This is the dynasty that built Scotland’s pyramids – extraordinary structures of enduring beauty, in impossible places – lives lit by duty, lives redeemed from time by their creations.
Theirs is a shared epic of engineering genius, instinctive response to challenge, physical dauntlessness and achievement beyond imagining.
They are ‘The Lighthouse Stevensons’, the title of Bella Bathurst’s book, the basis for a new documentary film by Caledonia TV going out on BBC at 9.00 on Tuesday 1st February 2011 – a title that draws the family and its story together so powerfully it has become inseparable from them.
This is the stuff of envy – to write a book on such a story; to visit the places where so much of such lives was lived out; to get to those often inaccessible things they built; to film them; to stand their and see them rear from the waves and the reefs; to wonder…
Lighthouses – mythical structures guarding the passage of life by the skirts of death, positioned at points of elemental combat, containing lives lived in small close company – who is not intrigued by them?
This is the story of a family founded by the genius of a step-father, Thomas Smith, a man who came to lighthouses from a direction that, oddly, we forget about – the light, the heart of the matter.
Smith was the chief lighting engineer for the city of Edinburgh, mainly focused on street lighting – but he had perfected his own reflector lamp. When the Northern Lighthouse Board was established in 1786, Smith became its first consultant. By the time the succeeding generations of Stevensons had built their last lighthouse, they had created 94 between them.
Twice widowed, Smith’s third wife was herself a widow, Jean Stevenson, with a son, Robert and, as Thomas became wedded to lighthouse building, Robert became first his apprentice and later his partner.
Smith designed the light for Scotland’s first lighthouse at Kinnaird Head at Fraserburgh, projecting into the powerfully inhospitable expanse of the North Sea.
Smith’s light was the most powerful of its time, visible from 12-14 miles out to sea and not because of its power (the strength of s modest domestic light bulb today) but because of its ingenious reflectors. Stage lighting buffs know about what we now call the Fresnel lens. Smith was using this technology.
Smith’s second project was Argyll’s Mull of Kintyre light, a much more challenging proposition in a far more remote place. Out of the total of ten lights he delivered, Smith also did the Pladda light, south of Arran and the Little Cumbrae light off Bute, assisted here by Robert.
Jean, Smith’s daughter by an earlier marriage, became Robert’s wife and the lighthouse making dynasty began. Robert built 18 lighthouses, among them the legendary Bell Rock off Arbroath (on the reef immortalised in the poem, The Inchcape Rock) and three in Argyll – Toward Point, the Rhinns of Islay and Lismore).
Robert had three sons, Alan, David and Thomas, all of whom carried the family gene to some utterly remarkable places.
- Alan – built 12 lighthouses, including the one in Argyll said to be the most beautiful in the world, the Skerryvore, on a reef 12 miles southwest of the Isle of Tiree, out in the Atlantic. There is an insane plan by Scottish Power Renewables to build a giant offshore wind farm, three times the size of Tiree, starting only three miles offshore and enveloping the Skerryvore. The lighthouse is 48 metres high. The turbines will be up to 200 metres high. The No Tiree Array website is a focus for protest. Alan Stevenson’s 2 other lighthouses in Argyll – Ardnamurchan, on the most westerly point of the UK mainland; and Sanda Island, off the east coast of the Mull of Kintyre, the most extraordinary tiered structure, responding to the topography;
- David – built 28 lighthouses, including another legendary challenge, Dubh Artach, on a reef 15 miles southwest of the Ross of Mull, experiencing waves up to 92 feet high. Among his long list of lighthouses are 4 in Argyll – Davaar, on the island at the entrance to Campbeltown Loch; the Sound of Mull at Rubha nan Gall; Fladda in the Slate Isles; and Lochindaal in Islay;
- Thomas – dallied before coming to lighthouse building relatively late but took charge of phases of the building of the Skerryvore and was the one who decided that the lighthouse should be built on the reef at Dubh Artach. He worked with David on all 28 lighthouses (including Muckle Flugga, on a sheer rock in the Atlantic, north of Shetland and the UK’s most northerly lighthouse) and on 3 more with his nephew, David’s son, David Alan (or David A) Stevenson. These 3 include the one on Aisla Craig, or Paddy’s Milestone, in Girvan Bay in Ayrshire and visible from the south of Arran and the Mull of Kintyre. Thomas’s son was the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson who was involved in lighthouse building before turning to full time writing.
The next generation were:
- David’s sons, David Alan and Charles – David building 3 lighthouses with his uncle Thomas (as above) and 23 with his brother Charles, including the Bass Rock off North Berwick, Hyskier, at the southern entrance to the Minch and the Flannan Isles, whose ‘Marie Celeste’ mystery has never irrefutably been resolved.
Look at the places these men built their lighthouses – structures which by their nature must be built in the most remote and dangerous places – and even the most settled couch potato thrills to the challenges they accepted as a matter of course.
Robert Louis Stevenson may have been known and celebrated across the world but it was his own family he himself revered. He once wrote: ‘Whenever I smell saltwater, I know that I am not far from one of the works of my ancestors’.
The documentary, taking Bella Bathurst’s title (and she features in the film – below at the Bell Rock whose anniversary is on 1st February) charts the work of the Lighthouse Stevensons over these generations from the late 1700s to the early 1900s.
Stunning aerial photography of many of the locations demonstrates that creating these buildings would be a difficult job now, never mind then. On the Bell Rock and the Skerryvore, builders and engineers alike lived in wooden barracks built on the reef, with the tidal waves below them. The working day began with prayers and in these conditions, such obeisances must have been pretty fervent.
This film, produced by Caledonia TV, directed by Les Wilson and narrated by Denis Lawson, takes viewers through their remarkable achievements and the strange world of lighthouse-keeping – including its strains on family life – through to modern-day automation.
It is being transmitted on BBC Two Scotland as lighthouse aficionados prepare to celebrate the 200 years since the first light was lit on the famous Bell Rock Lighthouse, near Arbroath, on 1st February 1811.
Built before the age of steam, on a rock that was submerged much of the day, the Bell Rock light was an engineering masterpiece and the wonder of the age. Regarded as the first major project for Robert Stevenson (in tandem with John Rennie), it is a fitting backdrop in the documentary for an interview with author of The Lighthouse Stevensons, Bella Bathurst.
As well as the Bell Rock, the programme features:
- Kinnaird Head – the first lighthouse built in Scotland and home today to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses
- Mull of Kintyre lighthouse
- Start Point on Sanday, Orkney
- Skerryvore Lighthouse, off Tiree
- Muckle Flugga, north of Shetland
- Dubh Artach, west of Mull (sometime called Dhu Heartach after the reef it is built on)
- Monach Isles light, off North Uist
- Fair Isle South lighthouse, the last in Scotland to be automated in 1998.
As well as the lighthouses, the programme carries interviews from the keepers of the lights – 4th generation keeper Angus Hutchison, who now lives in Stromness, Orkney; and Bill Gault, who lives in Strichen, near Fraserburgh.
Another interviewee is Jean Barbour, now of Bridge of Don– whose mother was killed in one of the WW2 attacks on Fair Isle South lighthouse, where her father was a keeper. She was a baby at the time but she survived the attack.
Some other keepers who appear are two form Argyll:
- Ian Duff, of Oban, who has amassed a collection of lighthouse books, pictures and paraphernalia;
- Hector Lamont and his wife Esther, of Campbeltown
with William Frazer, of Ballantrae and Jimmy Oliver, who is now Senior Guide at The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh (a genuine must see).
Says Bill Gault: ‘We’ll never know the countless lives that sailed past … because that light was there and because guys like me were prepared to take on the task of being there’. And Angus Hutchison says: ‘I feel extremely proud to have been a member of such an elite band of brothers and that’s what they were to me throughout my time in the lighthouse service and I just regard it as a life well spent’.
Les Wilson, Caledonia TV‘s Creative Director says: ‘The aerial shots in the film are spectacular. The day we shot them was one of the most fun days of my long career’.
The photographs accompanying this article show, from the top:
- Skerryvore – often describes as the most beautiful lighthouse in the world. Built by Alan, the oldest son of Robert Stevenson. It lies 12 miles SW of Tiree. Now hold your beath – Scottish Power Renewables plans to build a gigantic offshore windfarm, three times as big as the entire island of Tiree and literally encircling the Skerryvore – with turbines two and a half times as high as the light. All protests will be welcome and undoubtedly necessary.
- Former keeper Ian Duff, of Oban, with a model of the Skerryvore that he built while stationed there. Lighthouses are Ian’s hobby, and Skerryvore is his favourite. He says: ‘It’s described as the noblest of all deep sea lights by Robert Louis Stevenson himself. So I was delighted that I’d been able to say ‘lighthouses are my hobby and I’ve been at one of the most famous Scottish lighthouses that there is’.
- Flag of the Northern Lighthouse Board
- Dubh Artach, Thomas Stevenson’s masterpiece, west of Mull.
- Bella Bathurst on the Bell Rock. The author of the best selling book, The Lighthouse Stevensons, was interviewed on the Bell Rock, 11 miles off Arbroath.
- Cameraman Jim Peters filming the Bell Rock o at low tide! The rock is entirely submerged at high tide.
- Third generation keeper, Hector Lamont, at the Mull of Kintyre lighthouse. Hector’s grandfather first served there in 1904. Altogether, Hector’s family clocked up 171 years service to the Northern Lighthouse Board.
- Filming on board the NLB ship Pharos, as it services a buoy in the Sound of Mull.