Books: Family footsteps RLS didn't follow in

Nicholas Fearn on a dynasty determined to stamp its mark on the Scottish coast

The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst HarperCollins pounds 15.99

It would be a familiar story in this day and age: through exceptional courage and industry, a small band of practical men push back the boundaries of technology and become famous the length and breadth of the land. Yet their celebrity is not for their contributions to science and their country, but for a fleeting association with a gadabout writer (Sir Walter Scott) and, later, for a flash descendant who preferred to make up adventure stories rather than follow in the family footsteps. Let no engineer complain that his profession no longer receives the respect it deserves - it never has. The descendant, Robert Louis Stevenson, features only in cameo in Bella Bathurst's excellent book, but no doubt her lionisation of his forebears too will arouse interest chiefly due to their association with him.

Even without him, the account would more than live up to its Longitude- style packaging. In a cracking piece of historical journalism, Bathurst recounts the career of the Stevenson family who built the great lighthouses that line the coast of Scotland. Few boats of any description leave shore today without a full compliment of life jackets, radios and global positioning equipment. By contrast, the pitiful measures taken to prevent the regular shipwrecks around our coastline in the early 19th century would give a Nineties health and safety inspector a coronary. Wrecks were so frequent that many local economies came to depend on the looting which they fiercely defended as their right. It was whisky galore every week for some, and when divine right was questioned then human law would intervene to support their case. Far from the loveable villagers of Compton Mackenzie's fable, the wreckers of Scotland tended to be more proactive in their pastime, setting up rival lights to guide hapless ships on to the rocks.

To make matters worse, if God helps those who help themselves, He was never likely to aid the British sailors of the time. A fatalistic bunch, they knew that entry into their profession was virtually a suicide attempt. Steeped in superstitions, they would often leave their fellows to drown and be "claimed by the sea" if they fell overboard. Their scepticism, and sometimes even direct antipathy to plans for lighthouses, was allied with the wreckers' vested interest. Against this opposition, along with the predations of the sea and the press gangs on his workforce, and constantly harried by meddlesome London bureaucrats, Robert Stevenson, Robert Louis's grandfather, brought civilisation to the seaboard.

When the politics ended, the hard work began, and the author presents the Stevensons' works as a climbing of mountains sat atop mountains. Robert's crowning achievement, though later surpassed by his heirs, was the Bell Rock Tower. Submerged under seven feet of water at high tide, the rock had hitherto been thought impossible to build on. But taming the elements is only half the story and, as this is the history of a business empire, the description of Robert the cut-throat businessman is equally impressive. Though he was chief engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board, the Bell Rock commission went to his friendly rival James Rennie. Robert was not going to let such a detail stop him building the tower, and within three years he had usurped Rennie's position by blithely ignoring his master's instructions. He gave the lighthouse commissioners no choice. After asking and being refused, he simply took what he wanted. As Bathurst puts it, "The fact that he was to be proved right makes him admirable; it does not always make him likeable".

Another suspect quality, though one without which this book could not have been written, was Robert's penchant for nepotism. He encouraged it at all levels and made his son Alan clerk of the works when he had already promised the post to one of his long-standing assistants. The beneficiaries of this nepotism all seem to have deserved their good fortune, but one suspects that even family history is written by the victors. The aim of this kind of book, however, is not to cast doubt but to laud an inspiring achievement. This is eminently justifiable in the case of the Stevensons - who clearly deserve such a deftly written and enjoyable record as this.

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own