Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Scottish Lighthouse Pioneers - Paul A. Lynn

I've been reading this (excellent) book about the Stevenson's lighthouses in Orkney and Shetland to review for 60 North magazine whilst trying to read my way through Robert Louis Stevenson's 'The Wrong Box' which I started on Mull and have currently misplaced. I don't know why I'm having such trouble finishing 'The Wrong Box' (I've a similar problem with 'The New Arabian Nights') it's the sort of macabre humour that appeals to me, it's made me laugh, and it's deeply engaging, yet for no good reason I struggle to picks it up again every time I put it down.

I had no such problem with Paul Lynn's book, which has made me think I really need to read Bella Bathurst's 'The Lighthouse Stevenson's' too. I'm familiar with a few of the lighthouses in this book, Sumburgh head (in Shetland) being one of my favourite places anywhere. (It's great, it's right on the southern tip of Shetland, a couple of miles from the airport. Head up there on a clear summers day and not only will there be puffins to watch on the cliffs below, and a good chance of a whale sighting, but there's the most tremendous view up the length of Shetland where you can almost feel it unroll in front of you like a map.) I've also walked out to Hermaness in Unst to look out at Muckle Flugga, which is basically the end of Britain (there's another rock a little bit further out if you want to be pedantic). That too has puffins and gannets, it also has Bonxies which I'm less fond of, and is a much stiffer walk. You feel like you've earned the view when you get it.

The Stevenson's were clearly a remarkable family, from patriarch Robert who started out as an apprentice gunsmith, before going to work for his stepfather (metelwork and lamps) and ended up as a world famous engineer with the Bell Rock Lighthouse as a lasting testament to his skills. There were also the three sons, and the two grandsons who followed him into what became a family business (more or less willingly) and whose achievements more than lived up to Roberts legacy.

It's a fairly short book that gives us a gazetteer of the relevant lighthouses, an overview of the family, eye witness accounts from Sir Walter Scott who accompanied Robert on an inspection trip in 1814 (it gave him the inspiration to write 'The Pirate'). An altogether less enthusiastic eye witness account from Robert Louis Stevenson doing the same tour of inspection with his father (engineering really wasn't for him), and finally a more detailed look at Muckle Flugga, which sounds like it was the most challenging of all to build. The bar was pretty high at this point, reading about how they managed to build this thing perched on top of a 200 foot wedge of rock off the edge of Unst is awe inspiring.

It's a great little book about a family who achieved something amazing, but I'll give the last word to Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote:

"There is scarce a deep sea light from the Isle of Man to North Berwick, 
But one of my blood designed it.
The Bell Rock stands monument to my grandfather;
The Skerry Vhor for my uncle Alan;
And when the lights come out along the shores of Scotland,
I am proud to think that they burn more brightly for the genius of my father."

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