Books: Beam me up, Scotty

John Sutherland hails the clan that shed light around the craggiest of coasts

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

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam