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.
on 20 July 2012
Having visited the lighthouse at Tiumpan Head in 1960 and been captivated by the number and variety of lights to be seen sailing at night from Kyle of Lochalsh to Stornoway I had a pent up curiosity about the Scottish lights. This book was very good in explaining so much. I remember, particularly the fresnel lenses that looked so weird when I saw them at Tiumpan Head as a boy. Among many more aspects of lighthouses the book charts the history of these devices and how Alan Stevenson worked with Fresnel to develop practical ways to focus the light from a simple lamp (often paraffin)to be a visible and useful warning to sailors.
on 3 November 2008
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. From the wreckers of centuries past, who lured ships onto the rocks to plunder their cargoes, to the experiences of the keepers who manned the lights, I found the tale as gripping at times as a thriller. It would make an excellent present for any lover of Scotland's wild and beautiful coast, although the hardback versions have a more attractive cover than the latest paperback.
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).
Of course it all ends in tears, with an acrimonious wrangle dragging on for years; but it established Robert as THE lighthouse engineer, winning him new commisions for roads, canals, bridges etc..
His descendants follow in the family tradition (pushed heavily by Robert), keeping to the same basic design of Smeaton's Eddystone light, they erect lights all round the Scottish coast; incidentally gaining the undying hostility of the hordes of wreckers, whose grisly activities were effectively foiled by the lights.
Ms.Bathhurst's writing is fluid, assured and informative, never patronising or descending into scholarly jargon, and, though very well-researched, (see the comprehensive bibliography), does not pepper the text with notes, foot-notes and references - this is after all a Popular History book.
Thoroughly entertaining - highly recommended.*****.
on 12 October 2001
I love lighthouses so was predisposed to enjoy this book but even so it greatly exceeded my expectations. My abiding memories are the descriptions of the sheer physical difficulty of constructing the buildings without the benefit of modern techniques, materials and transport as well as the almost unbearable hardships suffered by the workforce during construction at the offshore locations.
A highly evocative book that really does justice to the almost super-human determination and resolve of these quite brilliant, pioneering engineers. Although I found it hard to warm to the family characters I was nonetheless left with a deep sense of admiration for all of them. This is an unsentimental tale of triumph over adversity. Read it - you won't be disappointed.
on 10 June 2011
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.
on 22 August 2013
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 down, and found myself rationing out the last 50 pages because I dreaded having no more of it to read!
Very well researched, beautifully written, my sole criticism being that the book could have done with better sub-editing. The history of the Lighthouse Stephensons is not well known outside Scotland: I knew nothing of it and only looked out this book because it was mentioned in "Attention All Shipping". Many people, like me, are drawn to the melancholy romanticism of lighthouses and their keepers without knowing much about them.
This book charts the family history and lighthouse-building projects in Scotland of four generations of Stephensons, outlining the problems of building ocean towers able to withstand the furious power of the sea but skilfully avoiding the kind of technical detail that only an engineer would understand: this is a very readable book. Along the way we learn much about the history of lighthouse-building,and how engineering as an applied science developed during the Victorian era. Yes, there is also a good deal in this book about the writer Robert Louis Stephenson and his antipathy towards joining the family firm and traditions. But it sets the rest of the family and their High Victorian principles in context. It charts RLS's fascination with the sea, his affection for the wild coastlines of his native Scotland and his admiration both for his family's achievements and their strong sense of public duty.
Adequate b/w photos and engravings but I would have liked more - inevitably. A more serious criticism is that there is only one map, (in my edition anyway), and it is woefully inadequate. This book cries out for detailed coastline maps to illustrate the text.
Anyone who enjoyed this book and would like to read more about the lives and living conditions of lighthouse keepers and their families might enjoy Tony Parker's "Lighthouse".
on 27 June 2013
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 this book is meticulously researched, deftly written and highly evocative. Detailed without being dry and insightful without being pedantic this is a pitch perfect history book that sheds light (ahem) on the subject. If you have a passing interest in the subject that is a highly recommended work.
on 18 January 2015
A good book and written with some humour too. Whilst the subject is very interesting, the method of telling does at times, get a wee bit heavy and bogged down. That said, it is still a very well written and well informed book and does still tell an amazing story of how an amazing bunch of incredibly brave and clever engineers and contractors managed to overcome the elements to provide light and safety to all at sea.
on 23 June 2013
A fascinating cross generational biography but with a little too much emphasis on the most famous member of the family - Robert Louis. I found the constant cross references to him confusing. At times I felt the vast amount of detail was somewhat undigested;
overall the writing didn't have the literary touch of biographers like Uglow or Tomalin.
Nevertheless, if you are interested in 'those in peril' this is a must read.