Of Scottish Lighthouses and Pirate Legends Their Amazing Connection to Author
Robert Louis Stevenson
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
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.
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
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.