The Lighthouse Stevensons

Lighthouse1

Winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award

 

This is the biography of an extraordinary family; a story of high endeavour and remarkable ingenuity, and of men pushed to the limit and beyond. Robert Louis Stevenson may have been the most famous of the Stevensons but he was not the most productive. All four generations of the Lighthouse Stevensons devoted themselves to the seemingly impossible task of illuminating the dangerous seas around Scotland. This is the story of their visionary quest and their astonishing feats as they battled terrifying conditions, personal demons and political pitfalls to light the seafarers’ way.

 

‘Deeply accomplished …This splendid book preserves the memory of great deeds performed in a heroic era.’ Sunday Times

‘”All that stone and history and effort, you think, just for a lightbulb.” A gripping history, beautifully written.’ Time Out

‘An inspiring account of men pushed to the limits and beyond on offshore slivers of black rock exposed to sea and gales; of masons, carpenters, blacksmiths and storemen lodged on site in elevated and cramped capsules that could become prisons for days on end when storms struck.’ Daily 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

Extract

Once out on Skerryvore, those men spared from quarrying or barrack-building were preparing the foundation pit. “A more unpromising prospect of success in any work than that which presented itself at the commencement of our labours, I can scarcely concieve,” he wrote gloomily. “The great irregularity of the surface, and the extraordinary hardness and unworkable nature of the material, together with the want of room on the Rock, greatly added to the other difficulties and delays, which could not fail, even under the most favourable circumstances, to attend the excavation of a foundation-pit on a rock at the distance of 12 miles from the land.” As he pointed out, the stones of Skerryvore were four times as hard as that old lodestone of resistance, Aberdeen granite. Producing a levelled pit, 42 foot in diameter, from a reef with fewer flat surfaces than the Cairngorms was not something any engineer, of whatever skill or brilliance, would relish. After much deliberation, Alan selected the only site that seemed feasible and instructed the quarriers to begin digging. The process was much the same as for cutting the stones; drilling deep holes, priming them with powder, and retreating to a safe distance. Except that on Skerryvore, there was no safe distance; there was only a few yards of rock to either side, and then salt water as far as the eye could see. Alan took what precautions he could – including covering the mine-holes with netting and giving all the workmen protective fencing-masks – but it was not a comfortable time, stuck on a hostile rock, surrounded by whirling shrapnel and a group of terrified workmen dressed like sword-fighters.

Robert Stevenson

Robert Stevenson, who founded the dynasty and built the Bell Rock

 

Most alarming of all was the Atlantic itself. Gales on the East Coast were at least prefaced with glowering clouds and bucking seas; out on the west, there would be a sudden, ominous lull, a spatter of rain, and then a wind strong enough to lift a grown man bodily off the rock. Alan and the workmen often found themselves bolting for the boats, leaving tools, materials and provisions scattered where they lay. Small wonder that when they returned to the dubious safety of the boat and the long journey home every evening, most of the men could be heard mumbling prayers. “Isolation from the world, in a situation of common danger, produces amongst most men a freer interchange of the feelings of dependence on the Almighty than is common in the more chilly intercourse of ordinary life,” Alan noted wrily …

… Work began again in April 1841, and for the first time the men were able to abandon the lighthouse tender for the barrack. It had lasted the seven months of winter largely unscathed, though Alan noticed that five tons of rock had been cleared by the sea from the foundation pit. Once stores were landed, the men moved in. They rapidly discovered that they suffered just as much in the barrack as on the boat. It had been fitted out with hammocks, a small cooking stove, fresh-water tanks and a few provisions, but the space was so cramped that there was nowhere to store anything but essentials. When it rained the men stayed wet; the barrack was too small to store spare dry clothes, and during heavy rains, the rooms were often flooded with water. When a storm started, Alan and the men endured a comfortless few days trapped in the barrack, waiting and watching.

Since the rooms couldn’t be heated, they spent most of their time in bed, “listening to the howling of the winds and the beating of the waves, which occasionally made the house tremble in a startling manner. Such a scene, with the ruins of the former barrack not 20 yards from us, was calculated only to inspire the most desponding anticipations; and I well remember the undefined sense of dread that flashed across my mind, on being awakened one night by a heavy sea which struck the Barrack, and made my cot or hammock swing inwards from the wall, and was immediately followed by a cry of terror from the men in the apartment above me, most of whom, startled by the sound and tremour, immediately sprang from their berths to the floor, impressed with the idea that the whole fabric had been washed into the sea.” At one point, the weather was so bad that they were stuck on the rock for two full weeks. By the time the sea calmed down enough to allow the supply boat to reach them, they had only a day’s worth of food left.

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©Bella Bathurst

 

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