Robert Louis Stevenson, writer, traveller and creator of some of literature’s most enduring tales, was a crashing disappointment to his family. Producing global bestsellers like Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was all very well, but what had he contributed to the family business, his relations demanded to know? How many lighthouses had he built?
Today most people regard lighthouses as quaint structures that decorate our coastlines or provide an attractive backdrop for a day at the beach. In reality, their introduction, principally in the 19th and early 20th century, was responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives. Even during the wars of the 18th century, by far the most significant peril faced by sailors was that of being shipwrecked. The coastline is a hazardous place, full of rocky headlands, hidden reefs, dangerous sand bars and lee shores. At the end of the 18th century, with a tiny number of exceptions, it was also dark and unlit. As a result, shipwrecks were an almost daily occurrence, inevitably accompanied by the loss of most of those onboard. One writer has estimated that a young sailor in 1800 had a less than even chance of surviving his chosen career.
Yet a solution to this problem existed. As early as the third century BC the first lighthouse, the Pharos of Alexandria, had been helping mariners navigate safely. The effectiveness of lighthouses had been comprehensively proven in more recent times. The notorious Eddystone Rocks, a reef that lay in the middle of the approach to Plymouth, had been tamed by the construction of the world’s first offshore lighthouse in the late 17th century. This structure had radically reduced the number of ships and lives lost in the area. But there was also widespread resistance to their construction. Some considered that shipwrecks were acts of God, and questioned if it was man’s place to interfere with the will of the Almighty. Many coastal communities also had an interest in preventing lighthouse construction, as they profited from the financial bonanza that followed a shipwreck laden with valuable cargo. One Scottish crofter, who objected to the construction of one on his land, was found to be living in a hovel panelled in Cuban mahogany recovered from one wreck and washing down his porridge with vintage claret from another.
Between 1791 and 1937, three generations of the Stevenson family battled to light up the more dangerous stretches of the Scottish coast, during which time they built a staggering eighty-two lighthouses. The founder of the dynasty was Robert Stevenson (the novelist’s grandfather), who took over as engineer of the newly formed Northern Lighthouse Board from his father-in-law. His reputation was made with the construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse in 1811. Like the Eddystone Rocks, the Bell Rock was out at sea, in the main shipping lane into Edinburgh, and was notorious amongst mariners. Unlike the reef near Plymouth, it was only exposed briefly at low tide, a fact that made the construction of a lighthouse there widely considered to be impossible. But Stevenson combated this by building a barracks for his workers on top of an iron tripod, drilled into the rock. This meant that they could be based on site, ready for each low tide. How the men felt during storms, as their little cabin swayed alarmingly, and the rocks beneath them vanished under the waves is hard to imagine. Meanwhile, Stevenson had the component parts of the lighthouse build on shore, each carefully numbered, ready to be shipped out and fitted together like the pieces of a jigsaw. When finished, the Bell Rock was considered one of the engineering marvels of the age.
Lighthouse followed lighthouse around the wild Scottish coast as one by one each notorious reef or dangerous headland was tamed. The construction of the Bell Rock had established in the Stevensons’ minds that anything was possible, and so no engineering challenge was considered to difficult. Construction on the more hazardous sites could only take place during the summer, as the Scottish coast is notorious for its destructive seas. On several occasions the builders would return in the spring to find that all trace of their previous year’s efforts had been erased by the power of nature. This was the case with Muckle Flugga, built on top of a tall rocky islet at the northern tip of the Shetland Islands by Robert’s sons in 1854. They were confident that no winter storm would be able to send waves up almost two hundred feet of sea cliff to damage their work. They were wrong.
Robert Stevenson had five children that survived childhood, three of whom (David, Alan and Thomas) became lighthouse builders. David also built them elsewhere in the world, including Japan and India. It was these three who built the bulk of Scotland’s lighthouses. Thomas, the youngest brother, did try and persuade his son, Robert Louis Stevenson, to follow in the family tradition, but the future novelist’s heart was never in it. He did work on one lighthouse, but his mind frequently drifted away from the mathematics involved. He was often caught jotting down possible plotlines on the margins of the technical drawings he was meant to be working on. Fortunately, David’s sons, David Alan and Charles Alexander continued to construct lighthouses well into the twentieth century, with Charles, the last of the dynasty, only dying in 1950.
If you would like to know more about the Stevenson family, you might enjoy reading the excellent “The Lighthouse Stevensons” by Bella Bathurst.