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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families