reprinted as “NORTHERN LIGHTS” and “THE VOYAGE OF THE PHAROS”
On 29 th July 1814 Walter Scott left Leith on the Lighthouse yacht for a six week cruise as a guest of the Commissioners of Northern Lights. The Commissioners’ purpose was to visit lighthouses and investigate sites for new lights. Also aboard, overseeing this task was Robert Stevenson, the Board’s engineer and the designer of the Bell Rock Light.
“The Lighthouse yacht was a wooden sloop, 58 feet overall length, 18 feet beam and 10 feet draught. She was 81 registered tons and built for the Board in 1807 at Leith . The vessel was eventually sold to Alex Houston of Haddington in 1820 and reported lost in 1823. With artistic writer’s licence one reprint names her the Pharos but the actual Pharos of the period, on the Board’s list, was the Pharos II, an ex Dutch fishing lugger used as a lightship and accommodation during the construction of the Bell Rock Light.
Scott’s account is a slim volume, in diary form, with entries every few days. Here you will find real yacht cruising, anchorage hopping with a purpose, in some of the most challenging of Scottish waters. Don’t be put off by the professional nature of the voyage, the size of the vessel or the odd paragraph of heavy prose, skip through for the gems.
The journal contains powerful description of coastal scenery, navigational marks and the social conditions generated by the agrarian revolution of more profitable sheep replacing people in the Highland clearances. Whilst Scott disliked the clearances his principles didn’t get in the way of them. He made his first visit to the Highlands when a lawyer’s clerk to direct an eviction.
Scott dwelt on his interests, Scottish history, folklore and the antiquities of places visited. Being an enthusiastic volunteer in the yeomanry, a cross between a territorial army and a police force, he naturally commented on military matters. The undefended rear of the fort at Longhope receives criticism, a forerunner of the carelessness that led to the loss of HMS Royal Oak in the nearby fleet anchorage of Scapa Flow in 1939.
In recent years the journal has been reprinted as “The Northern Lights” and “The Voyage of the Pharos” but for a long period was not readily available. Only extracts were published during Scott’s lifetime. A brief allusion to a visit to Arbroath Abbey with his first love and an admission of taking a skull from the Cave of Frances on Eigg were perhaps a bit frank for public consumption. Indeed Hugh Miller’s distaste at the latter comes through in “The Cruise of the Betsey”.
Being in the run up to the Great Disruption of 1843, the division of the established church of Scotland , there is social comment that is all the more interesting for Scott’s loyalty to the established church. His prejudices show in references to persecution of catholics after the ’45, the priest of Eigg performing “Romish services” in a cave. In contrast Hugh Miller sided with the Free Church.
The journal was first published by Scott’s son in law, JG Lockhart in 1837/1838 in his biography “A Memoir of the Life of Sir Walter Scott”. Of the two modern impressions both have their attractions. The Byway Books edition has supplementary correspondence, an index and Stevenson’s reflections. The illustrations are taken from “The Pirate” and “The Lord of the Isles”, appropriate sources as the voyage provided much of their background as Scott had intended.
The Scottish Libraries’ Association re-print is currently available, has very informative footnotes from Lockhart and being larger format the print is easier to read. Its illustrations are aquatints (a type of etching) and engravings from “A Voyage Round Britain” by William Daniell, 1818. Being contemporary and of fine quality these also fit well.
The yacht’s track
The track of the yacht from Leith was the Isle of May, the Bell Rock, Arbroath, Girdleness, Fraserburgh, Lerwick, Fair Isle , Start Point Sanday, west through the North Ronaldsay Firth, Lingholm Bay Stronsay and Kirkwall . The Start Point light was the first with an effective clockwork mechanism, devised by Robert Stevenson, to rotate the reflector to differentiate the period of the light from that of its neighbours.
Whilst Scott’s party was in Lerwick, Stevenson took the yacht north for more island exploration, “particularly Unst”. One presumes he looked at Muckle Flugga but this isle had to wait for his third son David to build a lighthouse on it.
From Kirkwall, going clockwise round mainland Orkney, the yacht went through Holm Sound, now blocked by the Churchill Barriers, probably taking the Kirk Sound fork into Scapa Flow where they anchored on the east side in Widewall Bay. From Widewall the west opens out but the yacht retreated from Cape Wrath and anchored in Longhope Bay . From there sorties were made to the Pentland Skerries and Stromness. Another attempt on the Cape was thwarted and the yacht went into Loch Eribol ( Rispond Bay area). Finally the Cape was rounded and a landing made to survey a site for a lighthouse before crossing to Scalpay, Harris. Robert Stevenson built the Cape Wrath lighthouse but he delegated much of the work, being more straightforward than some of his island lights.
After a landing at Rodel, Harris the Minch was crossed to Dunvegan, Skye and going on to Loch Scavaig. The Isle of Eigg was visited, then the Skerryvore reef for Stevenson to survey. This group of rocks, around twelve miles south west of Tiree, was to have its light built by Robert’s first son Alan. On the difficulties posed by the site Scott remarked, “It will be a most desolate position for a lighthouse – the Bell Rock and Eddystone a joke to it”. On this leg they had good views of the Point of Ardnamurchan where Alan also built a light.