The Stevensons
Who Built the Bell Rock Lighthouse?
Stevenson v. North Carr Rocks
Robert Louis Stevenson
RLS, Erraid and
Dubh Artach

Instrument Makers and the Northern Lights
Smith, Thomas

Stevenson, Robert

Stevenson, Alan

Stevenson, David

Stevenson, Thomas

Stevenson, David A.

Stevenson, Charles

Stevenson, D. Alan

Stevenson, Dorothy
Emily (1882-1973)

Who built the Bell Rock Lighthouse?

Stevenson or Rennie?

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?

Robert Stevenson

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), Mrs Leslie has “broken ranks” with the family’s long-held stance. The book points out that her ancestor was less than fair on, not only whose design was ultimately accepted, but on other aspects concerning the lighthouse’s construction.

D. Alan Stevenson (Mrs Leslie’s uncle), in his work “The World’s 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 Board’s consideration, although it would appear he actually visited the site only twice during the years of construction from1807 to 1811. Rennie’s 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 lighthouse’s 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!

John Rennie

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 Stevenson’s “Account” doesn’t 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 lighthouse’s construction! Nevertheless, suffice it to say that on Robert Stevenson’s 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 . . .

A further assessment . . .

Stevenson or Rennie?

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 comment.

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 subject.

Dr Samuel Smiles (1812-1904)

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 structures.

"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."

Dr Cyril T. G. Boucher

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 lighthouse's construction?
- 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 Lighthouse.

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 work."

"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 project!

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 finest lighthouses.

© David Taylor, Edinburgh, May 2003

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