Books: Beam me up, Scotty

John Sutherland hails the clan that shed light around the craggiest of coasts
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Lighthouse Stevensons

by Bella Bathurst

HarperCollins, pounds 15.99, 266pp

When a long-shot like Dava Sobel's Longitude comes from nowhere to head the bestseller lists for a year, canny publishers scratch their heads. Is it a one-off or a new genre in embryo? A book about maritime navigation 200 years ago, encumbered with heavy mathematics, did not signal "runaway hit". Yet it was, and Fourth Estate are still reaping the rewards of their foresight. Sobel brought to her apparently dry subject a novelist's skill in narrative, creating what looked like a new category of entertaining-but-instructional book.

Bella Bathurst's is a worthy follow-up. The data are much the same as Longitude. We start in the 18th century. Trade and war have opened up the oceans. But navigation remains "a ramshackle skill". In the 1790s, around "550 ships were wrecked every year on British shores". Until the 1780s, the only light on the notoriously rocky, sandy and uncharted 5,000 miles of Scottish coast was a coal bonfire on the Isle of May.

Some of the liveliest sections of Bathurst's book describe the thriving wrecking trade. Whole communities prospered on mariners' misfortunes. If a wreck occurred in Cornwall while Divine Service was being held, notice of it was given out from the pulpit by the parson, as a gift from God. Where the deity was slow to give, false lights were put up, to lure mariners onto rocks. The Highlands and Islands of Scotland were a wreckers' paradise.

Enter human interest in the form of the Stevenson dynasty - a distinguished product of Scottish education, Scottish engineering genius, and the Scottish enlightenment, whose ideals they put into literal practice. The starting point of their exploits was the creation of the Northern Lighthouse Board in the 1780s. The founding father (step-father, in fact) was Thomas Smith, who graduated from street-lighting for Edinburgh's New Town to the post of engineer to the NLB. Smith's useful achievements were dwarfed by his stepson, Robert Stevenson. Energetic and shrewd, Robert took over as Engineer to the Board.

Having studied the Eddystone lighthouse, Robert embarked on the great work of his life - making the Scottish waters orderly and navigable. His crowning achievement was the 110-foot lighthouse on the Bell Rock between Dundee and Arbroath, a notorious hazard for boats negotiating the Firth of Tay. The sandstone reef was semi-submerged, lashed by year-round storms, and 11 miles offshore.

Robert was obliged to battle on three fronts: against tightfisted Commissioners, rival engineers and - most formidably - the elements. The base pit for the structure (which was mostly under water) had to be hammered out by hand. The Bell Rock lighthouse took a decade and was finally finished, one of the wonders of modern Scotland, in 1810.

Three of Robert's four sons became Lighthouse Stevensons. The most distinguished was Alan. Despite private yearnings towards romantic poetry (which his nephew, [Robert] Louis, inherited), Alan devoted himself to incorporating new technology in the Northern lights, with ever more powerful lamps and lenses. His crowning work was the erection in 1842 of the Skerryvore lighthouse, off the West Coast of Scotland. So inhospitable was the craggy environment that, as Walter Scott put it, the Bell Rock was "a joke to it". Louis called it "the noblest of all extant deep-sea lights" (its only competitor, he implied by "extant", was the Pharos of Alexandria).

In what was now almost a royal succession, Alan followed his father as Chief Engineer to the Board. Crippled by progressive disease (multiple sclerosis, as Bathurst guesses) his tenure was short. The family tradition was carried on by his brothers David, who constructed the Muckle Flugga lighthouse on the northernmost tip of Shetland, and by Thomas, who raised his monumental beacon at Dhu Heartach off the Ross of Mull. (David Balfour and Alan Breck are shipwrecked there in Kidnapped - a family in-joke.)

The line of Lighthouse Stevensons finishes with Thomas's son, [Robert] Louis. He made a half-hearted attempt to study engineering, but he was sickly and his genius lay elsewhere. But he retained a strong sense of family pride. "I might write books till 1900", he wrote in 1886, "and not serve humanity so well."

Bathurst's account of the scien- tific heroism behind the emergence of modern navigational systems is as enthralling as Longitude, if rather more diffuse. We shall, I suspect, see many like it before the genre pioneered by Sobel is worked out. Let's hope they are all as good.

John Sutherland is professor of English at University College, London