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The Lighthouse Stevensons: The Extraordinary Story of the Building of the Scottish Lighthouses by the Ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson

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The way the builders "lived" in temporary "rocket barracks" was very interesting if dangerous and unpleasant! The Stevensons started to merge into one for me, and I had trouble remembering which was Muckle Flugga and which was Skerryvore and which Stevenson built which. After being pressured to join the family business, Robert Louis Stevenson pursued a literary career that produced “ Kidnapped”and “ Treasure Island”. Robert Stevenson is his 4th Great Grandfather, which means my children also share this heritage and I want them to know about it.

The name "Robert Louis Stevenson" probably rings a bell for most of us - he did author a few famous literary classics like "Treasure Island" and "The Strange Case of Dr. It's hard to imagine this book being any better than it is, for what it is--the fascinating story of an extended family that took it upon themselves to make the wild coast of Scotland safer for centuries of mariners. The Lighthouse Stevensons is just as much about the devotion and legacy of family as it is about the towers of light scattered along the Scottish coastline. To build something that has stood the test of time so far out to sea, in the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, is an outstanding feat, and Bathhurst injects the story with real drama and awe so that, when the unaccommodating waves take out a year’s work, we feel the workers’ sorrow, but are invigorated by their determination to continue. They would actually try to make ships run aground by putting coal fires on points of land to indicate a safe passage that was actually a rocky shoal, and they would rescue goods but let the sailors drown.

Three of his sons, Alan (1807-1865), David (1815-1886) and Thomas (RLS’s father, 1818 – 1887) became lighthouse engineers as well. I could have given this book 5 stars except for one major flaw, no maps or pictures of the lighthouses cited. He and his eight sons (excluding Robert Louis) designed and built the 97 manned lighthouses on the Scottish coast. As at Bell Rock even bringing in construction materials was a challenge as the rocks had no anchorages, the boats bobbed about while they craned great dressed stones on to the site.

Between 1790 and 1840, eight members of the family planned, designed and constructed the ninety-seven manned lighthouses that still speckle the Scottish coast, working in conditions and places that would be daunting even for modern engineers. There is more to this incredible history than lugging blocks of granite and installing lighthouse lenses. Finally, we are introduced to Alan Stevenson's son, David Alan (1854 - 1938), who unlike his literary-inclined cousin - Robert Louis was Tom's only son - follows in the family's footsteps and builds his own legacy in the Dubh Artach Light. The Stevenson's were also responsible for lights in other parts of the world, and their engineering influenced lighthouse building everywhere.I like the way the outposts for the lighthouses are described --- windswept, wave-swept spits of land often 10-15 miles offshore from some desolate area in the north. I enjoyed this book much more than I expected, and am now wondering why it languished on my shelves for so many years. The first mention of Robert Stevenson in connection with the Northern Lighthouse Board was in 1794 when Engineer Thomas Smith, entrusted Robert with the Superintendence of the erection of Pentland Skerries Lighthouse. Notable among the Stevenson engineered lighthouses are the tallest Scottish lighthouse at Skerryvore (1844), the most northerly lighthouse at Muckle Flugga in Shetland (1854) and the most westerly lighthouse at Ardnamurchan (1849). Thomas turned out to be a competent engineer who built Dubh Artach and Chicken Rock, but is probably best known as the father of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Robert Louis Stevenson was the most famous of the Stevensons, but not by any means the most productive.

Although most well-known for his lighthouses, Robert also engineered bridges, roads, and railways, among other things. What is staying with me, beside the success of the family with near impossible projects, is that the author, Bella Bathhurst, has snatched this story from being forgotten as she makes a point of the beauty of Victorian engineering and, while understanding the path that demanning lighthouses and computerizing keepers' jobs was inevitable, mourns the grace and human touch of the original sphere of lighthouse life. Until you're read "The Lighthouse Stevensons," it's impossible to imagine the vision, courage, and persistence of Robert, Alan, David, and Thomas Stevenson as they often risked their lives to erect the lights they did. The author didn't even bother to include drawings or pictures of the Lighthouse Stevensons who are the reason for the book. Not only was it built into a sandstone reef, the North Sea created hazardous and very limited working conditions.

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