Of Scottish Lighthouses and Pirate Legends
By: John Shepler
A hundred years before Long John Silver and the other pirates first set sight on Treasure Island in the novel of Robert Louis Stevenson, there were real pirates lying in wait off the Scottish shores.
In the black of night under cover of fog, they plundered hapless vessels caught among the poorly charted rocks or even tricked them into sailing too close to shore. Ironically, their era of fortune hunting was ended by the ancestors of the very man who so vividly introduced pirates and pirate treasure into the minds of succeeding generations of youngsters. It is a strange twist of fate within the family Stevenson.
In the late 1700's, shipping off the coast of Scotland was at the mercy of the vagaries of the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea. At night, or when fog settled in, it was as much luck as skilled seamanship that kept ships off the rocks. There was only one permanent lighthouse, on the Isle of May. It was little more that a coal fire that was often extinguished by rain just when it was needed most. By 1786, hundreds of ships, both merchant and military, had been wrecked, and there was little that could be done without a ring of reliable lighthouses to guard the treacherous shoreline. In that year, British Parliament established the NLB or Northern Lighthouse Board and appropriated the money to build four lighthouses. Ready to take on the challenge were two inventive and ambitious men: Thomas Smith and Robert Stevenson.
In her book that chronicles the lighthouses of Scotland, Bella Bathurst calls this family "The Lighthouse Stevensons." Robert's mother had married Thomas Smith after her husband was swindled on the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean and died while sailing in hot pursuit of the robbers. Thomas was an Edinburgh ironsmith who designed street lighting. While trying to improve the lights, he invented a system of parabolic mirrors to concentrate the beam from a candle. With this invention and his step-son Robert as apprentice he was ready to light the coast. Indeed, for the next hundred years, "The Lighthouse Stevensons" would dominate the engineering of Scotland's lighthouses.
One would think that the Stevensons would have become immensely popular right from the beginning. But, not so. There were other interests involved. Many on the coast made a good living as "wreckers," pirates of sorts. They would wait for the weather to deteriorate and then listen patiently for the sound of a ship foundering on the rocks. As scavengers they would rush to be the first to plunder the wrecks of anything valuable, often giving little or no help to the shipwreck survivors. Some would even put up false lights. A common trick was to tie a lantern to a horse's tail so it looked like the swinging of a ship's light dead ahead. Except it was on shore. Clearly, the wreckers had everything to lose with the coming lighthouses.
In 1800, Robert Stevenson took over as engineer to the NLB from Thomas Smith, who was ready to retire. In addition to the initial four lights, five more were added between 1793 and 1806. Lighthouses had evolved from coal fires to multiple candles with Thomas's reflectors, to much brighter oil lamps. Robert made many engineering improvements, including silver coated copper reflectors, adjustable wicks and whale oil, the cleanest burning. He also came up with a clockwork mechanism to rotate the beam. With many lighthouses in service it was sometimes possible to see more than one at a time, so he used different rotation rates for each light's beam.
Robert Stevenson's crowning achievement was the building of the stone tower lighthouse at Bell Rock, so named because it once held a bell to warn passing sailors. A Dutch pirate removed it a year later to increase his own plunder. The Bell Rock lighthouse rose 100 feet and gently tapered from 42 feet wide at the base to 15 feet wide at the top. It has weathered the worst that nature could throw at it and stands today, with the classical look that we have come to expect in modern lighthouses. It was first lit on February 1, 1811. Robert was advanced money to write a book about the lighthouse, but took 13 years to complete it. He described himself as a "doer" not a writer.
Robert's sons, David, Alan and Tom picked up the engineering profession from their father...at his insistence. He had little use for literary types, although Alan and Tom secretly wrote fiction and might have gone that direction if Robert had been less single-minded. Indeed, Alan eclipsed Robert's Bell Rock with his own lighthouse at Skerryvore in 1844. It was nearly 40 feet higher than the light at Bell Rock.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Tom's son, was also destined for the family career as engineer to the NLB. But it just wasn't his calling. He escaped into the study of law at age 21 and then into writing. He did spend three summers as an engineering apprentice, supervising a variety of Stevenson family projects. The desolate cold, gray, relentless pounding of the sea made an indelible impression on him, however, and would weave its way in his later stories of hard men against the elements of nature and themselves, such as his story "The Ebb Tide." The ragged coasts of Scotland also influenced his now famous works, "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped." One has to even wonder if the pirates of Robert Louis Stevenson might somehow have had their genesis in the family lore of how the first Robert Stevenson and Thomas Smith set out to illuminate the coast of Scotland and put an end to the piracy and wreck plundering that flourished before there were "The Lighthouse Stevensons."
The Lighthouse Stevensons by: Bella Bathurst. "The extraordinary story of the building of the Scottish lighthouses by the ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson." This book is rich in detail and chronicles the entire story of how the Scottish coast was lit in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most amazing of all is the fact that one family is largely responsible for these incredible engineering feats. You can almost feel the power of the sea as you read the accounts of the building of each important light.
Treasure Island (Scribner Illustrated Classics) by: Robert Louis Stevenson. The classic adventure of pirate treasure with Long John Silver, his loquacious parrot and gang of thieves. It's fun reading for children and a nice escape for adults. This edition is beautifully illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, with even a map of Treasure Island itself.
The Complete Short Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson: With a Selection of the Best Short Novels A collection of 33 of his finest writings. This 2 volume set gathers Stevenson's short fiction, including the complete New Arabian Nights and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as ghost stories, medieval romances, farces, horror stories, and the South Sea tales.
Tales of the South Seas: The Beach at Falesa/the Bottle IMP/the Wrecker/ the Ebb Tide/the Isle of Voices by Robert Louis Stevenson, Lloyd Osbourne, Jenni Daiches. From The Publisher: Tales of the South Seas gathers all of Stevenson's South Sea fiction and a selection of prose and letters provides not only a vivid portrait of a colorful and exotic world, but also a full and rounded picture of a superb writer at the height of his powers.
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Robert Louis Stevenson Name Origin - Want to know more about the Stevenson family? This site has a wealth of biographical information and related web sites.
Copyright 2000 - 2018 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: April 18, 2000 as part of A Positive Light