Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Notes: The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst

For centuries shipping in Scottish waters was endangered by the country's perilous seas, dangerous coasts, savage storms, severe currents and partially submerged reefs, within shipping lanes. It did not require much professional analysis to work out where the most dangerous areas were, for communities grew rich by harvesting the fruits of the seas annual plunder from the their beaches, in the same spots year upon year.

Bella Bathurst's charming little book "The Lighthouse Stevensons" is a biography of the Stevenson family and their Edinburgh engineering firm, whose names will forever be associated with the construction of lighthouses around the Scottish coast. This very Victorian story (which begins before Victoria and ends after her reign) is a compellingly told story of bravery, ingenuity, determination, enterprise and skill. The unfolding generations of Stevensons who placed warning lights on far-flung peninsula's like Ardnamurchan, and who built great lighthouses out at sea in such places as Bell Rock, Skerryvore and Muckle Flugga; were all wildly different characters - but each of whom played a key role in saving lives with their engineering exploits. The most famous of the family was, of course, Robert Louis, who to the horror of the older members of the dynasty deserted engineering for the unworthy pursuit of literature!

This book is neither heavyweight social history, nor exhaustive biography; neither is it bogged down with footnotes or references. Rather it is a fast-paced easy-read which quite delightfully opens up a slice of history which is both important and fascinating. I was intrigued by Bathurst's account of the fatalistic sailors and islanders who thought that lighthouses were built in defiance of God, whose prerogative it was alone who determine the fate of those at sea! Fascinating too was the opposition the lighthouse-builders received from those who's wealth was dependent on the macabre trade of wrecking or foraging for the treasures of wrecks.  Equally intriguing are the stories of the way in which the difficulties of constructing great towers at sea, in dreadful conditions were overcome, as well as the ways in which the lighting systems evolved. The politics and finances of lighthouse-building, were equally engrossing. Bathurst traces the ambitions, the families, the characters, faith and achievements of this remarkable dynasty through to the present day.

From various remote places I have watched Scotland's lighthouses keeping their nightly vigil over the dark seas and been vaguely intrigued by them. Bella Bathurst's little book is the highly entertaining story of how they came to be there. Sometimes reading history is hard work, but this book is not intended to be that sort of history, it is more of a celebration of a thoroughly unique and intriguing chapter in Scots history.

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