The English Board was apparently shocked by the picture of these dissensions. 'When the Trinity House can,' I find my grandfather writing at Beachy Head, in 1834, 'they do not appoint two keepers, they disagree so ill. A man who has a family is assisted by his family; and in this way, to my experience and present observation, the business is very much neglected. One keeper is, in my view, a bad system. This day's visit to an English lighthouse convinces me of this, as the lightkeeper was walking on a staff with the gout, and the business performed by one of his daughters, a girl of thirteen or fourteen years of age.' This man received a hundred a year! It shows a different reading of human nature, perhaps typical of Scotland and England, that I find in my grandfather's diary the following pregnant entry: 'THE LIGHTKEEPERS, AGREEING ILL, KEEP ONE ANOTHER TO THEIR DUTY.' But the Scottish system was not alone founded on this cynical opinion. The dignity and the comfort of the northern lightkeeper were both attended to. He had a uniform to 'raise him in his own estimation, and in that of his neighbour, which is of consequence to a person of trust. The keepers,' my grandfather goes on, in another place, 'are attended to in all the detail of accommodation in the best style as shipmasters; and this is believed to have a sensible effect upon their conduct, and to regulate their general habits as members of society.' He notes, with the same dip of ink, that 'the brasses were not clean, and the persons of the keepers not TRIG'; and thus we find him writing to a culprit: 'I have to complain that you are not cleanly in your person, and that your manner of speech is ungentle, and rather inclines to rudeness. You must therefore take a different view of your duties as a lightkeeper.' A high ideal for the service appears in these expressions, and will be more amply illustrated further on. But even the Scottish lightkeeper was frail. During the unbroken solitude of the winter months, when inspection is scarce possible, it must seem a vain toil to polish the brass hand-rail of the stair, or to keep an unrewarded vigil in the light-room; and the keepers are habitually tempted to the beginnings of sloth, and must unremittingly resist. He who temporises with his conscience is already lost. I must tell here an anecdote that illustrates the difficulties of inspection. In the days of my uncle David and my father there was a station which they regarded with jealousy. The two engineers compared notes and were agreed. The tower was always clean, but seemed always to bear traces of a hasty cleansing, as though the keepers had been suddenly forewarned. On inquiry, it proved that such was the case, and that a wandering fiddler was the unfailing harbinger of the engineer. At last my father was storm-stayed one Sunday in a port at the other side of the island. The visit was quite overdue, and as he walked across upon the Monday morning he promised himself that he should at last take the keepers unprepared. They were both waiting for him in uniform at the gate; the fiddler had been there on Saturday!

My grandfather, as will appear from the following extracts, was much a martinet, and had a habit of expressing himself on paper with an almost startling emphasis. Personally, with his powerful voice, sanguine countenance, and eccentric and original locutions, he was well qualified to inspire a salutary terror in the service.

'I find that the keepers have, by some means or another, got into the way of cleaning too much with rotten-stone and oil. I take the principal keeper to TASK on this subject, and make him bring a clean towel and clean one of the brazen frames, which leaves the towel in an odious state. This towel I put up in a sheet of paper, seal, and take with me to confront Mr. Murdoch, who has just left the station.' 'This letter'--a stern enumeration of complaints-- 'to lie a week on the light-room book-place, and to be put in the Inspector's hands when he comes round.' 'It is the most painful thing that can occur for me to have a correspondence of this kind with any of the keepers; and when I come to the Lighthouse, instead of having the satisfaction to meet them with approbation, it is distressing when one is obliged to put on a most angry countenance and demeanour; but from such culpable negligence as you have shown there is no avoiding it.

Records of a Family of Engineers Page 25

Robert Louis Stevenson

Free Books in the public domain from the Classic Literature Library ©

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

All Pages of This Book