Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

Records of a Family of Engineers by Robert Louis Stevenson

Part 4 out of 4

Adobe PDF icon
Download Records of a Family of Engineers 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.

[Monday, 30th July]

The ninetieth or last course of the building having been laid to-
day, which brought the masonry to the height of one hundred and two
feet six inches, the lintel of the light-room door, being the
finishing-stone of the exterior walls, was laid with due formality
by the writer, who, at the same time, pronounced the following
benediction: "May the Great Architect of the Universe, under whose
blessing this perilous work has prospered, preserve it as a guide
to the mariner."

[Friday, 3rd Aug.]

At three p.m., the necessary preparations having been made, the
artificers commenced the completing of the floors of the several
apartments, and at seven o'clock the centre-stone of the light-room
floor was laid, which may be held as finishing the masonry of this
important national edifice. After going through the usual
ceremonies observed by the brotherhood on occasions of this kind,
the writer, addressing himself to the artificers and seamen who
were present, briefly alluded to the utility of the undertaking as
a monument of the wealth of British commerce, erected through the
spirited measures of the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouses
by means of the able assistance of those who now surrounded him.
He then took an opportunity of stating that toward those connected
with this arduous work he would ever retain the most heartfelt
regard in all their interests.

[Saturday, 4th Aug.]

When the bell was rung as usual on the beacon this morning, every
one seemed as if he were at a loss what to make of himself. At
this period the artificers at the rock consisted of eighteen
masons, two joiners, one millwright, one smith, and one mortar-
maker, besides Messrs. Peter Logan and Francis Watt, foremen,
counting in all twenty-five; and matters were arranged for
proceeding to Arbroath this afternoon with all hands. The Sir
Joseph Banks tender had by this time been afloat, with little
intermission, for six months, during greater part of which the
artificers had been almost constantly off at the rock, and were now
much in want of necessaries of almost every description. Not a few
had lost different articles of clothing, which had dropped into the
sea from the beacon and building. Some wanted jackets; others,
from want of hats, wore nightcaps; each was, in fact, more or less
curtailed in his wardrobe, and it must be confessed that at best
the party were but in a very tattered condition. This morning was
occupied in removing the artificers and their bedding on board of
the tender; and although their personal luggage was easily shifted,
the boats had, nevertheless, many articles to remove from the
beacon-house, and were consequently employed in this service till
eleven a.m. All hands being collected and just ready to embark, as
the water had nearly overflowed the rock, the writer, in taking
leave, after alluding to the harmony which had ever marked the
conduct of those employed on the Bell Rock, took occasion to
compliment the great zeal, attention, and abilities of Mr. Peter
Logan and Mr. Francis Watt, foremen; Captain James Wilson, landing-
master; and Captain David Taylor, commander of the tender, who, in
their several departments, had so faithfully discharged the duties
assigned to them, often under circumstances the most difficult and
trying. The health of these gentlemen was drunk with much warmth
of feeling by the artificers and seamen, who severally expressed
the satisfaction they had experienced in acting under them; after
which the whole party left the rock.

In sailing past the floating light mutual compliments were made by
a display of flags between that vessel and the tender; and at five
p.m. the latter vessel entered the harbour of Arbroath, where the
party were heartily welcomed by a numerous company of spectators,
who had collected to see the artificers arrive after so long an
absence from the port. In the evening the writer invited the
foremen and captains of the service, together with Mr. David Logan,
clerk of works at Arbroath, and Mr. Lachlan Kennedy, engineer's
clerk and book-keeper, and some of their friends, to the principal
inn, where the evening was spent very happily; and after 'His
Majesty's Health' and 'The Commissioners of the Northern
Lighthouses' had been given, 'Stability to the Bell Rock
Lighthouse' was hailed as a standing toast in the Lighthouse

[Sunday, 5th Aug.]

The author has formerly noticed the uniformly decent and orderly
deportment of the artificers who were employed at the Bell Rock
Lighthouse, and to-day, it is believed, they very generally
attended church, no doubt with grateful hearts for the narrow
escapes from personal danger which all of them had more or less
experienced during their residence at the rock.

[Tuesday, 14th Aug.]

The Smeaton sailed to-day at one p.m., having on board sixteen
artificers, with Mr. Peter Logan, together with a supply of
provisions and necessaries, who left the harbour pleased and happy
to find themselves once more afloat in the Bell Rock service. At
seven o'clock the tender was made fast to her moorings, when the
artificers landed on the rock and took possession of their old
quarters in the beacon-house, with feelings very different from
those of 1807, when the works commenced.

The barometer for some days past had been falling from 29.90, and
to-day it was 29.50, with the wind at N.E., which, in the course of
this day, increased to a strong gale accompanied with a sea which
broke with great violence upon the rock. At twelve noon the tender
rode very heavily at her moorings, when her chain broke at about
ten fathoms from the ships bows. The kedge-anchor was immediately
let go, to hold her till the floating buoy and broken chain should
be got on board. But while this was in operation the hawser of the
kedge was chafed through on the rocky bottom and parted, when the
vessel was again adrift. Most fortunately, however, she cast off
with her head from the rock, and narrowly cleared it, when she
sailed up the Firth of Forth to wait the return of better weather.
The artificers were thus left upon the rock with so heavy a sea
running that it was ascertained to have risen to a height of eighty
feet on the building. Under such perilous circumstances it would
be difficult to describe the feelings of those who, at this time,
were cooped up in the beacon in so forlorn a situation, with the
sea not only raging under them, but occasionally falling from a
great height upon the roof of their temporary lodging, without even
the attending vessel in view to afford the least gleam of hope in
the event of any accident. It is true that they now had the
masonry of the lighthouse to resort to, which, no doubt, lessened
the actual danger of their situation; but the building was still
without a roof, and the deadlights, or storm-shutters, not being
yet fitted, the windows of the lower story were stove in and
broken, and at high-water the sea ran in considerable quantities
out at the entrance door.

[Thursday, 16th Aug.]

The gale continues with unabated violence to-day, and the sprays
rise to a still greater height, having been carried over the
masonry of the building, or about ninety feet above the level of
the sea. At four o'clock this morning it was breaking into the
cook's berth, when he rang the alarm-bell, and all hands turned out
to attend to their personal safety. The floor of the smith's, or
mortar gallery, was now completely burst up by the force of the
sea, when the whole of the deals and the remaining articles upon
the floor were swept away, such as the cast-iron mortar-tubs, the
iron hearth of the forge, the smith's bellows, and even his anvil
were thrown down upon the rock. Before the tide rose to its full
height to-day some of the artificers passed along the bridge into
the lighthouse, to observe the effects of the sea upon it, and they
reported that they had felt a slight tremulous motion in the
building when great seas struck it in a certain direction, about
high-water mark. On this occasion the sprays were again observed
to wet the balcony, and even to come over the parapet wall into the
interior of the light-room.

[Thursday, 23rd Aug.]

The wind being at W.S.W., and the weather more moderate, both the
tender and the Smeaton got to their moorings on the 23rd, when all
hands were employed in transporting the sash-frames from on board
of the Smeaton to the rock. In the act of setting up one of these
frames upon the bridge, it was unguardedly suffered to lose its
balance, and in saving it from damage Captain Wilson met with a
severe bruise in the groin, on the seat of a gun-shot wound
received in the early part of his life. This accident laid him
aside for several days.

[Monday, 27th Aug.]

The sash-frames of the light-room, eight in number, and weighing
each 254 pounds, having been got safely up to the top of the
building, were ranged on the balcony in the order in which they
were numbered for their places on the top of the parapet-wall; and
the balance-crane, that useful machine having now lifted all the
heavier articles, was unscrewed and lowered, to use the landing-
master's phrase, 'in mournful silence.'

[Sunday, 2nd Sept.]

The steps of the stair being landed, and all the weightier articles
of the light-room got up to the balcony, the wooden bridge was now
to be removed, as it had a very powerful effect upon the beacon
when a heavy sea struck it, and could not possibly have withstood
the storms of a winter. Everything having been cleared from the
bridge, and nothing left but the two principal beams with their
horizontal braces, James Glen, at high-water, proceeded with a saw
to cut through the beams at the end next the beacon, which likewise
disengaged their opposite extremity, inserted a few inches into the
building. The frame was then gently lowered into the water, and
floated off to the Smeaton to be towed to Arbroath, to be applied
as part of the materials in the erection of the lightkeepers'
houses. After the removal of the bridge, the aspect of things at
the rock was much altered. The beacon-house and building had both
a naked look to those accustomed to their former appearance; a
curious optical deception was also remarked, by which the
lighthouse seemed to incline from the perpendicular towards the
beacon. The horizontal rope-ladder before noticed was again
stretched to preserve the communication, and the artificers were
once more obliged to practise the awkward and straddling manner of
their passage between them during 1809.

At twelve noon the bell rung for prayers, after which the
artificers went to dinner, when the writer passed along the rope-
ladder to the lighthouse, and went through the several apartments,
which were now cleared of lumber. In the afternoon all hands were
summoned to the interior of the house, when he had the satisfaction
of laying the upper step of the stair, or last stone of the
building. This ceremony concluded with three cheers, the sound of
which had a very loud and strange effect within the walls of the
lighthouse. At six o'clock Mr. Peter Logan and eleven of the
artificers embarked with the writer for Arbroath, leaving Mr. James
Glen with the special charge of the beacon and railways, Mr. Robert
Selkirk with the building, with a few artificers to fit the
temporary windows to render the house habitable.

[Sunday, 14th Oct.]

On returning from his voyage to the Northern Lighthouses, the
writer landed at the Bell Rock on Sunday, the 14th of October, and
had the pleasure to find, from the very favourable state of the
weather, that the artificers had been enabled to make great
progress with the fitting-up of the light-room.

[Friday, 19th Oct.]

The light-room work had proceeded, as usual, to-day under the
direction of Mr. Dove, assisted in the plumber-work by Mr. John
Gibson, and in the brazier-work by Mr. Joseph Fraser; while Mr.
James Slight, with the joiners, were fitting up the storm-shuttters
of the windows. In these several departments the artificers were
at work till seven o'clock p.m., and it being then dark, Mr. Dove
gave orders to drop work in the light-room; and all hands proceeded
from thence to the beacon-house, when Charles Henderson, smith, and
Henry Dickson, brazier, left the work together. Being both young
men, who had been for several weeks upon the rock, they had become
familiar, and even playful, on the most difficult parts about the
beacon and building. This evening they were trying to outrun each
other in descending from the light-room, when Henderson led the
way; but they were in conversation with each other till they came
to the rope-ladder distended between the entrance-door of the
lighthouse and the beacon. Dickson, on reaching the cook-room, was
surprised at not seeing his companion, and inquired hastily for
Henderson. Upon which the cook replied, 'Was he before you upon
the rope-ladder?' Dickson answered, 'Yes; and I thought I heard
something fall.' Upon this the alarm was given, and links were
immediately lighted, with which the artificers descended on the
legs of the beacon, as near the surface of the water as possible,
it being then about full tide, and the sea breaking to a
considerable height upon the building, with the wind at S.S.E.
But, after watching till low-water, and searching in every
direction upon the rock, it appeared that poor Henderson must have
unfortunately fallen through the rope-ladder, and been washed into
the deep water.

The deceased had passed along this rope-ladder many hundred times,
both by day and night, and the operations in which he was employed
being nearly finished, he was about to leave the rock when this
melancholy catastrophe took place. The unfortunate loss of
Henderson cast a deep gloom upon the minds of all who were at the
rock, and it required some management on the part of those who had
charge to induce the people to remain patiently at their work; as
the weather now became more boisterous, and the nights long, they
found their habitation extremely cheerless, while the winds were
howling about their ears, and the waves lashing with fury against
the beams of their insulated habitation.

[Tuesday, 23rd Oct.]

The wind had shifted in the night to N.W., and blew a fresh gale,
while the sea broke with violence upon the rock. It was found
impossible to land, but the writer, from the boat, hailed Mr. Dove,
and directed the ball to be immediately fixed. The necessary
preparations were accordingly made, while the vessel made short
tacks on the southern side of the rock, in comparatively smooth
water. At noon Mr. Dove, assisted by Mr. James Slight, Mr. Robert
Selkirk, Mr. James Glen, and Mr. John Gibson, plumber, with
considerable difficulty, from the boisterous state of the weather,
got the gilded ball screwed on, measuring two feet in diameter, and
forming the principal ventilator at the upper extremity of the
cupola of the light-room. At Mr. Hamilton's desire, a salute of
seven guns was fired on this occasion, and, all hands being called
to the quarter-deck, 'Stability to the Bell Rock Lighthouse' was
not forgotten.

[Tuesday, 30th Oct.]

On reaching the rock it was found that a very heavy sea still ran
upon it; but the writer having been disappointed on two former
occasions, and, as the erection of the house might now be
considered complete, there being nothing wanted externally,
excepting some of the storm-shutters for the defence of the
windows, he was the more anxious at this time to inspect it. Two
well-manned boats were therefore ordered to be in attendance; and,
after some difficulty, the wind being at N.N.E., they got safely
into the western creek, though not without encountering plentiful
sprays. It would have been impossible to have attempted a landing
to-day, under any other circumstances than with boats perfectly
adapted to the purpose, and with seamen who knew every ledge of the
rock, and even the length of the sea-weeds at each particular spot,
so as to dip their oars into the water accordingly, and thereby
prevent them from getting entangled. But what was of no less
consequence to the safety of the party, Captain Wilson, who always
steered the boat, had a perfect knowledge of the set of the
different waves, while the crew never shifted their eyes from
observing his motions, and the strictest silence was preserved by
every individual except himself.

On entering the house, the writer had the pleasure to find it in a
somewhat habitable condition, the lower apartments being closed in
with temporary windows, and fitted with proper storm-shutters. The
lowest apartment at the head of the staircase was occupied with
water, fuel, and provisions, put up in a temporary way until the
house could be furnished with proper utensils. The second, or
light-room store, was at present much encumbered with various tools
and apparatus for the use of the workmen. The kitchen immediately
over this had, as yet, been supplied only with a common ship's
caboose and plate-iron funnel, while the necessary cooking utensils
had been taken from the beacon. The bedroom was for the present
used as the joiners' workshop, and the strangers' room, immediately
under the light-room, was occupied by the artificers, the beds
being ranged in tiers, as was done in the barrack of the beacon.
The light-room, though unprovided with its machinery, being now
covered over with the cupola, glazed and painted, had a very
complete and cleanly appearance. The balcony was only as yet
fitted with a temporary rail, consisting of a few iron stanchions,
connected with ropes; and in this state it was necessary to leave
it during the winter.

Having gone over the whole of the low-water works on the rock, the
beacon, and lighthouse, and being satisfied that only the most
untoward accident in the landing of the machinery could prevent the
exhibition of the light in the course of the winter, Mr. John Reid,
formerly of the floating light, was now put in charge of the
lighthouse as principal keeper; Mr. James Slight had charge of the
operations of the artificers, while Mr. James Dove and the smiths,
having finished the frame of the light-room, left the rock for the
present. With these arrangements the writer bade adieu to the
works for the season. At eleven a.m. the tide was far advanced;
and there being now little or no shelter for the boats at the rock,
they had to be pulled through the breach of sea, which came on
board in great quantities, and it was with extreme difficulty that
they could be kept in the proper direction of the landing-creek.
On this occasion he may be permitted to look back with gratitude on
the many escapes made in the course of this arduous undertaking,
now brought so near to a successful conclusion.

[Monday, 5th Nov.]

On Monday, the 5th, the yacht again visited the rock, when Mr.
Slight and the artificers returned with her to the workyard, where
a number of things were still to prepare connected with the
temporary fitting up of the accommodation for the lightkeepers.
Mr. John Reid and Peter Fortune were now the only inmates of the
house. This was the smallest number of persons hitherto left in
the lighthouse. As four lightkeepers were to be the complement, it
was intended that three should always be at the rock. Its present
inmates, however, could hardly have been better selected for such a
situation; Mr. Reid being a person possessed of the strictest
notions of duty and habits of regularity from long service on board
of a man-of-war, while Mr. Fortune had one of the most happy and
contented dispositions imaginable.

[Tuesday, 13th Nov.]

From Saturday the 10th till Tuesday the 13th, the wind had been
from N.E. blowing a heavy gale; but to-day, the weather having
greatly moderated, Captain Taylor, who now commanded the Smeaton,
sailed at two o'clock a.m. for the Bell Rock. At five the floating
light was hailed and found to be all well. Being a fine moonlight
morning, the seamen were changed from the one ship to the other.
At eight, the Smeaton being off the rock, the boats were manned,
and taking a supply of water, fuel, and other necessaries, landed
at the western side, when Mr. Reid and Mr. Fortune were found in
good health and spirits.

Mr. Reid stated that during the late gales, particularly on Friday,
the 30th, the wind veering from S.E. to N.E., both he and Mr.
Fortune sensibly felt the house tremble when particular seas
struck, about the time of high-water; the former observing that it
was a tremor of that sort which rather tended to convince him that
everything about the building was sound, and reminded him of the
effect produced when a good log of timber is struck sharply with a
mallet; but, with every confidence in the stability of the
building, he nevertheless confessed that, in so forlorn a
situation, they were not insensible to those emotions which, he
emphatically observed, 'made a man look back upon his former life.'

[1881 Friday, 1st Feb.]

The day, long wished for, on which the mariner was to see a light
exhibited on the Bell Rock at length arrived. Captain Wilson, as
usual, hoisted the float's lanterns to the topmast on the evening
of the 1st of February; but the moment that the light appeared on
the rock, the crew, giving three cheers, lowered them, and finally
extinguished the lights.


{2a} An error: Stevensons owned at this date the barony of
Dolphingston in Haddingtonshire, Montgrennan in Ayrshire, and
several other lesser places.

{3a} Pitcairn's Criminal Trials, at large.--[R. L. S.]

{4a} Fountainhall's Decisions, vol. i. pp. 56, 132, 186, 204,
368.- [R. L. S.]

{4b} Ibid. pp. 158, 299.--[R. L. S.]

{4c} Working farmer: Fr. laboureur.

{7a} This John Stevenson was not the only 'witness' of the name;
other Stevensons were actually killed during the persecutions, in
the Glen of Trool, on Pentland, etc.; and it is very possible that
the author's own ancestor was one of the mounted party embodied by
Muir of Caldwell, only a day too late for Pentland.

{7b} Wodrow Society's Select Biographies, vol. ii.- [R. L. S.]

{9a} Though the districts here named are those in which the name
of Stevenson is most common, it is in point of fact far more wide-
spread than the text indicates, and occurs from Dumfries and
Berwickshire to Aberdeen and Orkney.

{12a} Mr. J. H. Stevenson is satisfied that these speculations as
to a possible Norse, Highland, or French origin are vain. All we
know about the engineer family is that it was sprung from a stock
of Westland Whigs settled in the latter part of the seventeenth
century in the parish of Neilston, as mentioned at the beginning of
the next chapter. It may be noted that the Ayrshire parish of
Stevenston, the lands of which are said to have received the name
in the twelfth century, lies within thirteen miles south-west of
this place. The lands of Stevenson in Lanarkshire first mentioned
in the next century, in the Ragman Roll, lie within twenty miles

{54a} This is only a probable hypothesis; I have tried to identify
my father's anecdote in my grandfather's diary, and may very well
have been deceived.--[R. L. S.]

{91a} This is, of course, the tradition commemorated by Southey in
his ballad of 'The Inchcape Bell.' Whether true or not, it points
to the fact that from the infancy of Scottish navigation, the
seafaring mind had been fully alive to the perils of this reef.
Repeated attempts had been made to mark the place with beacons, but
all efforts were unavailing (one such beacon having been carried
away within eight days of its erection) until Robert Stevenson
conceived and carried out the idea of the stone tower. But the
number of vessels actually lost upon the reef was as nothing to
those that were cast away in fruitless efforts to avoid it. Placed
right in the fairway of two navigations, and one of these the
entrance to the only harbour of refuge between the Downs and the
Moray Firth, it breathed abroad along the whole coast an atmosphere
of terror and perplexity; and no ship sailed that part of the North
Sea at night, but what the ears of those on board would be strained
to catch the roaring of the seas on the Bell Rock.

{92a} The particular event which concentrated Mr. Stevenson's
attention on the problem of the Bell Rock was the memorable gale of
December 1799, when, among many other vessels, H.M.S. York, a
seventy-four-gun ship, went down with all hands on board. Shortly
after this disaster Mr. Stevenson made a careful survey, and
prepared his models for a stone tower, the idea of which was at
first received with pretty general scepticism, Smeaton's Eddystone
tower could not be cited as affording a parallel, for there the
rock is not submerged even at high-water, while the problem of the
Bell Rock was to build a tower of masonry on a sunken reef far
distant from land, covered at every tide to a depth of twelve feet
or more, and having thirty-two fathoms' depth of water within a
mile of its eastern edge.

{94a} The grounds for the rejection of the Bill by the House of
Lords in 1802-3 had been that the extent of coast over which dues
were proposed to be levied would be too great. Before going to
Parliament again, the Board of Northern Lights, desiring to obtain
support and corroboration for Mr. Stevenson's views, consulted
first Telford, who was unable to give the matter his attention, and
then (on Stevenson's suggestion) Rennie, who concurred in affirming
the practicability of a stone tower, and supported the Bill when it
came again before Parliament in 1806. Rennie was afterwards
appointed by the Commissioners as advising engineer, whom Stevenson
might consult in cases of emergency. It seems certain that the
title of chief engineer had in this instance no more meaning than
the above. Rennie, in point of fact, proposed certain
modifications in Stevenson's plans, which the latter did not
accept; nevertheless Rennie continued to take a kindly interest in
the work, and the two engineers remained in friendly correspondence
during its progress. The official view taken by the Board as to
the quarter in which lay both the merit and the responsibility of
the work may be gathered from a minute of the Commissioners at
their first meeting held after Stevenson died; in which they record
their regret 'at the death of this zealous, faithful, and able
BELL ROCK LIGHTHOUSE.' The matter is briefly summed up in the Life
of Robert Stevenson by his son David Stevenson (A. & C. Black,
1878), and fully discussed, on the basis of official facts and
figures, by the same writer in a letter to the Civil Engineers' and
Architects' Journal, 1862.

{122a} 'Nothing was said, but I was LOOKED OUT OF COUNTENANCE,' he
says in a letter.

{171a} Ill-formed--ugly.--[R. L. S.]

{174a} This is an incurable illusion of my grandfather's; he
always writes 'distended' for 'extended.'--[R. L. S.]

Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit Twitter Pinterest