Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

Records of a Family of Engineers by Robert Louis Stevenson

Part 1 out of 4

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.4 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

Transcribed from the 1912 Chatto & Windus edition by David Price,
email ccx074@coventry.ac.uk Additional proofing by Peter Barnes.



From the thirteenth century onwards, the name, under the various
disguises of Stevinstoun, Stevensoun, Stevensonne, Stenesone, and
Stewinsoune, spread across Scotland from the mouth of the Firth of
Forth to the mouth of the Firth of Clyde. Four times at least it
occurs as a place-name. There is a parish of Stevenston in
Cunningham; a second place of the name in the Barony of Bothwell in
Lanark; a third on Lyne, above Drochil Castle; the fourth on the
Tyne, near Traprain Law. Stevenson of Stevenson (co. Lanark) swore
fealty to Edward I in 1296, and the last of that family died after
the Restoration. Stevensons of Hirdmanshiels, in Midlothian, rode
in the Bishops' Raid of Aberlady, served as jurors, stood bail for
neighbours--Hunter of Polwood, for instance--and became extinct
about the same period, or possibly earlier. A Stevenson of Luthrie
and another of Pitroddie make their bows, give their names, and
vanish. And by the year 1700 it does not appear that any acre of
Scots land was vested in any Stevenson. {2a}

Here is, so far, a melancholy picture of backward progress, and a
family posting towards extinction. But the law (however
administered, and I am bound to aver that, in Scotland, 'it couldna
weel be waur') acts as a kind of dredge, and with dispassionate
impartiality brings up into the light of day, and shows us for a
moment, in the jury-box or on the gallows, the creeping things of
the past. By these broken glimpses we are able to trace the
existence of many other and more inglorious Stevensons, picking a
private way through the brawl that makes Scots history. They were
members of Parliament for Peebles, Stirling, Pittenweem, Kilrenny,
and Inverurie. We find them burgesses of Edinburgh; indwellers in
Biggar, Perth, and Dalkeith. Thomas was the forester of Newbattle
Park, Gavin was a baker, John a maltman, Francis a chirurgeon, and
'Schir William' a priest. In the feuds of Humes and Heatleys,
Cunninghams, Montgomeries, Mures, Ogilvies, and Turnbulls, we find
them inconspicuously involved, and apparently getting rather better
than they gave. Schir William (reverend gentleman) was cruellie
slaughtered on the Links of Kincraig in 1582; James ('in the mill-
town of Roberton'), murdered in 1590; Archibald ('in
Gallowfarren'), killed with shots of pistols and hagbuts in 1608.
Three violent deaths in about seventy years, against which we can
only put the case of Thomas, servant to Hume of Cowden Knowes, who
was arraigned with his two young masters for the death of the
Bastard of Mellerstanes in 1569. John ('in Dalkeith') stood sentry
without Holyrood while the banded lords were despatching Rizzio
within. William, at the ringing of Perth bell, ran before Gowrie
House 'with ane sword, and, entering to the yearde, saw George
Craiggingilt with ane twa-handit sword and utheris nychtbouris; at
quilk time James Boig cryit ower ane wynds, "Awa hame! ye will all
be hangit"'--a piece of advice which William took, and immediately
'depairtit.' John got a maid with child to him in Biggar, and
seemingly deserted her; she was hanged on the Castle Hill for
infanticide, June 1614; and Martin, elder in Dalkeith, eternally
disgraced the name by signing witness in a witch trial, 1661.
These are two of our black sheep. {3a} Under the Restoration, one
Stevenson was a bailie in Edinburgh, and another the lessee of the
Canonmills. There were at the same period two physicians of the
name in Edinburgh, one of whom, Dr. Archibald, appears to have been
a famous man in his day and generation. The Court had continual
need of him; it was he who reported, for instance, on the state of
Rumbold; and he was for some time in the enjoyment of a pension of
a thousand pounds Scots (about eighty pounds sterling) at a time
when five hundred pounds is described as 'an opulent future.' I do
not know if I should be glad or sorry that he failed to keep
favour; but on 6th January 1682 (rather a cheerless New Year's
present) his pension was expunged. {4a} There need be no doubt, at
least, of my exultation at the fact that he was knighted and
recorded arms. Not quite so genteel, but still in public life,
Hugh was Under-Clerk to the Privy Council, and liked being so
extremely. I gather this from his conduct in September 1681, when,
with all the lords and their servants, he took the woful and soul-
destroying Test, swearing it 'word by word upon his knees.' And,
behold! it was in vain, for Hugh was turned out of his small post
in 1684. {4b} Sir Archibald and Hugh were both plainly inclined to
be trimmers; but there was one witness of the name of Stevenson who
held high the banner of the Covenant--John, 'Land-Labourer, {4c} in
the parish of Daily, in Carrick,' that 'eminently pious man.' He
seems to have been a poor sickly soul, and shows himself disabled
with scrofula, and prostrate and groaning aloud with fever; but the
enthusiasm of the martyr burned high within him.

'I was made to take joyfully the spoiling of my goods, and with
pleasure for His name's sake wandered in deserts and in mountains,
in dens and caves of the earth. I lay four months in the coldest
season of the year in a haystack in my father's garden, and a whole
February in the open fields not far from Camragen, and this I did
without the least prejudice from the night air; one night, when
lying in the fields near to the Carrick-Miln, I was all covered
with snow in the morning. Many nights have I lain with pleasure in
the churchyard of Old Daily, and made a grave my pillow; frequently
have I resorted to the old walls about the glen, near to Camragen,
and there sweetly rested.' The visible band of God protected and
directed him. Dragoons were turned aside from the bramble-bush
where he lay hidden. Miracles were performed for his behoof. 'I
got a horse and a woman to carry the child, and came to the same
mountain, where I wandered by the mist before; it is commonly known
by the name of Kellsrhins: when we came to go up the mountain,
there came on a great rain, which we thought was the occasion of
the child's weeping, and she wept so bitterly, that all we could do
could not divert her from it, so that she was ready to burst. When
we got to the top of the mountain, where the Lord had been formerly
kind to my soul in prayer, I looked round me for a stone, and
espying one, I went and brought it. When the woman with me saw me
set down the stone, she smiled, and asked what I was going to do
with it. I told her I was going to set it up as my Ebenezer,
because hitherto, and in that place, the Lord had formerly helped,
and I hoped would yet help. The rain still continuing, the child
weeping bitterly, I went to prayer, and no sooner did I cry to God,
but the child gave over weeping, and when we got up from prayer,
the rain was pouring down on every side, but in the way where we
were to go there fell not one drop; the place not rained on was as
big as an ordinary avenue.' And so great a saint was the natural
butt of Satan's persecutions. 'I retired to the fields for secret
prayer about mid-night. When I went to pray I was much straitened,
and could not get one request, but "Lord pity," "Lord help"; this I
came over frequently; at length the terror of Satan fell on me in a
high degree, and all I could say even then was--"Lord help." I
continued in the duty for some time, notwithstanding of this
terror. At length I got up to my feet, and the terror still
increased; then the enemy took me by the arm-pits, and seemed to
lift me up by my arms. I saw a loch just before me, and I
concluded he designed to throw me there by force; and had he got
leave to do so, it might have brought a great reproach upon
religion. {7a} But it was otherwise ordered, and the cause of
piety escaped that danger. {7b}

On the whole, the Stevensons may be described as decent, reputable
folk, following honest trades--millers, maltsters, and doctors,
playing the character parts in the Waverley Novels with propriety,
if without distinction; and to an orphan looking about him in the
world for a potential ancestry, offering a plain and quite
unadorned refuge, equally free from shame and glory. John, the
land-labourer, is the one living and memorable figure, and he,
alas! cannot possibly be more near than a collateral. It was on
August 12, 1678, that he heard Mr. John Welsh on the Craigdowhill,
and 'took the heavens, earth, and sun in the firmament that was
shining on us, as also the ambassador who made the offer, and THE
CLERK WHO RAISED THE PSALMS, to witness that I did give myself away
to the Lord in a personal and perpetual covenant never to be
forgotten'; and already, in 1675, the birth of my direct ascendant
was registered in Glasgow. So that I have been pursuing ancestors
too far down; and John the land-labourer is debarred me, and I must
relinquish from the trophies of my house his RARE SOUL-
Edinburgh bailie and the miller of the Canonmills, worthy man! and
with that public character, Hugh the Under-Clerk, and, more than
all, with Sir Archibald, the physician, who recorded arms. And I
am reduced to a family of inconspicuous maltsters in what was then
the clean and handsome little city on the Clyde.

The name has a certain air of being Norse. But the story of
Scottish nomenclature is confounded by a continual process of
translation and half-translation from the Gaelic which in olden
days may have been sometimes reversed. Roy becomes Reid; Gow,
Smith. A great Highland clan uses the name of Robertson; a sept in
Appin that of Livingstone; Maclean in Glencoe answers to Johnstone
at Lockerby. And we find such hybrids as Macalexander for
Macallister. There is but one rule to be deduced: that however
uncompromisingly Saxon a name may appear, you can never be sure it
does not designate a Celt. My great-grandfather wrote the name
Stevenson but pronounced it Steenson, after the fashion of the
immortal minstrel in Redgauntlet; and this elision of a medial
consonant appears a Gaelic process; and, curiously enough, I have
come across no less than two Gaelic forms: John Macstophane
cordinerius in Crossraguel, 1573, and William M'Steen in Dunskeith
(co. Ross), 1605. Stevenson, Steenson, Macstophane, M'Steen:
which is the original? which the translation? Or were these
separate creations of the patronymic, some English, some Gaelic?
The curiously compact territory in which we find them seated--Ayr,
Lanark, Peebles, Stirling, Perth, Fife, and the Lothians--would
seem to forbid the supposition. {9a}

'STEVENSON--or according to tradition of one of the proscribed of
the clan MacGregor, who was born among the willows or in a hill-
side sheep-pen--"Son of my love," a heraldic bar sinister, but
history reveals a reason for the birth among the willows far other
than the sinister aspect of the name': these are the dark words of
Mr. Cosmo Innes; but history or tradition, being interrogated,
tells a somewhat tangled tale. The heir of Macgregor of Glenorchy,
murdered about 1858 by the Argyll Campbells, appears to have been
the original 'Son of my love'; and his more loyal clansmen took the
name to fight under. It may be supposed the story of their
resistance became popular, and the name in some sort identified
with the idea of opposition to the Campbells. Twice afterwards, on
some renewed aggression, in 1502 and 1552, we find the Macgregors
again banding themselves into a sept of 'Sons of my love'; and when
the great disaster fell on them in 1603, the whole original legend
reappears, and we have the heir of Alaster of Glenstrae born 'among
the willows' of a fugitive mother, and the more loyal clansmen
again rallying under the name of Stevenson. A story would not be
told so often unless it had some base in fact; nor (if there were
no bond at all between the Red Macgregors and the Stevensons) would
that extraneous and somewhat uncouth name be so much repeated in
the legends of the Children of the Mist.

But I am enabled, by my very lively and obliging correspondent, Mr.
George A. Macgregor Stevenson of New York, to give an actual
instance. His grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-
grandfather, and great-great-great-grandfather, all used the names
of Macgregor and Stevenson as occasion served; being perhaps
Macgregor by night and Stevenson by day. The great-great-great-
grandfather was a mighty man of his hands, marched with the clan in
the 'Forty-five, and returned with spolia opima in the shape of a
sword, which he had wrested from an officer in the retreat, and
which is in the possession of my correspondent to this day. His
great-grandson (the grandfather of my correspondent), being
converted to Methodism by some wayside preacher, discarded in a
moment his name, his old nature, and his political principles, and
with the zeal of a proselyte sealed his adherence to the Protestant
Succession by baptising his next son George. This George became
the publisher and editor of the Wesleyan Times. His children were
brought up in ignorance of their Highland pedigree; and my
correspondent was puzzled to overhear his father speak of him as a
true Macgregor, and amazed to find, in rummaging about that
peaceful and pious house, the sword of the Hanoverian officer.
After he was grown up and was better informed of his descent, 'I
frequently asked my father,' he writes, 'why he did not use the
name of Macgregor; his replies were significant, and give a picture
of the man: "It isn't a good METHODIST name. You can use it, but
it will do you no GOOD." Yet the old gentleman, by way of
pleasantry, used to announce himself to friends as "Colonel

Here, then, are certain Macgregors habitually using the name of
Stevenson, and at last, under the influence of Methodism, adopting
it entirely. Doubtless a proscribed clan could not be particular;
they took a name as a man takes an umbrella against a shower; as
Rob Roy took Campbell, and his son took Drummond. But this case is
different; Stevenson was not taken and left--it was consistently
adhered to. It does not in the least follow that all Stevensons
are of the clan Alpin; but it does follow that some may be. And I
cannot conceal from myself the possibility that James Stevenson in
Glasgow, my first authentic ancestor, may have had a Highland alias
upon his conscience and a claymore in his back parlour.

To one more tradition I may allude, that we are somehow descended
from a French barber-surgeon who came to St. Andrews in the service
of one of the Cardinal Beatons. No details were added. But the
very name of France was so detested in my family for three
generations, that I am tempted to suppose there may be something in
it. {12a}


It is believed that in 1665, James Stevenson in Nether Carsewell,
parish of Neilston, county of Renfrew, and presumably a tenant
farmer, married one Jean Keir; and in 1675, without doubt, there
was born to these two a son Robert, possibly a maltster in Glasgow.
In 1710, Robert married, for a second time, Elizabeth Cumming, and
there was born to them, in 1720, another Robert, certainly a
maltster in Glasgow. In 1742, Robert the second married Margaret
Fulton (Margret, she called herself), by whom he had ten children,
among whom were Hugh, born February 1749, and Alan, born June 1752.

With these two brothers my story begins. Their deaths were
simultaneous; their lives unusually brief and full. Tradition
whispered me in childhood they were the owners of an islet near St.
Kitts; and it is certain they had risen to be at the head of
considerable interests in the West Indies, which Hugh managed
abroad and Alan at home, at an age when others are still curveting
a clerk's stool. My kinsman, Mr. Stevenson of Stirling, has heard
his father mention that there had been 'something romantic' about
Alan's marriage: and, alas! he has forgotten what. It was early
at least. His wife was Jean, daughter of David Lillie, a builder
in Glasgow, and several times 'Deacon of the Wrights': the date of
the marriage has not reached me; but on 8th June 1772, when Robert,
the only child of the union, was born, the husband and father had
scarce passed, or had not yet attained, his twentieth year. Here
was a youth making haste to give hostages to fortune. But this
early scene of prosperity in love and business was on the point of

There hung in the house of this young family, and successively in
those of my grandfather and father, an oil painting of a ship of
many tons burthen. Doubtless the brothers had an interest in the
vessel; I was told she had belonged to them outright; and the
picture was preserved through years of hardship, and remains to
this day in the possession of the family, the only memorial of my
great-grandsire Alan. It was on this ship that he sailed on his
last adventure, summoned to the West Indies by Hugh. An agent had
proved unfaithful on a serious scale; and it used to be told me in
my childhood how the brothers pursued him from one island to
another in an open boat, were exposed to the pernicious dews of the
tropics, and simultaneously struck down. The dates and places of
their deaths (now before me) would seem to indicate a more
scattered and prolonged pursuit: Hugh, on the 16th April 1774, in
Tobago, within sight of Trinidad; Alan, so late as 26th May, and so
far away as 'Santt Kittes,' in the Leeward Islands--both, says the
family Bible, 'of a fiver'(!). The death of Hugh was probably
announced by Alan in a letter, to which we may refer the details of
the open boat and the dew. Thus, at least, in something like the
course of post, both were called away, the one twenty-five, the
other twenty-two; their brief generation became extinct, their
short-lived house fell with them; and 'in these lawless parts and
lawless times'--the words are my grandfather's--their property was
stolen or became involved. Many years later, I understand some
small recovery to have been made; but at the moment almost the
whole means of the family seem to have perished with the young
merchants. On the 27th April, eleven days after Hugh Stevenson,
twenty-nine before Alan, died David Lillie, the Deacon of the
Wrights; so that mother and son were orphaned in one month. Thus,
from a few scraps of paper bearing little beyond dates, we
construct the outlines of the tragedy that shadowed the cradle of
Robert Stevenson.

Jean Lillie was a young woman of strong sense, well fitted to
contend with poverty, and of a pious disposition, which it is like
that these misfortunes heated. Like so many other widowed Scots-
women, she vowed her son should wag his head in a pulpit; but her
means were inadequate to her ambition. A charity school, and some
time under a Mr. M'Intyre, 'a famous linguist,' were all she could
afford in the way of education to the would-be minister. He
learned no Greek; in one place he mentions that the Orations of
Cicero were his highest book in Latin; in another that he had
'delighted' in Virgil and Horace; but his delight could never have
been scholarly. This appears to have been the whole of his
training previous to an event which changed his own destiny and
moulded that of his descendants--the second marriage of his mother.

There was a Merchant-Burgess of Edinburgh of the name of Thomas
Smith. The Smith pedigree has been traced a little more
particularly than the Stevensons', with a similar dearth of
illustrious names. One character seems to have appeared, indeed,
for a moment at the wings of history: a skipper of Dundee who
smuggled over some Jacobite big-wig at the time of the 'Fifteen,
and was afterwards drowned in Dundee harbour while going on board
his ship. With this exception, the generations of the Smiths
present no conceivable interest even to a descendant; and Thomas,
of Edinburgh, was the first to issue from respectable obscurity.
His father, a skipper out of Broughty Ferry, was drowned at sea
while Thomas was still young. He seems to have owned a ship or
two--whalers, I suppose, or coasters--and to have been a member of
the Dundee Trinity House, whatever that implies. On his death the
widow remained in Broughty, and the son came to push his future in
Edinburgh. There is a story told of him in the family which I
repeat here because I shall have to tell later on a similar, but
more perfectly authenticated, experience of his stepson, Robert
Stevenson. Word reached Thomas that his mother was unwell, and he
prepared to leave for Broughty on the morrow. It was between two
and three in the morning, and the early northern daylight was
already clear, when he awoke and beheld the curtains at the bed-
foot drawn aside and his mother appear in the interval, smile upon
him for a moment, and then vanish. The sequel is stereo-type; he
took the time by his watch, and arrived at Broughty to learn it was
the very moment of her death. The incident is at least curious in
having happened to such a person--as the tale is being told of him.
In all else, he appears as a man ardent, passionate, practical,
designed for affairs and prospering in them far beyond the average.
He founded a solid business in lamps and oils, and was the sole
proprietor of a concern called the Greenside Company's Works--'a
multifarious concern it was,' writes my cousin, Professor Swan, 'of
tinsmiths, coppersmiths, brass-founders, blacksmiths, and
japanners.' He was also, it seems, a shipowner and underwriter.
He built himself 'a land'--Nos. 1 and 2 Baxter's Place, then no
such unfashionable neighbourhood--and died, leaving his only son in
easy circumstances, and giving to his three surviving daughters
portions of five thousand pounds and upwards. There is no standard
of success in life; but in one of its meanings, this is to succeed.

In what we know of his opinions, he makes a figure highly
characteristic of the time. A high Tory and patriot, a captain--so
I find it in my notes--of Edinburgh Spearmen, and on duty in the
Castle during the Muir and Palmer troubles, he bequeathed to his
descendants a bloodless sword and a somewhat violent tradition,
both long preserved. The judge who sat on Muir and Palmer, the
famous Braxfield, let fall from the bench the obiter dictum--'I
never liked the French all my days, but now I hate them.' If
Thomas Smith, the Edinburgh Spearman, were in court, he must have
been tempted to applaud. The people of that land were his
abhorrence; he loathed Buonaparte like Antichrist. Towards the end
he fell into a kind of dotage; his family must entertain him with
games of tin soldiers, which he took a childish pleasure to array
and overset; but those who played with him must be upon their
guard, for if his side, which was always that of the English
against the French, should chance to be defeated, there would be
trouble in Baxter's Place. For these opinions he may almost be
said to have suffered. Baptised and brought up in the Church of
Scotland, he had, upon some conscientious scruple, joined the
communion of the Baptists. Like other Nonconformists, these were
inclined to the Liberal side in politics, and, at least in the
beginning, regarded Buonaparte as a deliverer. From the time of
his joining the Spearmen, Thomas Smith became in consequence a
bugbear to his brethren in the faith. 'They that take the sword
shall perish with the sword,' they told him; they gave him 'no
rest'; 'his position became intolerable'; it was plain he must
choose between his political and his religious tenets; and in the
last years of his life, about 1812, he returned to the Church of
his fathers.

August 1786 was the date of his chief advancement, when, having
designed a system of oil lights to take the place of the primitive
coal fires before in use, he was dubbed engineer to the newly-
formed Board of Northern Lighthouses. Not only were his fortunes
bettered by the appointment, but he was introduced to a new and
wider field for the exercise of his abilities, and a new way of
life highly agreeable to his active constitution. He seems to have
rejoiced in the long journeys, and to have combined them with the
practice of field sports. 'A tall, stout man coming ashore with
his gun over his arm'--so he was described to my father--the only
description that has come down to me by a light-keeper old in the
service. Nor did this change come alone. On the 9th July of the
same year, Thomas Smith had been left for the second time a
widower. As he was still but thirty-three years old, prospering in
his affairs, newly advanced in the world, and encumbered at the
time with a family of children, five in number, it was natural that
he should entertain the notion of another wife. Expeditious in
business, he was no less so in his choice; and it was not later
than June 1787--for my grandfather is described as still in his
fifteenth year--that he married the widow of Alan Stevenson.

The perilous experiment of bringing together two families for once
succeeded. Mr. Smith's two eldest daughters, Jean and Janet,
fervent in piety, unwearied in kind deeds, were well qualified both
to appreciate and to attract the stepmother; and her son, on the
other hand, seems to have found immediate favour in the eyes of Mr.
Smith. It is, perhaps, easy to exaggerate the ready-made
resemblances; the tired woman must have done much to fashion girls
who were under ten; the man, lusty and opinionated, must have
stamped a strong impression on the boy of fifteen. But the
cleavage of the family was too marked, the identity of character
and interest produced between the two men on the one hand, and the
three women on the other, was too complete to have been the result
of influence alone. Particular bonds of union must have pre-
existed on each side. And there is no doubt that the man and the
boy met with common ambitions, and a common bent, to the practice
of that which had not so long before acquired the name of civil

For the profession which is now so thronged, famous, and
influential, was then a thing of yesterday. My grandfather had an
anecdote of Smeaton, probably learned from John Clerk of Eldin,
their common friend. Smeaton was asked by the Duke of Argyll to
visit the West Highland coast for a professional purpose. He
refused, appalled, it seems, by the rough travelling. 'You can
recommend some other fit person?' asked the Duke. 'No,' said
Smeaton, 'I'm sorry I can't.' 'What!' cried the Duke, 'a
profession with only one man in it! Pray, who taught you?' 'Why,'
said Smeaton, 'I believe I may say I was self-taught, an't please
your grace.' Smeaton, at the date of Thomas Smith's third
marriage, was yet living; and as the one had grown to the new
profession from his place at the instrument-maker's, the other was
beginning to enter it by the way of his trade. The engineer of to-
day is confronted with a library of acquired results; tables and
formulae to the value of folios full have been calculated and
recorded; and the student finds everywhere in front of him the
footprints of the pioneers. In the eighteenth century the field
was largely unexplored; the engineer must read with his own eyes
the face of nature; he arose a volunteer, from the workshop or the
mill, to undertake works which were at once inventions and
adventures. It was not a science then--it was a living art; and it
visibly grew under the eyes and between the hands of its

The charm of such an occupation was strongly felt by stepfather and
stepson. It chanced that Thomas Smith was a reformer; the
superiority of his proposed lamp and reflectors over open fires of
coal secured his appointment; and no sooner had he set his hand to
the task than the interest of that employment mastered him. The
vacant stage on which he was to act, and where all had yet to be
created--the greatness of the difficulties, the smallness of the
means intrusted him--would rouse a man of his disposition like a
call to battle. The lad introduced by marriage under his roof was
of a character to sympathise; the public usefulness of the service
would appeal to his judgment, the perpetual need for fresh
expedients stimulate his ingenuity. And there was another
attraction which, in the younger man at least, appealed to, and
perhaps first aroused, a profound and enduring sentiment of
romance: I mean the attraction of the life. The seas into which
his labours carried the new engineer were still scarce charted, the
coasts still dark; his way on shore was often far beyond the
convenience of any road; the isles in which he must sojourn were
still partly savage. He must toss much in boats; he must often
adventure on horseback by the dubious bridle-track through
unfrequented wildernesses; he must sometimes plant his lighthouse
in the very camp of wreckers; and he was continually enforced to
the vicissitudes of outdoor life. The joy of my grandfather in
this career was strong as the love of woman. It lasted him through
youth and manhood, it burned strong in age, and at the approach of
death his last yearning was to renew these loved experiences. What
he felt himself he continued to attribute to all around him. And
to this supposed sentiment in others I find him continually, almost
pathetically, appealing; often in vain.

Snared by these interests, the boy seems to have become almost at
once the eager confidant and adviser of his new connection; the
Church, if he had ever entertained the prospect very warmly, faded
from his view; and at the age of nineteen I find him already in a
post of some authority, superintending the construction of the
lighthouse on the isle of Little Cumbrae, in the Firth of Clyde.
The change of aim seems to have caused or been accompanied by a
change of character. It sounds absurd to couple the name of my
grandfather with the word indolence; but the lad who had been
destined from the cradle to the Church, and who had attained the
age of fifteen without acquiring more than a moderate knowledge of
Latin, was at least no unusual student. And from the day of his
charge at Little Cumbrae he steps before us what he remained until
the end, a man of the most zealous industry, greedy of occupation,
greedy of knowledge, a stern husband of time, a reader, a writer,
unflagging in his task of self-improvement. Thenceforward his
summers were spent directing works and ruling workmen, now in
uninhabited, now in half-savage islands; his winters were set
apart, first at the Andersonian Institution, then at the University
of Edinburgh to improve himself in mathematics, chemistry, natural
history, agriculture, moral philosophy, and logic; a bearded
student--although no doubt scrupulously shaved. I find one
reference to his years in class which will have a meaning for all
who have studied in Scottish Universities. He mentions a
recommendation made by the professor of logic. 'The high-school
men,' he writes, 'and BEARDED MEN LIKE MYSELF, were all attention.'
If my grandfather were throughout life a thought too studious of
the art of getting on, much must be forgiven to the bearded and
belated student who looked across, with a sense of difference, at
'the high-school men.' Here was a gulf to be crossed; but already
he could feel that he had made a beginning, and that must have been
a proud hour when he devoted his earliest earnings to the repayment
of the charitable foundation in which he had received the rudiments
of knowledge.

In yet another way he followed the example of his father-in-law,
and from 1794 to 1807, when the affairs of the Bell Rock made it
necessary for him to resign, he served in different corps of
volunteers. In the last of these he rose to a position of
distinction, no less than captain of the Grenadier Company, and his
colonel, in accepting his resignation, entreated he would do them
'the favour of continuing as an honorary member of a corps which
has been so much indebted for your zeal and exertions.'

To very pious women the men of the house are apt to appear worldly.
The wife, as she puts on her new bonnet before church, is apt to
sigh over that assiduity which enabled her husband to pay the
milliner's bill. And in the household of the Smiths and Stevensons
the women were not only extremely pious, but the men were in
reality a trifle worldly. Religious they both were; conscious,
like all Scots, of the fragility and unreality of that scene in
which we play our uncomprehended parts; like all Scots, realising
daily and hourly the sense of another will than ours and a
perpetual direction in the affairs of life. But the current of
their endeavours flowed in a more obvious channel. They had got on
so far; to get on further was their next ambition--to gather
wealth, to rise in society, to leave their descendants higher than
themselves, to be (in some sense) among the founders of families.
Scott was in the same town nourishing similar dreams. But in the
eyes of the women these dreams would be foolish and idolatrous.

I have before me some volumes of old letters addressed to Mrs.
Smith and the two girls, her favourites, which depict in a strong
light their characters and the society in which they moved.

'My very dear and much esteemed Friend,' writes one correspondent,
'this day being the anniversary of our acquaintance, I feel
inclined to address you; but where shall I find words to express
the fealings of a graitful Heart, first to the Lord who graiciously
inclined you on this day last year to notice an afflicted Strainger
providentially cast in your way far from any Earthly friend? . . .
Methinks I shall hear him say unto you, "Inasmuch as ye shewed
kindness to my afflicted handmaiden, ye did it unto me."'

This is to Jean; but the same afflicted lady wrote indifferently to
Jean, to Janet, and to Ms. Smith, whom she calls 'my Edinburgh
mother.' It is plain the three were as one person, moving to acts
of kindness, like the Graces, inarmed. Too much stress must not be
laid on the style of this correspondence; Clarinda survived, not
far away, and may have met the ladies on the Calton Hill; and many
of the writers appear, underneath the conventions of the period, to
be genuinely moved. But what unpleasantly strikes a reader is,
that these devout unfortunates found a revenue in their devotion.
It is everywhere the same tale; on the side of the soft-hearted
ladies, substantial acts of help; on the side of the
correspondents, affection, italics, texts, ecstasies, and imperfect
spelling. When a midwife is recommended, not at all for
proficiency in her important art, but because she has 'a sister
whom I [the correspondent] esteem and respect, and [who] is a
spiritual daughter of my Hond Father in the Gosple,' the mask seems
to be torn off, and the wages of godliness appear too openly.
Capacity is a secondary matter in a midwife, temper in a servant,
affection in a daughter, and the repetition of a shibboleth fulfils
the law. Common decency is at times forgot in the same page with
the most sanctified advice and aspiration. Thus I am introduced to
a correspondent who appears to have been at the time the
housekeeper at Invermay, and who writes to condole with my
grandmother in a season of distress. For nearly half a sheet she
keeps to the point with an excellent discretion in language then
suddenly breaks out:

'It was fully my intention to have left this at Martinmass, but the
Lord fixes the bounds of our habitation. I have had more need of
patience in my situation here than in any other, partly from the
very violent, unsteady, deceitful temper of the Mistress of the
Family, and also from the state of the house. It was in a train of
repair when I came here two years ago, and is still in Confusion.
There is above six Thousand Pounds' worth of Furniture come from
London to be put up when the rooms are completely finished; and
then, woe be to the Person who is Housekeeper at Invermay!'

And by the tail of the document, which is torn, I see she goes on
to ask the bereaved family to seek her a new place. It is
extraordinary that people should have been so deceived in so
careless an impostor; that a few sprinkled 'God willings' should
have blinded them to the essence of this venomous letter; and that
they should have been at the pains to bind it in with others (many
of them highly touching) in their memorial of harrowing days. But
the good ladies were without guile and without suspicion; they were
victims marked for the axe, and the religious impostors snuffed up
the wind as they drew near.

I have referred above to my grandmother; it was no slip of the pen:
for by an extraordinary arrangement, in which it is hard not to
suspect the managing hand of a mother, Jean Smith became the wife
of Robert Stevenson. Mrs. Smith had failed in her design to make
her son a minister, and she saw him daily more immersed in business
and worldly ambition. One thing remained that she might do: she
might secure for him a godly wife, that great means of
sanctification; and she had two under her hand, trained by herself,
her dear friends and daughters both in law and love--Jean and
Janet. Jean's complexion was extremely pale, Janet's was florid;
my grandmother's nose was straight, my great-aunt's aquiline; but
by the sound of the voice, not even a son was able to distinguish
one from other. The marriage of a man of twenty-seven and a girl
of twenty who have lived for twelve years as brother and sister, is
difficult to conceive. It took place, however, and thus in 1799
the family was still further cemented by the union of a
representative of the male or worldly element with one of the
female and devout.

This essential difference remained unbridged, yet never diminished
the strength of their relation. My grandfather pursued his design
of advancing in the world with some measure of success; rose to
distinction in his calling, grew to be the familiar of members of
Parliament, judges of the Court of Session, and 'landed gentlemen';
learned a ready address, had a flow of interesting conversation,
and when he was referred to as 'a highly respectable bourgeois,'
resented the description. My grandmother remained to the end
devout and unambitious, occupied with her Bible, her children, and
her house; easily shocked, and associating largely with a clique of
godly parasites. I do not know if she called in the midwife
already referred to; but the principle on which that lady was
recommended, she accepted fully. The cook was a godly woman, the
butcher a Christian man, and the table suffered. The scene has
been often described to me of my grandfather sawing with darkened
countenance at some indissoluble joint--'Preserve me, my dear, what
kind of a reedy, stringy beast is this?'--of the joint removed, the
pudding substituted and uncovered; and of my grandmother's anxious
glance and hasty, deprecatory comment, 'Just mismanaged!' Yet with
the invincible obstinacy of soft natures, she would adhere to the
godly woman and the Christian man, or find others of the same
kidney to replace them. One of her confidants had once a narrow
escape; an unwieldy old woman, she had fallen from an outside stair
in a close of the Old Town; and my grandmother rejoiced to
communicate the providential circumstance that a baker had been
passing underneath with his bread upon his head. 'I would like to
know what kind of providence the baker thought it!' cried my

But the sally must have been unique. In all else that I have heard
or read of him, so far from criticising, he was doing his utmost to
honour and even to emulate his wife's pronounced opinions. In the
only letter which has come to my hand of Thomas Smith's, I find him
informing his wife that he was 'in time for afternoon church';
similar assurances or cognate excuses abound in the correspondence
of Robert Stevenson; and it is comical and pretty to see the two
generations paying the same court to a female piety more highly
strung: Thomas Smith to the mother of Robert Stevenson--Robert
Stevenson to the daughter of Thomas Smith. And if for once my
grandfather suffered himself to be hurried, by his sense of humour
and justice, into that remark about the case of Providence and the
Baker, I should be sorry for any of his children who should have
stumbled into the same attitude of criticism. In the apocalyptic
style of the housekeeper of Invermay, woe be to that person! But
there was no fear; husband and sons all entertained for the pious,
tender soul the same chivalrous and moved affection. I have spoken
with one who remembered her, and who had been the intimate and
equal of her sons, and I found this witness had been struck, as I
had been, with a sense of disproportion between the warmth of the
adoration felt and the nature of the woman, whether as described or
observed. She diligently read and marked her Bible; she was a
tender nurse; she had a sense of humour under strong control; she
talked and found some amusement at her (or rather at her husband's)
dinner-parties. It is conceivable that even my grandmother was
amenable to the seductions of dress; at least, I find her husband
inquiring anxiously about 'the gowns from Glasgow,' and very
careful to describe the toilet of the Princess Charlotte, whom he
had seen in church 'in a Pelisse and Bonnet of the same colour of
cloth as the Boys' Dress jackets, trimmed with blue satin ribbons;
the hat or Bonnet, Mr. Spittal said, was a Parisian slouch, and had
a plume of three white feathers.' But all this leaves a blank
impression, and it is rather by reading backward in these old musty
letters, which have moved me now to laughter and now to impatience,
that I glean occasional glimpses of how she seemed to her
contemporaries, and trace (at work in her queer world of godly and
grateful parasites) a mobile and responsive nature. Fashion moulds
us, and particularly women, deeper than we sometimes think; but a
little while ago, and, in some circles, women stood or fell by the
degree of their appreciation of old pictures; in the early years of
the century (and surely with more reason) a character like that of
my grandmother warmed, charmed, and subdued, like a strain of
music, the hearts of the men of her own household. And there is
little doubt that Mrs. Smith, as she looked on at the domestic life
of her son and her stepdaughter, and numbered the heads in their
increasing nursery, must have breathed fervent thanks to her

Yet this was to be a family unusually tried; it was not for nothing
that one of the godly women saluted Miss Janet Smith as 'a veteran
in affliction'; and they were all before middle life experienced in
that form of service. By the 1st of January 1808, besides a pair
of still-born twins, children had been born and still survived to
the young couple. By the 11th two were gone; by the 28th a third
had followed, and the two others were still in danger. In the
letters of a former nurserymaid--I give her name, Jean Mitchell,
honoris causa--we are enabled to feel, even at this distance of
time, some of the bitterness of that month of bereavement.

'I have this day received,' she writes to Miss Janet, 'the
melancholy news of my dear babys' deaths. My heart is like to
break for my dear Mrs. Stevenson. O may she be supported on this
trying occasion! I hope her other three babys will be spared to
her. O, Miss Smith, did I think when I parted from my sweet babys
that I never was to see them more?' 'I received,' she begins her
next, 'the mournful news of my dear Jessie's death. I also
received the hair of my three sweet babys, which I will preserve as
dear to their memorys and as a token of Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson's
friendship and esteem. At my leisure hours, when the children are
in bed, they occupy all my thoughts, I dream of them. About two
weeks ago I dreamed that my sweet little Jessie came running to me
in her usual way, and I took her in my arms. O my dear babys, were
mortal eyes permitted to see them in heaven, we would not repine
nor grieve for their loss.'

By the 29th of February, the Reverend John Campbell, a man of
obvious sense and human value, but hateful to the present
biographer, because he wrote so many letters and conveyed so little
information, summed up this first period of affliction in a letter
to Miss Smith: 'Your dear sister but a little while ago had a full
nursery, and the dear blooming creatures sitting around her table
filled her breast with hope that one day they should fill active
stations in society and become an ornament in the Church below.
But ah!'

Near a hundred years ago these little creatures ceased to be, and
for not much less a period the tears have been dried. And to this
day, looking in these stitched sheaves of letters, we hear the
sound of many soft-hearted women sobbing for the lost. Never was
such a massacre of the innocents; teething and chincough and
scarlet fever and smallpox ran the round; and little Lillies, and
Smiths, and Stevensons fell like moths about a candle; and nearly
all the sympathetic correspondents deplore and recall the little
losses of their own. 'It is impossible to describe the Heavnly
looks of the Dear Babe the three last days of his life,' writes
Mrs. Laurie to Mrs. Smith. 'Never--never, my dear aunt, could I
wish to eface the rememberance of this Dear Child. Never, never,
my dear aunt!' And so soon the memory of the dead and the dust of
the survivors are buried in one grave.

There was another death in 1812; it passes almost unremarked; a
single funeral seemed but a small event to these 'veterans in
affliction'; and by 1816 the nursery was full again. Seven little
hopefuls enlivened the house; some were growing up; to the elder
girl my grandfather already wrote notes in current hand at the tail
of his letters to his wife: and to the elder boys he had begun to
print, with laborious care, sheets of childish gossip and pedantic
applications. Here, for instance, under date of 26th May 1816, is
part of a mythological account of London, with a moral for the
three gentlemen, 'Messieurs Alan, Robert, and James Stevenson,' to
whom the document is addressed:

'There are many prisons here like Bridewell, for, like other large
towns, there are many bad men here as well as many good men. The
natives of London are in general not so tall and strong as the
people of Edinburgh, because they have not so much pure air, and
instead of taking porridge they eat cakes made with sugar and
plums. Here you have thousands of carts to draw timber, thousands
of coaches to take you to all parts of the town, and thousands of
boats to sail on the river Thames. But you must have money to pay,
otherwise you can get nothing. Now the way to get money is, become
clever men and men of education, by being good scholars.'

From the same absence, he writes to his wife on a Sunday:

'It is now about eight o'clock with me, and I imagine you to be
busy with the young folks, hearing the questions [Anglice,
catechism], and indulging the boys with a chapter from the large
Bible, with their interrogations and your answers in the soundest
doctrine. I hope James is getting his verse as usual, and that
Mary is not forgetting her little hymn. While Jeannie will be
reading Wotherspoon, or some other suitable and instructive book, I
presume our friend, Aunt Mary, will have just arrived with the news
of A THRONG KIRK [a crowded church] and a great sermon. You may
mention, with my compliments to my mother, that I was at St. Paul's
to-day, and attended a very excellent service with Mr. James
Lawrie. The text was "Examine and see that ye be in the faith."'

A twinkle of humour lights up this evocation of the distant scene--
the humour of happy men and happy homes. Yet it is penned upon the
threshold of fresh sorrow. James and Mary--he of the verse and she
of the hymn--did not much more than survive to welcome their
returning father. On the 25th, one of the godly women writes to

'My dearest beloved madam, when I last parted from you, you was so
affected with your affliction [you? or I?] could think of nothing
else. But on Saturday, when I went to inquire after your health,
how was I startled to hear that dear James was gone! Ah, what is
this? My dear benefactors, doing so much good to many, to the
Lord, suddenly to be deprived of their most valued comforts! I was
thrown into great perplexity, could do nothing but murmur, why
these things were done to such a family. I could not rest, but at
midnight, whether spoken [or not] it was presented to my mind--
"Those whom ye deplore are walking with me in white." I conclude
from this the Lord saying to sweet Mrs. Stevenson: "I gave them to
be brought up for me: well done, good and faithful! they are fully
prepared, and now I must present them to my father and your father,
to my God and your God."'

It would be hard to lay on flattery with a more sure and daring
hand. I quote it as a model of a letter of condolence; be sure it
would console. Very different, perhaps quite as welcome, is this
from a lighthouse inspector to my grandfather:

'In reading your letter the trickling tear ran down ray cheeks in
silent sorrow for your departed dear ones, my sweet little friends.
Well do I remember, and you will call to mind, their little
innocent and interesting stories. Often have they come round me
and taken me by the hand, but alas! I am no more destined to
behold them.'

The child who is taken becomes canonised, and the looks of the
homeliest babe seem in the retrospect 'heavenly the three last days
of his life.' But it appears that James and Mary had indeed been
children more than usually engaging; a record was preserved a long
while in the family of their remarks and 'little innocent and
interesting stories,' and the blow and the blank were the more

Early the next month Robert Stevenson must proceed upon his voyage
of inspection, part by land, part by sea. He left his wife plunged
in low spirits; the thought of his loss, and still more of her
concern, was continually present in his mind, and he draws in his
letters home an interesting picture of his family relations:

'Windygates Inn, Monday (Postmark July 16th)

'MY DEAREST JEANNIE,--While the people of the inn are getting me a
little bit of something to eat, I sit down to tell you that I had a
most excellent passage across the water, and got to Wemyss at mid-
day. I hope the children will be very good, and that Robert will
take a course with you to learn his Latin lessons daily; he may,
however, read English in company. Let them have strawberries on

'Westhaven, 17th July.

'I have been occupied to-day at the harbour of Newport, opposite
Dundee, and am this far on my way to Arbroath. You may tell the
boys that I slept last night in Mr. Steadman's tent. I found my
bed rather hard, but the lodgings were otherwise extremely
comfortable. The encampment is on the Fife side of the Tay,
immediately opposite to Dundee. From the door of the tent you
command the most beautiful view of the Firth, both up and down, to
a great extent. At night all was serene and still, the sky
presented the most beautiful appearance of bright stars, and the
morning was ushered in with the song of many little birds.'

'Aberdeen, July 19th.

'I hope, my dear, that you are going out of doors regularly and
taking much exercise. I would have you to MAKE THE MARKETS DAILY--
and by all means to take a seat in the coach once or twice in the
week and see what is going on in town. [The family were at the
sea-side.] It will be good not to be too great a stranger to the
house. It will be rather painful at first, but as it is to be
done, I would have you not to be too strange to the house in town.

'Tell the boys that I fell in with a soldier--his name is
Henderson--who was twelve years with Lord Wellington and other
commanders. He returned very lately with only eightpence-halfpenny
in his pocket, and found his father and mother both in life, though
they had never heard from him, nor he from them. He carried my
great-coat and umbrella a few miles.'

'Fraserburgh, July 20th.

'Fraserburgh is the same dull place which [Auntie] Mary and Jeannie
found it. As I am travelling along the coast which they are
acquainted with, you had better cause Robert bring down the map
from Edinburgh; and it will be a good exercise in geography for the
young folks to trace my course. I hope they have entered upon the
writing. The library will afford abundance of excellent books,
which I wish you would employ a little. I hope you are doing me
the favour to go much out with the boys, which will do you much
good and prevent them from getting so very much overheated.'

[To the Boys--Printed.]

'When I had last the pleasure of writing to you, your dear little
brother James and your sweet little sister Mary were still with us.
But it has pleased God to remove them to another and a better
world, and we must submit to the will of Providence. I must,
however, request of you to think sometimes upon them, and to be
very careful not to do anything that will displease or vex your
mother. It is therefore proper that you do not roamp [Scottish
indeed] too much about, and that you learn your lessons.'

'I went to Fraserburgh and visited Kinnaird Head Lighthouse, which
I found in good order. All this time I travelled upon good roads,
and paid many a toll-man by the way; but from Fraserburgh to Banff
there is no toll-bars, and the road is so bad that I had to walk up
and down many a hill, and for want of bridges the horses had to
drag the chaise up to the middle of the wheels in water. At Banff
I saw a large ship of 300 tons lying on the sands upon her beam-
ends, and a wreck for want of a good harbour. Captain Wilson--to
whom I beg my compliments--will show you a ship of 300 tons. At
the towns of Macduff, Banff, and Portsoy, many of the houses are
built of marble, and the rocks on this part of the coast or sea-
side are marble. But, my dear Boys, unless marble be polished and
dressed, it is a very coarse-looking stone, and has no more beauty
than common rock. As a proof of this, ask the favour of your
mother to take you to Thomson's Marble Works in South Leith, and
you will see marble in all its stages, and perhaps you may there
find Portsoy marble! The use I wish to make of this is to tell you
that, without education, a man is just like a block of rough,
unpolished marble. Notice, in proof of this, how much Mr. Neill
and Mr. M'Gregor [the tutor] know, and observe how little a man
knows who is not a good scholar. On my way to Fochabers I passed
through many thousand acres of Fir timber, and saw many deer
running in these woods.'

[To Mrs. Stevenson.]

'Inverness, July 21st.

'I propose going to church in the afternoon, and as I have
breakfasted late, I shall afterwards take a walk, and dine about
six o'clock. I do not know who is the clergyman here, but I shall
think of you all. I travelled in the mail-coach [from Banff]
almost alone. While it was daylight I kept the top, and the
passing along a country I had never before seen was a considerable
amusement. But, my dear, you are all much in my thoughts, and many
are the objects which recall the recollection of our tender and
engaging children we have so recently lost. We must not, however,
repine. I could not for a moment wish any change of circumstances
in their case; and in every comparative view of their state, I see
the Lord's goodness in removing them from an evil world to an abode
of bliss; and I must earnestly hope that you may be enabled to take
such a view of this affliction as to live in the happy prospect of
our all meeting again to part no more--and that under such
considerations you are getting up your spirits. I wish you would
walk about, and by all means go to town, and do not sit much at

'Inverness, July 23rd.

'I am duly favoured with your much-valued letter, and I am happy to
find that you are so much with my mother, because that sort of
variety has a tendency to occupy the mind, and to keep it from
brooding too much upon one subject. Sensibility and tenderness are
certainly two of the most interesting and pleasing qualities of the
mind. These qualities are also none of the least of the many
endearingments of the female character. But if that kind of
sympathy and pleasing melancholy, which is familiar to us under
distress, be much indulged, it becomes habitual, and takes such a
hold of the mind as to absorb all the other affections, and unfit
us for the duties and proper enjoyments of life. Resignation sinks
into a kind of peevish discontent. I am far, however, from
thinking there is the least danger of this in your case, my dear;
for you have been on all occasions enabled to look upon the
fortunes of this life as under the direction of a higher power, and
have always preserved that propriety and consistency of conduct in
all circumstances which endears your example to your family in
particular, and to your friends. I am therefore, my dear, for you
to go out much, and to go to the house up-stairs [he means to go
up-stairs in the house, to visit the place of the dead children],
and to put yourself in the way of the visits of your friends. I
wish you would call on the Miss Grays, and it would be a good thing
upon a Saturday to dine with my mother, and take Meggy and all the
family with you, and let them have their strawberries in town. The
tickets of one of the OLD-FASHIONED COACHES would take you all up,
and if the evening were good, they could all walk down, excepting
Meggy and little David.'

'Inverness, July 25th, 11 p.m.

'Captain Wemyss, of Wemyss, has come to Inverness to go the voyage
with me, and as we are sleeping in a double-bedded room, I must no
longer transgress. You must remember me the best way you can to
the children.'

'On board of the Lighthouse Yacht, July 29th.

'I got to Cromarty yesterday about mid-day, and went to church. It
happened to be the sacrament there, and I heard a Mr. Smith at that
place conclude the service with a very suitable exhortation. There
seemed a great concourse of people, but they had rather an
unfortunate day for them at the tent, as it rained a good deal.
After drinking tea at the inn, Captain Wemyss accompanied me on
board, and we sailed about eight last night. The wind at present
being rather a beating one, I think I shall have an opportunity of
standing into the bay of Wick, and leaving this letter to let you
know my progress and that I am well.'

'Lighthouse Yacht, Stornoway, August 4th.

'To-day we had prayers on deck as usual when at sea. I read the
14th chapter, I think, of Job. Captain Wemyss has been in the
habit of doing this on board his own ship, agreeably to the
Articles of War. Our passage round the Cape [Cape Wrath] was
rather a cross one, and as the wind was northerly, we had a pretty
heavy sea, but upon the whole have made a good passage, leaving
many vessels behind us in Orkney. I am quite well, my dear; and
Captain Wemyss, who has much spirit, and who is much given to
observation, and a perfect enthusiast in his profession, enlivens
the voyage greatly. Let me entreat you to move about much, and
take a walk with the boys to Leith. I think they have still many
places to see there, and I wish you would indulge them in this
respect. Mr. Scales is the best person I know for showing them the
sailcloth-weaving, etc., and he would have great pleasure in
undertaking this. My dear, I trust soon to be with you, and that
through the goodness of God we shall meet all well.'

'There are two vessels lying here with emigrants for America, each
with eighty people on board, at all ages, from a few days to
upwards of sixty! Their prospects must be very forlorn to go with
a slender purse for distant and unknown countries.'

'Lighthouse Yacht, off Greenock, Aug. 18th.

'It was after CHURCH-TIME before we got here, but we had prayers
upon deck on the way up the Clyde. This has, upon the whole, been
a very good voyage, and Captain Wemyss, who enjoys it much, has
been an excellent companion; we met with pleasure, and shall part
with regret.'

Strange that, after his long experience, my grandfather should have
learned so little of the attitude and even the dialect of the
spiritually-minded; that after forty-four years in a most religious
circle, he could drop without sense of incongruity from a period of
accepted phrases to 'trust his wife was GETTING UP HER SPIRITS,' or
think to reassure her as to the character of Captain Wemyss by
mentioning that he had read prayers on the deck of his frigate
'AGREEABLY TO THE ARTICLES OF WAR'! Yet there is no doubt--and it
is one of the most agreeable features of the kindly series--that he
was doing his best to please, and there is little doubt that he
succeeded. Almost all my grandfather's private letters have been
destroyed. This correspondence has not only been preserved entire,
but stitched up in the same covers with the works of the godly
women, the Reverend John Campbell, and the painful Mrs. Ogle. I
did not think to mention the good dame, but she comes in usefully
as an example. Amongst the treasures of the ladies of my family,
her letters have been honoured with a volume to themselves. I read
about a half of them myself; then handed over the task to one of
stauncher resolution, with orders to communicate any fact that
should be found to illuminate these pages. Not one was found; it
was her only art to communicate by post second-rate sermons at
second-hand; and such, I take it, was the correspondence in which
my grandmother delighted. If I am right, that of Robert Stevenson,
with his quaint smack of the contemporary 'Sandford and Merton,'
his interest in the whole page of experience, his perpetual quest,
and fine scent of all that seems romantic to a boy, his needless
pomp of language, his excellent good sense, his unfeigned,
unstained, unwearied human kindliness, would seem to her, in a
comparison, dry and trivial and worldly. And if these letters were
by an exception cherished and preserved, it would be for one or
both of two reasons--because they dealt with and were bitter-sweet
reminders of a time of sorrow; or because she was pleased, perhaps
touched, by the writer's guileless efforts to seem spiritually-

After this date there were two more births and two more deaths, so
that the number of the family remained unchanged; in all five
children survived to reach maturity and to outlive their parents.



It were hard to imagine a contrast more sharply defined than that
between the lives of the men and women of this family: the one so
chambered, so centred in the affections and the sensibilities; the
other so active, healthy, and expeditious. From May to November,
Thomas Smith and Robert Stevenson were on the mail, in the saddle,
or at sea; and my grandfather, in particular, seems to have been
possessed with a demon of activity in travel. In 1802, by
direction of the Northern Lighthouse Board, he had visited the
coast of England from St. Bees, in Cumberland, and round by the
Scilly Islands to some place undecipherable by me; in all a
distance of 2500 miles. In 1806 I find him starting 'on a tour
round the south coast of England, from the Humber to the Severn.'
Peace was not long declared ere he found means to visit Holland,
where he was in time to see, in the navy-yard at Helvoetsluys,
'about twenty of Bonaparte's ENGLISH FLOTILLA lying in a state of
decay, the object of curiosity to Englishmen.' By 1834 he seems to
have been acquainted with the coast of France from Dieppe to
Bordeaux; and a main part of his duty as Engineer to the Board of
Northern Lights was one round of dangerous and laborious travel.

In 1786, when Thomas Smith first received the appointment, the
extended and formidable coast of Scotland was lighted at a single
point--the Isle of May, in the jaws of the Firth of Forth, where,
on a tower already a hundred and fifty years old, an open coal-fire
blazed in an iron chauffer. The whole archipelago, thus nightly
plunged in darkness, was shunned by sea-going vessels, and the
favourite courses were north about Shetland and west about St.
Kilda. When the Board met, four new lights formed the extent of
their intentions--Kinnaird Head, in Aberdeenshire, at the eastern
elbow of the coast; North Ronaldsay, in Orkney, to keep the north
and guide ships passing to the south'ard of Shetland; Island Glass,
on Harris, to mark the inner shore of the Hebrides and illuminate
the navigation of the Minch; and the Mull of Kintyre. These works
were to be attempted against obstacles, material and financial,
that might have staggered the most bold. Smith had no ship at his
command till 1791; the roads in those outlandish quarters where his
business lay were scarce passable when they existed, and the tower
on the Mull of Kintyre stood eleven months unlighted while the
apparatus toiled and foundered by the way among rocks and mosses.
Not only had towers to be built and apparatus transplanted; the
supply of oil must be maintained, and the men fed, in the same
inaccessible and distant scenes; a whole service, with its routine
and hierarchy, had to be called out of nothing; and a new trade
(that of lightkeeper) to be taught, recruited, and organised. The
funds of the Board were at the first laughably inadequate. They
embarked on their career on a loan of twelve hundred pounds, and
their income in 1789, after relief by a fresh Act of Parliament,
amounted to less than three hundred. It must be supposed that the
thoughts of Thomas Smith, in these early years, were sometimes
coloured with despair; and since he built and lighted one tower
after another, and created and bequeathed to his successors the
elements of an excellent administration, it may be conceded that he
was not after all an unfortunate choice for a first engineer.

War added fresh complications. In 1794 Smith came 'very near to be
taken' by a French squadron. In 1813 Robert Stevenson was cruising
about the neighbourhood of Cape Wrath in the immediate fear of
Commodore Rogers. The men, and especially the sailors, of the
lighthouse service must be protected by a medal and ticket from the
brutal activity of the press-gang. And the zeal of volunteer
patriots was at times embarrassing.

'I set off on foot,' writes my grandfather, 'for Marazion, a town
at the head of Mount's Bay, where I was in hopes of getting a boat
to freight. I had just got that length, and was making the
necessary inquiry, when a young man, accompanied by several idle-
looking fellows, came up to me, and in a hasty tone said, "Sir, in
the king's name I seize your person and papers." To which I
replied that I should be glad to see his authority, and know the
reason of an address so abrupt. He told me the want of time
prevented his taking regular steps, but that it would be necessary
for me to return to Penzance, as I was suspected of being a French
spy. I proposed to submit my papers to the nearest Justice of
Peace, who was immediately applied to, and came to the inn where I
was. He seemed to be greatly agitated, and quite at a loss how to
proceed. The complaint preferred against me was "that I had
examined the Longships Lighthouse with the most minute attention,
and was no less particular in my inquiries at the keepers of the
lighthouse regarding the sunk rocks lying off the Land's End, with
the sets of the currents and tides along the coast: that I seemed
particularly to regret the situation of the rocks called the Seven
Stones, and the loss of a beacon which the Trinity Board had caused
to be fixed on the Wolf Rock; that I had taken notes of the
bearings of several sunk rocks, and a drawing of the lighthouse,
and of Cape Cornwall. Further, that I had refused the honour of
Lord Edgecombe's invitation to dinner, offering as an apology that
I had some particular business on hand."'

My grandfather produced in answer his credentials and letter of
credit; but the justice, after perusing them, 'very gravely
observed that they were "musty bits of paper,"' and proposed to
maintain the arrest. Some more enlightened magistrates at Penzance
relieved him of suspicion and left him at liberty to pursue his
journey,--'which I did with so much eagerness,' he adds, 'that I
gave the two coal lights on the Lizard only a very transient look.'

Lighthouse operations in Scotland differed essentially in character
from those in England. The English coast is in comparison a
habitable, homely place, well supplied with towns; the Scottish
presents hundreds of miles of savage islands and desolate moors.
The Parliamentary committee of 1834, profoundly ignorant of this
distinction, insisted with my grandfather that the work at the
various stations should be let out on contract 'in the
neighbourhood,' where sheep and deer, and gulls and cormorants, and
a few ragged gillies, perhaps crouching in a bee-hive house, made
up the only neighbours. In such situations repairs and
improvements could only be overtaken by collecting (as my
grandfather expressed it) a few 'lads,' placing them under charge
of a foreman, and despatching them about the coast as occasion
served. The particular danger of these seas increased the
difficulty. The course of the lighthouse tender lies amid iron-
bound coasts, among tide-races, the whirlpools of the Pentland
Firth, flocks of islands, flocks of reefs, many of them uncharted.
The aid of steam was not yet. At first in random coasting sloop,
and afterwards in the cutter belonging to the service, the engineer
must ply and run amongst these multiplied dangers, and sometimes
late into the stormy autumn. For pages together my grandfather's
diary preserves a record of these rude experiences; of hard winds
and rough seas; and of 'the try-sail and storm-jib, those old
friends which I never like to see.' They do not tempt to
quotation, but it was the man's element, in which he lived, and
delighted to live, and some specimen must be presented. On Friday,
September 10th, 1830, the Regent lying in Lerwick Bay, we have this
entry: 'The gale increases, with continued rain.' On the morrow,
Saturday, 11th, the weather appeared to moderate, and they put to
sea, only to be driven by evening into Levenswick. There they lay,
'rolling much,' with both anchors ahead and the square yard on
deck, till the morning of Saturday, 18th. Saturday and Sunday they
were plying to the southward with a 'strong breeze and a heavy
sea,' and on Sunday evening anchored in Otterswick. 'Monday, 20th,
it blows so fresh that we have no communication with the shore. We
see Mr. Rome on the beach, but we cannot communicate with him. It
blows "mere fire," as the sailors express it.' And for three days
more the diary goes on with tales of davits unshipped, high seas,
strong gales from the southward, and the ship driven to refuge in
Kirkwall or Deer Sound. I have many a passage before me to
transcribe, in which my grandfather draws himself as a man of
minute and anxious exactitude about details. It must not be
forgotten that these voyages in the tender were the particular
pleasure and reward of his existence; that he had in him a reserve
of romance which carried him delightedly over these hardships and
perils; that to him it was 'great gain' to be eight nights and
seven days in the savage bay of Levenswick--to read a book in the
much agitated cabin--to go on deck and hear the gale scream in his
ears, and see the landscape dark with rain and the ship plunge at
her two anchors--and to turn in at night and wake again at morning,
in his narrow berth, to the glamorous and continued voices of the

His perils and escapes were beyond counting. I shall only refer to
two: the first, because of the impression made upon himself; the
second, from the incidental picture it presents of the north
islanders. On the 9th October 1794 he took passage from Orkney in
the sloop Elizabeth of Stromness. She made a fair passage till
within view of Kinnaird Head, where, as she was becalmed some three
miles in the offing, and wind seemed to threaten from the south-
east, the captain landed him, to continue his journey more
expeditiously ashore. A gale immediately followed, and the
Elizabeth was driven back to Orkney and lost with all hands. The
second escape I have been in the habit of hearing related by an
eye-witness, my own father, from the earliest days of childhood.
On a September night, the Regent lay in the Pentland Firth in a fog
and a violent and windless swell. It was still dark, when they
were alarmed by the sound of breakers, and an anchor was
immediately let go. The peep of dawn discovered them swinging in
desperate proximity to the Isle of Swona {54a} and the surf
bursting close under their stern. There was in this place a hamlet
of the inhabitants, fisher-folk and wreckers; their huts stood
close about the head of the beach. All slept; the doors were
closed, and there was no smoke, and the anxious watchers on board
ship seemed to contemplate a village of the dead. It was thought
possible to launch a boat and tow the Regent from her place of
danger; and with this view a signal of distress was made and a gun
fired with a red-hot poker from the galley. Its detonation awoke
the sleepers. Door after door was opened, and in the grey light of
the morning fisher after fisher was seen to come forth, yawning and
stretching himself, nightcap on head. Fisher after fisher, I
wrote, and my pen tripped; for it should rather stand wrecker after
wrecker. There was no emotion, no animation, it scarce seemed any
interest; not a hand was raised; but all callously awaited the
harvest of the sea, and their children stood by their side and
waited also. To the end of his life, my father remembered that
amphitheatre of placid spectators on the beach; and with a special
and natural animosity, the boys of his own age. But presently a
light air sprang up, and filled the sails, and fainted, and filled
them again; and little by little the Regent fetched way against the
swell, and clawed off shore into the turbulent firth.

The purpose of these voyages was to effect a landing on open
beaches or among shelving rocks, not for persons only, but for
coals and food, and the fragile furniture of light-rooms. It was
often impossible. In 1831 I find my grandfather 'hovering for a
week' about the Pentland Skerries for a chance to land; and it was
almost always difficult. Much knack and enterprise were early
developed among the seamen of the service; their management of
boats is to this day a matter of admiration; and I find my
grandfather in his diary depicting the nature of their excellence
in one happily descriptive phrase, when he remarks that Captain
Soutar had landed 'the small stores and nine casks of oil WITH ALL
THE ACTIVITY OF A SMUGGLER.' And it was one thing to land, another
to get on board again. I have here a passage from the diary, where
it seems to have been touch-and-go. 'I landed at Tarbetness, on
the eastern side of the point, in a MERE GALE OR BLAST OF WIND from
west-south-west, at 2 p.m. It blew so fresh that the captain, in a
kind of despair, went off to the ship, leaving myself and the
steward ashore. While I was in the light-room, I felt it shaking
and waving, not with the tremor of the Bell Rock, but with the
WAVING OF A TREE! This the light-keepers seemed to be quite
familiar to, the principal keeper remarking that "it was very
pleasant," perhaps meaning interesting or curious. The captain
worked the vessel into smooth water with admirable dexterity, and I
got on board again about 6 p.m. from the other side of the point.'
But not even the dexterity of Soutar could prevail always; and my
grandfather must at times have been left in strange berths and with
but rude provision. I may instance the case of my father, who was
storm-bound three days upon an islet, sleeping in the uncemented
and unchimneyed houses of the islanders, and subsisting on a diet
of nettle-soup and lobsters.

The name of Soutar has twice escaped my pen, and I feel I owe him a
vignette. Soutar first attracted notice as mate of a praam at the
Bell Rock, and rose gradually to be captain of the Regent. He was
active, admirably skilled in his trade, and a man incapable of
fear. Once, in London, he fell among a gang of confidence-men,
naturally deceived by his rusticity and his prodigious accent.
They plied him with drink--a hopeless enterprise, for Soutar could
not be made drunk; they proposed cards, and Soutar would not play.
At last, one of them, regarding him with a formidable countenance,
inquired if he were not frightened? 'I'm no' very easy fleyed,'
replied the captain. And the rooks withdrew after some easier
pigeon. So many perils shared, and the partial familiarity of so
many voyages, had given this man a stronghold in my grandfather's
estimation; and there is no doubt but he had the art to court and
please him with much hypocritical skill. He usually dined on
Sundays in the cabin. He used to come down daily after dinner for
a glass of port or whisky, often in his full rig of sou'-wester,
oilskins, and long boots; and I have often heard it described how
insinuatingly he carried himself on these appearances, artfully
combining the extreme of deference with a blunt and seamanlike
demeanour. My father and uncles, with the devilish penetration of
the boy, were far from being deceived; and my father, indeed, was
favoured with an object-lesson not to be mistaken. He had crept
one rainy night into an apple-barrel on deck, and from this place
of ambush overheard Soutar and a comrade conversing in their
oilskins. The smooth sycophant of the cabin had wholly
disappeared, and the boy listened with wonder to a vulgar and
truculent ruffian. Of Soutar, I may say tantum vidi, having met
him in the Leith docks now more than thirty years ago, when he
abounded in the praises of my grandfather, encouraged me (in the
most admirable manner) to pursue his footprints, and left impressed
for ever on my memory the image of his own Bardolphian nose. He
died not long after.

The engineer was not only exposed to the hazards of the sea; he
must often ford his way by land to remote and scarce accessible
places, beyond reach of the mail or the post-chaise, beyond even
the tracery of the bridle-path, and guided by natives across bog
and heather. Up to 1807 my grand-father seems to have travelled
much on horseback; but he then gave up the idea--'such,' he writes
with characteristic emphasis and capital letters, 'is the Plague of
Baiting.' He was a good pedestrian; at the age of fifty-eight I
find him covering seventeen miles over the moors of the Mackay
country in less than seven hours, and that is not bad travelling
for a scramble. The piece of country traversed was already a
familiar track, being that between Loch Eriboll and Cape Wrath; and
I think I can scarce do better than reproduce from the diary some
traits of his first visit. The tender lay in Loch Eriboll; by five
in the morning they sat down to breakfast on board; by six they
were ashore--my grandfather, Mr. Slight an assistant, and Soutar of
the jolly nose, and had been taken in charge by two young gentlemen
of the neighbourhood and a pair of gillies. About noon they
reached the Kyle of Durness and passed the ferry. By half-past
three they were at Cape Wrath--not yet known by the emphatic
abbreviation of 'The Cape'--and beheld upon all sides of them
unfrequented shores, an expanse of desert moor, and the high-piled
Western Ocean. The site of the tower was chosen. Perhaps it is by
inheritance of blood, but I know few things more inspiriting than
this location of a lighthouse in a designated space of heather and
air, through which the sea-birds are still flying. By 9 p.m. the
return journey had brought them again to the shores of the Kyle.
The night was dirty, and as the sea was high and the ferry-boat
small, Soutar and Mr. Stevenson were left on the far side, while
the rest of the party embarked and were received into the darkness.
They made, in fact, a safe though an alarming passage; but the
ferryman refused to repeat the adventure; and my grand-father and
the captain long paced the beach, impatient for their turn to pass,
and tormented with rising anxiety as to the fate of their
companions. At length they sought the shelter of a shepherd's
house. 'We had miserable up-putting,' the diary continues, 'and on
both sides of the ferry much anxiety of mind. Our beds were clean
straw, and but for the circumstance of the boat, I should have
slept as soundly as ever I did after a walk through moss and mire
of sixteen hours.'

To go round the lights, even to-day, is to visit past centuries.
The tide of tourists that flows yearly in Scotland, vulgarising all
where it approaches, is still defined by certain barriers. It will
be long ere there is a hotel at Sumburgh or a hydropathic at Cape
Wrath; it will be long ere any char-a-banc, laden with tourists,
shall drive up to Barra Head or Monach, the Island of the Monks.
They are farther from London than St. Petersburg, and except for
the towers, sounding and shining all night with fog-bells and the
radiance of the light-room, glittering by day with the trivial
brightness of white paint, these island and moorland stations seem
inaccessible to the civilisation of to-day, and even to the end of
my grandfather's career the isolation was far greater. There ran
no post at all in the Long Island; from the light-house on Barra
Head a boat must be sent for letters as far as Tobermory, between
sixty and seventy miles of open sea; and the posts of Shetland,
which had surprised Sir Walter Scott in 1814, were still unimproved
in 1833, when my grandfather reported on the subject. The group
contained at the time a population of 30,000 souls, and enjoyed a
trade which had increased in twenty years seven-fold, to between
three and four thousand tons. Yet the mails were despatched and
received by chance coasting vessels at the rate of a penny a
letter; six and eight weeks often elapsed between opportunities,
and when a mail was to be made up, sometimes at a moment's notice,
the bellman was sent hastily through the streets of Lerwick.
Between Shetland and Orkney, only seventy miles apart, there was
'no trade communication whatever.'

Such was the state of affairs, only sixty years ago, with the three
largest clusters of the Scottish Archipelago; and forty-seven years
earlier, when Thomas Smith began his rounds, or forty-two, when
Robert Stevenson became conjoined with him in these excursions, the
barbarism was deep, the people sunk in superstition, the
circumstances of their life perhaps unique in history. Lerwick and
Kirkwall, like Guam or the Bay of Islands, were but barbarous ports
where whalers called to take up and to return experienced seamen.
On the outlying islands the clergy lived isolated, thinking other
thoughts, dwelling in a different country from their parishioners,
like missionaries in the South Seas. My grandfather's unrivalled
treasury of anecdote was never written down; it embellished his
talk while he yet was, and died with him when he died; and such as
have been preserved relate principally to the islands of Ronaldsay
and Sanday, two of the Orkney group. These bordered on one of the
water-highways of civilisation; a great fleet passed annually in
their view, and of the shipwrecks of the world they were the scene
and cause of a proportion wholly incommensurable to their size. In
one year, 1798, my grandfather found the remains of no fewer than
five vessels on the isle of Sanday, which is scarcely twelve miles

'Hardly a year passed,' he writes, 'without instances of this kind;
for, owing to the projecting points of this strangely formed
island, the lowness and whiteness of its eastern shores, and the
wonderful manner in which the scanty patches of land are
intersected with lakes and pools of water, it becomes, even in
daylight, a deception, and has often been fatally mistaken for an
open sea. It had even become proverbial with some of the
inhabitants to observe that "if wrecks were to happen, they might
as well be sent to the poor isle of Sanday as anywhere else." On
this and the neighbouring islands the inhabitants had certainly had
their share of wrecked goods, for the eye is presented with these
melancholy remains in almost every form. For example, although
quarries are to be met with generally in these islands, and the
stones are very suitable for building dykes (Anglice, walls), yet
instances occur of the land being enclosed, even to a considerable
extent, with ship-timbers. The author has actually seen a park
(Anglice, meadow) paled round chiefly with cedar-wood and mahogany
from the wreck of a Honduras-built ship; and in one island, after
the wreck of a ship laden with wine, the inhabitants have been
known to take claret to their barley-meal porridge. On complaining
to one of the pilots of the badness of his boat's sails, he replied
to the author with some degree of pleasantry, "Had it been His will
that you came na' here wi' your lights, we might 'a' had better
sails to our boats, and more o' other things." It may further be
mentioned that when some of Lord Dundas's farms are to be let in
these islands a competition takes place for the lease, and it is
bona fide understood that a much higher rent is paid than the lands
would otherwise give were it not for the chance of making
considerably by the agency and advantages attending shipwrecks on
the shores of the respective farms.'

The people of North Ronaldsay still spoke Norse, or, rather, mixed
it with their English. The walls of their huts were built to a
great thickness of rounded stones from the sea-beach; the roof
flagged, loaded with earth, and perforated by a single hole for the
escape of smoke. The grass grew beautifully green on the flat
house-top, where the family would assemble with their dogs and
cats, as on a pastoral lawn; there were no windows, and in my
grandfather's expression, 'there was really no demonstration of a
house unless it were the diminutive door.' He once landed on
Ronaldsay with two friends. The inhabitants crowded and pressed so
much upon the strangers that the bailiff, or resident factor of the
island, blew with his ox-horn, calling out to the natives to stand
off and let the gentlemen come forward to the laird; upon which one
of the islanders, as spokesman, called out, "God ha'e us, man! thou
needsna mak' sic a noise. It's no' every day we ha'e THREE HATTED
MEN on our isle."' When the Surveyor of Taxes came (for the first
time, perhaps) to Sanday, and began in the King's name to complain
of the unconscionable swarms of dogs, and to menace the inhabitants
with taxation, it chanced that my grandfather and his friend, Dr.
Patrick Neill, were received by an old lady in a Ronaldsay hut.
Her hut, which was similar to the model described, stood on a Ness,
or point of land jutting into the sea. They were made welcome in
the firelit cellar, placed 'in casey or straw-worked chairs, after
the Norwegian fashion, with arms, and a canopy overhead,' and given
milk in a wooden dish. These hospitalities attended to, the old
lady turned at once to Dr. Neill, whom she took for the Surveyor of
Taxes. 'Sir,' said she, 'gin ye'll tell the King that I canna keep
the Ness free o' the Bangers (sheep) without twa hun's, and twa
guid hun's too, he'll pass me threa the tax on dugs.'

This familiar confidence, these traits of engaging simplicity, are
characters of a secluded people. Mankind--and, above all,
islanders--come very swiftly to a bearing, and find very readily,
upon one convention or another, a tolerable corporate life. The
danger is to those from without, who have not grown up from
childhood in the islands, but appear suddenly in that narrow
horizon, life-sized apparitions. For these no bond of humanity
exists, no feeling of kinship is awakened by their peril; they will
assist at a shipwreck, like the fisher-folk of Lunga, as
spectators, and when the fatal scene is over, and the beach strewn
with dead bodies, they will fence their fields with mahogany, and,
after a decent grace, sup claret to their porridge. It is not
wickedness: it is scarce evil; it is only, in its highest power,
the sense of isolation and the wise disinterestedness of feeble and
poor races. Think how many viking ships had sailed by these
islands in the past, how many vikings had landed, and raised
turmoil, and broken up the barrows of the dead, and carried off the
wines of the living; and blame them, if you are able, for that
belief (which may be called one of the parables of the devil's
gospel) that a man rescued from the sea will prove the bane of his
deliverer. It might be thought that my grandfather, coming there
unknown, and upon an employment so hateful to the inhabitants, must
have run the hazard of his life. But this were to misunderstand.
He came franked by the laird and the clergyman; he was the King's
officer; the work was 'opened with prayer by the Rev. Walter Trail,
minister of the parish'; God and the King had decided it, and the
people of these pious islands bowed their heads. There landed,
indeed, in North Ronaldsay, during the last decade of the
eighteenth century, a traveller whose life seems really to have
been imperilled. A very little man of a swarthy complexion, he
came ashore, exhausted and unshaved, from a long boat passage, and
lay down to sleep in the home of the parish schoolmaster. But he
had been seen landing. The inhabitants had identified him for a
Pict, as, by some singular confusion of name, they called the dark
and dwarfish aboriginal people of the land. Immediately the
obscure ferment of a race-hatred, grown into a superstition, began
to work in their bosoms, and they crowded about the house and the
room-door with fearful whisperings. For some time the schoolmaster
held them at bay, and at last despatched a messenger to call my
grand-father. He came: he found the islanders beside themselves
at this unwelcome resurrection of the dead and the detested; he was
shown, as adminicular of testimony, the traveller's uncouth and
thick-soled boots; he argued, and finding argument unavailing,
consented to enter the room and examine with his own eyes the
sleeping Pict. One glance was sufficient: the man was now a
missionary, but he had been before that an Edinburgh shopkeeper
with whom my grandfather had dealt. He came forth again with this
report, and the folk of the island, wholly relieved, dispersed to
their own houses. They were timid as sheep and ignorant as
limpets; that was all. But the Lord deliver us from the tender
mercies of a frightened flock!

I will give two more instances of their superstition. When Sir
Walter Scott visited the Stones of Stennis, my grandfather put in
his pocket a hundred-foot line, which he unfortunately lost.

'Some years afterwards,' he writes, 'one of my assistants on a
visit to the Stones of Stennis took shelter from a storm in a
cottage close by the lake; and seeing a box-measuring-line in the
bole or sole of the cottage window, he asked the woman where she
got this well-known professional appendage. She said: "O sir, ane
of the bairns fand it lang syne at the Stanes; and when drawing it
out we took fright, and thinking it had belanged to the fairies, we
threw it into the bole, and it has layen there ever since."'

This is for the one; the last shall be a sketch by the master hand
of Scott himself:

'At the village of Stromness, on the Orkney main island, called
Pomona, lived, in 1814, an aged dame called Bessie Millie, who
helped out her subsistence by selling favourable winds to mariners.
He was a venturous master of a vessel who left the roadstead of
Stromness without paying his offering to propitiate Bessie Millie!
Her fee was extremely moderate, being exactly sixpence, for which
she boiled her kettle and gave the bark the advantage of her
prayers, for she disclaimed all unlawful acts. The wind thus
petitioned for was sure, she said, to arrive, though occasionally
the mariners had to wait some time for it. The woman's dwelling
and appearance were not unbecoming her pretensions. Her house,
which was on the brow of the steep hill on which Stromness is
founded, was only accessible by a series of dirty and precipitous
lanes, and for exposure might have been the abode of Eolus himself,
in whose commodities the inhabitant dealt. She herself was, as she
told us, nearly one hundred years old, withered and dried up like a
mummy. A clay-coloured kerchief, folded round her neck,
corresponded in colour to her corpse-like complexion. Two light
blue eyes that gleamed with a lustre like that of insanity, an
utterance of astonishing rapidity, a nose and chin that almost met
together, and a ghastly expression of cunning, gave her the effect
of Hecate. Such was Bessie Millie, to whom the mariners paid a
sort of tribute with a feeling between jest and earnest.'


From about the beginning of the century up to 1807 Robert Stevenson
was in partnership with Thomas Smith. In the last-named year the
partnership was dissolved; Thomas Smith returning to his business,
and my grandfather becoming sole engineer to the Board of Northern

I must try, by excerpts from his diary and correspondence, to
convey to the reader some idea of the ardency and thoroughness with
which he threw himself into the largest and least of his
multifarious engagements in this service. But first I must say a
word or two upon the life of lightkeepers, and the temptations to
which they are more particularly exposed. The lightkeeper occupies
a position apart among men. In sea-towers the complement has
always been three since the deplorable business in the Eddystone,
when one keeper died, and the survivor, signalling in vain for
relief, was compelled to live for days with the dead body. These
usually pass their time by the pleasant human expedient of
quarrelling; and sometimes, I am assured, not one of the three is
on speaking terms with any other. On shore stations, which on the
Scottish coast are sometimes hardly less isolated, the usual number
is two, a principal and an assistant. The principal is
dissatisfied with the assistant, or perhaps the assistant keeps
pigeons, and the principal wants the water from the roof. Their
wives and families are with them, living cheek by jowl. The
children quarrel; Jockie hits Jimsie in the eye, and the mothers
make haste to mingle in the dissension. Perhaps there is trouble
about a broken dish; perhaps Mrs. Assistant is more highly born
than Mrs. Principal and gives herself airs; and the men are drawn
in and the servants presently follow. 'Church privileges have been
denied the keeper's and the assistant's servants,' I read in one
case, and the eminently Scots periphrasis means neither more nor
less than excommunication, 'on account of the discordant and
quarrelsome state of the families. The cause, when inquired into,
proves to be tittle-tattle on both sides.' The tender comes round;
the foremen and artificers go from station to station; the gossip
flies through the whole system of the service, and the stories,
disfigured and exaggerated, return to their own birthplace with the
returning tender. The English Board was apparently shocked by the
picture of these dissensions. 'When the Trinity House can,' I find
my grandfather writing at Beachy Head, in 1834, 'they do not
appoint two keepers, they disagree so ill. A man who has a family
is assisted by his family; and in this way, to my experience and
present observation, the business is very much neglected. One
keeper is, in my view, a bad system. This day's visit to an
English lighthouse convinces me of this, as the lightkeeper was
walking on a staff with the gout, and the business performed by one
of his daughters, a girl of thirteen or fourteen years of age.'
This man received a hundred a year! It shows a different reading
of human nature, perhaps typical of Scotland and England, that I
find in my grandfather's diary the following pregnant entry: 'THE
the Scottish system was not alone founded on this cynical opinion.
The dignity and the comfort of the northern lightkeeper were both
attended to. He had a uniform to 'raise him in his own estimation,
and in that of his neighbour, which is of consequence to a person
of trust. The keepers,' my grandfather goes on, in another place,
'are attended to in all the detail of accommodation in the best
style as shipmasters; and this is believed to have a sensible
effect upon their conduct, and to regulate their general habits as
members of society.' He notes, with the same dip of ink, that 'the
brasses were not clean, and the persons of the keepers not TRIG';
and thus we find him writing to a culprit: 'I have to complain
that you are not cleanly in your person, and that your manner of
speech is ungentle, and rather inclines to rudeness. You must
therefore take a different view of your duties as a lightkeeper.'
A high ideal for the service appears in these expressions, and will
be more amply illustrated further on. But even the Scottish
lightkeeper was frail. During the unbroken solitude of the winter
months, when inspection is scarce possible, it must seem a vain
toil to polish the brass hand-rail of the stair, or to keep an
unrewarded vigil in the light-room; and the keepers are habitually
tempted to the beginnings of sloth, and must unremittingly resist.
He who temporises with his conscience is already lost. I must tell
here an anecdote that illustrates the difficulties of inspection.
In the days of my uncle David and my father there was a station
which they regarded with jealousy. The two engineers compared
notes and were agreed. The tower was always clean, but seemed
always to bear traces of a hasty cleansing, as though the keepers
had been suddenly forewarned. On inquiry, it proved that such was
the case, and that a wandering fiddler was the unfailing harbinger
of the engineer. At last my father was storm-stayed one Sunday in
a port at the other side of the island. The visit was quite
overdue, and as he walked across upon the Monday morning he
promised himself that he should at last take the keepers
unprepared. They were both waiting for him in uniform at the gate;
the fiddler had been there on Saturday!

My grandfather, as will appear from the following extracts, was
much a martinet, and had a habit of expressing himself on paper
with an almost startling emphasis. Personally, with his powerful
voice, sanguine countenance, and eccentric and original locutions,
he was well qualified to inspire a salutary terror in the service.

'I find that the keepers have, by some means or another, got into
the way of cleaning too much with rotten-stone and oil. I take the
principal keeper to TASK on this subject, and make him bring a
clean towel and clean one of the brazen frames, which leaves the
towel in an odious state. This towel I put up in a sheet of paper,
seal, and take with me to confront Mr. Murdoch, who has just left
the station.' 'This letter'--a stern enumeration of complaints--
'to lie a week on the light-room book-place, and to be put in the
Inspector's hands when he comes round.' 'It is the most painful
thing that can occur for me to have a correspondence of this kind
with any of the keepers; and when I come to the Lighthouse, instead
of having the satisfaction to meet them with approbation, it is
distressing when one is obliged to put on a most angry countenance
and demeanour; but from such culpable negligence as you have shown
there is no avoiding it. I hold it as a fixed maxim that, when a
man or a family put on a slovenly appearance in their houses,
stairs, and lanterns, I always find their reflectors, burners,
windows, and light in general, ill attended to; and, therefore, I
must insist on cleanliness throughout.' 'I find you very deficient
in the duty of the high tower. You thus place your appointment as
Principal Keeper in jeopardy; and I think it necessary, as an old
servant of the Board, to put you upon your guard once for all at
this time. I call upon you to recollect what was formerly and is
now said to you. The state of the backs of the reflectors at the
high tower was disgraceful, as I pointed out to you on the spot.
They were as if spitten upon, and greasy finger-marks upon the back
straps. I demand an explanation of this state of things.' 'The
cause of the Commissioners dismissing you is expressed in the
minute; and it must be a matter of regret to you that you have been
so much engaged in smuggling, and also that the Reports relative to
the cleanliness of the Lighthouse, upon being referred to, rather
added to their unfavourable opinion.' 'I do not go into the
dwelling-house, but severely chide the lightkeepers for the
disagreement that seems to subsist among them.' 'The families of
the two lightkeepers here agree very ill. I have effected a
reconciliation for the present.' 'Things are in a very HUMDRUM
state here. There is no painting, and in and out of doors no taste
or tidiness displayed. Robert's wife GREETS and M'Gregor's scolds;
and Robert is so down-hearted that he says he is unfit for duty. I
told him that if he was to mind wives' quarrels, and to take them
up, the only way was for him and M'Gregor to go down to the point
like Sir G. Grant and Lord Somerset.' 'I cannot say that I have
experienced a more unpleasant meeting than that of the lighthouse
folks this morning, or ever saw a stronger example of unfeeling
barbarity than the conduct which the ---s exhibited. These two
cold-hearted persons, not contented with having driven the daughter
of the poor nervous woman from her father's house, BOTH kept
POUNCING at her, lest she should forget her great misfortune.
Write me of their conduct. Do not make any communication of the
state of these families at Kinnaird Head, as this would be like

There is the great word out. Tales and Tale-bearing, always with
the emphatic capitals, run continually in his correspondence. I
will give but two instances:-

'Write to David [one of the lightkeepers] and caution him to be
more prudent how he expresses himself. Let him attend his duty to
the Lighthouse and his family concerns, and give less heed to Tale-
bearers.' 'I have not your last letter at hand to quote its date;
but, if I recollect, it contains some kind of tales, which nonsense
I wish you would lay aside, and notice only the concerns of your
family and the important charge committed to you.'

Apparently, however, my grandfather was not himself inaccessible to
the Tale-bearer, as the following indicates:

'In walking along with Mr. --- , I explain to him that I should be
under the necessity of looking more closely into the business here
from his conduct at Buddonness, which had given an instance of
weakness in the Moral principle which had staggered my opinion of
him. His answer was, "That will be with regard to the lass?" I
told him I was to enter no farther with him upon the subject.'
'Mr. Miller appears to be master and man. I am sorry about this
foolish fellow. Had I known his train, I should not, as I did,
have rather forced him into the service. Upon finding the windows
in the state they were, I turned upon Mr. Watt, and especially upon
Mr. Stewart. The latter did not appear for a length of time to
have visited the light-room. On asking the cause--did Mr. Watt and
him (sic) disagree; he said no; but he had got very bad usage from
the assistant, "who was a very obstreperous man." I could not
bring Mr. Watt to put in language his objections to Miller; all I
could get was that, he being your friend, and saying he was unwell,
he did not like to complain or to push the man; that the man seemed
to have no liking to anything like work; that he was unruly; that,
being an educated man, he despised them. I was, however,
determined to have out of these UNWILLING witnesses the language
alluded to. I fixed upon Mr. Stewart as chief; he hedged. My
curiosity increased, and I urged. Then he said, "What would I
think, just exactly, of Mr. Watt being called an Old B-?" You may
judge of my surprise. There was not another word uttered. This
was quite enough, as coming from a person I should have calculated
upon quite different behaviour from. It spoke a volume of the
man's mind and want of principle.' 'Object to the keeper keeping a
Bull-Terrier dog of ferocious appearance. It is dangerous, as we
land at all times of the night.' 'Have only to complain of the
storehouse floor being spotted with oil. Give orders for this
being instantly rectified, so that on my return to-morrow I may see
things in good order.' 'The furniture of both houses wants much
rubbing. Mrs. -'s carpets are absurd beyond anything I have seen.
I want her to turn the fenders up with the bottom to the fireplace:
the carpets, when not likely to be in use, folded up and laid as a
hearthrug partly under the fender.'

My grandfather was king in the service to his finger-tips. All
should go in his way, from the principal lightkeeper's coat to the
assistant's fender, from the gravel in the garden-walks to the bad
smell in the kitchen, or the oil-spots on the store-room floor. It
might be thought there was nothing more calculated to awake men's
resentment, and yet his rule was not more thorough than it was
beneficent. His thought for the keepers was continual, and it did
not end with their lives. He tried to manage their successions; he
thought no pains too great to arrange between a widow and a son who
had succeeded his father; he was often harassed and perplexed by
tales of hardship; and I find him writing, almost in despair, of
their improvident habits and the destitution that awaited their
families upon a death. 'The house being completely furnished, they
come into possession without necessaries, and they go out NAKED.
The insurance seems to have failed, and what next is to be tried?'
While they lived he wrote behind their backs to arrange for the
education of their children, or to get them other situations if
they seemed unsuitable for the Northern Lights. When he was at a
lighthouse on a Sunday he held prayers and heard the children read.
When a keeper was sick, he lent him his horse and sent him mutton
and brandy from the ship. 'The assistant's wife having been this
morning confined, there was sent ashore a bottle of sherry and a
few rusks--a practice which I have always observed in this
service,' he writes. They dwelt, many of them, in uninhabited
isles or desert forelands, totally cut off from shops. Many of
them were, besides, fallen into a rustic dishabitude of life, so
that even when they visited a city they could scarce be trusted
with their own affairs, as (for example) he who carried home to his
children, thinking they were oranges, a bag of lemons. And my
grandfather seems to have acted, at least in his early years, as a
kind of gratuitous agent for the service. Thus I find him writing
to a keeper in 1806, when his mind was already preoccupied with
arrangements for the Bell Rock: 'I am much afraid I stand very
unfavourably with you as a man of promise, as I was to send several
things of which I believe I have more than once got the memorandum.
All I can say is that in this respect you are not singular. This
makes me no better; but really I have been driven about beyond all
example in my past experience, and have been essentially obliged to
neglect my own urgent affairs.' No servant of the Northern Lights
came to Edinburgh but he was entertained at Baxter's Place to
breakfast. There, at his own table, my grandfather sat down
delightedly with his broad-spoken, homespun officers. His whole
relation to the service was, in fact, patriarchal; and I believe I
may say that throughout its ranks he was adored. I have spoken
with many who knew him; I was his grandson, and their words may
have very well been words of flattery; but there was one thing that
could not be affected, and that was the look and light that came
into their faces at the name of Robert Stevenson.

In the early part of the century the foreman builder was a young
man of the name of George Peebles, a native of Anstruther. My
grandfather had placed in him a very high degree of confidence, and
he was already designated to be foreman at the Bell Rock, when, on
Christmas-day 1806, on his way home from Orkney, he was lost in the
schooner Traveller. The tale of the loss of the Traveller is
almost a replica of that of the Elizabeth of Stromness; like the
Elizabeth she came as far as Kinnaird Head, was then surprised by a
storm, driven back to Orkney, and bilged and sank on the island of
Flotta. It seems it was about the dusk of the day when the ship
struck, and many of the crew and passengers were drowned. About
the same hour, my grandfather was in his office at the writing-
table; and the room beginning to darken, he laid down his pen and
fell asleep. In a dream he saw the door open and George Peebles
come in, 'reeling to and fro, and staggering like a drunken man,'
with water streaming from his head and body to the floor. There it
gathered into a wave which, sweeping forward, submerged my
grandfather. Well, no matter how deep; versions vary; and at last
he awoke, and behold it was a dream! But it may be conceived how
profoundly the impression was written even on the mind of a man
averse from such ideas, when the news came of the wreck on Flotta
and the death of George.

George's vouchers and accounts had perished with himself; and it
appeared he was in debt to the Commissioners. But my grandfather
wrote to Orkney twice, collected evidence of his disbursements, and
proved him to be seventy pounds ahead. With this sum, he applied
to George's brothers, and had it apportioned between their mother
and themselves. He approached the Board and got an annuity of 5
pounds bestowed on the widow Peebles; and we find him writing her a
long letter of explanation and advice, and pressing on her the duty
of making a will. That he should thus act executor was no singular
instance. But besides this we are able to assist at some of the
stages of a rather touching experiment; no less than an attempt to
secure Charles Peebles heir to George's favour. He is despatched,
under the character of 'a fine young man'; recommended to gentlemen
for 'advice, as he's a stranger in your place, and indeed to this
kind of charge, this being his first outset as Foreman'; and for a
long while after, the letter-book, in the midst of that thrilling
first year of the Bell Rock, is encumbered with pages of
instruction and encouragement. The nature of a bill, and the
precautions that are to be observed about discounting it, are
expounded at length and with clearness. 'You are not, I hope,
neglecting, Charles, to work the harbour at spring-tides; and see
that you pay the greatest attention to get the well so as to supply
the keeper with water, for he is a very helpless fellow, and so
unfond of hard work that I fear he could do ill to keep himself in
water by going to the other side for it.'--'With regard to spirits,
Charles, I see very little occasion for it.' These abrupt
apostrophes sound to me like the voice of an awakened conscience;
but they would seem to have reverberated in vain in the ears of
Charles. There was trouble in Pladda, his scene of operations; his
men ran away from him, there was at least a talk of calling in the
Sheriff. 'I fear,' writes my grandfather, 'you have been too
indulgent, and I am sorry to add that men do not answer to be too
well treated, a circumstance which I have experienced, and which
you will learn as you go on in business.' I wonder, was not
Charles Peebles himself a case in point? Either death, at least,
or disappointment and discharge, must have ended his service in the
Northern Lights; and in later correspondence I look in vain for any
mention of his name--Charles, I mean, not Peebles: for as late as
1839 my grandfather is patiently writing to another of the family:
'I am sorry you took the trouble of applying to me about your son,
as it lies quite out of my way to forward his views in the line of
his profession as a Draper.'


A professional life of Robert Stevenson has been already given to
the world by his son David, and to that I would refer those
interested in such matters. But my own design, which is to
represent the man, would be very ill carried out if I suffered
myself or my reader to forget that he was, first of all and last of
all, an engineer. His chief claim to the style of a mechanical
inventor is on account of the Jib or Balance Crane of the Bell
Rock, which are beautiful contrivances. But the great merit of
this engineer was not in the field of engines. He was above all
things a projector of works in the face of nature, and a modifier
of nature itself. A road to be made, a tower to be built, a
harbour to be constructed, a river to be trained and guided in its
channel--these were the problems with which his mind was
continually occupied; and for these and similar ends he travelled
the world for more than half a century, like an artist, note-book
in hand.

He once stood and looked on at the emptying of a certain oil-tube;
he did so watch in hand, and accurately timed the operation; and in
so doing offered the perfect type of his profession. The fact
acquired might never be of use: it was acquired: another link in
the world's huge chain of processes was brought down to figures and
placed at the service of the engineer. 'The very term mensuration
sounds ENGINEER-LIKE,' I find him writing; and in truth what the
engineer most properly deals with is that which can be measured,
weighed, and numbered. The time of any operation in hours and
minutes, its cost in pounds, shillings, and pence, the strain upon
a given point in foot-pounds--these are his conquests, with which
he must continually furnish his mind, and which, after he has
acquired them, he must continually apply and exercise. They must
be not only entries in note-books, to be hurriedly consulted; in
the actor's phrase, he must be STALE in them; in a word of my
grandfather's, they must be 'fixed in the mind like the ten fingers
and ten toes.'

These are the certainties of the engineer; so far he finds a solid
footing and clear views. But the province of formulas and
constants is restricted. Even the mechanical engineer comes at
last to an end of his figures, and must stand up, a practical man,
face to face with the discrepancies of nature and the hiatuses of
theory. After the machine is finished, and the steam turned on,
the next is to drive it; and experience and an exquisite sympathy
must teach him where a weight should be applied or a nut loosened.
With the civil engineer, more properly so called (if anything can
be proper with this awkward coinage), the obligation starts with
the beginning. He is always the practical man. The rains, the
winds and the waves, the complexity and the fitfulness of nature,
are always before him. He has to deal with the unpredictable, with
those forces (in Smeaton's phrase) that 'are subject to no
calculation'; and still he must predict, still calculate them, at
his peril. His work is not yet in being, and he must foresee its
influence: how it shall deflect the tide, exaggerate the waves,
dam back the rain-water, or attract the thunderbolt. He visits a
piece of sea-board; and from the inclination and soil of the beach,
from the weeds and shell-fish, from the configuration of the coast
and the depth of soundings outside, he must deduce what magnitude
of waves is to be looked for. He visits a river, its summer water
babbling on shallows; and he must not only read, in a thousand
indications, the measure of winter freshets, but be able to predict
the violence of occasional great floods. Nay, and more; he must
not only consider that which is, but that which may be. Thus I
find my grandfather writing, in a report on the North Esk Bridge:
'A less waterway might have sufficed, but the VALLEYS MAY COME TO
BE MELIORATED BY DRAINAGE.' One field drained after another
through all that confluence of vales, and we come to a time when
they shall precipitate by so much a more copious and transient
flood, as the gush of the flowing drain-pipe is superior to the
leakage of a peat.

It is plain there is here but a restricted use for formulas. In
this sort of practice, the engineer has need of some transcendental
sense. Smeaton, the pioneer, bade him obey his 'feelings'; my
father, that 'power of estimating obscure forces which supplies a
coefficient of its own to every rule.' The rules must be
everywhere indeed; but they must everywhere be modified by this
transcendental coefficient, everywhere bent to the impression of
the trained eye and the FEELINGS of the engineer. A sentiment of
physical laws and of the scale of nature, which shall have been
strong in the beginning and progressively fortified by observation,
must be his guide in the last recourse. I had the most opportunity
to observe my father. He would pass hours on the beach, brooding
over the waves, counting them, noting their least deflection,
noting when they broke. On Tweedside, or by Lyne or Manor, we have
spent together whole afternoons; to me, at the time, extremely
wearisome; to him, as I am now sorry to think, bitterly mortifying.

Book of the day: