Stranger Than... - The Lighthouse Stevensons

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9780007241705: Stranger Than... - The Lighthouse Stevensons

Bella Bathurst’s epic story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ancestors and the building of the Scottish coastal lighthouses 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 put into writing, his ancestors put into lighting the darkness of the seas. ‘The Lighthouse Stevensons’ is a story of high endeavour, beautifully told; indeed, is was one of the most celebrated works of historical biography in recent memory.

‘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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Review:

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, we learn that the ground rocks for the Skerryvore lighthouse 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 Roberts

Review:

‘Bella Bathurst has built a lamp herself: it illuminates the work of a literary hero, a family business, a habit of mind and a Scottish period…from the summit of this first terrific book she looks to become one of the best biographers of her generation.’ Andrew O’Hagan, The Times

‘Deeply accomplished…this splendid book preserves the memory of great deeds performed in a heroic era.’ Frank McLynn, Sunday Times

‘An enthralling story, vivaciously recounted…These were epic and scarifying adventures, indicative of an age when the taming of nature was a philosophical given, its execution a religious passion.’ Alan Taylor, Observer

‘This is a grand book doing for lighthouses what Dava Sobel’s “Longitude” did for marine chronometers, and doing it, if comparisons are to be made, with considerably more panache.’ Nicholas Bagnall, Sunday Telegraph

‘A fine and scrupulous book … Robert Louis Stevenson would have relished the tale’
Ian Bell, Scotsman

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