Books: Family footsteps RLS didn't follow in
Nicholas Fearn on a dynasty determined to stamp its mark on the Scottish coast
Sunday 25 April 1999
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.
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