A romantic historical story full of adventure and invention, The Lighthouse Stevensons is a unique account of how a single family virtually defined the Scottish coast by designing and building lighthouses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
For centuries the seas around Scotland were notorious for shipwrecks. Mariners' only aids were skill, luck, and a single coal-fire light on the east coast, which was usually extinguished by rain. In 1786 the Northern Lighthouse Trust was established, with Robert Stevenson appointed as chief engineer a few years laterthe beginning of a partnership spanning almost two centuries and four generations of the same family, which became known as the "Lighthouse Stevensons."
The Stevensons fought foul weather, jagged coastlines, and certain opposition to build these lighthouses in some of the most remote and inhospitable locations on the Scottish coast and reefs. They not only designed the lighthouses towers to resist the gales of the North Sea but supervised the actual construction under often desperate conditions and perfected a design of precisely chiseled interlocking granite blocks that would withstand the enormous waves that batter these stone pillars. The same Stevensons also developed the lamps and lenses of the lights themselves, which "sent a gleam across the wave" and saved the lives of thousands of sailors whose ships would otherwise have foundered on the headlands and hidden reefs of Scotland.
Author Biography: Bella Bathurst is a freelance journalist. She divides her time between London and Scotland.
About the Author
Bella Bathurst is a freelance journalist. She divides her time between London and Scotland.
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Captain George Manby had reached the age of forty without having contributed significantly to life.His childhood in Yarmouth had been undistinguished, his military career nondescript, and by early middle age he had sunk deeply into debt.Apart from an incident in 1800 when he appeared wild-eyed at the secretary at war's door offering to assassinate Napoleon-an offer the secretary politely declined--Manby seemed an unlikely candidate for immortality.His naval colleagues also noted cynically that the only battle scar he had yet earned was a gunshot wound, allegedly sustained while running away from a duel.
The death of Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar in I805 changed all that.Manby had been at school with Nelson, and although the two had not been friends, Manby still regarded the admiral with affection.When Nelson died, Manby was spurred into action.Inspired by his hero's example and impressed by the public grief over his loss, Manby concluded that his best chance of fame lay in saving lives; in particular, saving lives at sea.It was a startling choice.Manby's only marine experience until then had been an unsuccessful spell as a naval lay captain on a frigate heading for Dublin.The ship had foundered off the Irish coast and, once embedded on the lee shore, had begun sinking fast.Manby wrote later that "the striking of the ship was the most awful and momentous period I had hitherto experienced.The immediate hallooing of all hands on deck; to the pumps, plumb the well, cut away the masts, throw the guns overboard.And amid all this activity, the dismal moans of some, the screams of the women." The crewhurled everything movable over the sides and the rising tide finally pulled the ship back to the sea's uneasy safety.Once back in Portsmouth, Manby reflected on his experience and concluded that the sea and he were not well suited to each other.Instead he applied for a post as barrack master, a position that allowed him to keep his military honors while staying safely on dry land.
Manby did admittedly have good reason to be cautious.Two centuries ago almost a third of all British seamen died pursuing their trade, either being killed by the punishment of life on board ship or sacrificed to storms and drownings.Nearly everything the modem mariner relies on--competent maps, accurate instru-ments, and adequate communication--was either unreliable or nonexistent.The major sea-lanes around Britain were crowded, and collisions were frequent.What is now fixed and understood was then debatable, and navigation was more a matter of art than science.Sailors depended on experience or luck to avoid danger, and when they did run into trouble there was no kindly lifeboat service to deliver them.Until the mid-nineteenth century, it was made harder to assist victims than it was to collect the proceeds from wrecks.Previous legislation had defended the salvagers, not the mariners, and neither government nor shipowners devoted much attention to the consequences of nautical disaster.Most efforts were aimed at protecting cargo rather than ensuring that the crew returned intact with the goods.For several long centuries, lives lost at sea were regarded by much of Europe as so much natural wastage.Accounts still exist of sailors watching slack handed from the gunwales while one of their colleagues drowned.Once a person had fallen overboard, so the thinking went, he had been claimed by the sea, and it was not for mankind to challenge that claim.Such superstition was only an ideological response to an uncomfortable fact: The sea did kill people in great numbers, year after year.And, short of refusing to leave the safe shores of Britain, there was almost nothing that could be done about it.
However, Manby seized on the belief that something more must be done to prevent the deaths of shipwreck victims beached on the indifferent shores of Britain, if not for compassionate reasons, then certainly for civilized ones.The destruction of the gun brig Snipe off the coast of Yarmouth in I807 only confirmed his views.One hundred and forty-four lives were lost after the ship ran aground during a gale less than one hundred yards from shore.Manby watched the ship beat itself to death on the rocks and listened impotently to the cries of those still on board as they died.Over the next few months he began experimenting with possible solutions.He concentrated his efforts on the idea of throwing a line from the shore to a distressed ship, using a rope fixed to the end of a cannonball.Several early versions failed spectacularly: the rope was either burned through by the gunpowder, or, in those rare instances when the ball and rope successfully reached their target, only managed to set what remained of the ship on fire.At the same time he tinkered with the notion of an unsinkable boat.During a storm small rowboats, which were used to ferry survivors from the wreck to the shore, almost invariably sank, either capsized by the seas or flooded by waves.Manby sealed several small wooden barrels with pitch and fixed them to the sides of a small, undecked boat, providing primitive but workable buoyancy chambers.
By the summer of 1807, his prototype mortar line was ready for testing.Until then his colleagues and neighbors bad watched Manby's eccentric experiments with derision.But once he produced something that threatened the wreckers, who took their livelihoods from the plunder of injured ships, he became a more serious danger.As the wreckers saw it, he was not only removing their prized source of income, he was also directly contradicting the will of God.God, they reasoned, had sent the storm that had wrecked the ship that they took as their reward.Any interference was therefore a form of devilish meddling.And so, helped by the knowledge that Manby could not swim, the wreckers tried to drown him.Several local sailors volunteered to help Manby demonstrate his boat and mortar line, and, when the boat was a good way from the shore, deliberately capsized it.
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