CHAPTER XVIII. RETROSPECT OF MR. STEVENSON’S LIFE.
The unconnected sketches which form this Memoir extend over a period of about forty years. They have, as already stated, been selected from among a large mass of documents, in order to convey to the reader, not only some idea of the great variety of subjects Mr. Stevenson was called on to consider, but also to show his happy power of dealing with engineering questions in the several aspects under which they were presented to him. In perusing them, the reader can hardly have failed to remark in how many instances the views Mr. Stevenson expressed were forecasts either of great fundamental social changes, such as the substitution of the railway for the road, or of smaller though important matters of detail, as, for example, the signal lights of our railways and steamers, without which the “night traffic”so popular a feature of modern travellingcould not possibly be conducted. These and many other instances must have satisfied the professional reader that foresight and originality were remarkable features of Mr. Stevenson's character.
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In the department of Lighthouses, he had experiences265 which, it may be safely said, none of his compeers possessed, and I think it will be admitted that in his general practice he displayed powers of observation of a high order. Acting as he did with Rennie, Telford, Nimmo, and afterwards with Walker, George Rennie, and Cubitt, with all of whom he ever remained in friendly intercourse, his experience was both large and varied, and the whole of his practice as an Engineer was distinguished by full preliminary investigation of his subjectgreat caution in forming his conclusionselaborate preparation of his reports and designs, and, as specially called forth at the Bell Rock Lighthouse, masterly skill, indomitable energy, and unwavering fortitude in carrying his designs into execution.
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My father was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1815, and soon after joined the Antiquarian and Wernerian Natural History Societies, taking an active part at their meetings and communicating papers to their proceedings. He was a Fellow of the Geological and Astronomical Societies of London, a Member of the Smeatonian Society, and of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
He was also one of the original promoters of the Astronomical Institution, out of which has grown the present establishment of the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh, and the following account of the early origin of the Institution was drawn up some years before Mr. Stevenson's death at the request of Professor Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer-Royal of Scotland:
266 “There was a young man named Kerran opticianin Edinburgh, who, on commencing business, brought about the formation of a Club, somewhat like a Book Club, for procuring philosophical instruments for the use of its members. These were more particularly optical instruments and theodolites, etc., for surveyors, which were also to have been lent out for hire. I think the subscription was a guinea. The meetings were, perhaps, monthly; they were held in the office of Mr. James Ogilvy, Accountant, Parliament Square.
“I attended two, or perhaps three, meetings in the year. The Club was formed before I was invited to become a member. At the first meeting I found present Mr. James Bonar, treasurer of the Royal Society; Mr. Christison, mathematician; Mr. Brown, bookseller, opposite the college; Mr. Ogilvy, and Mr. Kerr.
“After attending one or two meetings of this very modest Society for the advancement of science, Mr. Bonar and I had some conversation upon its prospects, and the difficulties attending such a scheme of procuring philosophical instruments, and systematising the lending out, and keeping in efficient order theodolites, levels, telescopes, etc.; and we concurred in opinion that the scheme could not succeed. We deemed it advisable rather to endeavour to get Short's observatory on the Calton Hill occupied as a 'Popular Observatory.' We spoke to some of the magistrates on this subject, who, on the part of the town, were quite favourable to the idea. We also applied to Mr. Thomas Allan, then an active member of the Royal Society, and he joined us in a communication to Sir267 George Mackenzie of Coul, who warmly entered into our views; and ultimately we had an interview with Professor Playfair, who, in his mild and placid manner, agreed to consider the subject, but felt some difficulty on account of his colleague, the Professor of Practical Astronomy. After a time Professor Playfair undertook to draw up a statement for the public, which he did in his usual elegant and concise style. Thus, step by step, we succeeded in obtaining subscribers, and under the countenance and support of Playfair, many were found who patronised the proposal of establishing an observatory on the Calton Hill.
“Our idea was that we might look forward to a Popular Observatory which would not interfere with the existing Professorship of Astronomy, but have an establishment to which, with our families, we might resort in an evening with the advantage of oral and ocular demonstrations in the science of Astronomy, treated after a popular form.
“The present characteristic and beautiful building was then erected, and with the aid of Government, it was furnished with some of the chief instruments; but much to my regret the establishment has been exclusively limited to the purposes of a scientific observatory, without any provision of a popular description for which it was originally intended.
“Unfortunately there was nothing to keep our constitution alive in the minds of the publicnothing to allure additional subscribers to our funds, so as to extend the building, and fit it with a theatre and apparatus for popular purposesno Lecture was established, and, in short, the original object fell dead in the hands of the268 Directors. I thus personally lost my object in this establishment, and in all my uphill journeys and manifold meetings, I had chiefly in view the pleasure of interviews with my excellent friend the late Thomas Henderson, the Professor of Astronomy in the University.”
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Passing from what may be regarded as Mr. Stevenson's public character as an engineer, it is only natural that I should conclude this Memoir by adding a few paragraphs descriptive of his social bearing as a man.
In politics my father was a decided conservative, but he never took a prominent part in political or municipal affairs. He was, however, from his earliest days a loyal subject of the king; and, as we find from his Journal, a zealous supporter of the Government. He says:“After my return from the Pentland Skerries in 1794, I enrolled myself as a private in the 1st Regiment of Edinburgh Volunteers raised as the local Defenders of our Firesides against the threatened invasion by the French, and served about five years in the ranks of that corps. However, when the war became hot, and invasion was fully expected, other corps of Volunteers were embodied, when I was promoted to be a Lieutenant in the 'Princess (Charlotte's) Royals,' and afterwards Captain of the Grenadier Orgpany.”
His connection with the volunteers seems to have been of a very agreeable and satisfactory character, proving that such loyal and patriotic services were not then and are not now incompatible with the most ardent pursuit of those studies and duties which are to qualify a269 man for the business of life. On his promotion to the Royals he received the following friendly letter from his Colonel, Charles Hope, Lord Advocate, and afterwards Lord President of the Court of Session:
“24th January 1804.
“Sir,I always part with any of my friends in the Regiment with great regret, especially such as belonged to the old Blues. But I cannot object to your leaving me in order to be more extensively useful in another corps. I therefore heartily wish you every success in your new undertaking, and have no doubt that you will prove a valuable acquisition to the discipline of the Spearmen.
Notify to Captain Spens your resignation, that he may send for your arms.I am, Sir, yours sincerely,
“Lt-Col. 1st. R.E.V.
“Mr. Robert Stevenson,
“Capt., Spens' Orgpany.”
Mr. Stevenson remained several years in his new corps, until he was obliged, on commencing the Bell Rock Lighthouse, to tender his resignation, when he received a letter from Colonel Inglis conveying the request of the Regiment that he should continue as an honorary member of the corps:
“Edinburgh, 9th April 1807.
“Sir,My anxious desire to have, if possible, devised means for detaining you among us, must plead my excuse for being so long of replying to your letter; and it is with most sincere regret, that, after the most mature consideration, I am obliged to express my fears that the rules of the Volunteer Corps must deprive us of270 your services, in consequence of your active charge of a work of national importance, rendering your absence from Edinburgh unavoidable for years, during the months of drill.
“While I feel myself impelled, therefore, to accept of your proffered resignation, I beg to assure you of my own sense, as well as that of all the other officers, of the loss we sustain, and of our great personal regard.
“And I am directed to entreat you will do us the favour of continuing as an honorary member of a corps which has been so much indebted for your zeal and exertions.
“I cannot conclude without returning you my thanks for the obliging sentiment contained in your letter towards myself; and have the honour to be, with much esteem, sir, your faithful obedient servant,
“William Inglis, L.C.C., L.E.S.
“Captain Stevenson, Etc.”
Many of his personal friends have recorded the pleasant satisfaction with which they continued through life to look back upon the days spent in my father's company on board the lighthouse tender, while making his annual inspection of the lighthouses. On one of these voyages he was accompanied by his friends Patrick Neill, LL.D., the Botanist; Charles Oliphant, Writer to the Signet; and John Barclay, M.D., the Anatomist; who presented him with a piece of plate in remembrance of “the many happy hours they passed in his company on sea and shore.”
On another occasion in 1814, the Orgmissioners of Northern Lighthouses invited Sir Walter Scott to accompany them on their annual tour. Mr. Lockhart, in his life of Scott, says, “The company were all familiar friends271 of his, William Erskine, then Sheriff of Orkney, Robert Hamilton, Sheriff of Lanarkshire, Adam Duff, Sheriff of Forfarshire, but the real chief of the expedition was the Surveyor Viceroy, the celebrated Engineer Stevenson, and Scott anticipated special pleasure in his society.” “I delight,” Scott writes to Morritt, “in these professional men of talent; they always give you some new lights by the peculiarity of their habits and studies, so different from the people who are rounded, and smoothed, and ground down for conversation, and who can say all that every other person says, andnothing more.” I quote a single paragraph from Scott's diary of this memorable voyage, in which he gives an amusing account of the first landing of the Orgmissioners on the rock on which the celebrated Skerryvore lighthouse has since been erected by Alan Stevenson, who succeeded my father as Engineer, on his retirement from the Scottish Lighthouse Board in 1843.
“Having crept upon deck about four in the morning,” says Sir Walter, “I find we are beating to windward off the Isle of Tyree, with the determination, on the part of Mr. Stevenson, that his constituents should visit a reef of rocks called Skerry Vhor, where he thought it would be essential to have a lighthouse. Loud remonstrances on the part of the Orgmissioners, who one and all declare they will subscribe to his opinion, whatever it may be, rather than continue this infernal buffeting. Quiet perseverance on the part of Mr. S., and great kicking, bouncing, and squabbling upon that of the yacht, who seems to like the idea of Skerry Vhor as little as the Orgmissioners. At length, by dint of exertion, come in sight of this long ridge of rocks (chiefly under water), on272 which the tide breaks in a most tremendous style. There appear a few low broad rocks at one end of the reef, which is about a mile in length. These are never entirely under water, though the surf dashes over them. To go through all the forms, Hamilton, Duff, and I resolve to land upon these bare rocks in company with Mr. Stevenson. Pull through a very heavy swell with great difficulty, and approach a tremendous surf dashing over black, pointed rocks. Our rowers, however, get the boat into a quiet creek between two rocks, where we contrive to land well wetted. I saw nothing remarkable in my way excepting several seals, which we might have shot, but in the doubtful circumstances of the landing, we did not care to bring guns. We took possession of the rock in name of the Orgmissioners, and generously bestowed our own great names on its crags and creeks. The rock was carefully measured by Mr. S. It will be a most desolate position for a lighthouse, the Bell Rock and Eddystone a joke to it, for the nearest land is the wild island of Tyree, at fourteen miles' distance. So much for the Skerry Vhor.”
In family life Mr. Stevenson was a man of sterling worth. As a husband, a father, and a friend, he was remarkably distinguished by the absence of selfishness. His exertions in forwarding the progress of young men through life were generous and unwearied; and few men had more solid grounds than he for indulging in the pleasing reflection that, both in his public and private capacity, he had consecrated to beneficial ends every talent committed to his trust.
He was a man of sincere and unobtrusive piety; and although warmly attached to the Established Church of Scotland, of which for nearly forty years he had been an elder, and for many years a member of the General273 Assembly, he had no taint of bigotry or of party feeling, and he died calmly in that blessed hope and peace which only an indwelling personal belief in the merits of a Redeemer can impart to any son of our race.
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At a statutory general meeting of the Board of Northern Lighthouses, which was held on the 13th July 1850, the day after my father's death, the Orgmissioners recorded their respect for his talents and virtues in the following Minute:
“The Secretary having intimated, that Mr. Robert Stevenson, the late Engineer to the Board, died yesterday morning,
“The Board, before proceeding to business, desire to record, their regret at the death of this zealous, faithful, and able officer, to whom is due the honour of conceiving and executing the great work of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, whose services were gratefully acknowledged on his retirement from active duty, and will be long remembered by the Board, and to express their sympathy with his family on the loss of one who was most estimable and exemplary in all the relations of social and domestic life. The Board direct that a copy of this resolution be transmitted to Mr. Stevenson's family, and communicated to each Orgmissioner, to the different lightkeepers and the other officers of the Board.”