To the English-speaking world the initials of RLS is immediately
recognisable as one of Scotland’s greatest literary sons.
Every child knows of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure
Island” and of the adventures of David Balfour in his
famous story “Kidnapped”. What is probably less well
known is that he was also the grandson of Robert Stevenson
(1772-1850), the builder of the Bell Rock and numerous other
lighthouses around the coasts of Scotland. He was one member
of that famous dynastic family who did not become a
What is even less well known is that RLS made use of the
places he visited or spent holidays to locate many of the
scenes depicted in his novels. At Yellowcraigs Park
near North Berwick in East Lothian there is a little hill
looking out to the rocky island of Fidra in the Firth of
Forth said to have inspired him to write “Treasure Island”.
“Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” is also said to be based
on a real-life character in Edinburgh. Deacon Brodie,
a respectable citizen during the day, but, at night, a thief
and a robber.
The fact that he used the tiny island off Mull called Erraid
to shipwreck his hero, David Balfour in “Kidnapped”
was no mere coincidence. He spent three weeks on the island
when his father and uncle were building the Dubh Artach
lighthouse, completed in 1872. The short walk from the road
end to the sandy cockle strand, which separates Erraid from
Mull, is one of the loveliest spots in the entire Inner
Hebridean island complex.
Shortly after 1870, RLS turned his back on lighthouse building
to pursue his own literary career. More information on Robert
Louis and his famous lighthouse family can be found here
RLS's history of the Stevenson family and excerpts of his
grandfather's "Account" (as a "stand-alone"
volume) was not published until 1912 - some 17 years
after his death.
However, it was published earlier as part of the many series
of his collected works. The first appeared in 1896
("The Edinburgh Edition", under the editorship
of Sidney Colvin), with several editions following regularly
until the mid-1920s. These included the Tusitala (1924),
Pentland (1925), Waverley (1925), Skerryvore (1925) and
Vailima (1922). The latter edition alone was limited to
1060 sets for the United Kingdom, and a further 1030 sets
for the American market!
The last known reprint of the RLS's "Records"
appeared on the bookshelves in 1969 - published by Heron
Before he died in 1971, D. Alan Stevenson was working on
a new version of "Records of a Family of Engineers",
but unfortunately the book was never finished. It was to
be called "Some Records of R.L.S.'s family of Engineers".
To get hold now of a copy of Stevenson's original volume
"An Account of the Bell Rock Light-house"
(1824) is probably now well beyond the reach of most people's
pockets, even if one were to come on the market; however,
as well as RLS's book, in 1931 the Cambridge University
Press, under The Craftsman Series, also produced
an abridged version.
But let Robert Louis, in his own words, set the scene for
his own "Records":
"I am now for many pages to let my grandfather speak
for himself, and tell in his own words the story of his
capital achievement. The tall quarto of 588 pages from which
the following narrative has been dug out is practically
unknown to the general reader, yet good judges have perceived
its merit, and it has been named (with flattering wit) "The
Romance of Stone and Lime" and "The Robinson Crusoe of Civil
"The tower was but four year in the building; it
took Robert Stevenson, in the midst of his many avocations,
no less than fourteen years to prepare the Account. The
title-page is a solid piece of literature up upwards of
a hundred words; the table of contents runs to thirteen
pages; and the dedication (to that revered monarch, George
IV) must have cost no little study and correspondence. Walter
Scott was called in council, and offered one miscorrection
which still blots the page.
"In spite of all this pondering and filing, there
remain pages not easy to construe, and inconsistencies not
easy to explain away. I have sought to make these disappear,
and to lighten a little the baggage with which my grandfather
marches. Here and there I have rejointed and rearranged
a sentence, always with his own words, and all with a reverent
and faithful hand; and I offer to the reader the true Monument
of Robert Stevenson with a little of the moss removed from
the inscription, and the Portrait of the artist with some
superfluous canvas cut away."