‘The Lighthouse Stevensons’ by Bella Bathurst has sat on my bookshelf for a while but had to be read during my most recent trip. We were staying in the last Northern Lighthouse built by the family; Eshaness in Northmavine, Shetland. It was finished in 1929 and unusually, was built with concrete because the local stone was deemed unsuitable. Most people know about Robert Louis Stevenson, the writer and numerous publications have been written about his life and works, but less was known about the rest of the family. I have heard some express surprise that the offspring of so many engineers could become a writer but reading the book reveals that several of Robert Louis’s forebears expressed the desire to go to university, one wrote poems, wanted to write fiction and one carried out experiments and published scientific papers. In her preface, Bathurst states that she did not intend the book to be a definitive biography of all four generations and therefore concentrated on the time between 1786 and 1890 when the first four Stevensons were working and the four lights most closely associated with them. It inevitably touches on the history of shipwrecks but also press gangs which interfered with the workforce for lighthouse building. In addition to being engineers, they also had to advertise for and appoint the keepers who were required until the last light was automated in 1998. There are several black & white illustrations of lights and some of the Stevensons.
The information sent to us by the Shetland Amenity Trust said that the keeper’s cottage had been owned by an American writer from 1999 and that she had written a book about her experience. I managed to find an ex-library copy of the paperback for only £2.60 and it arrived just before I left on my current trip so I read it on the plane.
The Last Lighthouse covers the eight years it took Sharma Krauskopf to search for and buy it and the early days of her and her husband’s ownership. It is laid out as a series of e-mails from her to friends, her husband and a growing list of people who wanted to keep updated about the project. She talks about the benefits of the lack of the sounds of civilisation, the landscape, the ocean and wildlife. One thing she said resonated with me after my very brief stay. Right next to the lighthouse is a car park and when we were there, people were wandering around, peering in the windows and asking to use the toilet. Nothing had changed since her experience in 1999.