Roland Paxton's "Dynasty of Engineers, the Stevensons and the Bell Rock" is published by the Northern Lighthouse Heritage Trust to mark the bicentenary of the completion of the Bell Rock Lighthouse. As befits a publication intended to celebrate the building of what is now the world's oldest continuously operational rock lighthouse, this beautifully designed and produced volume is both authoritative and informative and succeeds in throwing, at the risk of an unfortunate pun, new light on a story which has been told before.
The Bell Rock was a notorious reef situated 11 miles off Arbroath in a location which placed it perfectly in the path of shipping entering or leaving the Firth of Tay, home to a number of important ports, most notably Dundee. What made the rock lethal to shipping was that it was only exposed for part of the time, being 15ft below sea level at high tide. This factor also made the building of the lighthouse, which took place between 1807 and 1811, particularly challenging. The success of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, both as a construction project and as a means of saving the lives of mariners, meant that the lessons learned were applied to lighthouses in many other places, around Scotland and far beyond.
The story or the building of the lighthouse is told in this book through the reports, accounts and letters of those most directly involved: the engineer in day to day control of the project, Robert Stevenson, and the chief engineer, John Rennie. These accounts are illustrated by drawings, plans and maps produced at the time or shortly afterwards, and the result is a fascinating insight into one of the engineering marvels of its age, or any age.
The first half of the book complements the story of the Bell Rock Lighthouse with biographies of Robert Stevenson and of seven other members of the Stevenson family plus his stepfather and father in law Thomas Smith. Over five generations from 1786 to 1952 this "dynasty of engineers" oversaw the building and maintenance of Scotland's lighthouses and contributed tremendously to the development of international lighthouse engineering: it also quite incidentally produced one of Scotland's greatest authors in Robert Louis Stevenson. The book concludes with a detailed chronology of the many lighthouses built by Smith and the Stevensons and a set of beautiful and highly evocative colour images of some of those same lighthouses today.