Bass Rock

THE LARGEST NUMBER of visitors to North Berwick fly in every year to set up home on the four offshore islands of Bass Rock, Craigleith, Lamb and Fidra. The Bass Rock is home to over 150,000 gannets at the peak of the breeding season as well as a whole host of other seabirds and marine wildlife.

The Bass Rock is the closest sea bird sanctuary to the mainland and was the first to be studied by ornithologists during the 19th century, when they gave the Gannet the scientific name Sula Bassana, (Morusbassanus) incorporating the name of this rocky stack. This is the largest 'single rock' colony of northern gannets in the world (the largest colony at St Kilda is scattered over three sea stacks). The Bass Rock has been described by Sir David Attenborough as 'one of the 12 wildlife wonders of the world' and Chris Packham has described 'this gannet-capped island' as the most exciting birding spectacle in the UK. North of the Bass is rated as the third best cliff dive in Britain. Closer to shore green, brown and red seaweeds and oarweed, festoon the rocks, jostling with mussels whelks, limpets and winkles for space.

Britain's largest seabird can travel hundreds of miles from their nests just to catch food for their chicks.The birds use their excellent eyesight to spot schools of fish below the surface of the water and dive at speeds of up to 62mph. But with around one million square miles of ocean to choose from, it has always been a mystery how they decide where to best to search for fish. Researchers at the University of Glasgow have discovered the more experienced adult birds were often found at the front of commuting flocks, the younger birds following behind. The best feeding grounds may be being passed down from generation to generation.

The History of the Island

THE BASS ROCK is situated in the Firth of Forth,two miles east of North Berwick and one mile off the mainland. (Position on a Nautical Chart - 56` 4.6' N. 2` 38.3' W.) A huge trachyte plug rising 313 feet, with three sides of sheer cliff, and a tunnel piercing the rock to a depth of 105 metres. The gentler slope to the south forms a lower promontory where the ruins of a castle stand dating back to at least 1405. Where James the second son of Robert III, later to become James I was sent by his father until a vessel was found to transport him to France as the king's brother the Duke of Albany had designs on the throne. Albany tipped off the English who intercepted James's ship and imprisoned the prince in the Round Tower at Windsor for nineteen years.

The first inhabitant on the Bass Rock was Baldred, an evangelist and hermit sent by St Mungo to spread Christianity to the Lothians in the sixth century. He founded a monastery at Tyninghame and later lived as a hermit in a cell on the Bass Rock. He also sometimes resided in St Baldred's Cave on Seacliff Beach. His name is remembered in St Baldred's Boat, the point immediately south of the Bass Rock, opposite Tantallon Castle and St Baldred's Cradle, which lies at the north-west end of the John Muir Country Park near Dunbar. The Tyninghame monastery lasted more than 300 years before being sacked by the Danes in 941.

The style of the masonry corresponds to other old Culdee chapels throughout Scotland. A few sandstone rybats line one of the sides of the door and inside there is a sandstone trough which once contained the holy water. This is a comparatively recent addition, probably not long after the Reformation.

The older stonework is in well-marked claystone, seamed with minute veins of dull red jasper, which during the 1860s was still being quarried near the village of Dirleton. Surrounding the old ruin are two comparatively rare plants indigenous to the island, Bass Mallow and Sea Beet.

Long after Baldred's death when Romanism had prevailed in Scotland over the simpler and purer Culdee faith, he was numbered among the saints, like many of the other old Culdees, whose memory still survived in the districts in which they had proclaimed the gospel.

The young gannets tumble off the rock, hopefully learning to fly on the way down in this ultimate school of hard knocks.

[Gannets Nesting]
North Atlantic Gannet © Digitalsport UK

On all the cruises you will see hundreds of Puffins, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Gannets. Look out too for Eiders, various Gulls, Shags, Cormorants, Fulmars and also Grey Seals.

[Bass Rock
Bass Rock Lighthouse built in 1902
 © Digitalsport UK
[Cruise Boat]
'Sula II' taking visitors to the Islands
 © Digitalsport UK
William Dunbar wrote...
"The air was dirkit with the fowlis,
That cam' with yammeris and with yowlis,
With shrykking, skreeking, skrymming scowlis,
And meikle noyis and showtes."
[Canty Bay]
Canty Bay © Digitalsport UK

[Canty Bay Inn]
Canty Bay Inn circa 1901
© Digitalsport UK

Edinburgh Advertiser
5th August 1768.

There is to be sold by John Watson Jnr. at his stand at the Poultry, Edinburgh, all lawful days in the week, wind and weather serving, good and fresh solan geese. Any who do have occasion for the same may have them at reasonable rates.
The earliest recorded proprietor of the Bass Rock was Sir Robert de Lawder who was given the island by Malcolm Canmore for assisting him recover his crown from Macbeth. This however is not entirely true as The Church owned the upper half of the Bass where Saint Baldred died in 606 AD and the Church would not grant this part of the Bass to the Lauders until 1316. The portion of the island where the castle stood remained with the Lauder family for over 600 years, and Sir Robert Lauder was a favourite companion of William Wallace. A stone found in the floor of the Auld Kirk at North Berwick harbour had written in latin the legend 'here lies the Good Robert Lauder, great laird of Congalton and Bass who died May 1311.

It was from the Bass that Sir Alexander Ramsay sailed in 1358 with supplies to the besieged 'Black Agnes' in Dunbar Castle. The Lauder family had considerable influence during this period and were receiving customs annuities from Haddington and North Berwick between 1397 and 1426.

In the early 15th century King James I imprisoned his political enemies on the Bass and in 1424 Sir Robert Lauder accepted the wardship on The Bass and the king's prisoner, Walter Stewart, the Earl of Atholl and the king's cousin who was later executed for treason. In 1428, 14 year-old Neil Bhass Mackay was imprisoned on the rock in exchange for his father's freedom. In an attempt to pacify the Highlanders, James imprisoned 40 Chiefs including Angus Dubh Mackay of Strathnaver, a leader of 4,000 men. He was soon released but his eldest son Neil, was retained as hostage for the good behaviour of the Clan and since his mother was a daughter of MacDonald of the Isles, for that Clan too. Following the murder of King James at Perth in 1437 Neil escaped from the Bass and was proclaimed 8th Chief of the Clan Mackay. A pibroch commemorating this event 'The Unjust Incarceration' was composed by the blind piper Iain Dall Mackay.

Mary Queen of Scots had a garrison of 100 men including a number of French troops stationed on the rock in the early 16th century. With the strategic position of the Bass at the entrance to the Firth of Forth, Queen Elizabeth of England attempted to take the rock in 1548 and again the following year but both attempts failed. King James VI stayed in the castle in 1581 as a guest of the new laird George Lauder of The Bass. They became close friends and George is listed as one of those knighted at the Queen's coronation in 1590.

In 1639 George, Lauder of The Bass and his mother Isobella Hepburne, Lady Bass, assigned the feudal barony of The Bass and a string of other properties to her brother Sir Patrick Hepburn of Waughton, a renowned Covenanter, thinking this would save the most treasured of their estates. According to family historian Gregory Lauder-Frost - In 1650 the castle on The Bass was busy bombarding supply ships heading for Leith. One ship, the John o' London was captured, looted and sunk. It contained Oliver Cromwell's personal luggage. He was not amused and Proclamations "against Intercourse with the Garrison of the Bass" were posted on both sides of the Firth of Forth. Surrender of the Bass was demanded by the Deputy Governor of Leith on 22nd October 1651 to no effect. A setback occurred two days later when "the Lady and two brothers of the Governor of the Bass island" (John Hepburn of Waughton) were captured and their estates seized by Cromwell. In April 1652 the garrison of 112 men were finally starved and frozen out.

Sir Andrew Ramsay, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, acquired the Bass for £400 which represented a good investment as he sold it shortly after for ten times that amount to Lord Lauderdale who bought it on behalf of King Charles II in 1671 for a State Prison which was abandoned in 1701. Sir Hew Dalrymple, Lord President of the Court of Session and 1st. Baron of North Berwick, then purchased the rock from the Crown in one of the last acts of the old Scottish parliament before its dissolution in 1707.

King Edward, as Prince of Wales, visited the Bass Rock on 29th August 1870.

The gannets were first mentioned in a document sent to the Vatican Council in Rome detailing a dispute between the owners of the Bass and the Cistercian Nuns at North Berwick. The nuns were concerned that the tithe they received on each barrel of fat produced from the slaughtered birds at the autumn cull was under threat.

By the 18th century the Laird rented out the rock to a tenant who had the rights to graze sheep on it's seven acres of grass and hunt the gannets in season. The gannets or to use their upmarket name 'solan geese' were sold in Edinburgh for 20 pence each in the Fleshers Close where the butchers plied their trade in the High Street. In 1837, the young gannets were sold at Canty Bay for 8d. each, rising in 1839 to 9d. This was the price after the carcase had been plucked, and cooked; for even 30 years later they only fetched 10d. in that condition.

According to an ancient right, the Keeper of the Bass paid annually twelve geese with their feathers to the church of North Berwick as part of the Minister's stipend, and two to the School-master. This custom ceased shortly after 1900.

The tenant was usually the innkeeper at Canty Bay, a small fishing hamlet on the mainland opposite the rock, where he kept a boat ready to row passengers to the Bass every day except Sunday and he held the keys for the castle. The Whitecross family were tenants at Canty Bay Inn for many years before George Adams took up the lease in 1860. He would collect visitors from the railway station in his horse drawn cab and convey them the two miles to his Inn where he offered accommodation and stabling. The Inn and stable buildings can still be seen at the head of brae which leads down to the old fishermen's cottages by the shore. The middle cottage where the geese were plucked was used as a store for the feathers, and was still called the "feather-house" in 1900.

In 1859 the Prince of Wales later to become Edward VII accepted an invitation from Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple to join his shooting party on the Bass Rock. He arrived on a special train to North Berwick where his entourage embarked and were taken to their host's yacht at Canty Bay, and escorted to the Bass Rock by the gunboat HMS Lousia.

In 1870, twenty-five sheep were still being grazed on the island, but the principal produce was the young gannets. The flesh of which was described as excellent if skinned, and cooked like a beef-steak. The gannet's eggs were a delicacy which often graced Queen Victoria's breakfast table. The tenant sold most of the young birds to the people who came to the harvest. The killing, or as it was called, 'harrying' of the birds was carried out by men with ropes round their bodies, the ends of which were held by others on the top. They descended the cliff, stepping from nest to nest, knocking the young birds on the head, and throwing them into the sea, where others in boats were waiting to pick them up. Although this practice is unacceptable today, the 'harrying' attracted hundreds of spectators.

The Covenantors

In the 1878 it was the practice for authorised parties to shoot the gannets, either from the deck of a boat anchored beneath the cliffs or after landing on the Bass. The keeper had a little hut on the rock where he could sell liquor, bread, cheese to the visiting groups. This lead to the premises at Canty Bay becoming a licensed Inn. Legal action was taken to stop the shooting but it was not until the passing of the "Wild Birds Protection Act" in 1880, in which the Gannet is specially mentioned, that this so-called sport was finally ended.

The liquor supplied to the Inn came from a distillery at Prestonpans as well as Fowler's brewery. Port and ale cost 6d. a pint; the ale was Fowler's well known brew, with nearly as much alcohol in it as port wine - hence the prices, the beer was less 'heady' and was the equivalent of the 'two penny ale' commonly used in the days of the covenanters. The bread was supplied three times a week from Brodie of North Berwick. The boat service from Canty Bay was discontinued in the early 1920s and all visitors are now ferried from North Berwick.

After the Castle was converted into a State Prison during the reigns of Charles ll and his brother James Vll, a number of Covenantors were imprisoned there at a time of tyranny and persecution. The Covenanters rebelled against Charles's obsession for a change from Presbyterianism to his Roman Catholic style religion. After a violent struggle against the crown the Covenantors were finally defeated at the Battle of Sheriffmuir when 1,800 of them were brought to Edinburgh to stand trial. A section of Greyfriars graveyard was used as their prison when hundreds were deported and over 130 executed.

In 1605, Rev. John Welch minister of Kirkpatrick, Irongray, Kirkcubrightshire was the first minister to be imprisoned on the Bass Rock for his religious believes. Welch, the great grandson of John Knox was a renowned field preacher and it was reported that £400 sterling was offered for his capture. He was a prisoner on the Bass Rock for two years.

About forty were incarcerated in the dungeons of the Bass Rock at different dates, varying from a few months to upwards of six years. Most of them men of culture and learning, of unimpeachable loyalty and charged with no offence but that of preaching the gospel and worshipping according to their own consciences.

These included John Blackadder, minister at Tragueer in Dumfries. Blackadder died on the rock in 1687 and his body was rowed ashore and taken by cart to the Churchyard in Kirk Ports where he is buried. Blackadder had five sons, the eldest was physician to King William III; another was a merchant in Sweden; another a student of divinity who died in Holland; another was a merchant in the North American Colonies; and the fifth was Colonel of the Cameronian regiment and served under the Duke of Marlborough. John Blackadder made his last address in the Church of St Mary in Whitekirk in 1678. Among the other Covenantors imprisoned on the Bass by the Duke of Rothesay, then Lord Chancellor were Alexander Peden, Thomas Hogg, James Fraser of Brea, Robert Traill and John McGilligen, all of them ministers. Sir Hugh Campbell of Cessnock, and his son Sir George Campbell; Robert Bennett of Chesters and Alexander Gordon of Earlston.

Peden was known for wearing a cloth mask and wig to shield his identity as he preached across Scotland. He was captured in 1673 and sentenced to four years' imprison ment on the Bass. The barbarity of life in the State Prison was beyond credibility. The Governor levied a charge on the prisoners for everything they eat and drank. Those unable to support themselves were kept on a diet of dried salt fish and only the guards had barrelled fresh water.

The prisoners depended solely upon rock puddles for water so putrid that for a little more palatability they sucked it through porridge oats. In bad weather they starved until calmer seas allowed boats to land provisions, and at the whim of the governor, a hated prisoner was confined in the lowest dungeon which was deathly cold from continuous sea spray.

Alexander Peden wrote... We are close shut up in our chambers, not permitted to converse, diet, worship together, but conducted out by two at once in the day to breath in the open air. Envying with reverence the birds their freedom, provoking and calling on us to bless him for the most common mercies, and again close shut up day and night to hear only the sighs and groans of our fellow prisoners. I return to thank you for your seasonable supply, an everance of your love of him and your affectionate remembrance of us. Persuade yourself your are in our remembrance, though not so deep as we in yours - and grace be to all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in that sincerity. So prayith you unworthy and affectionate well wisher in bonds - A. P.

Those who did not perish in its vile and stinking cells suffered and died later from lung infections, fevers or rheumatic type ailments as freed men. One who did survive was the minister Gilbert Rule whose imprisonment was brought to an end by the Revolution of 1688 and later was appointed Principal of the University of Edinburgh.

Whitekirk Hill overlooking the Bass Rock was the site of a Covenantors Meeting on Sunday 5th May 1678 when a crowd of over one thousand assembled for the worship of God. The governor of the Bass, Charles Maitland, with sixty soldiers from the garrison, marched to attack and disperse them. As the soldiers approached, James Learmont a chapman or travelling merchant from Haddington exhorted the people to stand firm and defend themselves if attacked.

The soldiers ordered the crowd to dismiss in the King's name; where upon they replied that 'they honoured the King, but were resolved to hear the word of God when preached to them.' A scuffle ensued and the soldiers were surrounded and disarmed, one of them being shot dead. Five of the Covenantors were apprehended and tried before the Privy Council in Edinburgh on 11th September 1678. James Learmont was found guilty and executed in the Grassmarket on 27th September 1678. He was guilty of nothing but worshipping the God of his fathers according to his conscience and his treatment at the hands of the arbitrary tyrants who then oppressed the country, outraged the population. In 1688, most of the Covenantors we released when James VII was relieved of his Crown and William of Orange was proclaimed King.

Before his disposition the majority of the country continued to be faithful to King James until the Battle of Killiecrankie, after which the only Jacobite stronghold was on the Bass Rock. Where a handful of Jacobites held out for two years under the pro-stuart Governor until they were starved into submission in 1690. The following year it was the Jacobites again who turned the tables on their captors when the new Governor, Fletcher of Saltoun was absent, by locking out the guards while they were unloading coal at the jetty. The guards had to be taken off by boat; the Jacobites - just four of them initially - managed to hold out for four years.They included Lieutenants Middleton and Haliburton, Ensigns Roy and Dunbar.

The following night the Laird of Ardmillan a supporter of the rebels with his servant and two Irish seamen escaped from Leith prison. They stole a boat lying on the beach near Dirleton and made for the Bass. It was suggested their escape was assisted by Charles Maitland the late Deputy Governor of the Bass during the reign of King James who was a friend of John Seatoune of Gailetoun.

In order to ensure that no other Jacobites or supplies could enter the Bass, two boats with a dozen men in each patrolled the area at night. By day a watch was kept from the shore and if any vessel approached the Bass the boats were launched to warn them off or to repel them if necessary. It soon became apparent that supplies were arriving in spite of this precaution and that a frigate was required to constantly cruise around.

During the second week in March 1692 the rebels on the Bass seized three fishing boats from Fisherrow and stole all their fish. They then forced them to go to the Isle of May, where they were loaded with coal, and brought them to the Bass . On 22 March 1692 Henry Fletcher resigned as Governor of the Bass and in April the rock was bombarded by two chartered English vessels. They anchored within a musket shot of the Bass but realised that due to the elevated position of the guns they could not be reached by the ship's cannon and the rock could not be taken.

On 12 January 1693 Captain Edward Burd was commissioned to take charge of the patrol off the mouth of the Forth and stop any vessels communicating with the Bass. On 26 August Burd reported to the Lord Chancellor of Scotland (Earl of Tweeddale) that he sighted a French frigate anchored off the Bass Rock which was landing provisions for the Jacobites. The vessel was too large to be engaged and a few weeks later Burd took possession of a suitable frigate beached at Elie. He sailed to North Berwick, picked up his company of soldiers and made for the Bass.

On 28 March 1694, Mr Trotter of Mortonhall was hanged at Castletoun for being in correspondence with the rebels on the Bass. The gallows were said to have been erected on a spot on the farm of Castleton still called the Gallowrig. Trotter was hanged within sight of the rebels who apparently fired a cannon to disrupt the proceedings.

On 18 April Major Robert Reid was sent to negotiate with the Jacobites and the Bass was finally surrendered four days later. All sixteen men on the island were freed along with those previously sentenced to death for assisting them, and they were repatriated to France. They included Middleton, Haliburton, Roy, Sergeant La Fosse, Ardmillion, his servants and two Irishmen, Ensign Fraser, Gain Johnston (Chamberlain to Lady Ardross), Sergeant Halkit and Thomas Hebrow who had a tavern in the Canongate.

Robert Louis Stevenson
In 1822, John Martin a former Sergeant in the Royal Artillery who accompanied Captain Parry on his first voyage to explore the Arctic in 1819 and 1820 was instructed by the Town Council to organise a welcome salute on the Bass Rock for King George IV as he sailed for Edinburgh in the Royal Yacht. Martin fired two six pound cannons, one of which was brought from Leith Fort and the other remained on the Bass for many years. John Martin retired as a grocer and spirit merchant in the High Street and died in 1835.

A novel written by Bruce Marshall entitled 'Father Malachy's Miracle' was sited on the Bass. The Rock also provides the setting for one of the great supernatural tales of Scottish literature. The masterly story-teller, Robert Louis Stevenson, mentions the rock in 'The Tale of Tod Lapraik' a chapter from his novel Catriona (the sequel to Kidnapped). The scene in which a solan goose or gannet, pecks at the rope holding a central character called Tam Dale, as he dangled over the cliff 200 feet above the sea. Stephenson manages to create a living picture of the tradition of ‘harrying’ the solan geese, and then colours it with a supernatural chill.

".....And at the same time geese awaken and began crying about the top of the Bass. There is just the one crag of rock as everybody knows, but great enough to carve a city from. With the growing of the dawn I could see it clearer and clearer, the straight crags painted white with the seabird droppings like a morning frost. The sloping top of it green with grass, the clan of white geese that cried about the sides and the black broken buildings of the prison sitting close on the seas edge.

'It's there your taking me', I cried. 'Just tae the Bass mannie' said he, - where the old saints were afore ye, and I must doubt if ye have come so fairly by your prison'. 'But none dwells there now', I cried - 'the place is long a ruin'. 'It'll be the mare pleas'in a change for the solan geese then....."

Sir David Attenborough heads out to the Bass Rock on the 'Fisher Lassie' - 16th July 2010. © Helen Pugh

Among Robert Louis Stevenson's earliest childhood memories was his first train journey from Waverley Station in Edinburgh to North Berwick for the family holiday. His grandfather's house at Anchor Villa was ideal for exploring the beaches and coves, climbing rocks, fishing and campfires at the Leithies and Seacliff with his nanny 'Cummie'. It was at Scoughall Farm on the mainland opposite the Bass that Stevenson spent several boyhood holidays as the land belonged to his relatives, the Dale family. It was here in front of the farmhouse fire that the young Stevenson first heard the story of how the 'Pagans of Scoughall' on wild stormy nights, lured sailing ships onto the rocky reef called the Great Car by displaying misleading lantern lights. This gave Stevenson the idea for his story called 'The Wreckers'.

The novelist's grandfather, Robert Stevenson was appointed Engineer to the Lighthouse Commissioners in 1808 and the Civil Engineering company founded by his father-in-law Thomas Smith, designed and constructed the lighthouses on Fidra and Bass Rock. Thomas Stevenson, father of Robert Louis Stevenson, built Fidra lighthouse in 1885. The Bass Rock lighthouse was built by Charles Stevenson and David Alan Stevenson, cousins of RLS, and the paraffin mantle was lit for the first time on 1st. December 1902. Charles and his brother David A Stevenson trained with D & T Stevenson before forming their own engineering company C & D Stevenson Ltd.

The lens was made up of a central focal plane surrounded by prisms which refracted light parallel to the centre lens. This produced a beam of light two meters in diameter which was visible at 21 miles. The lens weighed approximately 3.5 tons and a clockwork machine kept the light revolving for half-an-hour. The flash effect occurred when the lens passes between the viewer and the source of light, this is when the lighthouse appears to flash. The clockwork machine which drove the lighthouse was powered by a large weight descending the tower from top to bottom which kept the machine going for thirty minutes. This had to be wound up every half-hour with a large handle.

Everyday the keepers climbed the 67 feet to the top of the whitewashed lighthouse and clean the glass and reflectors. The light beamed six white flashes every half minute followed by an interval of thirty seconds. It was fuelled by paraffin supplied by James 'Paraffin' Young from his mineral works in West Lothian.

In 1929 Charles Stevenson and his son D. Alan Stevenson invented the talking beacon which allowed ships to take bearings in thick fog from radio signals transmitted from the lighthouse. The Bass Rock was manned by three keepers who were on-station for one month, followed by two weeks off at the keeper's cottages at Granton. The relief crew and supplies were delivered by the lighthouse ship 'Pharos' and later the 'Pole Star'.

The foghorn was installed on the north east headland in 1907 with a footpath and guardrail leading from the lighthouse. The sound was made by compressed air produced by diesel-powered machinery. There were 45 foghorns around the Scottish coastline, each with a unique interval between the blasts to allowed a vessel's crew to identify their position. The last keepers left in 1988 when the light was automated. Today the Bass Rock remains in the ownership of Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple.

North Atlantic Gannet
THE GANNET is Britain's largest seabird with a wing span of just under two meters. When hunting for fish they slam into the sea like a living missile, descending at speeds of over 90 mph and diving to depths of 30 feet below sea level. The impact as it hits the water is so violent it can stun the fish, swallowing their prey whole before returning to the surface. The gannets are designed for high speed impact with more safety features than a modern vehicle. It has a skull like a crash helmet and its throat pouches swell like a drivers air-bag as it crashes into the sea. The colony consumes 200 tons of fish every day and the birds can travel up to 540 kilometres or 330 miles in search of food. Gannets from the Bass have been satellite-tracked as far as Norwegian waters on hunting expeditions. One of the pairs has to remain on the nest while the other is searching for food. If the nest site is abandoned even for a short period another gannet will occupy their spot. It is not unusual for the bird to remain on the nest for 30 hours while their mate is searching for fish. Two Bass gannets were tracked to the Norwegian coast in 2001.

The gannets lay their eggs within a comparatively short period, around the middle of May, when the newly hatched chicks weigh around 60g, but within 11-12 weeks, reared on the parents' catches of fish, they will have grown to an astonishing 4,500g. This early hatching and fast growth is to allow the young fledgling to be self sufficient by the time the autumn gales hit the Rock. In August and September the young gannets will tumble off the rock, hopefully learning to fly on the way down in this ultimate school of hard knocks. Three quarters of the young perish before reaching independence.

In October, most of them will travel south to the Mediterranean and many as far as the equator, to the Gulf of Guinea. The Gannets arrive back each year in January to re-establish their nesting territories on the cliff faces or on the rocky and grassy slopes of the island. Surprisingly, Gannets return each year to the same nest site to enable them to meet up with their mate of the previous year. The flat top of the island has fields of densely packed nests, about 3 per square meter, just beyond pecking distance, as Gannets are fiercely territorial and can be very aggressive to neighbours and even their mates. Gannets prefer wind blown rocky stacks, as they allow the birds to make vertical takeoffs and landings. Any Gannet attempting to walk to it's nest is battered by host of heavy dagger-like beaks from neighbouring birds.

The gannets use their head and beak to display various messages to others in the colony. When they lift their head upwards, known as 'Sky Pointing' accompanied by a curious strangled call, this displays a signal that they are about to fly off. Another posture is called 'Throat Gapping' when they open and close their beaks to warn of a preditor, this display has a ripple effect throughout the colony as each bird passes on the message.

At one time the top of the Bass was covered in vegetation which soaked up the rain like a sponge, but over the years as the colony increased, the guano did not mix with the grass which began to disappear and the rain now runs down the rock like a river. During a storm in July 2001 when a large number of the nests were washed away, many of the gannets hung on to their nest sites with such determination, demonstrating how protective they are of their territory.

The best way to see the birds is to take a boat trip from the harbour. These trips start round about April and run until September. Most trips cruise round the islands of Bass Rock and Craigleith. On special days landings on Fidra and Bass Rock are permitted, but are very dependent on the weather and wave conditions. Good footwear and waterproofs are recommended for island goers. The Gannets are on the Bass Rock from February to October but many of the other birds, apart from Gulls, Shags and Cormorants start to leave around July/August, returning each Spring mostly in March.

Bill Gardner, a local amateur ornithologist said that bird watching in North Berwick, even in winter can be rewarding, as large numbers of migrants from the north come here to feed on the rocky and sandy foreshore in the sheltered bays of the Firth. Apart from Aberlady Bay which attracts thousands of wintering wildfowl, you can see plenty of Turnstones, Dunlin, Knot, Curlew, Ringed Plovers, Golden Plovers, Godwits, Oystercatchers and Sanderlings on the town beaches in North Berwick.

[Prince of Wales]
© Ian Rutherford
The number of sightings of dolphins in the Firth of Forth have increased including bottlenosed, common, white backed and the rarer Risso's dolphin. They are most often seen in the Moray Firth, and experts suggest this may be a survival tactic with the dolphins seeking safer waters. The animals are under constant threat from entanglement in illegal salmon nets, boats, and noise pollution. Look out for the bottlenose dolphins with the distinctive markings on their dorsal fin.

LEFT: The Prince of Wales enjoying a trip round the Bass Rock following the official opening of the Scottish Seabird Centre on Sunday 21st May 2000.

The Seabird Centre opened its doors to the public in May 2000. The architect was Simpson and Brown based in Edinburgh. The team working on the proposed National Marine Centre is lead by Andy Davey, a partner while Susan Whittle who was the architect for the Seabird Centre is part of the team.

'King Of The Bass' - Freddie Marr

A highlight of Freddie Marr's forty years taking daytrippers round the islands was in 2000 when he ferried Prince Charles to the Bass Rock following the official opening of the Scottish Seabird Centre. As Sula II slipped her moorings on that sunny May afternoon and made her way out of the harbour with the Royal party, hundreds of the townsfolk lined the quay side, waving and cheering from every vantage point.

As the boat picked up speed passing the old pier, Freddie looked at the mass of people on the Platcock Rocks and must have thought the whole town had turned out, - he was right, the High Street was deserted. The crowd four deep in places, remained until the boat returned and when the tall figure of Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple could be seen in the bow, the crowd began to cheer again. Prince Charles, shook Freddie's hand as he climbed the harbour steps and thanked him for an unforgettable experience.

Freddie's father also named Alfred Marr was originally 2nd boatman to George Kelly on 'Norah'. When George retired after WW2, Alfie took over the boat and Freddie joined his father fishing for lobster and crabs. In 1961 they had the 'Girl Pat' built which is still being used today.

Sula II was built in 1965 by J.W. Easticks of Acle, Norfolk and worked in that area until she was bought in 1972 by Fred Marr after seeing an advert in the Fishing News. This boat was originally called the Janet. The pleasure boat was in the ownership of the Marr family for almost 40 years until it was bought by Forth Boat Tours in 2011. Sula II was added to the National Register of Historic Vessels in 2015. Freddie Marr died 4th June 2008 aged 84 years. The clinker-built Sula II was purchased by Duncan MacRae in 2017 and was moved to Southampton in 2019. Sula III is now being purpose-built in Scotland and will be operational next year.

Frequently Asked Questions
How do I apply for permission to land on the Bass Rock?

Landing on the Bass Rock is not part of the regular boat trip. Permission to land with an organised group can be obtained by contacting the Scottish Seabird Centre, Tel. 01620-890-202. The boatman has the final decision as to whether sailing or landing is possible each day.

Copyright © Douglas C.Seaton 1994 - 2020, All Rights Reserved.