Such were the spoils of the Bell Rock.

From 1794 onward, the mind of my grandfather had been exercised with the idea of a light upon this formidable danger. To build a tower on a sea rock, eleven miles from shore, and barely uncovered at low water of neaps, appeared a fascinating enterprise. It was something yet unattempted, unessayed; and even now, after it has been lighted for more than eighty years, it is still an exploit that has never been repeated. {92a} My grandfather was, besides, but a young man, of an experience comparatively restricted, and a reputation confined to Scotland; and when he prepared his first models, and exhibited them in Merchants' Hall, he can hardly be acquitted of audacity. John Clerk of Eldin stood his friend from the beginning, kept the key of the model room, to which he carried 'eminent strangers,' and found words of counsel and encouragement beyond price. 'Mr. Clerk had been personally known to Smeaton, and used occasionally to speak of him to me,' says my grandfather; and again: 'I felt regret that I had not the opportunity of a greater range of practice to fit me for such an undertaking; but I was fortified by an expression of my friend Mr. Clerk in one of our conversations. "This work," said he, "is unique, and can be little forwarded by experience of ordinary masonic operations. In this case Smeaton's 'Narrative' must be the text-book, and energy and perseverance the pratique."'

A Bill for the work was introduced into Parliament and lost in the Lords in 1802-3. John Rennie was afterwards, at my grandfather's suggestion, called in council, with the style of chief engineer. The precise meaning attached to these words by any of the parties appears irrecoverable. Chief engineer should have full authority, full responsibility, and a proper share of the emoluments; and there were none of these for Rennie. I find in an appendix a paper which resumes the controversy on this subject; and it will be enough to say here that Rennie did not design the Bell Rock, that he did not execute it, and that he was not paid for it. {94a} From so much of the correspondence as has come down to me, the acquaintance of this man, eleven years his senior, and already famous, appears to have been both useful and agreeable to Robert Stevenson. It is amusing to find my grandfather seeking high and low for a brace of pistols which his colleague had lost by the way between Aberdeen and Edinburgh; and writing to Messrs. Dollond, 'I have not thought it necessary to trouble Mr. Rennie with this order, but I BEG YOU WILL SEE TO GET TWO MINUTES OF HIM AS HE PASSES YOUR DOOR'--a proposal calculated rather from the latitude of Edinburgh than from London, even in 1807. It is pretty, too, to observe with what affectionate regard Smeaton was held in mind by his immediate successors. 'Poor old fellow,' writes Rennie to Stevenson, 'I hope he will now and then take a peep at us, and inspire you with fortitude and courage to brave all difficulties and dangers to accomplish a work which will, if successful, immortalise you in the annals of fame.' The style might be bettered, but the sentiment is charming.

Smeaton was, indeed, the patron saint of the Bell Rock. Undeterred by the sinister fate of Winstanley, he had tackled and solved the problem of the Eddystone; but his solution had not been in all respects perfect. It remained for my grand-father to outdo him in daring, by applying to a tidal rock those principles which had been already justified by the success of the Eddystone, and to perfect the model by more than one exemplary departure. Smeaton had adopted in his floors the principle of the arch; each therefore exercised an outward thrust upon the walls, which must be met and combated by embedded chains. My grandfather's flooring-stones, on the other hand, were flat, made part of the outer wall, and were keyed and dovetailed into a central stone, so as to bind the work together and be positive elements of strength. In 1703 Winstanley still thought it possible to erect his strange pagoda, with its open gallery, its florid scrolls and candlesticks: like a rich man's folly for an ornamental water in a park.

Records of a Family of Engineers Page 32

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