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The Lighthouse Stevensons [Paperback]

Bella Bathurst
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)

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The Lighthouse Stevensons The Lighthouse Stevensons 4.5 out of 5 stars (24)
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Book Description

5 Jun 2000

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 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, 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!’

Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Flamingo; New edition edition (5 Jun 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0006530761
  • ISBN-13: 978-0006530763
  • Product Dimensions: 19.2 x 12.8 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 745,937 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Amazon 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


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

‘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

‘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

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

‘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

‘Bella Bathurst has done a marvellous and scholarly job. Robert Louis would have given her a bow on behalf of his dour ancestors’
John Bayley, Evening Standard

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating subject brought to life. 14 Oct 2008
As a scuba diver who is always looking for the more remote locations, I often find myself in some wilderness area surrounded by the sea. Quite frequently, there is a lighthouse nearby and I always seem to be made aware of those that were "British Built."

What I had not realised before reading this book, was that the famous Robert Louis Stevenson came from a long line of Stevensons who were expert lighthouse builders. Indeed, he is quoted in the book as having said; "Whenever I smell salt water, I know I am not far from the works of my ancestors."

This is a fascinating work which has been brought to life by an author who has done a really good job. Having been brought up in an age where electricity was used to power lighthouses from before I was born, photographs and accounts of how coal was hoisted to the top of these mammoth structures in earlier days is both a revelation and education in itself.

Containing portraits of various notable engineers in addition to the different lighthouses they built, I was impressed by the inclusion of a painting of one light by the legendary J. M. W. Turner, no less, the comparable sizes of different lights and sectional drawings showing how the brickwork was interlaced in order to withstand the fiercest storms.

An excellent book and one which will allow me to tell my fellow travellers something about whatever remote lighthouse we end up climbing at some time in the future.

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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must for those who love the sea 3 Nov 2008
By Suzie
For me this book was compulsive reading, living as we do within sight of a Stevenson lighthouse, and, on a very clear day, a second, far out to sea, pencil-thin on its Atlantic reef. More often we just see its reassuring flashes at night.

Even in these days of automation and satellite navigation, the draw of a lighthouse is as strong as ever, but even if you've never been near a lighthouse, this book is a fascinating read. Bella Bathurst explores the lives and work of Robert Stevenson (grandfather of Robert Louis), and of his sons, Alan, David, and Thomas, the first four of the Lighthouse Stevensons, who were building lighthouses around the Scottish coast between1786 and 1890. That they succeeded at all is testament to their skill and determination - many of these early lighthouses were constructed in some of the most inhospitable places imaginable. It is humbling to think that the towers, often more than 100ft tall to withstand the ferocious storms and mountainous waves, were built before the internal combustion engine was invented and the aid of none of the modern machinery taken for granted today.

Today, the Northern Lighthouse Board is responsible for more than 200 lighthouses around the coast of Scotland and the Isle of Man, more than half of them built by the Stevenson family, including most of the major lights. But the book concentrates on just a handful - The Bell Rock, Skerryvore, Muckle Flugga, and Dhu Heartach, as it was then known.

This is not a detailed manual of how to build a lighthouse, but it is a history, a family saga, and a tale of man's battle to defy the elements.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Let there be Lights! 30 Jun 2002
By A. J. Watson VINE VOICE
Lighthouse Stevensons
What comes across loud and clear was the desperate need for navigation aids on the coast of Britain in the 18th Century; in 1800, Lloyds reckoned they were losing one ship a day (!) to shipwreck - and these are only the ones reported - the true figure, including small craft, was probably many times that. The lighthouses that did exist were coal-fired, inadequate, confusing and extinguished at the worst possible times - in storms.
This book does not pretend to be a treatise on all lighthouses, but specifically those built by the 4 generations of the Stephenson family.
It starts unusually with the youngest, and most famous, of the Stephensons - Robert Louis - who had few dealings in lighthouses, nor any wish to; but his experiences and those of his forebears influenced his life and writings, as in 'Kidnapped' and 'Treasure Island' - both concerned with wrecks and dark deeds on lonely islands.
His unfinished family history is a fount of information (and speculation), however, and this is the reason for his place in the book; the main protagonists come next, starting with his step-great-grandfather, who stumbled into the job of erecting a REAL lighthouse (as opposed to the earlier amateur attempts) on the basis of his experiments with lamps... the rest is history.
The chapter on the Bell Rock reads almost like a novel; Rennie, the man originally hired to design and build the light, being gradually ousted by Robert, who claims the work as his own - understandably, as Rennie wanted the kudos, but had no desire for the hardship, only visiting the construction 3 times, whereas Robert thrived on it (but was not averse to a touch of glory).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Lighthouse Stevensons 10 Jun 2011
By bookmag
Ms Bathurst has written a gem of a book. Full of information on the building of the lighthouses as well as some human intrest stories of the family including the most famous, Robert Louis.

An excellent book for dipping into.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Good value
Quick delivery. In good condition. As described. A really interesting book about the Stevenson Family, while not a novel the text is light and flows well, in my opinion very well... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Peter
5.0 out of 5 stars Present
This was bought as a gift for someone so I wanted it to be in tip top condition and it was! The service was great, it arrived before its due date. The person I gave it to loved it.
Published 5 months ago by JG
4.0 out of 5 stars The Lighhouse Stevensons
Bought as a birthday gift but a very interesting subject. I hope to read it after my husband receives it!
Published 7 months ago by Mrs. A. M. Dunley
5.0 out of 5 stars An illuminating read
Not at all surprised at the excellent reviews this book has received, and slightly surprised by one comment to the effect that the book was not very exciting - I could not put it... Read more
Published 8 months ago by D. Ashdown
4.0 out of 5 stars An entertaining but non-technical biography!
There's not much in the way of excitement, but this book does describe the machinations necessary to get lighthouses built.
Published 8 months ago by Andy Laverick
5.0 out of 5 stars winter fuel
Again have not yet had time to read this.....have this to look forward to during the winter months to whisk me away
Published 8 months ago by Jane Austin
5.0 out of 5 stars A delightful, informative read.
What may have been a dry subject is brought to life by Bella Bathurst's bewitching biography.
Part social history, part family saga but mostly a tale of incredible achievement... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Jmrichardson
3.0 out of 5 stars Written with a Heavy Touch
A fascinating cross generational biography but with a little too much emphasis on the most famous member of the family - Robert Louis. Read more
Published 10 months ago by rayc
5.0 out of 5 stars very interesting
Captivating story of how all the lighthouses were built and the families involved. Robert Louis Stevenson wanted to be a writer and he was in the end as we know. Read more
Published 17 months ago by M.V. Shenton
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and riveting!
Having being interested in lighthouses for over 40 years I was suspecting a standard 'coffee-table' book. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Neville King
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