr Rennie had only been a short
time upon the rock, when he gave his decided opinion upon
the practicability of the proposed erection of stone. He
had examined the author's designs and models, and afterwards
made a Report, in which he coincided with him in recommending
to the Board the adoption of a building of stone, on the
principles of the Eddystone Lighthouse."
John Rennie's Report is given in full as an Appendix at
the end of the "Account".
During the actually building of the lighthouse between
1807 and 1810, Stevenson mentions Rennie only once in some
290 pages of text.
OPERATIONS OF 1807 - Monday, 5th October -
"In the afternoon, and just as the tide's work was over,
Mr JOHN RENNIE, engineer, accompanied
by his son, Mr GEORGE, on their way to the
harbour-works of Fraserburgh, in Aberdeenshire, paid a visit
to the Bell Rock, in a boat from Arbroath. It being then
too late in the tide for landing, they remained on board
of the Light-house Yacht all night, when the writer, who
had now been secluded from society for several weeks, enjoyed
much of Mr Rennie's interesting conversation; both on general
topics, and professionally upon the progress of the Bell-Rock
works, on which he was consulted as chief engineer. .
. . . The artificers landed this morning [Tues.
6th Oct] at 9, after which one of the boats returned to
the ship for the writer and Messrs Rennie, who, upon landing,
were saluted with a display of colours from the Beacon,
and by three cheers from the workmen."
In the above extract, note the use of Small Caps - a device
in typography to give prominence - in this instance to the
name of Rennie. It scarcely appears anywhere else in the
text, suggesting that the visit to the site of John Rennie
was an important and special occasion.
Amongst the engravings at the end of the book, Stevenson
describes the various parts of the Bell Rock on which the
Lighthouse was built. Both Rennie and Watt are honoured
by having a rock/ledge/pool or whatever named after them;
but then so were almost 70 others (even the horse Bassey
got a mention). But in the case of Francis Watt he does
give credit for his "ingenuity" for his work with the "various
pieces of machinery".
"PORT RENNIE - is situate in the north-eastern part
of the House-rock, and derives its name from the late Mr
John Rennie, the celebrity and extent of whose works as
a Civil Engineer are well known to the public. Mr Rennie
was consulted by the Light-house Board relative to this
"WATT'S REACH - has its name in compliment to Mr Francis
Watt, foreman-millwright, whose services have also already
been so often particularised in the course of this work,
and whose exertions in erecting the beacon and temporary-railways
did much credit to his zeal and intrepidity. The writer
also often profited by his ingenuity, in reference to the
various pieces of machinery employed at the works."
Stevenson uses the word "consulted" more than once when
talking about John Rennie, but by no stretch of the imagination
can "consultant" [one who gives professional advice or
takes part in consultation] be considered an adequate
description for one who was designated "chief engineer",
and who as the term implies was in charge of the entire
Rennie was ten years Stevenson's senior and already
an established Engineer of national renown. Stevenson in
those early years had yet to prove himself and, as it happened,
ultimately basked in the glory of its success. In any event,
both he and his sons prospered.
It is a great pity, then, that his memory should be tarnished
by what appears to be a somewhat niggardly understating
of the part which John Rennie played in that great event
- that is, if Smiles and Boucher are to be believed. Even
13 years later in 1824, when he eventually published his
"Account" (whether it was planned or otherwise only three
years after Rennie's death), he still could not bring himself
round to give proper due to Rennie's position . Whatever
else is certain, Stevenson did not intend that his book
on his beloved Lighthouse was going to be used as a eulogy
to the memory of the late John Rennie - which, I suppose,
under the circumstances is understandable.
It is often said that ambition and ability do not necessarily
go hand-in-hand! In the case of Robert Stevenson, he had
both - and plenty of it! And the building of the Bell Rock
Lighthouse paved the way for himself (and his descendants)
to become one of Scotland's foremost engineering families,
and builders (in excelsis) of many of the world's
© David Taylor, Edinburgh,