The Stevensons
Who Built the Bell Rock Lighthouse?
Stevenson v. North Carr Rocks
Robert Louis Stevenson
RLS, Erraid and
Dubh Artach

Instrument Makers and the Northern Lights
Smith, Thomas

Stevenson, Robert

Stevenson, Alan

Stevenson, David

Stevenson, Thomas

Stevenson, David A.

Stevenson, Charles

Stevenson, D. Alan

Stevenson, Dorothy
Emily (1882-1973)

RLS, Erraid and Dubh Artach

"The New Lighthouse on the Dhu Heartach Rock,

Although RLS's involvement with the family business of civil engineering and lighthouse building was relatively short-lived, it would be unfair to dismiss Robert Louis as being totally disinterested, and that he visited Erraid (the shore station for the lighthouse) merely "for the ride". Far from it. To him we owe the only account we have of the building of Dubh Artach.

In 1872, at that time 21 years old, RLS penned a 4,800-word essay that remained unpublished until recently. Certainly, this lighthouse never reached (in publishing terms) the giddy heights of his grandfather's "Account of the Bell Rock Light House" (1824), a large quarto volume of some 531 pages with several appendices and engravings; or for that matter his uncle's book on the building of Skerryvore (1848).

But it is an important document nonetheless, as it is not only a serious contribution to the building of one of Scotland's loneliest rock stations, but also adds a further perspective to RLS's early years in the family business.

Thanks to a joint venture of the RLS Silverado Museum and Old Monterey Preservation Society, both in California, and the Northern Lighthouse Board and Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, in Scotland, the manuscript (in the possession of The Huntingdon Library, San Marino, California) was finally published in 1995. The booklet, "The New Lighthouse on the Dhu Heartach Rock, Argyllshire" by Robert Louis Stevenson, edited and introduced by Roger G. Swearingen, of Santa Rosa, California, is available in the United Kingdom from the Scottish Lighthouse Museum in Fraserburgh, Scotland.


A view of Dubh Artach

Dubh ArtachDubh Artach (1872) is not an easy island to see - and virtually impossible to visit!! It lies 16 miles (24 kms) out to sea; however, not off the mainland of Scotland, but at the very south western tip of the Island of Mull. In many ways, its construction is similar to that of the Bell Rock, although in this instance, the rock on which it is built, is permanently above the high-water - if only 35 feet.

RLS described it as "an ugly reef this . . . no pleasant assemblage of shelves, and pools, and creeks, about which a child might play for a whole summer without weariness . . . but one oval nodule of black-trap, sparsely bedabbled with an inconspicuous fucus, and alive in every crevice with an insect between a slater and a bug. No other life was there but that of sea-birds, and of the sea itself, that here ran like a millrace, and growled about the outer reef for ever, and ever and again, in the calmest weather, roared and spouted on the rock itself". Not a place to visit - even on the calmest of days!

It was his father Thomas's greatest achievement; as was the Bell Rock his grandfather's (1811), and Skerryvore his uncle's (1844).

It can be seen on a clear day, preferably with binoculars, from the old observatory (happily now restored) on the highest point of Erraid; also from the Isle of Iona after an easy climb to the summit of An Torc just behind the Abbey Church; and from the islands of Colonsay and Ornsay to the south of Mull.

Erraid - island of "Kidnapped"

Iona Abbey Church - now restored

It would be fair to say that without Dubh Artach and RLS's subsequent book "Kidnapped", the tiny island of Erraid would probably never have been heard of by the general public. It is certainly not one of Scotland's easiest islands to get to - even if you did care to visit! And there are no shortage of them off Scotland's rugged coastline to choose from!

Nowadays the journey is relatively easy, although it involves a short ferry trip from the mainland over to the Island of Mull; then a drive of over 30 miles along a single-track road (fortunately with many passing places). Before arriving at the road end on the Ross of Mull, you take off again on a side road signposted Knockfologan. You will see Erraid from the road at Fidden sands. However, getting onto the island is quite another matter.

It should, however, be combined with the main attraction of the area - wonderful Iona, the sacred isle of St Columba and his early Christian church, dating from the 7th century. During the summer thousands of tourists and pilgrims alike make the journey. Whilst Iona is relatively civilised, with hotels, shops, a cathedral and the like; Erraid is small - not much more than a mile square! No roads, only a row of lightkeepeers' cottages and one deserted farmhouse! And plenty of sheep!!

Views of St Columba's Iona

However, let Robert Louis Stevenson relate in his own words (from his "Memories and Portraits") his first view of the island where he was inspired to write one of his most famous books. He, of course, came by boat - the only practical way in into the area at that time; and for that matter was still the only easy way in until relatively recently!

"The little isle of Earraid lies close in to the south-west corner of the Ross of Mull: the sound of Iona on one side, across which you may see the isle and church of Columba [at that time a ruin]; the open sea to the other, where you shall be able to mark, on a clear, surfy day, the breakers running white on many sunken rocks.

"I first saw it, or first remembered seeing it, framed in the round bull's-eye of a cabin port, the sea lying smooth along its shores like the waters of a lake, the colourless clear light of the early morning making plain its heathery and rocky hummocks. There stood upon it, in these days, a single rude house of uncemented stones, approached by a pier of wreckwood. It must have been very early, for it was then summer, and in summer, in that latitude, day scarcely withdraws; but even at that hour the house was making a sweet smoke of peats which came to me over the bay, and the bare-legged daughters of the cotter were wading by the pier.

"The same day we visited the shores of the isle in the ship's boats; rowed deep into Fiddler's Hole, sounding as we went; and having taken stock of all possible accommodation, pitched on the northern inlet as the scene of operations. For it was no accident that had brought the lighthouse steamer to anchor in the Bay of Earraid. Fifteen miles away to seaward, a certain black rock stood environed by the Atlantic rollers, the outpost of the Torran reefs. Here was a tower to be built, and a star lighted, for the conduct of seamen. But as the rock was small, and hard of access, and far from land, the work would be one of years; and my father was now looking for a shore station, where the stones might be quarried and dressed, the men live, and the tender, with some degree of safety, lie at anchor."

The Torran Rocks from the Island of Erraid
where David Balfour was shipwrecked
in RLS's story 'Kidnapped'

The old farmhouse on Erraid.
In the distance on the right can be seen
St. Columba's holy island of Iona.

On his second visit to the island, he recalls:

"I saw Erraid next from the stern thwart of an Iona lugger, Sam Bough and I sitting there cheek by jowl, with our feet upon our baggage, in a beautiful, clear, northern summer eve. And behold! There was now a pier of stone, there were rows of sheds, railways, travelling-cranes, a street of cottages, an iron house for the resident engineer, wooden bothies for the men, a stage where the courses of the tower were put together experimentally, and behind the settlement a great gash in the hillside where granite was quarried. In the bay, the steamer lay at her moorings. All day long there hung about the place the music of chinking tools; and even in the dead of night, the watchman carried his lantern to and fro in the dark settlement, and could light the pipe of any midnight muser.

"It was, above all, strange to see Erraid on the Sunday, when the sound of the tools ceased and there fell a crystal quiet. All about the green compound men would be sauntering in their Sunday's best, walking with those lax joints of the reposing toiler, thoughtfully smoking, talking small, as if in honour of the stillness, or hearkening to the wailing of the gulls. And it was strange to see our Sabbath services, held, as they were, in one of the bothies, with Mr Brebner reading at a table, and the congregation perched about in the double tier of sleeping bunks; and to hear the singing of the psalms, "the chapters", the inevitable Spurgeon's sermon, and the old, eloquent lighthouse prayer.

"But it was in Erraid itself that I delighted chiefly. The lighthouse settlement scarce encroached beyond its fences; over the top of the first brae the ground was all virgin, the world all shut out, the face of things unchanged by any of man's doings. Here was no living presence, save for the limpets on the rocks, for some old gray, rain-beaten ram that I might rouse out of a ferny den betwixt two boulders, or for the haunting and the piping of the gulls.

"It was older than man; it was found so by incoming Celts and seafaring Norsemen, and Columba's priests. The earthy savour of the bog plants, the rude disorder of the boulders, the inimitable seaside brightness of the air, the brine and the iodine, the lap of the billows among the weedy reefs, the sudden springing up of a great run of dashing surf along the sea-front of the isle, all that I saw and felt my predecessors must have seen and felt with scarce a difference. I steeped myself in open air and in past ages."

Today, after 130 years, the island has changed little since RLS's visit in 1870. The disused quarries are now silent. The lightkeepers and their families have gone. Dubh Artach, the rock lighthouse for which Erraid was the shore station, has been automated.

Erraid is presently owned by a Dutch family, but managed by the Findhorn Foundation, who for the last 20 years have cared for the island and its environs.

Note (2015)- I'm not sure if it is still owned by this family. Possibly not! Please advise me if otherwise.

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