Sumburgh Lighthouse was designed by Robert Stevenson, one of many generations of Stevensons to design lighthouses, and grandfather to author Robert Louis.
The lighthouse was constructed in 1821 by Peterhead building contractor John Reid. This was the first lighthouse in Shetland and Stevenson’s eighth in total – including the famous Bell Rock Lighthouse. The lighthouse is now a Category A listed building.
Mr Stevenson assessed the area on his first visit and declared it as a suitable site for a lighthouse. He visited Shetland in 1814 with Sir Walter Scott, who later published his novel 'The Pirate', which was set around the nearby areas of Jarlshof and Fitful Head.
When built, in 1821, the site comprised of the Lighthouse Tower, East and West Pavillions for the Principal and Assistant Keeper's and their families, and the Smiddy building, which housed the workshop and accommodation for occasional, or visiting Keepers on the upper floor.
The walls of Sumburgh Lighthouse were built to a double thickness in order to keep the damp out as the building is heavily exposed to the elements. Elevated 91metres above sea level, the light is visible for up to 23 nautical miles and flashes every 30 seconds. The light is Stevenson's equiangular refractor, which has 26 reflectors instead of the normal 21.
The light was fully automated in 1991 and ownership of the Lighthouse buildings passed into private hands. In 1994 the area was designated as an RSPB nature reserve and the local office was relocated to Sumburgh Head in 1996. In 2002 Shetland Amenity Trust purchased the Lighthouse buildings and began offering an accommodation service as part of Shetland Lighthouse Holidays. The Light and tower still remain under the ownership of the Northern Lighthouse Board.
In 2012 construction work began to restore the Lighthouse Buildings and build the new Stevenson Centre, originally named the Education Centre. Works were completed on time and within budget by April 2014, and in June 2014 the restored buildings and the newly established visitor attraction was opened to the public by HRH The Princess Royal, in her capacity as Patron of the Northern Lighthouse Board.