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The Lighthouse Stevensons - Bella Bathurst

The Lighthouse Stevensons

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Bella Bathurst

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Pages: 304 (Paperback)

ISBN: 0006530761

Pub: Flamingo

Pub date: 2000-06-05

Amazon.co.uk Sales Rank: 197382

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Editorial 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

Reader Reviews:


5/5 stars

A must for those who love the sea (2/2 people found this helpful)

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.

4/5 stars

A fascinating subject brought to life. (2/2 people found this helpful)

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.

NM

5/5 stars

Let there be Lights! (4/6 people found this helpful)

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).
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.*****.

5/5 stars

Let there be lights! (1/3 people found this helpful)

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 Stevenson family.
It starts unusually with the youngest, and most famous, of the Stevensons - 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 patronisong 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.*****.

4/5 stars

Left me wanting to visit all of these majestic buildings (2/3 people found this helpful)

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.

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Categories

Amazon.co.uk places this book into the following categories:

Books -> Subjects -> History -> General
Books -> Subjects -> History -> Britain & Ireland -> Scotland
Books -> Subjects -> History -> Britain & Ireland -> General AAS
Books -> Subjects -> History -> General AAS
Books -> Refinements -> Language (feature_browse-bin) -> English
Books -> Refinements -> Format (binding_browse-bin) -> Paperback
Books -> Refinements -> Font Size (format_browse-bin) -> Regular Size

 

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