- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Harpercollins; 1St Edition edition (1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0002570068
How long have I had this on my TBR list? Can’t say for certain, but through at least a decade, and ownership of two physical copies of the book; I own so many books I couldn’t find the blasted thing when I eventually decided it was time to read it.
However long, it was worth the wait.
If not for the Stevenson family, the coastline of Scotland – as well as much of its infrastructure – may have looked drastically different today. For it was RL Stevenson’s grandfather, Robert Stevenson, whose hard-headed dedication to protecting the lives of countless sailors lead him into becoming the pioneer of lighthouse engineers, the self-trained expert who made engineering into a field respected enough to be taught in universities.
Before Robert Stevenson, the course of study did not exist. Of course engineering existed: craftsmen and stonemasons, architects and designers built things of great wonder and beauty. What they did just wasn’t considered something to be formally taught. Not until a force came along that shifted people’s thinking.
Previous to Stevenson’s arrival on the scene, there was little interest in or even incentive to build lighthouses on the coast of Scotland, despite the hundreds of sailors who lost their lives being drowned or crushed in the process of circumnavigating the shoreline. What’s shocking is the reason: there was money to be had in plundering the wreckage of those hundreds of ships, fishing out the cargo and robbing the sailors. Not just that, many sailors who survived the wrecks were drowned, intentionally, by nefarious thieves who didn’t want witnesses to their heinous acts surviving to tell the tale.
“By 1800, Lloyds of London estimated the one ship was lost or wrecked every day around Britain; between 1854 and 1879, almost 50,000 wrecks were registered. The figure is probably ludicrously low.”
– The Lighthouse Stevensons
Scotland wasn’t blessed with many trees. Thus, wood from these ships smashed apart on rocks unseen, or ships blown into the shoreline during furious gales, made perfect building materials. It was such an irresistible source of revenue, ministers excused parishioners from services when a ship had run aground. Many preached this was God’s own will, manna sent to the needy.
What it took to turn all that around was one very stubborn man with lots more ambition than experience or even knowledge. One man who stood up against the committees holding the purse strings, who didn’t back down in the face of resistance.
And, ultimately, the ship owners themselves stepped forward. They had had enough.
Once he was given funding, the fight against the elements alone was enough to make a lesser man turn and run. The force of storms in the waters off Scotland more than once tore apart his early efforts to build. The work of a full year was blown completely off its moorings, workmen left clinging onto steep stones, or huddled together in ships gathered around the building site, in a desperate bid to save themselves.
Most sailors ” … did not expect to live beyond the age of forty.”
The elements seemed insurmountable. Stevenson started over – over and over again.
The stone used to build the lighthouses had to be cut with extraordinary precision, lest the mighty waves crashing against them blow them to smithereens. Tolerance for gaps between each piece was infinitesimal. And then the lights themselves, going through trial after trial trying to find the one technology that could withstand the rigours demanded of them.
Robert Stevenson, and his sons after him, traveled the world studying lighthouse technology, taking notes and figuring how they could adapt the work of others to their own projects.
Yet, not all Robert Stevenson’s children were equally blessed with his skill and determination. Alan Stevenson was born a dreamer, a sickly child whose first love was poetry. A classical scholar, he was gifted musically, and later became an early champion of poet William Wordsworth. Eventually buckling down to the family business, Alan would remain the bane of Robert Stevenson’s existence, just as later Alan’s nephew Robert Louis Stevenson would present the same challenge to his own father, Thomas. Himself sickly and a dreamer, we all know how RL Stevenson’s career turned out.
In my opinion, he did okay for himself.
RL Stevenson did try to mold himself to the family business. For several years he studied engineering, attempting to put aside his passion for writing. He even produced a paper, “On a New Form of Intermittent Light for Lighthouses.” However, it clearly showed he had no promise as an engineer, no passion for the work. Nothing about it was original or particularly creative.
“On being tightly cross-questioned, I owned that I cared for nothing but literature. My father said that was no profession.”
– RL Stevenson
To give him his due, however much Thomas Stevenson disapproved of his son’s choice, felt heartbroken his child would never join the long line of engineers, he never broke with him. Though he would later become frustrated with RL’s agnosticism, he kept up a correspondence. He never allowed their differences to divide them.
And though he’d go on to travel the world, leaving his family behind, Scotland would never be far from RL Stevenson’s heart. Neither would he feel anything but respect for the remarkable accomplishments of his family.
He would move away, sail the seas, living in Samoa and Hawaii, travelling the length and breadth of Europe, visiting the United States more than once. In the South Seas he’d raise his own family, a sort of modern-day Robinson Crusoe living amongst the natives.
No matter how far he traveled, he didn’t forget where he came from.
“I shall once more lie in bed, and see the little sandy isle in Allan Water, as it is in nature, and the child (that once was me) wading there in butterburs; and wonder at the instancy and virgin freshness of that memory; and be pricked again, in season and out of season, by the desire to weave it into art”
– RLS – Memories and Portraits
Most of The Lighthouse Stevensons goes into great detail about the building of the major lighthouses produced by the family. And when I say great detail, I do mean GREAT. It’s fascinating if, like me, you love the romance of the lonely, windswept lighthouse, imagining what it would be like to have risked life and limb building them. As much as you may believe you can imagine how it was, the reality is, I guarantee it, much more violent and stark.
Not only was there the weather to contend with, the day-to-day raw fear. There were also occasional mutinies, times when workers who had had enough threatened to walk out as soon as they were back on shore, if their salaries were not raised. The Stevensons did not suffer any threats. If a man threatened to leave, he was fired. This was nothing to take lightly. Marooned on a potentially lethal piece of rock in the middle of the sea for months at a time, there is no margin of error for a man who may decide to turn on his crew mates.
Then, there’s the life of the keeper. A dangerous and grueling profession, it requires sometimes months away from all society. At the mercy of the weather, these early keepers of the lights were oftentimes left longer than originally planned, because no ship could approach to bring them back to shore.
Against the elements, the strongest of men are powerless.
But what a romantic notion, being a lighthouse keeper. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have its appeal. I wouldn’t mind trying the lifestyle, at least the solitude and living on a rock away from civilization.
Just maybe not off the coast of Scotland.
If the reader finds no romance in waves crashing over the shorelines of Scotland, and stories about the fortitude of men who will stop at nothing, even risking their lives for the sake of creating these magnificent structures, this may not be the book for you.
Likewise, a desire to know the back story of RL Stevenson is great incentive to read The Lighthouse Stevensons. It will leave you understanding much more about the writer, where he came from, how he bowed out of the tradition of his family for a life in books and letters. Truly, this is a fascinating work reminding just how much blood, sweat and tears went into the making of the lights and how one family left its indelible mark on the face of Scotland and the world.
“Say not of me that weakly I declined
The Labours of my sires, and fled the sea,
The towers we built and the lamps we lit,
To play at home with paper like a child.
But rather say: In the afternoon of time
A strenuous family dusted from its hands
The sand of granite, and beholding far
Along the sounding coast its pyramids
And tall memorials catch the dying sun,
Smiled well content, and to this childish task
Around the fire addressed its evening hours.”
– RL Stevenson