The Lighthouse Stevensons


The Lighthouse Stevensons

The story of the remarkable family who tamed the wild Scottish coastline, told 200 years after the building of their first iconic lighthouse, the Bell Rock.


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The ragged coastline of Scotland.

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With nearly 800 islands, it's 11,000 miles long.

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You don't venture there without detailed charts,

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radar, and satellite navigation.

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There are warnings of gales in Rockall, Malin,

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Hebrides, Baily, Fair Isle, Faroes and South East Iceland.

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For centuries, death and the sea went hand in hand

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for Scotland's fatalistic sailors and fishing folk

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until one family dedicated itself to taming the dangerous waters.

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The Lighthouse Stevensons.

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I think the Stevensons' lighthouses saved

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thousands and thousands of lives.

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If it's Stevenson-built, it's built to last.

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Robert Louis Stevenson refused to join the family business,

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but wrote with pride:

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"Whenever I smell salt water,

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"I know that I am not far from one of the works of my ancestors."

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Before the Lighthouse Stevensons the beacons on Scotland's coast

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were few and primitive.

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Scotland had two lighthouses in the 18th century.

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One on the Isle of May, which was a tower with a fire on the top of it

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which had to be kept burning all through the night.

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Somebody would row out from

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the Firth of Forth, dump a load of coal in the water.

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He would go down with a sack on his back,

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fish the coal out of the water,

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winch it all the way up to the light

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and then watch the whole thing go out as another rainstorm came over.

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It was not a very satisfactory arrangement.

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In the 1780s, a series of violent storms battered Scotland.

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At sea, there was enormous loss of ships and lives.

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It's always money that speaks loudest.

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The fact that there was and always

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had been huge loss of life was irrelevant.

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What the ship owners were really bothered about was the fact that 20%

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of total shipping got wrecked

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and they wanted something done about it.

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The British Government was pressed into setting up

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the Northern Lighthouse Board.

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It was formed in 1786 after a statute in the Houses of Parliament

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decided that four lighthouses

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would be "conducive", lovely word,

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to the safety of mariners around the coast of Scotland.

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A lot of people have got the conception

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that the lighthouses were built to warn boats off the rocks.

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To a certain extent that's true, but actually what lighthouses are,

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they're signposts of the sea.

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So each lighthouse that was built was a clearer signpost

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for ships to go round the coast.

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But who was to build the NLB's lights?

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Marine engineering was in its infancy,

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so the job went to a self made tinsmith who'd built

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a successful business making street lights for Edinburgh.

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He was the founder of the Stevenson dynasty,

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but his name was Thomas Smith.

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He applied to the NLB when

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they were first established saying, I think I can help you, basically.

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Virginia Maes-Wright is keeper of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses.

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What you're looking at is the initial creation

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of the Northern Lights.

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This simple receptacle,

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this simple oil burner, with its wicks here

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and the reservoir just at the back

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would fit in, right into the small slot you can see at the back

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of this, Thomas Smith's original reflector.

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The reflector comprises of tiny facets of mirrors

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stuck onto the back of a dish which points the light forwards.

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This was Thomas Smith's design for the new street lighting in Edinburgh

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and it what the Northern Lighthouse Board saw as the way forward.

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Smith got off to a flying start - installing his first light

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on the top of Kinnaird Castle in Fraserburgh.

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This is where the NLB began.

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And the first light was chosen for this headland.

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This headland more or less being the stepping off point

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for the Baltic trade.

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Thomas Smith established the roof on top of the old castle here, and it's

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been a light here ever since.

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In just three years,

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Smith also built a lighthouse on Scalpay in the Hebrides,

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on North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Isles,

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and on the Mull of Kintyre.

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He learned and re-invented the science of lighthouse engineering

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as he went along.

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This is the Cloch lighthouse on the lower Clyde.

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Thomas, a busy man, entrusted the installation of the lamp here to his

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gifted young apprentice and stepson, Robert Stevenson.

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This is where the start of the dynasty came.

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It was with his third marriage he acquired a stepson,

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called Robert Stevenson,

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who was to go on to marry one of his daughters.

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So the stepson was also to be his son-in-law as well.

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Robert Stevenson in turn became Smith's stepson,

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apprentice, son-in-law, and in 1800, business partner.

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Over two decades Thomas Smith built or improved 13 lighthouses.

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This is his work on Inchkeith in the Fort Estuary.

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Because it was close to Edinburgh,

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Inchkeith became a sort of lighthouse laboratory

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where Smith and generations of the Stevensons

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tested new lamps and lenses.

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Many of Thomas's new lighthouses were in difficult, remote places.

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Here on the Mull of Kintyre, every stone, every pane of glass,

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and piece of machinery

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had to be carried on horseback over a rough track

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from the nearest landing place six miles away.

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Looking away back, it was a very remote station

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and nobody wanted to be here.

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It was a right remote station in my granny and grandfather's days.

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Lighthouses saved lives,

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but they weren't always popular.

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In a lot of the more remote island communities

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they relied on a regular harvest

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of wreck, and dead and dying shipping,

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in order to collect raw materials for life.

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For building boats, for building houses, for putting up fencing,

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for pretty much all the essentials.

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When Robert was working on Thomas's last lighthouse, Start Point,

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on the Orkney isle of Sanday, he wrote to Thomas:

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"You would hardly believe with what an evil eye

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"the Wreck Brokers of Sanday view any improvement upon the coast,

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"and how openly they regret it."

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Thomas Smith was a brilliant inventor.

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Start Point had the first revolving light in Scotland,

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but he knew that lighthouses could only be as good as their keepers.

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His sense of duty was drummed into them.

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There was a strict rule,

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and run quite a lot on naval or sea-based principles.

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The strict regime imposed by Smith was passed down through generations

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of keepers until modern times.

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You were issued with a book of rules and regulations when you joined

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and you religiously, well I religiously read it the first

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station I was at, St Abbs, and then

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everything was sort of regimented anyway. Each watch was

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called at exactly the right time, so it wasn't too difficult to follow

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the rules because they'd been set there for years and years and years.

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NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: 'Once the keeper is in the light room

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'for his four hour shift

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'he mustn't leave it.

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'He mustn't read.

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'He mustn't listen to the radio.

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'That lens must never stop.

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'If it's ever allowed to stop

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'the keeper is liable to instant dismissal.'

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In 1871, at Sumburgh Head on Shetland,

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two keepers agreed not to report that their colleague

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had fallen asleep while on watch.

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All three men were sacked.

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One was the Principal Keeper and had 23 years service.

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In 1799, 70 ships foundered

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in a three-day gale that battered the Scottish coast.

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The most fatal hazard was the Bell Rock,

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11 miles south-east of Arbroath.

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Robert, now Chief Engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board,

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wanted to build a lighthouse on the reef.

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But many though it impossible,

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and Parliament refused to sanction it.

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I think the powers that be felt that although he was

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a good assistant to Thomas Smith, he just didn't have the experience to

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do a major civil engineering structure

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11 miles out to sea on a submerged rock.

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But this was the era

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of great Scottish engineers like Thomas Telford,

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who was building the Ellesmere canal in Wales,

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and John Rennie who had just completed a major bridge at Kelso.

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They had the reputations that young Robert Stevenson lacked.

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I think Robert felt that if the board

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got Rennie involved then they could get their Act of Parliament.

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The act was passed.

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The deal was that Rennie, busy with many projects all over Britain,

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would supervise and visit the Bell about once a year.

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Robert, his ambitious assistant, was put in day-to-day command.

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In 1807, Robert established this shore base in Arbroath.

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From here, dressed stone was shipped out to the reef 11 miles away.

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This splendid model

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was presented to the museum in 1867 by the Northern Lighthouse Board.

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It shows the Bell Rock Lighthouse

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in the middle of being built,

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and the model itself was apparently constructed

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under the supervision of Robert Stevenson

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and he made sure that the detail was correct on it.

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They had to live on the boat to start with and, of course,

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being landsmen they were all horribly sea sick

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and so Robert decided that the thing to do

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was to build this temporary barracks which in itself was

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a bit of an epic performance because it had to be attached

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to the rock, and then built up,

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and you could only do this between tides.

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The technology here is really...

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I would say almost Medieval.

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We have no steam machinery.

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We have really muscle power and graft and determination.

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For four summers Robert drove his men up to 16 hours a day,

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seven days a week.

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Stones of up to a ton were precisely carved

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with dovetail joints to interlock.

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The design and craftsmanship has withstood two centuries of storms.

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115 feet high, 42 feet in diameter at the base,

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tapering to 15 feet at the top.

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The wonder of the age.

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Bella Bathurst has written

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a best-selling book about the Lighthouse Stevensons,

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but this is her first visit to the Bell.

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It's kind of like I imagined it was going to be,

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but, um...inevitably

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that much, I suppose what it conveys is how big the reef is

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and how widely it extends.

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You've got this enormous great lump of rock

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in the middle of a hugely busy passage for navigation.

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It's also interesting looking out at the...

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..faces of the seals,

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just beyond the rocks, and remembering that old thing

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about seals always being considered

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to be the souls of shipwrecked sailors.

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So I don't know. It's kind of eerie, but kind of amazing.

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Robert definitely feared for the men

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and for the state of the works, but he really relished being out,

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with the men,

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working and contributing to this extraordinary endeavour.

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He felt an enormous sense of responsibility, but I think he also

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felt a great sense of exhilaration.

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Well, we're up in the lantern room of the Bell Rock Lighthouse,

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which is a pretty amazing place to be

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given that this was what the whole palaver was about -

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one solitary light bulb.

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The Bell Rock Lighthouse

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was praised as one of the wonders of the age.

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The ambitious Robert revelled in the fame.

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He hired Turner, the greatest landscape artist of the age,

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to paint it,

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and published this lavish book about its construction.

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The fact that he had managed to light an impossible rock

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and thereby to save countless lives was extraordinary.

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It was proof that man could tame nature,

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which was a very fashionable idea at the time.

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It was proof that the Scots were better than the English.

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It was proof that

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Scotland led the world in marine engineering,

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and it was proof that hubris actually could carry stuff off.

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I mean if you said, "I want to build a lighthouse

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"in the middle of the North Sea

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"on an impossible reef which is covered at high tide",

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it was possible to do it, which was an extraordinary achievement.

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But what of the project's chief engineer, John Rennie?

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Professor Roland Paxton feels that Rennie's role

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was deliberately underplayed by Robert.

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It was John Rennie that insisted

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that the tower should be broadly based

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and that the bottom should have a curvature, a very pronounced

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curvature, and he also insisted on the dovetailing.

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So it's due to Rennie that the actual structure

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was structurally successful.

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Professor Paxton discovered that Robert's book

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about the Bell Rock Lighthouse omitted an important document.

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At the back in this appendix there's a list of the reports

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given by Rennie,

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except that I noticed that there was no report for the year 1809.

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And so I went into the National Library of Scotland where they

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have the Rennie papers and the Stevenson papers side by side

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and I transcribed this missing report of 1809,

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which shows Rennie at the rock acting as a chief engineer.

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But having said all this, there's little doubt

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in my mind that most of the credit really is due to Robert Stevenson

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and his direction of a very, very difficult civil engineering task.

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I think he felt very strongly that this was going to be the thing

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that would absolutely put his stamp on engineering and in order

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for him to be able to put that stamp on the rock, he needed to,

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if not get rid of Rennie then make himself indispensable.

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And in doing so, managed to

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kind of either gently or not gently elbow out Rennie.

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The fact that Robert ended up

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de facto chief engineer

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has a lot to say about Robert's character and the way he worked.

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A driven man, Robert was responsible for building 23 new lighthouses.

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The technology that Robert brought to these beacons and the duties of

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the men who tended them hardly changed in 150 years.

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Now that's me just finished opening the curtains.

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That's the first thing a lightkeeper does

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when he comes up here to go on watch.

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The curtains, of course are very important.

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They are there to prevent fire.

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The lens magnifies light going out,

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also magnifies the sun rays coming in.

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That can cause fire.

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Now this lens is actually made up of a central, focal plane

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surrounded by prisms, and those prisms refract light

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in parallel to the centre lens.

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This produces a beam of light

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two metres in diameter, which is a light that is visible at 28 miles.

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The hyper radio was the largest lens used in lighthouses.

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This lens weighs approximately 3½ tons

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and it revolves, driven by a clockwork machine.

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The clockwork machine keeps this revolving for half an hour.

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Now, the flash effect

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is when this lens passes between you and the source of light.

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That is when this lighthouse appears to flash.

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It flashes one flash every 15 seconds.

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Again, that is controlled by the clockwork machine.

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Now, this is the clockwork machine that drives the lighthouse.

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It's powered by a big weight descending the tower.

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Now, that weight on its descent from the top to the

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bottom keeps it going for 30 minutes.

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So every half hour this has to be wound up.

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Now, like every good grandfather clock, wound up with a big handle...

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and it takes about 93 turns

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of this handle to bring the weight back up again.

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That gives you another half hour's run.

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We're right at the top of the lighthouse here,

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up in the lens gallery.

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When the lightkeeper came up here to put in the light, he had to fill

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this little heater with methylated spirits.

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That was then lit and that was put under

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the vaporiser, and that was left to heat the vaporiser.

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Now, this took about ten minutes, to get this thing warmed up.

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So once that was warmed up

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you could then turn your pressure onto your lamp, paraffin would

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come up through here, be vaporised, and then you could take a light from

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there and pass it up onto the mantle, and this would light the lamp.

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You had the machinery down there every half hour to wind.

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You had this thing to pump up every 20 minutes or so

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to keep the pressure up.

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You had weather reporting to go down and do every three hours,

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a quick dash down and collect the information,

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and then send that away to Bracknell.

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Keeping an eye on the weather, on shipping,

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so the four hours really pass quite quickly.

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Yes, you could be up and down quite a lot.

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There wasn't many lightkeepers went to step aerobics.

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We had plenty exercise.

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Robert Stevenson not only demanded

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efficiency from his keepers, he wanted their souls too.

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Deeply religious,

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he demanded that principal keepers conduct Sunday services.

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This is Robert Stevenson's Bible.

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It is the most beautiful book, and in the front he's written

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a memoranda, which includes items with a cross

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being specifically designed for lighthouse use,

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and he did conduct services

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in lighthouses and for the lighthouse builders, using this Bible.

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This is the prayer for those employed

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at the Lighthouse Service of Scotland.

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This is the Northern Lighthouse Board's prayer.

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It was Robert Stevenson who really put his stamp on the service,

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and since he was effectively designing both

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an engineering discipline and the service itself from scratch,

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he could model it in whichever way he chose.

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And the way he chose to go was to be very

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militaristic about it -

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lots of ritual, lots of badges, lots of medals, lots of singing,

0:23:010:23:05

lots of hyms, lots of bells and whistles.

0:23:050:23:12

And that tradition carried

0:23:120:23:16

right the way through the service, down pretty much almost until today.

0:23:160:23:21

To maintain discipline, Robert established annual

0:23:230:23:25

voyages of inspections of lighthouses, and surprises visits.

0:23:250:23:29

A dusty lamp or even dirty dishes meant trouble for the keepers.

0:23:290:23:34

Although Robert was a hard taskmaster,

0:23:380:23:40

lighthouse keeping developed a reputation as a respectable,

0:23:400:23:45

desirable profession, with jobs being handed down the generations.

0:23:450:23:49

Hector Lamont, his father, maternal grandfather and two of his brothers

0:23:510:23:55

were all keepers.

0:23:550:23:58

My family's connection with the lighthouse board started and ended

0:24:000:24:02

here at the Mull of Kintyre.

0:24:020:24:04

Started with grandfather, Murdoch Sutherland,

0:24:060:24:08

a stonemason from Rosemarkie.

0:24:080:24:12

He was appointed here in 1904 and he did his service right up to 1934.

0:24:120:24:20

And my own connection ended here

0:24:200:24:23

in 2006.

0:24:230:24:26

So between all the family

0:24:260:24:29

we did 171 years service for the lighthouse board.

0:24:290:24:34

Like his keepers, Robert Stevenson too had sons who followed him

0:24:340:24:39

into the lighthouse business.

0:24:390:24:41

As well as fathering sons, he fathered a dynasty.

0:24:410:24:46

I was the granddaughter of Charles Stevenson

0:24:470:24:51

and I was the great-great granddaughter of Robert.

0:24:510:24:54

There's never been anybody quite like Robert.

0:24:540:24:57

He used to get up at five o'clock

0:24:570:24:58

in the morning and start shaving, and when he still had all the soap on his

0:24:580:25:02

face, he would go round to each boy and tug him awake and poor chap had

0:25:020:25:06

to get up at five o'clock in the morning, and ask him,

0:25:060:25:11

Robert asked what the lad he thought he was to do, time to get out of bed,

0:25:110:25:15

and he kicks him out of bed

0:25:150:25:17

and asked him to go out, get his breakfast

0:25:170:25:20

and get started on a day's work.

0:25:200:25:22

He was...

0:25:220:25:24

not an easy father to like, I guess.

0:25:240:25:30

Or that's the way he comes across.

0:25:300:25:31

I think he

0:25:310:25:34

was, as an engineer,

0:25:340:25:37

he was a great visionary and a great pioneer.

0:25:370:25:41

In family life he was much much more of a traditionalist.

0:25:410:25:45

He came from poverty and he was

0:25:450:25:48

frightened of that for the rest of his days.

0:25:480:25:51

So behind all of his exaltations to his children and his insistence that

0:25:510:25:56

they become engineers

0:25:560:26:00

was the sense that if his children didn't get themselves

0:26:000:26:04

a sensible profession, by which he meant engineering or engineering,

0:26:040:26:09

then they would be condemned to the same sort of future

0:26:100:26:18

that he had come from originally.

0:26:180:26:20

Alan Stevenson, oldest son of the man who'd braved the elements

0:26:220:26:25

to build the Bell Rock light, was frail and artistic,

0:26:250:26:30

but became an engineer to please his father.

0:26:300:26:34

It's fairly clear, I think, that Robert

0:26:340:26:38

put such pressure on him

0:26:380:26:41

that only a very, very strong character who was prepared

0:26:410:26:46

to break away from the whole family would have been able to resist it.

0:26:460:26:52

And Alan didn't want to do that, couldn't do that.

0:26:520:26:56

From the ages of 12 or 13,

0:26:560:26:59

the Stevenson boys began their apprenticeships, sailing with

0:26:590:27:03

their father every summer on his annual inspection of lighthouses.

0:27:030:27:07

The name of the ship is the Pharos,

0:27:090:27:12

and this is the tenth ship

0:27:120:27:14

the Northern Lighthouse Board have had with the name Pharos.

0:27:140:27:18

Today we've got a couple of jobs to do.

0:27:180:27:21

The first job we're doing this morning is servicing

0:27:210:27:24

one of the navigation buoys in the Sound of Mull -

0:27:240:27:27

Avon Rock buoy.

0:27:270:27:28

What we do every year is we bring them on,

0:27:280:27:31

bring the buoys on board and check the chain for wear and tear,

0:27:310:27:34

and normally it varies from a mil to two mil,

0:27:340:27:37

they'll wear down each year.

0:27:370:27:39

If need be we'll actually change the chain or put a piece in

0:27:390:27:43

and basically, like I said, once a year we'll just service them.

0:27:430:27:48

By the age of 17, Alan was getting practical experience.

0:27:500:27:54

He may have become an engineer under pressure,

0:27:540:27:58

but he became a brilliant one.

0:27:580:28:00

Alan Stevenson built what is probably the most beautiful

0:28:070:28:10

and iconic lighthouse in the world.

0:28:100:28:12

Ian Duff served as a keeper here.

0:28:140:28:16

It's described as the noblest of all deep sea lights

0:28:160:28:19

by Robert Louis Stevenson himself, so I was delighted that I'd been able

0:28:190:28:23

to say lighthouses is my hobby

0:28:230:28:25

and I've been at one of the most famous Scottish lighthouses there is.

0:28:250:28:28

Alan's masterpiece was

0:28:280:28:31

Skerryvore, 14 miles off Tiree.

0:28:310:28:36

Skerryvore, like the Bell Rock reef, was notorious.

0:28:360:28:42

I think in total the reef stretches

0:28:420:28:44

for about ten miles, most of it underwater.

0:28:440:28:48

Very difficult to work, a very tough environment,

0:28:480:28:53

and exposed to the full fetch of the Atlantic,

0:28:530:28:55

so you've got these storms

0:28:550:28:57

rolling over from Newfoundland,

0:28:570:29:00

really gathering some strength.

0:29:000:29:02

The treacherous reef of Skerryvore.

0:29:030:29:06

To the west, a storm-scoured ocean.

0:29:060:29:10

To the north, the island of Tiree.

0:29:100:29:14

When Alan came here in the 1830s, he found that crofts on one side

0:29:140:29:18

of the island paid higher rents because they benefited

0:29:180:29:23

from timber and goods washed on the shore.

0:29:230:29:25

"This reef has long been the terror of the mariner, but the erection

0:29:270:29:30

"of a lighthouse upon Skerryvore would at once change its character."

0:29:300:29:34

Alan established a base camp at Hynish on Tiree.

0:29:380:29:42

A harbour had to be built there.

0:29:420:29:44

Like his father had done at the Bell Rock,

0:29:440:29:47

Alan built a temporary barracks so that his men could live

0:29:470:29:50

and work on the reef.

0:29:500:29:52

Then work was abandoned for the winter.

0:29:520:29:55

In November, Alan got a letter from Tiree.

0:29:550:29:59

Dear Sir, I am extremely sorry to inform you that the barrack

0:29:590:30:04

erected on Skerryvore Rock has totally disappeared.

0:30:040:30:09

They spent an entire season building this thing,

0:30:090:30:12

only to see the whole thing completely swept away by one storm.

0:30:120:30:16

Some of the building blocks shipped out to the reef

0:30:170:30:20

weighed two and a half tons.

0:30:200:30:22

The risks for men in boats getting on to places like Skerryvore,

0:30:230:30:28

where you had changes with the weather, sea and getting tools

0:30:280:30:33

safely secured and getting them off - it was a marvel that there wasn't

0:30:330:30:38

more men lost in the building of these places.

0:30:380:30:42

4,300 tons of granite was eventually landed on the reef.

0:30:420:30:48

The tower Alan and his men built with it is 156 feet high.

0:30:480:30:53

The walls at the base are nine and a half feet thick.

0:30:530:30:57

It's not quite the same design as the Bell Rock.

0:30:590:31:01

It's much more graceful at the bottom, and there's not so much

0:31:010:31:05

dove-tailing and mortising used on Skerryvore because Alan Stevenson

0:31:050:31:09

argued the sheer weight of his structure would keep it together,

0:31:090:31:13

and I think he's been proved right because one of the keepers I was

0:31:130:31:17

with at Skerryvore who'd also been at the Bell Rock,

0:31:170:31:19

said that the Bell Rock juddered when the sea hit it,

0:31:190:31:22

but Skerryvore didn't judder.

0:31:220:31:24

When Alan died in 1865, he was buried in Edinburgh.

0:31:280:31:34

But his true monument lies 11 miles south-west of Tiree.

0:31:340:31:37

1853.

0:31:450:31:46

The Crimean War.

0:31:460:31:48

Britain was locked in conflict with the Russian Empire.

0:31:490:31:53

The Royal Navy blockaded Archangel and Murmansk

0:31:530:31:56

and demanded that a beacon be built on Muckle Flugga

0:31:560:31:59

to help their warships navigate beyond the Shetland Isles.

0:31:590:32:04

The storm-lashed rock is Britain's most northerly isle.

0:32:040:32:08

Next stop, the Arctic Circle.

0:32:080:32:11

It's a triangle. It's like a kind of minature Matterhorn, really,

0:32:120:32:16

so you're dealing with something which has very glassy sides,

0:32:160:32:23

and what the workmen had to do was to haul every scrap of equipment,

0:32:230:32:30

materials and tools up on their backs, up ropes.

0:32:300:32:35

The job fell to David, the second of Robert Stevenson's engineering sons.

0:32:360:32:42

Steps were carved in the steep flank of Muckle Flugga.

0:32:420:32:45

Foundations for the tower were sunk ten feet into the living rock.

0:32:450:32:51

The lighthouse David built was made of brick.

0:32:510:32:56

It was, he admitted...

0:32:560:32:58

An untried experiment in marine engineering.

0:32:580:33:03

Muckle Flugga was David's Skerryvore.

0:33:030:33:07

In my mind it looked like the end of the world,

0:33:070:33:10

like Tierra del Fuego at the end of South America or something like that.

0:33:100:33:13

It remains in my mind to this day,

0:33:130:33:15

turning that corner and seeing Muckle Flugga at the top of the rock.

0:33:150:33:18

Incredible place.

0:33:180:33:20

We had the sea coming right over the top of the station,

0:33:200:33:25

and we're sitting on the top of a cliff,

0:33:250:33:27

200 feet up with this big northerly swells coming in,

0:33:270:33:31

on spring tides with the sea pounding onto the station.

0:33:310:33:35

It was a weird sensation.

0:33:350:33:37

The year after David Stevenson and his men left Muckle Flugga,

0:33:380:33:42

a Royal Commission into the state of Britain's lighthouses noted that

0:33:420:33:46

those of England and Ireland were...

0:33:460:33:49

Much inferior to those of Scotland, which were under the supervision

0:33:490:33:53

of the Stevensons.

0:33:530:33:54

This is the remote Dhu Heartach lighthouse, west of Mull.

0:34:080:34:12

It's one of 29 lighthouses built by David and his brother Thomas,

0:34:150:34:20

the youngest of Robert Stevenson's sons.

0:34:200:34:23

Among them, Butt of Lewis.

0:34:230:34:26

Monach.

0:34:280:34:30

Ruvaal.

0:34:310:34:33

Lochindaal.

0:34:340:34:37

Bressay.

0:34:370:34:39

Turnberry.

0:34:410:34:42

And Fidra.

0:34:440:34:45

Thomas was the least likely lighthouse engineer.

0:34:480:34:51

He fancied being a writer or a publisher or a bookseller.

0:34:510:34:55

He was found with bits of card in his pockets containing

0:34:580:35:04

what Robert was appalled to discover

0:35:040:35:08

were scribblings, were bits of writing, and he was genuinely...

0:35:080:35:14

If he had discovered pieces of wreck, or laundered money

0:35:140:35:18

or pornography, it probably wouldn't have been as bad as literature.

0:35:180:35:23

But as it was,

0:35:230:35:25

Tom was absolutely in disgrace

0:35:250:35:29

and sent straight to become an engineer.

0:35:290:35:34

Robert warned his son...

0:35:340:35:37

If you want to live as a gentleman you must work as a man,

0:35:370:35:40

for there is no dining without a purse.

0:35:400:35:43

But like his brothers, Thomas was smart

0:35:460:35:49

and had a capacity for hard work.

0:35:490:35:52

He had a deep understanding of optics and oversaw

0:35:520:35:55

the installation of the lamp on Alan's masterpiece, Skerryvore.

0:35:550:35:59

While on Tiree, he developed a fascination with the sea.

0:36:010:36:06

Today he's best remembered as the father of Robert Louis Stevenson,

0:36:060:36:11

who wrote of Thomas...

0:36:110:36:13

He would pass hours on the beach,

0:36:130:36:16

brooding over the waves, counting them, noting their least deflection,

0:36:160:36:21

noting when they broke.

0:36:210:36:23

Thomas' greatest achievement was Dhu Heartach,

0:36:260:36:29

built on the Torran Reef, 12 miles west of the Ross of Mull.

0:36:290:36:34

Lying in an important shipping channel, it had claimed 30 ships

0:36:340:36:38

in just over half a century.

0:36:380:36:40

On the island of Earraid, off Mull, Thomas established a quarry

0:36:430:36:48

and workshops with a virtual village to support them.

0:36:480:36:53

Robert Louis visited in 1870.

0:36:530:36:56

There was now a pier of stone,

0:36:560:36:58

there were rows of sheds, railways, travelling cranes,

0:36:580:37:03

a street of cottages, an iron house for the resident engineer,

0:37:030:37:07

wooden bothies for the men, a stage where the courses of the tower

0:37:070:37:11

were put together experimentally, and, behind the settlement,

0:37:110:37:14

a great gash in the hillside where the granite was quarried.

0:37:140:37:19

The men actually working out on the reef

0:37:210:37:23

lived in a metal barracks bolted to the rock in case of storms.

0:37:230:37:28

Robert Louis described such a storm.

0:37:280:37:32

The men sat prisoned high up in their iron drum,

0:37:320:37:35

that then resounded with the lashing of the sprays.

0:37:350:37:38

Fear sat with them in their sea-beleaguered dwelling.

0:37:380:37:42

Robert Louis didn't follow his father into the business.

0:37:520:37:55

Thomas was heartbroken.

0:37:550:37:58

Robert wrote...

0:37:580:37:59

What a damned curse I am to my parents!

0:37:590:38:03

As my father said, "You have rendered my whole life a failure!"

0:38:030:38:08

It took him a hell of a long time to realise that he had a boy

0:38:080:38:11

of such enormous talent.

0:38:110:38:14

Thomas waited for ages to discover what his son really wanted,

0:38:140:38:20

and in the end, of course, that is what he did, thank goodness for us.

0:38:200:38:24

There's a few thousand people in the world who know who Robert Stevenson is,

0:38:240:38:28

but there's millions who know who Robert Louis Stevenson is.

0:38:280:38:32

He was much the brightest member of the family.

0:38:330:38:36

Although he never became a lighthouse engineer, Robert Louis

0:38:370:38:41

got something out of the journeys he made with his father.

0:38:410:38:45

Erraid, from where Thomas built Dhu Heartach,

0:38:450:38:47

is the tidal island on which David Balfour is shipwrecked in Kidnapped.

0:38:470:38:52

I thought in my heart I had never seen a place so desert and desolate,

0:38:520:38:57

but it was dry land.

0:38:570:39:00

Towards the end of his life, Robert Louis wrote to a friend...

0:39:000:39:05

I ought to have been able to build lighthouses

0:39:050:39:07

and write David Balfours too.

0:39:070:39:09

If you feel that you've gone off to a nice, relatively comfortable life

0:39:110:39:17

as a children's writer, or a writer of children's stories,

0:39:170:39:22

while the rest of your family are lifesavers,

0:39:220:39:26

the equivalent of firemen or paramedics today, then you probably

0:39:260:39:33

would feel a bit ambivalent.

0:39:330:39:35

Under the Stevensons, Scotland was surrounding itself

0:39:360:39:39

with a necklace of lights that were to save countless lives.

0:39:390:39:43

But each light had to be manned by keepers who were trained,

0:39:440:39:48

precise and vigilant.

0:39:480:39:50

The men recruited as keepers were expected to be...

0:39:520:39:56

Sober and industrious,

0:39:560:39:58

cleanly in their persons and linens and orderly in their families.

0:39:580:40:03

Robert Louis Stevenson reported that the keepers...

0:40:040:40:07

Usually pass their time by the pleasant human expedient of

0:40:070:40:11

quarrelling and sometimes,

0:40:110:40:13

I'm assured, not one of the three is on speaking terms with the other.

0:40:130:40:17

You had to get on with your fellow man.

0:40:200:40:22

Now, I'm not saying there wasn't long silences.

0:40:220:40:26

We had one lad there who smoked about 60 cigarettes a day

0:40:260:40:29

and for a non-smoker that was, you know, erm....

0:40:290:40:35

not very pleasant.

0:40:350:40:37

One instance...

0:40:370:40:38

just comes to mind,

0:40:380:40:41

the chap, he hated mashed potatoes

0:40:410:40:45

and when you were cook, of course, you had to separate the potatoes out

0:40:450:40:50

specially for him and mash the rest and then the first thing he did

0:40:500:40:54

when he got his plate was pick up his fork

0:40:540:40:56

and mash his potatoes and you thought, "Now, ooh, wait a minute".

0:40:560:41:00

Different lighthouses

0:41:020:41:03

posed different challenges for wives and families, as well as keepers.

0:41:030:41:08

My first experience of a rock lighthouse was the island of Fidra

0:41:080:41:12

in the Firth of Forth and I wasn't a very happy bunny this day

0:41:120:41:17

because I was going out for Christmas and New Year.

0:41:170:41:20

I had a two and a half year old son and this was going to be me away

0:41:200:41:27

for Christmas and New Year for the first time.

0:41:270:41:29

In my case, it was a month on and a month off.

0:41:290:41:32

In my father's day,

0:41:320:41:34

it was two months on and one month off,

0:41:340:41:38

so...

0:41:380:41:39

the women had a job bringing up the children, right enough.

0:41:390:41:43

When Hector was on rock stations, I didn't enjoy it.

0:41:430:41:46

He was away from home for a month at a time.

0:41:460:41:50

I was left to cope with the children

0:41:500:41:53

and it was quite hard-going if they were ill,

0:41:530:41:55

or if I was feeling off-colour, I had no-one to turn to.

0:41:550:41:59

It was a bit of a wrench for them, you know, moving, more so for them,

0:41:590:42:03

I would say, than for us.

0:42:030:42:06

You know, they had to make friends at school

0:42:060:42:10

and then they had to go away and leave their friends.

0:42:100:42:13

A lot of keepers

0:42:130:42:16

would be quite happy in the job, but then when they got a transfer,

0:42:160:42:21

the wife would have one look at the place and say "well, not for me".

0:42:210:42:25

Now, he had a choice there, he'd have to go or leave the wife,

0:42:250:42:30

so normally the keeper followed the wife and left the service.

0:42:300:42:33

My wife said, if I was away at the rock and I came back after a month,

0:42:330:42:36

that was like a new honeymoon, you know, and then I think

0:42:360:42:40

when you lived together, you were living in a remote place

0:42:400:42:43

and you were constantly with one another, so you didn't constantly

0:42:430:42:47

succumb to what other people in the town might have called "temptations".

0:42:470:42:52

A fella marrying a city girl

0:42:520:42:55

and then having this separation,

0:42:550:42:58

I've seen it often,

0:42:580:43:00

fairly testing sometimes, even a break-up, you know.

0:43:000:43:04

Most of my life in the lighthouse service, it was a happy time,

0:43:040:43:07

until things went wrong with my marriage and we split up.

0:43:070:43:13

It happened to some. I think maybe the long periods of being away,

0:43:130:43:17

you know, on a regular basis, maybe created windows

0:43:170:43:20

of opportunity where, you know, there wouldn't have been otherwise.

0:43:200:43:25

Robert Louis's cousins, David Alan and Charles,

0:43:260:43:30

sons of David Stevenson, who'd built Muckle Flugga,

0:43:300:43:33

were the fourth generation

0:43:330:43:35

of this remarkable dynasty and the third to bear the name, Stevenson.

0:43:350:43:40

It is a name that was now world renowned.

0:43:400:43:43

One of the great things about this lighthouse technology,

0:43:430:43:47

this package if you like, is that it did export quite well.

0:43:470:43:50

A number of people were recruited by advertisements and went out

0:43:500:43:55

to set up a lighthouse service in Japan.

0:43:550:43:59

The Northern Lighthouse Board was also involved in various points of

0:43:590:44:02

the empire like Aden, like India,

0:44:020:44:06

Burma, I think to some extent, but also, perhaps more unexpectedly,

0:44:060:44:11

Chile.

0:44:110:44:13

The Bass Rock, one of 24 Scottish lighthouses

0:44:130:44:18

built by David Alan and Charles Stevenson.

0:44:180:44:21

The boom years of lighthouse engineering

0:44:210:44:23

may have been in the past,

0:44:230:44:25

but the pair still built classics like Sule Skerry,

0:44:250:44:29

Britain's most remote lighthouse, 45 miles from the mainland.

0:44:290:44:34

They built the notorious Flannan Isle light,

0:44:370:44:40

where three keepers mysteriously disappeared in December 1900.

0:44:400:44:45

Three men alive on Flannan Isle, who thought of three men dead.

0:44:480:44:55

They designed and built fog horns

0:44:550:44:58

and vastly improved the power of lights.

0:44:580:45:01

In 1929, Charles and his son, D Alan Stevenson,

0:45:040:45:07

invented the Talking Beacon,

0:45:070:45:11

which allowed ships to take bearings

0:45:110:45:13

in thick fog from radio signals transmitted from lighthouses.

0:45:130:45:17

Charles was grandfather to Jean Leslie.

0:45:170:45:22

Because my father had been killed at the Battle of Jutland,

0:45:220:45:25

I had no father and as a grandfather,

0:45:250:45:29

he really did a great deal for my sister and myself,

0:45:290:45:32

he was always in our lives.

0:45:320:45:35

Charles was a very kindly man and he was a great inventor.

0:45:350:45:38

I don't remember a time when he wasn't inventing

0:45:380:45:41

and I was often with him when he was.

0:45:410:45:43

He quite often turned to me and asked me what I thought,

0:45:430:45:46

even though I was a child of only about 12.

0:45:460:45:49

He was very inventive.

0:45:490:45:51

He was the most inventive member of the family by a long way.

0:45:510:45:54

World War II was a severe test for the Stevenson lighthouses

0:45:560:46:01

and the profession of lighthouse keeping that the family had created.

0:46:010:46:05

The Northern Lighthouse Board had reasoned...

0:46:070:46:10

The risk of lighthouses being attacked is slight.

0:46:100:46:14

Keepers agreed.

0:46:140:46:15

The principal at Fair Isle South light wrote to his superiors...

0:46:150:46:19

I do not consider it necessary to take special precautions here,

0:46:190:46:23

owing to our position, not being near a town, naval base or aerodrome.

0:46:230:46:28

But these documents record 30 Nazi air attacks on Scottish lights.

0:46:300:46:37

This is a Luftwaffe aerial reconnaissance photograph of Fair Isle.

0:46:370:46:41

In March 1941, the island's northern light was attacked twice.

0:46:410:46:46

In December, it was the turn of the island's southern light.

0:46:460:46:50

My mother was looking out the window with me in her arms

0:46:520:46:56

and she was killed by machine gun fire.

0:46:560:46:59

And I was supposedly injured and so was the dog according to my father,

0:46:590:47:03

but the lighthouse itself wasn't hurt that day.

0:47:030:47:08

When I look at my mum and I think, well she was only 22,

0:47:080:47:12

which is hardly... She'd hardly lived, had she?

0:47:120:47:15

And there was a time I can remember I used to think

0:47:150:47:19

that it should have been me who died and my mother lived,

0:47:190:47:22

because I think my father would've liked a big family,

0:47:220:47:25

so I did go through a feeling of "it should have been me, not her".

0:47:250:47:31

Just a month after June's mother's death,

0:47:310:47:34

the south light was bombed again, killing a soldier

0:47:340:47:38

and the wife and ten year old daughter of the principal keeper.

0:47:380:47:42

Another victim of the war was the Monach light, west of North Uist.

0:47:460:47:50

Thought to be vulnerable to attack,

0:47:500:47:52

it was abandoned in 1942 and not re-lit after the war.

0:47:520:47:57

But in 1993, following the wreck of oil tanker, The Braer, off Shetland,

0:47:590:48:04

the NLB set up a new light on the Monach Isles.

0:48:040:48:09

Our new light wasn't sufficient for the job it was required to do

0:48:090:48:13

and we had two alternatives, one was to build up that light

0:48:130:48:16

to make it stronger, the other was to move back into the Stevenson Tower.

0:48:160:48:21

It was dry as a bone.

0:48:220:48:24

It was so beautifully built that I could actually touch

0:48:240:48:27

the dust on the window sills.

0:48:270:48:29

No damp at all in that building.

0:48:290:48:32

So we removed the old light equipment from the top of the tower,

0:48:320:48:35

put in brand new modern equipment and

0:48:350:48:38

we now have a functioning tower some 60 years after it was first deserted.

0:48:380:48:43

And I think it just goes to prove that the Stevensons knew it

0:48:430:48:47

right all along.

0:48:470:48:48

For all their genius, the Stevensons had no control over the elements.

0:48:520:48:56

Right, boys, lower away together now.

0:48:560:48:59

This film of 40 years ago shows fourth-generation keeper,

0:48:590:49:04

Angus Hutchison, reporting for duty on Sule Skerry.

0:49:040:49:08

Sule Skerry in winter time could be a bit of a trial.

0:49:160:49:19

You would be thinking that you were going home in the morrow

0:49:220:49:25

and the next day duly turned up

0:49:250:49:29

and you had a screaming gale from the west,

0:49:290:49:32

which meant that for that day,

0:49:320:49:35

and probably for a week afterwards, there was no relief.

0:49:350:49:38

That's fine. Hold on, Matthew.

0:49:380:49:41

You'll have to play her today, boys.

0:49:460:49:48

There was a situation existed in those days that you extended,

0:49:510:49:57

or tried to make a relief for the next five days

0:49:570:50:01

and if you couldn't make the relief within that time, it was abandoned

0:50:010:50:05

and you continued and finished the next three weeks on there

0:50:050:50:10

before they would try again for the relief,

0:50:100:50:13

so that meant that you were going to be a minimum of nine weeks

0:50:130:50:17

on the rock without getting ashore, so you used to try

0:50:170:50:24

and put up a prayer for a bonnie day.

0:50:240:50:28

But you had to be a very good living fellow before that was answered.

0:50:300:50:34

It was never really answered in my case, you know.

0:50:340:50:38

There was one year on Copinsay.

0:50:380:50:40

We were overdue by...

0:50:400:50:43

about four or five days at Christmas time,

0:50:430:50:46

so here we were, looking at tins of corned beef for Christmas dinner.

0:50:460:50:50

We had an old shotgun on the station

0:50:500:50:54

we went off looking for

0:50:540:50:57

something for our Christmas lunch and we managed to get a goose,

0:50:570:51:01

but it was rather greasy, but we made the best of it.

0:51:010:51:05

It was better than corned beef.

0:51:050:51:08

This is the Bass Rock, built by David Alan Stevenson,

0:51:090:51:13

grandson of the Bell Rock Lighthouse builder, Robert.

0:51:130:51:16

David A, as he was known,

0:51:160:51:19

retired as the Northern Lighthouse Board's chief engineer in 1938.

0:51:190:51:24

He was 83 and had served for over half a century.

0:51:240:51:29

This was the end of the Stevenson family's

0:51:290:51:31

130 year connection with the Northern Lighthouse Board,

0:51:310:51:35

although his nephew, D Alan, continued the family

0:51:350:51:38

tradition as engineer to the Clyde Lighthouse Trust until 1952.

0:51:380:51:43

Including Robert Stevenson's stepfather, Thomas Smith,

0:51:460:51:49

the family had served Scotland's lighthouses

0:51:490:51:53

for five generations and 166 years.

0:51:530:51:56

I think they were absolutely marvellous.

0:51:590:52:04

Those days, and mind you, it was sailing ships they were working with.

0:52:040:52:10

And all these rock lighthouses, they're built with

0:52:100:52:13

massive, big interlocking granite stones.

0:52:130:52:17

I mean, you could hardly see the joins

0:52:170:52:20

and there was no cement or anything.

0:52:200:52:22

They were absolutely marvellous.

0:52:220:52:24

At the beginning of the 1960s,

0:52:270:52:29

the Northern Lighthouse Board began to automate its lighthouses.

0:52:290:52:32

Technicians in Edinburgh's George Street,

0:52:350:52:38

not solitary keepers on storm-washed towers, now tend the lights.

0:52:380:52:42

There's now over 100 lighthouses monitored from here,

0:52:440:52:47

this is the monitor centre in our headquarters in Edinburgh.

0:52:470:52:51

24 hours manned a day, 365 days of the year,

0:52:510:52:55

keeping close control on the operation of our lights out there.

0:52:550:53:00

System battery one volts, 28.1.

0:53:000:53:04

Battery two, 27.3...

0:53:040:53:07

If one goes wrong then the first thing to do is the monitor centre

0:53:070:53:10

officer based here will try and restart the light or fix the error

0:53:100:53:14

from here in the monitor centre.

0:53:140:53:16

If that fails, he'll send out a message straight away

0:53:160:53:19

to the hydrographic office, and to the coastguard

0:53:190:53:22

so they can alert mariners in the area and we'll get technicians out

0:53:220:53:26

as soon as we can to fix the light.

0:53:260:53:27

What would the Stevensons have made of all this?

0:53:310:53:35

I think they would've been sad to see the stations empty,

0:53:350:53:38

but they would've approved of the move in automation

0:53:380:53:41

because they were very, very skilled, advanced engineers at their time

0:53:410:53:45

and they would've been skilled, advanced engineers today, as well.

0:53:450:53:49

I think what would've pleased them

0:53:490:53:51

would be that the structure they built

0:53:510:53:53

are still there, the structures are still there doing the job

0:53:530:53:56

they built them to do, but with modern equipment inside them.

0:53:560:54:00

Former principal keeper, Angus Hutchison,

0:54:010:54:03

is on a sentimental journey to Fair Isle.

0:54:030:54:06

Do you want to see me doing a nose-dive, boys?

0:54:130:54:17

I'm stiff.

0:54:200:54:22

-How many years is it since you were here last?

-Eleven.

0:54:220:54:25

-Eleven?

-That's a while indeed, yep.

0:54:250:54:29

Here, at Fair Isle South,

0:54:310:54:34

the 200 year-old tradition of men living in a remote place

0:54:340:54:38

and dedicating their lives to looking after a glorified light bulb

0:54:380:54:42

came to an end.

0:54:420:54:45

I personally believe that the human presence is

0:54:450:54:49

far superior to any of the new technology.

0:54:490:54:55

I just happened to be the last principal light keeper,

0:54:550:54:58

it just happened to be my watch when this happened.

0:54:580:55:03

It was a good day, but a sad day.

0:55:030:55:06

The last day with Princess Anne there,

0:55:060:55:13

when we folded up the flag, there was such a big lump in my throat.

0:55:130:55:17

Emotionally, it was quite draining and it took me a wee while to,

0:55:170:55:21

what would you say, re-adjust to a different way of life

0:55:210:55:26

and I wouldn't say I've probably re-adjusted yet.

0:55:260:55:29

I still look back with so many fond memories.

0:55:290:55:33

This is part of my hobby collection,

0:55:330:55:38

large collection of lighthouse books from around the world.

0:55:380:55:44

There's more in another bookcase down the stair.

0:55:440:55:47

All the lighthouse models.

0:55:470:55:50

That's just a small selection, there's other boxes up in the loft.

0:55:500:55:54

The most valuable thing here is this collection of

0:55:540:55:59

Scottish lighthouse postcards.

0:55:590:56:02

All pre-1960, when all these lighthouses were manned.

0:56:040:56:10

I wanted to complete the full collection before I'm finished.

0:56:100:56:14

I've got about five to go.

0:56:140:56:18

Probably the most valuable one I've got in here at the moment is Pladda,

0:56:180:56:21

I paid £68 for that.

0:56:210:56:23

I really wanted it badly.

0:56:230:56:25

I have bidded more than that,

0:56:250:56:27

but I've been unsuccessful at the moment.

0:56:270:56:29

But I'll get them.

0:56:290:56:31

A couple of years ago, I was in a ferry off Orkney, up on the bridge,

0:56:310:56:35

talking to the master as he was heading back towards Kirkwall

0:56:350:56:38

and I asked him whether he actually used the lights and the buoys

0:56:380:56:42

that we provide and he took a look at me and he said, "Good heavens, yes.

0:56:420:56:47

"This GPS", pointing at it, "tells me where it thinks I am,

0:56:470:56:51

"looking at that lighthouse over there or that buoy over there

0:56:510:56:54

-"tells me where I

-know

-I am and I'm much happier

0:56:540:56:56

"in those circumstances when the weather's bad, when visibility's bad,

0:56:560:57:01

"then I have that confidence of knowing where I am from traditional aids."

0:57:010:57:05

They represent humanity, generosity of spirit,

0:57:050:57:08

um, a disinterested...

0:57:080:57:12

desire to save life

0:57:120:57:15

and...

0:57:150:57:17

the capacity to endure.

0:57:170:57:20

They represent the best of us.

0:57:200:57:24

We'll never know the countless lives that sailed past

0:57:240:57:29

and might not have sailed past if they had, you know, on Skerryvore,

0:57:290:57:33

because that light was there and because guys like me were prepared

0:57:330:57:37

to take on the task of being there.

0:57:370:57:39

I feel extremely proud to have...

0:57:390:57:42

Been a member of such an elite band of brothers

0:57:430:57:47

and that's what they were to me throughout my time

0:57:470:57:52

in the lighthouse service...

0:57:520:57:56

and I just regard it as a life well-spent.

0:57:560:58:00

The Stevensons have vanished into history.

0:58:020:58:05

The profession of lighthouse keeper is now following them.

0:58:050:58:09

But the extraordinary structures they built and tended

0:58:090:58:13

still stand guard on Scotland's coast.

0:58:130:58:16

If it ever comes to be that they want to reintroduce the keepers,

0:58:180:58:24

I'll be first rattling at the door.

0:58:240:58:27

Great life.

0:58:270:58:29

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