The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst


  • 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.


Robert Stevenson 1772 - 1850

Robert Stevenson 1772 – 1850


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.


British Lighthouses

British Lighthouses

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.

Fresnel Lens - developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel

Fresnel Lens – developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel

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.


Skerryvore Lighthouse - 1838 - 1844, Alan Stevenson

Skerryvore Lighthouse – 1838 – 1844, Alan Stevenson


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


RLS and his father, Thomas, 1860

RLS and his father, Thomas, 1860


Dhu Heartach - Thomas Stevenson - Later used by RL Stevenson in novel 'Kidnapped.'

Dhu Heartach – Thomas Stevenson – Later used by RL Stevenson in novel ‘Kidnapped.’


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.


Bell Rock Lighthouse - Off Angus, Scotland - 1807-1810 Robert Stevenson - Oldest sea-swept lighthouse.

Bell Rock Lighthouse – Off Angus, Scotland – 1807-1810 Robert Stevenson – Oldest sea-swept lighthouse.


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.


Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson


“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


the new world by andrew motion


  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (July 14, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804138451
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804138451
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In The New World, former British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion continues the tale begun by RL Stevenson in his novel Treasure Island, serialized in a children’s magazine between 1881 and 1882. Main characters Jim Hawkins and Natty Silver, daughter of pirate Long John Silver, wash ashore along the coast of Texas. Lone survivors following a shipwreck and subsequent attack by Indians, Jim and Natty are taken prisoner, force marched to an Indian settlement where they’re held for weeks, the threat of execution by evisceration hanging over their heads. Escaping with the mesmerizingly shiny silver necklace worn by Chief Black Cloud, the pair spend years on the run, meeting up with adventure upon adventure, each on the heels of the last.

Jim and Natty are given a romantic relationship, though one kept just shy of carnal consummation, fitting considering the period in which the original novel was written. Natty’s given a feisty nature, a strong mind of her own and characteristics worthy of her pirate ancestry. The two are strong leading characters made multi-dimensional via Motion’s vivid descriptions of their lives spent in captivity, during the months in which they feared for their lives.

For fans of adventure tales, Motion’s sequel is a great read, paced well. The characters are well developed, both the main and supporting cast. The chapters are episodic,  somewhat sing-song up and down, in nature and rhythm, reminiscent of both Stevenson’s original work as well as Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, a similar work in spirit, set in 19th Century America. Like the latter, the book has the feel of a road novel, a series of trials and tribulations experienced as the pair meet up with a widely diverse cast along the way from Texas to their eventual attempt to make it home to England by sea.

The book has a distinctly American feel, Motion capturing the spirit of the wild frontier perfectly as Natty and Jim make their way. Likewise, he balances the menacing Indian characters with more welcoming, kindly tribes, careful to present Native Americans in a fair light. More importantly, the balance isn’t forced but comes about naturally in the course of the story. Had he made political correctness his priority, the novel would have suffered for it. Fortnately, he doesn’t. Rather, he lets the story flow of its own course.

It could be considered a negative that the story’s quite predictable but that’s the nature of novels like these. You know the heroes will prevail, because they always do. To counteract this, Motion inserts a few twists in the relationship between Jim and Natty, helping mix things up a bit. The course of true love does not always run smooth. If it did, how much less interesting the tale would be. Overall, it’s a great adventure tale, ending with the clear intent Motion will continue the series.

For me, the story was a bit too formulaic, not really my sort of novel at all. I chose it to review out of curiosity, to find out how well a poet laureate could write a continuation of an iconic RL Stevenson novel. Turns out he does it quite well, more than equaling the task. It’s no strike against him this just isn’t my sort of read. Thus, the minimal animation in this review.

He did a good job; for an episodic novel it works. If this is your cuppa, you’ll find it warm and flavorful.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (a quickie)



The online classics bookgroup I operate for my library is reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this month. Like all the monthly reads I have scheduled through March, this one’s a re-read for me, and with every re-read I find much more in the books than I did before.

In the case of Dr. Jekyll, the edition I’m reading has a wonderful introduction by Jenny  Davidson, a professor of 18th century literature. One thing I found very striking in the intro is the fact Jack the Ripper made his first appearance very soon after the first stage play of Dr. Jekyll.  Not that there’s a connection between these two things, but imagine how Victorian society would have felt first reading the book and seeing the play about a madman with no conscience ravaging the streets, then having this play out in real life to an even greater degree.  That’s a very curious coincidence.




It also makes one wonder about the Victorian culture/society itself, and what spawned such anti-social/isolationist themes, or perhaps climate is the proper word.  Perhaps there’s something about the strict controls of society that inspired both men, one to write a classic story and the other to murder prostitutes.  Maybe.


“I have been made to learn that the doom and burden of our life is bound forever on man’s shoulders; and when the attempt is made to cast it off, it but returns upon us with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure.”


Dr. Jekyll is a very short book, less than 100 pp.  I read it in the space of an evening, but will re-read it at least once, or maybe even twice, more in order to get more of the nuances. Having read Davidson’s intro I’ll have a better idea what to look for in re-reads, including Dr. Jekyll’s statements about what led him to try this experiment in the first place, as well as the background that led him to feel so isolated. Of course this dual personality is fascinating all in itself, and there’s much to be analyzed in that, but the intro also pointed out several less obvious points I’ll be looking at the next time around.

The Victorian era fascinates me, and coming back to even a short study of one aspect of it is like going home again. I’ve missed it.