There's something wonderful about books that tell their story in a way that is so complete, so authoritative and so extensively researched that you just know that it's never going to be worth anyone else's while trying to tackle the same subject again. "Southern Lights: The Scottish Contribution to New Zealand's Lighthouses" by Guinevere Nalder is one of those books. It can be highly recommended to anyone with an interest in lighthouses, whether in New Zealand or Scotland, or more widely, and is a book which is going to have enduing value as a work of reference long into the future.
We've heard it said that Scotland and New Zealand have similarities. Until we read this book we'd been unaware that one thing they certainly have in common is their lighthouses. Not always their superficial appearance, perhaps: the many photographs in this book show lighthouses in New Zealand that stand on towers unlike any found in Scotland, as well as others that would be quite at home here. But in terms of their underlying technology and the management of their construction and operation, New Zealand's lighthouses are very closely related to Scotland's.
This is no coincidence. Between 1859 and 1941, 38 major lighthouses were built around the coasts of New Zealand. During this period, Scotland, in the form of the businesses of successive generations of the Stevenson family, played a central role. Thirty-three of these lighthouses were built using Scottish designed and built lanterns and Scottish designed lenses. Of the remaining five, two were eventually replaced by Scottish lighthouses, and two more were upgraded using Scottish technology. That left just one New Zealand lighthouse built to an English design, and even this eventually ended up using Scottish spares. The Stevensons were also responsible for training staff to operate, maintain and administer New Zealand's lighthouses.
To call this book a tour de force is an understatement. The depth of the research that underpins it is reflected in the long lists of references that conclude each chapter. Despite this the book remains approachable and readable, and fascinating. It is also superbly illustrated, mainly in black and white, but also in colour at times. The illustrations include modern and historical photographs of lighthouses and their settings, as well as maps, plans, letters, manifests and specifications. What is particularly telling is that despite what feels to the reader like an utterly definitive coverage, in her introduction the author is almost apologetic that there are gaps in the available information because the relevant archives in Scotland only go up to 1901, and because records were lost in a fire in the New Zealand archives in 1952. This is, nonetheless, the best book anyone is ever going to be able to write about its subject and is a real pleasure to read.