Bass Rock is a small rocky tidal island located in the outer Firth of Forth in East Lothian, Scotland. Sitting about 2 kilometers off the coast near North Berwick, it is one of several volcanic rock formations that emerge from the waters in this part of the Scottish coast. Though uninhabited today, Bass Rock has a rich and fascinating history stretching back over a thousand years.
The most defining characteristic of Bass Rock now is that it is home to the world’s largest colony of gannets, with over 150,000 pairs of these majestic seabirds nesting there during breeding season. However, the island has also served many important roles in Scottish history over the years, from an early Christian hermitage to a mighty fortress, as well as notoriously being used as a prison rock to hold political and religious opponents.
Beyond its historical and ecological significance, Bass Rock has captured the imagination of writers, musicians and artists for many centuries. From mentions in the poetry of Blind Harry to featuring prominently in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels, the dramatic rocky outcrop has become an iconic landmark firmly entrenched in Scottish culture.
Geography and Geology
Location and Physical Features
Bass Rock is situated where the outer Firth of Forth meets the North Sea, about 2 kilometres from mainland Scotland at the nearest point. The small island measures only about 3 hectares, but rises to an impressive height of 107 meters. It has extremely steep and rugged cliffs descending all round into the sea.
During certain high tides and stormy weather, large swells cause dramatic giant waves to crash against the looming rock’s cliffs. With no vegetated areas or safe landing sites, access to the island is very challenging. Boats can only approach during very calm conditions, where a rocky landing pad offers the one point where supplies or people can be offloaded, or where a metal stairway now provides the opportunity for visitors to disembark.
Geologically, Bass Rock is an exposed volcanic plug consisting of very hard phonolitic trachyte rock. Its origins date back 340 million years to the Carboniferous period when much of Scotland would have been covered by the ancestral Atlantic Ocean and volcanically active due to shifting tectonic plates. The striking landform rises straight up from the seabed and has resisted the erosive elements for millions of years, making it an imposing natural fortress.
Bass Rock is considered a ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ due to its rare geology as an igneous intrusion plus unique ecosystem. Because of its geological origins and peculiar shape, Bass Rock is often compared to the famous Ailsa Craig rock further down Scotland’s west coast.
History and Ownership
Early History and First Settlers
Bass Rock has been known to humans since prehistoric times, no doubt being visible from great distances and passing traders or fishermen. Archaeological evidence indicates settlers were living on the island during the Iron Age. However, recorded history begins with mentions in ancient texts of early Christian hermits using Bass Rock as a remote place of pilgrimage and meditation as early as the year 600 AD.
Saint Baldred is the most famous religious hermit said to have resided in a primitive cell or cave partway up Bass Rock around this time. The chapel ruins dedicated to St Baldred still visible on Bass Rock today likely mark the very site of his ancient hermitage.
Lauder Family Ownership
The Lauder family emerged as the first owners of Bass Rock during the Middle Ages, after being granted rights to the island by medieval Scottish kings. They were in possession of Bass Rock for an astonishing 600 years from the 1100s through to the 1700s.
The Lauders converted St Baldred’s cell site into a chapel and built the first real fortifications on Bass Rock, taking advantage of its already impenetrable geography. Over several centuries, they developed a formidable castle on Bass Rock, using the remote rocky location to their defensive and political advantage during unstable times of power struggles and wars in Scottish history.
Fortification of Bass Rock
Castle Built by Lauder Family
The Lauder’s Bass Rock castle positioned near the top of the landform included high curtain walls, defensive bastions, living quarters and access to freshwater. At one stage a more comfortable extension was added for the Lairds comprising a great hall with a fireplace. As an easily defended stronghold out at sea which could not be sieged, it offered the Lauder lords and their allies safe refuge on numerous occasions during medieval battles or power shifts.
Chapel on Bass Rock
The Lauders rebuilt St Baldred’s chapel in the 13th century and oversaw various extensions and repairs to the church over the next few hundred years. In the early 1500s, records note a Cardinal came to reconsecrate and re-establish the chapel after recent improvements. The church served the small population living permanently or temporarily on Bass Rock for as long as the Lauder family maintained occupancy and military fortification of the island.
Use as a Prison in History
Prison Under King James I
In the early 1400s, King James I is known to have imprisoned several political rivals on Bass Rock, taking advantage of its isolation and imposing fortifications to hold political prisoners there. Perhaps most dramatically, in 1406 the young Prince James was entrusted to Sir Robert Lauder of Bass Rock for safekeeping prior to leaving Scotland to escape threats from the Duke of Albany during unstable times.
Prison in 17th Century
After changing hands various times, Bass Rock re-emerged as a notorious maximum security prison in the 1600s. Its inaccessibility and already secure fortress infrastructure made it ideal for detaining mainly religious prisoners like Covenanters for indefinite sentences. The difficult conditions in which they were kept led to Bass Rock earning the nickname “Patmos of Scotland”.
Famous prisoners included the religious preacher Alexander Shields and political activist John Blackadder who both died while doing time imprisoned on Bass Rock island. Numerous Covenanter rebels and Catholic supporters of exiled King James VII after the Glorious Revolution spent miserable years locked up in Bass Rock’s isolated cells.
Transfer of Ownership
In the early 1700s, the mile-long family link finally ended when financial difficulties forced the Lauder lords to give up ownership of their ancestral Bass Rock after 600 years. The castle was abandoned by the Government in 1701 and the island later purchased by Sir Hew Dalrymple who gifted it to his heirs in the Dalrymple family. This began the long stewardship of the current owners of Bass Rock leading right up to the present day.
Importance as a Wildlife Habitat
Huge Gannet Colony
Bass Rock may no longer be inhabited by people or used as a fortress, but the island has taken on a new global significance as the world’s largest colony of Northern Gannets. Over 150,000 breeding pairs cram onto Bass Rock during summer nesting season, blanketing the island’s grassy flat top and cliffs with noisy birds and their droppings.
This makes for an astonishing spectacle as the gannets swirl around the pinnacle of the island. The sight of dense white guano coating Bass Rock and the sheer density of gannets enables visitors to observe the colony’s activities from boats or utilizing today’s live streaming cameras. The name “gannet” is even thought to derive from Bass Rock’s nickname “Solan Goose”.
Other Birdlife on Bass Rock
Beyond the super colony of gannets, Bass Rock hosts sizeable breeding populations of various seabirds. These include colonies of Guillemots, Razorbills, Shags, Puffins, Eider Ducks and many species of gull who make their seasonal homes on ledges or crevices in the rock. Several of Scotland’s important seabird species rely on the predator-free haven provided by Bass Rock for nesting and raising chicks.
The diversity and abundance of birds on Bass Rock today showcases the vital role offshore islands can play in sustaining ocean ecosystems and birdlife. For this reason, Bass Rock holds protective designations as part of the Firth of Forth Special Protection Area and Firth of Forth Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Artistic and Cultural Depictions
Mentions in Literature
The dramatic sight of Bass Rock thrusting from the waters and its rich history has inspired many Scottish artists, poets and fiction writers. As far back as the 1500s, Bass Rock earned mentions in early Scottish literature by writers like John Mair and historian Hector Boece.
In more recent centuries, several prominent authors have featured Bass Rock prominently in their works. The island’s use as a prison and tales of political intrigue or religious persecution inspired various writers over the years.
Robert Louis Stevenson
The classic Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson had strong personal ties to Bass Rock due to family connections. Stevenson references Bass Rock in several novels given his familiarity with the area. In Catriona, the hero spends time imprisoned on Bass Rock island during power struggles after the Jacobite Risings of earlier centuries. The island earns an entire chapter dedicated to it, with Stevenson describing at length details of Bass Rock’s geography, history and atmosphere.
Other authors who depicted Bass Rock in works of fiction include 18th century poet James Thomson, Nigel Tranter,William Boyd and more recently Evie Wyld. The Wyld novel specifically focuses on Bass Rock and weaves together various stories inspired by the island’s past spanning medieval to modern times, highlighting this iconic place in Scotland’s heritage.
In conclusion, Bass Rock is much more than just an uninhabited rocky island situated off the Scottish coast near North Berwick. This small outcrop emerging abruptly from the sea holds characteristics which have made Bass Rock a place of intrigue, importance and majesty for over 1000 years.
Initially a religious retreat or hermitage for early Christian pilgrims like St Baldred, Bass Rock transitioned into an imposing ocean fortress ruled by the Lauder lords for six centuries. Its strategic location later saw deployment as a notorious maximum security prison to house mainly religious dissidents. Now abandoned of any human structures, Bass Rock plays a globally vital ecological role as the world’s biggest breeding site for Northern Gannets, not to mention diverse other seabirds.
Beyond natural heritage and history, Bass Rock left a legacy as an enduring landmark which has inspired art, literature and culture in Scotland thanks to its instantly recognizable and stunning geology towering just offshore. This diminutive island continues to have an outsized influence and remains closely linked to Scottish identity.
What type of rock is Bass Rock made of?
Bass Rock consists of a very hard, erosion-resistant volcanic rock called phonolitic trachyte that originated 340 million years ago during the Carboniferous Period.
Why was Bass Rock used as a prison island historically?
Its extreme isolation on a rocky island with pre-existing fortified walls and towers meant Bass Rock was virtually escape-proof, enabling it to serve as secure prison location from the 15th century onwards.
How many Northern Gannets live on Bass Rock?
Bass Rock has over 150,000 breeding pairs of Northern Gannets, meaning over 300,000 adult Gannets in total during peak nesting season, making it the world’s largest colony.
Who owns Bass Rock island today?
Bass Rock remains in private ownership of the Dalrymple family, whose ancestor Hew Dalrymple purchased the island in 1706 after 600 years of control by the Lauder family.
How can you visit and view Bass Rock’s bird colonies?
Visitors can take boat tours from North Berwick run by the Scottish Seabird Centre to view the island and birds up close or watch live streams online from cameras stationed on Bass Rock.