There have arisen, over the years, dynasties of finance, politics, racketeering, music, maquillage, fireworks, the flying trapeze, and even jiujitsu, but few family businesses have proven quite so prodigious or beneficial to the commonweal as that of the Stevenson clan, four generations of whom built, between 1790 and 1940, ninety-seven lighthouses around the fearsome Scottish coast. As their most famous scion, Robert Louis, panegyrically put it, “Their works, the salt-encrusted, still survive;/ The sea bombards their founded towers.” Just how they managed to leave such a briny vertical legacy is the subject of Bella Bathurst’s absorbing chronicle.

The background to Bathurst’s story is grim: “In the 1790s an average of 550 ships were wrecked every year on British shores,” she relates. Caledonian waters were especially treacherous; so often did boats fetch up on certain Scottish rocks that entire ...


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