The epic story of how Robert Louis Stevenson’s ancestors built the lighthouses of the Scottish coast against impossible odds.
‘Whenever I smell salt water, I know that I am not far from one of the works of my ancestors,’ wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in 1880. ‘When the lights come out at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think they burn more brightly for the genius of my father!’
Robert Louis Stevenson was the most famous of the Stevensons, but not by any means the most productive. ,The Lighthouse Stevensons,, all four generations of them, built every lighthouse round Scotland, were responsible for a slew of inventions in both construction and optics, and achieved feats of engineering in conditions that would be forbidding even today. The same driven energy which Robert Louis Stevenson puts into writing, his ancestors put into lighting the darkness of the seas. ,The Lighthouse Stevensons, is a story of high endeavour, beautifully told; indeed, Bella Bathurst writes like a dream and this should be one of the most celebrated books of the season. As one reads the mesmerising account of the establishing of the Bell Rock lighthouse one almost feels the floor swinging like the sea beneath one; as a unique history that evokes the exact feel of time and place it is quite exceptional.
‘My own interest in “The Lighthouse Stevensons” is threefold. Firstly, from the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson, who turned his family’s trade into the raw gold of all his best fiction. Secondly, from various trips around Scotland. The country’s coast is a mass of storm-beaten rocks and treacherous headlands on which even the seagulls have trouble landing. It is impossible not to speculate what combination of courage and skill built the lighthouses around such an environment. And thirdly, because somewhere in there, unrecognised and unsung, is the most wonderful story!’
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I for one had no idea that the 14 lighthouses dotting the Scottish coast were all built by the same Stevenson family that produced Robert Louis Stevenson, Scotland's most famous novelist. But Bella Bathurst throws a powerful, revolving light into the darkness of this historical tradition. Robert Louis was a sickly fellow, and--unlike the rest of his strong- willed, determined family--certainly not up to the astonishing rigours of lighthouse building, all of which are vividly described here. To build these towering structures in the most inhospitable places imaginable (such as the aptly named Cape Wrath), using only 19th-century technology is an achievement that beggars belief. The comparison that comes to mind is with the pyramid building of ancient Egypt. For instance, of the Skerryvore lighthouse we learn that the ground rocks were prepared by hand (even though the "gneiss could blunt a pick in three blows") in waves and winds "strong enough to lift a man bodily off the rock'" and that "it took 120 hours to dress a single stone for the outside of the tower, and 320 hours to dress one of the central stones. In total 5000 tons of stone were quarried and shipped"--and all by hand. It is mind-boggling stuff: you'll look at lighthouses with a new respect. -- Adam RobertsFrom the Back Cover:
For centuries, the seas around Scotland were notorious for shipwrecks. Mariners negotiated not just the natural obstacles – jagged coastline, riptides, currents and storms – but also the human threats of press gangs, privateers and wreckers. The sailors' only aids were skill, luck and a single coal-fire light on the east coast which was usually extinguished by rain.
In 1786, the Northern Lighthouse Trust was established and a few years later Robert Stevenson was appointed their Chief Engineer. It was the beginning of a partnership spanning almost two centuries and four generations of the same family, who became known as the 'Lighthouse Stevensons'.
Robert fought foul weather and opposition to build the Bell Rock light near Arbroath. His eldest son, Alan, designed Skerryvore, considered 'the most beautiful lighthouse in the world'. David Stevenson was responsible for the light at Muckle Flugga, Scotland's northernmost point, and Thomas Stevenson for Dhu Heartach, immortalised in Kidnapped. In all, the family designed and built ninety-seven lights speckled around the Scottish coast, as well as an exceptional range of works including harbours, roads, bridges, and railways.
It was the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, who trained as an engineer but escaped into writing, that brought fame to the Stevenson name. But the Lighthouse Stevensons, as much as anyone, are responsible for their country's appearance today.
Bella Bathhurst has traced the extraordinary careers of the Stevensons, from the first of the lights to the last of the keepers. In sharp, inspired prose she presents a mesmerising account of these little-known Scottish heroes, of whom their better-known literary descendant remarked, 'I might write books till 1900 and not serve humanity so well.'
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Book Description HarperCollins, 1999. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # P110002570068