Bass Rock

The Bass Rock, or simply The Bass, is an island in the outer part of the Firth of Forth in the east of Scotland, approximately one mile off North Berwick. Its name, "Bass" is pronounced so that it rhymes with "mass", rather than as "base", as the term "bass" is used in music. It is 100 metres at its highest point.

Geography and geology

The island is "a volcanic plug of phonolite", dating to the Carboniferous period. The rock was first recognised as an igneous intrusion by James Hutton, while Hugh Miller, who visited in 1847, wrote about the Rock's geology in his book Edinburgh and its Neighbourhood, Geological and Historical: with The Geology of the Bass Rock.

The island, which has been privately owned by the Hamilton-Dalrymple family for 300 years, is a volcanic plug and stands over 100 m 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" It is of a similar geological form to nearby North Berwick Law, a hill on the mainland. There are a couple of related volcanic formations within nearby Edinburgh, namely Arthur's Seat and Edinburgh 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 in turn are considered 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.


The Lauder Family

Historically the home of the Lauder of The Bass family (from whom Sir Harry Lauder is descended), who are the earliest recorded proprietors. According to later legend, the island is said to have been a gift from King Malcolm III of Scotland, though in reality the family do not appear until the 14th century. Their crest is, appropriately, a Gannet standing upon a rock.

The family had from an early date a castle on the island. Sir Robert de Lawedre is mentioned by Blind Harry 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".

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.

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 and 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.

Famous prisoners

During the 15th century James I consigned several of his political enemies, including Walter Stewart to The Bass. In this period, many members of Clan MacKay ended up here, 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."

Cromwellian invasion and after

After almost 600 years, the Lauders lost The Bass during Cromwell's invasion, and the castle subsequently (in 1671) became a notorious gaol for many decades where many religious and political prisoners including Prophet Peden were sent. John Blackadder, the best known of the Covenanting martyrs, died on the Bass in 1686. He is buried at North Berwick, where a United Free Church was named after him.


The island is home to a 20 metre lighthouse, built in 1902 by David Stevenson, who demolished the 13th century keep, or governor's house, and some other buildings within the castle for the stone. The Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouse Board decided that a lighthouse should be erected on the Bass Rock in July 1897 along with another light at Barns Ness near Dunbar. The cost of constructing the Bass Rock light was £8,087, a light first being shone from the rock on the evening of 1 November 1902. It has been unmanned since 1988 and is remotely monitored from the Board’s headquarters in Edinburgh. Until the automation the lighthouse was lit by incandescent gas obtained from vaporised paraffin oil converted into a bunsen gas for heating a mantle. Since that time a new Biform ML300 synchronised bifilament 20 watt electric lamp has been used.


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 unskilfully 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 is a tower that formed a simple bastion and to which has 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, now very much decayed.

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.

Half-way 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 May 6, 1493, refers to the Parish Church of the Bass, or the Chapel of St Baldred, being "noviter erecta" at that time. On the January 5, 1542 we find John Lauder, son of Sir Robert Lauder of The Bass, Knt., 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 is 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 largest single rock gannetry in the world, described famously by Sir David Attenborough as "one of the wildlife wonders of the world". 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). In fact the scientific name for the Northern Gannet, Sula bassana or Morus bassanus, derives its name from the rock. They were traditionally known locally as 'Solan Goose'. In common with other gannetries, such as St Kilda, the birds were harvested for their eggs and flesh which were considered delicacies. Other bird species that frequent the rock include Guillemot, Razorbill, Cormorant, Puffin, Eider Duck and numerous gulls.

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. 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. The Seabird Centre has 10 cameras located on the islands of the Forth and also broadcasts the images live on the internet. The Centre also has exclusive landing rights to the island from the owner Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple and operates a limited number of photographic boat trips to the islands throughout the year, weather permitting.

Cultural references

Due to its imposing nature, prison and connection with Scottish history, the Bass has as a result featured in a lot of fiction.

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 . He often stayed at Scoughall Farm, whence the Bass can be seen , and some local folklore gave him the inspiration for his short story The Wreckers.

Catriona is the 1893 sequel to Kidnapped, both by Robert Louis Stevenson. They are both set in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion, in the mid-18th century.

The first part of the 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."


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


An old saying has the following:

"Ding doun Tantallon,—
Mak’ a brig to the Bass."

In reference to the pitiful state of Tantallon Castle nearby.


  • 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, 3rd February, 1424.
  • 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.5, p.55.
  • The Lauders of The Bass by G.M.S.Lauder-Frost, F.S.A.,(Scot), in East Lothian Life, Autumn 1996, issue 22,


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