The Bass Rock

19/05/20173:21 pmLeave a Comment

The Bass Rock is one of the famous postcard views of the East Lothian region. Along with North Berwick law and other islands in the Forth it was a volcanic plug 320 million years ago. Deep time has eroded away the volcano that once surrounded the plug and leaves only the hard igneous rock – phonolite. Over the breeding season the Bass hosts 10% of the world’s Northern Gannet population. However, it also has a fascinating human history which is covered in this blog as a mix of legend and history.

A 1980s classic post card photograph of the Bass Rock with a lot more vegetation that is seen today (IC/AB/117)

The human relationship with The Bass Rock dates back approximately 1500 years when it attracted Christian hermits searching for a secluded retreat. St Baldred is the most famous of the island’s early residents. St Baldred was a disciple of St Kentigern (Mungo) the patron saint of Glasgow, and is the first known resident of the island in 606AD. It is likely that the ruined chapel currently sitting on the island would have been located in a similar if not the same place as Baldred’s. After his death in 607AD all three churches claimed his body. A local sage suggested they have a night of prayer and in the morning three identical bodies were found ready for burial.

The Lauder family were the first official owners of The Bass as it was granted by King Malcolm III in the 11th century. The Lauders were supporters of William Wallace and Robert Lauder is said to have defended the Bass against Edward I and Edward III of England. It is presumed during this time that there was a castle on the Bass and it played host to several kings of Scotland including James I, James IV, and James VI who even tried to buy the island from the Lauders. It wasn’t until Charles I reign after nearly 600 years of ownership that the Lauders got into financial difficulties and were forced to sell the island.

In 1650 Oliver Cromwell invaded the area and despite the many failed attempts of English forces in the past to take the Bass rock, in 1652, it was surrendered to the Cromwell administration. The Bass then became an infamous gaol for many political and religious prisoners. About 40 covenanters were imprisoned on the island, although never more than 15 at a time. Some were for a few months and others as long as 6 years. The most famous of these prisoners was Alexander Peden who was imprisoned on the island for 4 years and 3 months.

1890-1930 photograph of the Bass Rock. Remains of the old prison can be seen at the bottom of the lighthouse (IC/AB/485)

In 1691, during the reign of William and Mary, a party of four Jacobite prisoners escaped from their cells and captured the fortress when all the garrison was engaged in unloading coal. For the next three years they held the Bass for the Old Pretender and defied all attempts by Government forces to retake it. Aided by supply ships from France, this unique quartet even carried out raids on the Fife and Lothian coasts! In 1694 a more effective blockage finally starved them into submission but they negotiated favorable terms and walked out free men. The fortress continued as a State Prison until it was demolished seven years later.

In 1706 the Bass Rock was purchased by Hew Dalrymple whose descendants still hold its possession today. Accounts show little profit was gained from the island over the next few centuries. Gannet feathers were collected to use to make feather beds.

Late 19th century sketch of the Bass Rock. (IC/AB/192)

Ornithologist John Henry Gurney’s book ‘The Gannet’ states that “80 gannets were needed to produce a stone of feathers and 3 stone of feathers were required to make a feather bed.”  Sheep were also grazed on the island during this time.

In the late 19th century, the unlighted state of the Bass became a concern as shipping became more and more popular. In 1901, the lighthouse was erected and it was designed by famous lighthouse architect David Alan Stevenson along with the lighthouse on Fidra and the Isle of May. The lighthouse keepers would live on the island for 4 weeks and then spend two weeks on shore with their families. Mail and supplies would be delivered on a fortnightly basis and a freshwater well on the top of the island provided the lighthouse keepers with water. The lighthouse keepers were the last residents of the island and left in 1988 when the lighthouse became demanned.

Photograph of the lighthouse on Bass Rock 1920-1960 (IC/AB/419)

Today the lighthouse is controlled by the Northern Lighthouse Board in Edinburgh and although the Bass Rock is still in ownership of the Dalrymple family it is really ruled by the birds. Each season, over 150,000 gannets breed on the island. This number has been steadily increasing ever since the island became uninhabited. The Bass Rock has been a described as a natural wonder of the world and still draws people to the area today.

Written by Philippa Cox

One thought on “The Bass Rock”

  1. John Thorburn says:

    Just looking through some old slides of my kayaking days when I and friends from Durham Kayak club did our August trip across the Forth from North Berwick via the Bass then bivied on the May before Pitenween then Ellie and back. Well I found one of the cave we visited on the north west side of the Bass I think we saw a further light over a boulder heap so maybe this goes through the island

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