Bass Rock

The Bass Rock, or simply the Bass[5] ( /ˈbæs/), is an island in the outer part of the Firth of Forth in the east of Scotland. Approximately 2 kilometres (1 mi) offshore, and 5 kilometres (3 mi) north-east of North Berwick, it is a steep-sided volcanic rock, 107 metres (351 ft) at its highest point, and is home to a large colony of gannets. The rock is uninhabited, but historically has been settled by an early Christian hermit, and later was the site of an important castle, which after the Commonwealth period was used as a prison. The island belongs to Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple, whose family acquired it in 1706, and before to the Lauder family for almost six centuries. The Bass Rock Lighthouse was constructed on the rock in 1902, and the remains of an ancient chapel survive.

Bass Rock
Meaning of nameUncertain

Bass Rock (top) off the North Berwick coast
Bass Rock
Bass Rock shown within East Lothian
OS grid referenceNT602873
Coordinates56.08°N 2.64°W / 56.08; -2.64
Physical geography
Island groupIslands of the Forth
Area3 hectares (7 acres)
Highest elevation107 metres (351 ft)
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Council areaEast Lothian

The Bass Rock features in many works of fiction, including Robert Louis Stevenson's Catriona and The Lion is Rampant by the Scottish novelist Ross Laidlaw.

Geography and geology

The island is a volcanic plug of phonolitic trachyte rock of Carboniferous (Dinantian) age.[6] The rock was first recognised as an igneous intrusion by James Hutton, while Hugh Miller visited in 1847 and wrote about the rock's geology in his book Edinburgh and its Neighbourhood, Geological and Historical: with The Geology of the Bass Rock.[4][7]

The Bass Rock stands more than 100 metres (330 ft) high in the Firth of Forth Islands Special Protection Area which covers some, but not all of the islands in the inner and outer Firth. The Bass Rock is a Site of Special Scientific Interest in its own right, due to its gannet colony. It is sometimes called "the Ailsa Craig of the East".[8][9] It is of a similar geological form to nearby North Berwick Law, a hill on the mainland.[4] There are related volcanic formations within nearby Edinburgh, namely Arthur's Seat, Calton Hill and Castle Rock.

Much of the island is surrounded by steep cliffs and rocks, with a slope facing south south-west which inclines at a steep angle.

The Bass does not occupy the skyline of the Firth quite as much as its equivalent in the Clyde, Ailsa Craig, but it can be seen from much of southern and eastern Fife, most of East Lothian, and high points in the Lothians and Borders, such as Arthur's Seat, and the Lammermuir.

Surrounding islands

The Bass is one of a small string of islands off part of the East Lothian coast, which are some of the Islands of the Forth. To the west are Craigleith, and the Lamb, Fidra and finally to the west of Fidra, the low-lying island of Eyebroughy. These are also mainly the result of volcanic activity.

To the north-east can be seen the Isle of May off the coast of the East Neuk of Fife.


The island was a retreat for early Christian hermits; St Baldred is said to have lived there in 600 AD.

Lauder family

The earliest recorded proprietors are the Lauder of the Bass family, from whom Sir Harry Lauder is descended.[10][11] According to legend, the island is said to have been a gift from King Malcolm III of Scotland. The crest on their heraldic arms is, appropriately, a gannet sitting upon a rock.[12]

The family had a castle on the island from an early date. Sir Robert de Lawedre is mentioned by Blind Harry in The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace as a compatriot of William Wallace, and Alexander Nisbet recorded his tombstone in 1718, in the floor of the old kirk in North Berwick: "here lies Sir Robert de Lawedre, great laird of the Bass, who died May 1311". Five years later his son received that part of the island which until then had been retained by The Church because it contained the holy cell of Saint Baldred. A century on Wyntown's Cronykil relates: "In 1406 King Robert III, apprehensive of danger to his son James (afterwards James I) from the Duke of Albany, placed the youthful prince in the safe-custody of Sir Robert Lauder in his secure castle on the Bass prior to an embarkation for safer parts on the continent." Subsequently, says Tytler, "Sir Robert Lauder of the Bass was one of the few people whom King James I admitted to his confidence." In 1424 Sir Robert Lauder of the Bass, with 18 men, had a safe conduct with a host of other noblemen, as a hostage for James I at Durham. J J Reid also mentions that "in 1424 when King James I returned from his long captivity in England, he at once consigned to the castle of the Bass, Walter Stewart, the eldest son of Murdoch Stewart, Duke of Albany, his cousin. The person who received the payments for the prisoner's support was Sir Robert Lauder", whom Tytler further describes as "a firm friend of the King". The second-last Lauder laird, George Lauder of the Bass died in his castle on the Bass in 1611.[13]

Hector Boece

Hector Boece offers the following description (original spelling):

ane wounderful crag, risand within the sea, with so narrow and strait hals [passage] that na schip nor boit bot allanerlie at ane part of it. This crag is callet the Bas; unwinnabil by ingine [ingenuity] of man. In it are coves, als profitable for defence of men as [if] thay were biggit be crafty industry. Every thing that is in that crag is ful of admiration and wounder.[14]

Royal visits

In 1497 King James IV visited the Bass and stayed in the castle with a later Sir Robert Lauder of the Bass (d.bef Feb 1508). The boatmen who conveyed the King from Dunbar were paid 14 shillings. George Lauder of the Bass entertained King James VI of Scotland when he visited the Bass in 1581; the king was so enamoured that he offered to buy the island, a proposition which did not commend itself to George Lauder. The King appears to have accepted the situation with good grace. George was a Privy Counsellor – described as the King's "familiar councillor" – and tutor to the young Prince Henry.

Political prison

During the 15th century James I consigned several of his political enemies, including Walter Stewart[15] to the Bass. In this period, many members of the Clan MacKay ended up there, including, Neil Bhass MacKay (Niall "Bhas" MacAoidh), who gained his epithet from being imprisoned there as a fourteen-year-old in 1428. He was kept there as a hostage, after his father, Aonghas Dubh (Angus Dhu) of Strathnaver in Sutherland was released, as security. According to one website

Following the murder of King James at Perth in 1437 Neil escaped from the Bass and was proclaimed 8th Chief of the Clan Mackay.[15]

Covenanting Prison

After almost 600 years, the Lauders lost the Bass during Cromwell's invasion, and the castle subsequently (in 1671) became a notorious gaol to which for many decades religious and political prisoners, especially Covenanters were sent.[17] The island has been called the Patmos of Scotland.[18] Alexander Shields the Covenanting preacher, imprisoned on the island, later described the Bass as "a dry and cold rock in the sea, where they had no fresh water nor any provision but what they had brought many miles from the country, and when they got it, it would not keep unspoiled".[19] He is reported to have escaped by dressing in women's clothing[20] but this occurred from the Edinburgh Tolbooth rather than from the island's gaol.

James Fraser of Brea gave a fuller description including eating fruit from the island's cherry trees.[21] John Blackadder, and John Rae, died on the Bass and were buried at North Berwick. Blackadder had a Free Church named after him there.

James Anderson lists 39 Covenanting "martyrs" who were imprisoned on the Bass: Patrick Anderson, William Bell, Robert Bennet of Chesters, John Blackadder, Sir Hugh Campbell, Sir George Campbell, John Campbell, Robert Dick, John Dickson, James Drummond, Alexander Dunbar, James Fithie, Alexander Forrester, James Fraser, Robert Gillespie, Alexander Gordon, John Greig, Thomas Hog, Peter Kid, John Law, Joseph Learmont, William Lin, James Macaulay, John M'Gilligen, James Mitchell, Alexander Peden, Michael Potter, John Rae, Archibald Riddell, Robert Ross, Thomas Ross, Gilbert Rule, George Scot, Alexander Shields, William Spence, John Spreul (apothecary), John Spreul (town clerk), John Stewart, and Robert Traill.[22]

Charles Maitland held the Bass for James VII for a brief period after the Scottish parliament declared his abdication. The fortress was abandoned by the government in 1701, and on 31 July 1706 the President of the Court of Session, Hew Dalrymple, Lord North Berwick, acquired the Bass by charter (ratified by Parliament in March 1707), for a purely nominal sum, and the island has been ever since in the uninterrupted possession of the Dalrymple family.[23]



Not far above the landing-place the slope is crossed by a curtain wall, which naturally follows the lie of the ground, having sundry projections and round bastions where a rocky projection offers a suitable foundation. The parapets are battlemented, with the usual walk along the top of the walls. Another curtain wall at right-angles runs down to the sea close to the landing-place, ending in a ruined round tower, whose vaulted base has poorly splayed and apparently rather unskillfully constructed embrasures. The entrance passes through this outwork wall close to where it joins the other.

The main defences are entered a little farther on in the same line, through a projecting two-story building which has some fireplaces with very simple and late mouldings. The buildings are of the local basalt, and the masonry is rough rubble; there are, as is so frequently the case, no very clear indications for dating the different parts, which were in all probability erected at different times.

A little beyond the entrance there was a tower that formed a simple keep/bastion and to which had been added a gabled chamber in the 17th century, which, though of restricted dimensions, must have been comfortable enough, with blue Dutch tiles round its moulded fireplace, later very much decayed.

The keep and the living quarters within the walls were taken down to provide stone for the lighthouse in 1902.

Well and chapel

During the 16th and 17th centuries there was sufficient grass present for 100 sheep to graze. The freshwater well was right at the top of the island, where today the foghorn is situated.

Halfway up the island stands the ruin of St Baldred's Chapel, which is sited upon a cell or cave in which this Scottish Saint spent some time. Although the Lauders held most of the Bass Rock, this part of it had remained in the ownership of the Church until 1316, when it was granted to the family. The chapel appears to have been rebuilt by the Lauder family several times. A papal bull dated 6 May 1493, refers to the parish church of the Bass, or the Chapel of St Baldred, being noviter erecta (newly established) at that time. On 5 January 1542 John Lauder, son of Sir Robert Lauder of the Bass, Knt., was recorded as "the Cardinal's Secretary" representing Cardinal David Beaton at a reconsecration of the restored and ancient St Baldred's chapel on the Bass. In 1576 it was recorded that the church on the Bass, and that at Auldhame on the mainland, required no readers, doubtless something to do with the Reformation.


The island plays host to more than 150,000 gannets and is the world's largest colony of Northern gannets. Described famously by naturalists as "one of the wildlife wonders of the world" (often credited to Sir David Attenborough).[24] It was also awarded BBC Countryfile Magazine's Nature Reserve of the Year, following a nomination by Chris Packham, in 2014/15. When viewed from the mainland, large regions of the surface appear white due to the sheer number of birds (and their droppings, which give off 152,000 kg of ammonia per year, equivalent to the achievements of 10 million broilers).[25] In fact the scientific name for the Northern gannet, Sula bassana or Morus bassanus, derives its name from the rock. It was known traditionally in Scots as a "solan goose". In common with other gannetries, such as St Kilda, the birds were harvested for their eggs and the flesh of their young chicks, which were considered delicacies. It is estimated that in 1850 almost 2,000 birds were harvested from the rock. Other bird species that frequent the rock include guillemot, razorbill, shag, puffin, eider duck and numerous gulls.[26]

The natural history of the rock was written about almost five hundred years ago in John Mair's De Gestis Scotorum ("The deeds of the Scots") published in 1521.[27] Today, the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick has solar powered cameras located on the island which beam back live close up images of the seabirds to large screens on the mainland, just over a mile away. The images are sharp enough for visitors at the Scottish Seabird Centre to read the ID rings on birds' feet.[28] The Seabird Centre has a range of cameras located on the islands of the Forth and also broadcasts the images live on the internet.[29] The Centre also has exclusive landing rights to the island from the owner Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple and operates range of boat trips going around, and landing on, the islands throughout the year, weather permitting.[30]


The soil is fertile and supports a wide variety of plants. These include the Bass mallow which is otherwise only found on a few other islands, including Ailsa Craig and Steep Holm.

Cultural references

Due to its imposing nature, prison and connection with Scottish history, the Bass has been featured in several fictional works.

Robert Louis Stevenson and Catriona

Robert Louis Stevenson had at least one strong connection with the Bass, as his cousin, David Stevenson, designed the lighthouse there. Amongst his earliest memories were holidays in North Berwick.[15] He often stayed at Scoughall Farm, whence the Bass can be seen,[15] and local lore is credited as the inspiration for his short story The Wreckers.[15]

Catriona is Stevenson's 1893 sequel to Kidnapped. Both novels are set in the aftermath of the Jacobite risings, in the mid-18th century. The first part of Catriona recounts the attempts of the hero – David Balfour – to gain justice for James Stewart – James of the Glens – who has been arrested and charged with complicity in the Appin Murder. David makes a statement to a lawyer, and goes on to meet Lord Prestongrange – the Lord Advocate – to press the case for James' innocence. However his attempts fail as he is once again kidnapped and confined on the Bass Rock, until the trial is over, and James condemned to death.

The book begins with a dedication to Charles Baxter, a friend of Stevenson, written in his home in Western Samoa and says:

There should be left in our native city some seed of the elect; some long-legged, hot-headed youth must repeat to-day our dreams and wanderings of so many years ago; he will relish the pleasure, which should have been ours, to follow among named streets and numbered houses the country walks of David Balfour, to identify Dean, and Silvermills, and Broughton, and Hope Park, and Pilrig, and poor old Lochend – if it still be standing, and the Figgate Whins [the area near Portobello] – if there be any of them left; or to push (on a long holiday) so far afield as Gillane or the Bass. So, perhaps, his eye shall be opened to behold the series of the generations, and he shall weigh with surprise his momentous and nugatory gift of life.

Chapter XIV is entitled simply The Bass, and gives a long description of the island, which is described as "just the one crag of rock, as everybody knows, but great enough to carve a city from".

It was an unco place by night, unco by day; and there were unco sounds; of the calling of the solans [gannets], and the plash [splash] of the sea, and the rock echoes that hung continually in our ears. It was chiefly so in moderate weather. When the waves were anyway great they roared about the rock like thunder and the drums of armies, dreadful, but merry to hear, and it was in the calm days when a man could daunt himself with listening; so many still, hollow noises haunted and reverberated in the porches of the rock.

Bruce Marshall and Father Malachy's Miracle

Scottish writer Bruce Marshall used Bass Rock as the miraculous destination of the "Garden of Eden", a dance hall of dubious reputation in Father Malachy's Miracle a 1938 novel.

During an argument with a Protestant minister, Father Malachy claims that God could miraculously remove the "Garden of Eden". The Protestant scoffs and Father Malachy inadvertently predicts that God will indeed remove the "Garden of Eden" on a specific date.

The date comes and the building and all people inside vanish and reappear on Bass Rock. This apparent miracle draws the attention of the media, politicians and scientists, all trying to find rational explanations. The Catholic Church is reluctant to officially recognize this occurrence as a miracle, both fearing a loss of control in matters of faith, or a loss of face if the disappearance of the "Garden of Eden" would turn out to be a fabrication.

The novel was the basis for the German film Das Wunder des Malachias a 1961 black-and-white film directed by Bernhard Wicki and starring Horst Bollmann. The film did not specify Bass Rock as the destination of the offending dance hall.

James Robertson and The Fanatic

The Bass Rock is a key location in The Fanatic by Scottish author James Robertson. The novel tells the story of a tourist guide in modern-day Edinburgh who becomes obsessed with two characters from Edinburgh's past: Major Thomas Weir, a presbyterian who was eventually executed for incest, bestiality and witchcraft; and James Mitchell, a Covenanter who attempted to assassinate the Archbishop of St Andrews. Mitchell was tortured, imprisoned on the Bass Rock and eventually also executed.



A pibroch was written by Iain Dall MacAoidh (MacKay), commemorating Neil Bhass' imprisonment and escape from the island, entitled "The Unjust Incarceration".[15][31]


The Bass Rock appears as background in the title song sequence of the 1998 Bollywood movie Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.[32][33]


An old saying has the following:

Ding doun Tantallon,—
  Mak a brig to the Bass.[34]

This meant to do something impossible.

See also

Further reading

  • The History of Scotland, by Patrick Fraser Tytler, Edinburgh, 1866, vol.III, pps:187 -190.
  • The Bass – Early notices by John J. Reid, in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1885.
  • Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland 1357 – 1509, edited by Joseph Bain, F.S.A.,(Scot), Edinburgh, 1888, vol. iv, number 942, 3 February 1424.
  • The Bass Rock and its Story by Louis A. Barbé, Glasgow & Edinburgh: William Hodge & Co, 1904.
  • North Berwick, Gullane, Aberlady and East Linton District, by R.P.Phillimore, North Berwick, 1913, p. 40.
  • The Berwick and Lothian Coasts by Ian C. Hannah, London & Leipzig, 1913.
  • The Bass Rock in History in Transactions of the East Lothian Antiquarian & Field Naturalists' Society, 1948, vol.4, p. 55.[35]
  • The Lauders of the Bass by G. M. S. Lauder-Frost, F.S.A.,(Scot), in East Lothian Life, Autumn 1996, issue 22, ISSN 1361-7818


  1. Occasional Paper No 10: Statistics for Inhabited Islands, General Register Office for Scotland, 28 November 2003, archived from the original on 25 May 2007, retrieved 9 July 2007
  2. Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 978-1-84195-454-7.
  3. "Get-a-Map". Ordnance Survey. Retrieved 13 May 2008.
  4. "Bass Rock". Gazetteer for Scotland. Retrieved 29 September 2007.
  5. M'Crie, Miller, Anderson, Fleming & Balfour (1847). The Bass Rock. Edinburgh
  6. Read, W. A. et al. (2002) Carboniferous, page 294 in Trewin, N. H. (2002) The Geology of Scotland, 4th edition, London, The Geological Society.
  7. "Bibliography". Discover Hugh Miller. Retrieved 29 September 2007.
  8. "The Bass Rock". History of Leith. Archived from the original on 5 July 2008. Retrieved 20 October 2009.
  9. "Islands in the Firth of Forth". Scotland from the Roadside. Archived from the original on 27 January 2010. Retrieved 20 October 2009.
  10. Lauder, Sir Harry (1928). Roamin' in the Gloamin'. London: J B Lippincott Company. p. 26. ISBN 978-1-4179-1791-4.
  11. M'Crie, Thomas; Anderson, James; Miller, Hugh; Fleming, John; Balfour, John Hutton (1847). The Bass Rock: Its Civil and Ecclesiastic History. Edinburgh: John Greig and Son. p. 12.
  12. Lauder-Frost, Gregory, F.S.A.,Scot., 'Lauder Arms', in The Double Tressure, Heraldry Society of Scotland, no.29, 2007,pps:20–30,ISSN 0141-237X
  13. Edinburgh Commissariot Court, Testaments.
  14. Bellenden's Boece, vol i p 37
  15. Seaton, Douglas. "The Bass Rock". North Berwick and District Business Association. Retrieved 20 October 2009.
  16. Sproule, James (2017). Eight Centuries of the Spreull and Sproule families. online: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. pp. 114–128. ISBN 197567054X. Retrieved 16 February 2019.
  17. Johnston, John C (1887). Treasury of the Scottish covenant. Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot. pp. 589–593. Retrieved 5 May 2019.
  18. Porteous, James Moir (1881). The Scottish Patmos. A standing testimony to patriotic Christian devotion. Paisley: J and R Parlane. p. 10. Retrieved 15 February 2019.
  19. Shields, Alexander (1797). A hind let loose ; or, An historical representation of the testimonies of the Church of Scotland, for the interest of Christ : With the true state thereof in all its periods. Glasgow: Glasgow : Printed by W. Paton for J. Kirk, Calton, the publisher. p. 225. Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  20. "Sheilds, Alexander" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  21. Smellie, Alexander (1908). Men of the Covenant (Vol 2 ed.). London: xAndrew Melrose. pp. 259–264. Retrieved 15 February 2019.
  22. M'Crie, Thomas, D.D. the younger (1847). The Bass rock: Its civil and ecclesiastic history. Edinburgh: J. Greig & Son. p. 283. Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  23. M'Crie, Thomas; Anderson, James; Miller, Hugh; Fleming, John; Balfour, John Hutton (1847). The Bass Rock: Its Civil and Ecclesiastic History. Edinburgh: John Greig and Son. p. 46.
  24. "Is the Bass Rock a wonder of the world? I'm sure it is says Sir David Attenborough". The Scotsman. Retrieved 16 February 2015.
  25. Blackall, T.D. (2007) "Ammonia emissions from seabird colonies" Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L10801
  26. "Bass Rock Lighthouse". Northern Lighthouse Board. Archived from the original on 2 May 2008. Retrieved 9 May 2008.
  27. Hull, Robin (2007) Scottish Mammals. Edinburgh. Birlinn. p. 29.
  28. "Webcams". Scottish Seabird Centre. Archived from the original on 18 October 2009. Retrieved 20 October 2009.
  29. "Welcome to the Scottish Seabird Centre". Scottish Seabird Centre. Retrieved 16 February 2015.
  30. "Visitor Information". Scottish Seabird Centre. Archived from the original on 20 November 2009. Retrieved 20 October 2009.
  31. "Peter Kapp Bagpiper". Retrieved 20 October 2009.
  32. "Wealth of fans to locate". The Scotsman. 28 September 2002. Retrieved 27 December 2015.
  33. "Ticket tout fears over Bollywood star". The Scotsman. 8 August 2002. Retrieved 27 December 2015.
  34. "Tantallon and the Bass". Electric Scotland. Retrieved 20 October 2009.
  35. "THE BASS ROCK IN HISTORY" (PDF). ELAFN. Retrieved 17 February 2019.

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