Rockall is a small, uninhabited, rocky islet in the north Atlantic Ocean, and one of the sea areas named in the Shipping Forecast broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It could be, in James Fisher's words, "the smallest isolated rock, or the most isolated small rock (both ways will do), in the oceans of the world".
Rockall is within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the United Kingdom. In 1997, the UK ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and thus relinquished any claim to an extension of its EEZ beyond the islet. The remaining issue is the status of the continental shelf rights of surrounding ocean floor. These are the exclusive rights to exploit any resources on or under the ocean floor (oil, natural gas, etc.) and should not be confused with the EEZ, as continental shelf rights do not carry any privileges with regard to fisheries. Ownership of these rights in the Rockall area are disputed between the United Kingdom, Denmark (for the Faroe Islands), Ireland and Iceland.
The first literary reference to the isle, where it is called Rockol, is found in Martin Martin's A Description of the Western isles of Scotland published in 1703 where he gives an account of a voyage to St Kilda where the locals knew the isle as Rockabarra (Rocabarraigh). The name Rocabarraigh is also used in Gaelic folklore for a mythical rock which is supposed to appear three times, the last being at the end of the world.
Rockall is mapped by the Ordnance Survey, but as it is officially outside the OSGB grid it is usually shown as an inset without gridlines on a mainland sheet. However, the grid can be extended to put Rockall in grid square MC as shown in this 1:50,000 mockup
Rockall has a diameter of 27 metres (88.5 ft), a height of 23 metres (75.5 ft) and an approximate surface area of 570 m² (6,135 sq. ft.). The rock is about 25 metres (83 ft) wide at its base and rises sheer to a height of approximately 22 metres (72 ft). It is regularly washed over by large storm waves, particularly in winter. There is a small ledge of 3.5 by 1.3 metres (11 by 4 ft), known as Hall's Ledge, 4 metres (13 ft) from the summit.
The rock's only permanent inhabitants are periwinkles and other marine molluscs. Small numbers of seabirds, mainly fulmars, gannets, kittiwakes, and guillemots, use the rock for resting in summer, and gannets and guillemots occasionally breed successfully if the summer is calm with no storm waves washing over the rock. There is no natural source of fresh water.
The first scientific expedition to Rockall was led by Miller Christie in 1896 when the Royal Irish Academy sponsored a study of the flora and fauna. They chartered the Granuaile.
The RV Celtic Explorer has surveyed the Rockall Bank and North West of Donegal in 2003.
The ILV Granuaile was chartered by the Geological Survey of Ireland (GSI), on behalf of the Department of Communications, Marine & Natural Resources (DCMNR), to conduct a seismic survey at the Rockall and Hatton Banks in July 2004. The seismic survey was part of the National Seabed Survey which has been ongoing for four years.
Rockall is made of a type of granite that is relatively rich in sodium and potassium. Within this granite are darker bands richer in the alkali pyroxene mineral aegirine and the alkali amphibole mineral riebeckite. The dark bands are a variety of granite commonly known as rockallite. In 1975, a new mineral was discovered on Rockall. The mineral is called bazirite, named after the elements barium and zirconium and has the chemical composition BaZrSi3O9. Rockall was formed approximately 55 million years ago, when the ancient continent of Laurasia was split apart by plate tectonics. Greenland and Europe separated and the north-east Atlantic Ocean was formed between them.
There have also been reports in national newspapers in both Ireland and the United Kingdom that at least two unexploded bombs from World War II lie within a 250-metre radius of Rockall. At present, no attempts have been made to remove them.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states, “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.” Ireland, Denmark, and Iceland all acceded to the convention. The United Kingdom acceded to the convention on 25 July 1997. The United Kingdom and Ireland have agreed to a delineation which ignores Rockall's existence and have granted exploration rights.
According to a Written Parliamentary Answer from the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs on 14 June 1990, an agreement was reached between the British and Irish governments on delimitation of the continental shelf between the two countries and that this included a line of delimitation across the Rockall Plateau. As a result, a very extensive area under Irish jurisdiction, including part of the Rockall Trough and Plateau, is not disputed by the United Kingdom. No further negotiations were taking place in relation to the rock at the time.
More recently, on 11 June 2003, the Irish Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources gave a Written Parliamentary Answer, stating: "Ireland claims an extended continental shelf … up to more than 500 nautical miles (926 km), particularly in the Hatton–Rockall area".
As the United Nations has no mandate regarding issues of delimitation between neighbouring states and cannot consider an area under dispute without the agreement of all the parties concerned, Ireland has participated in informal discussions with Iceland and the Faroe Islands in an attempt to resolve the dispute before making its submission to the Commission.
In 1997 the United Kingdom ratified the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In doing so it relinquished its right to claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nmi (370 km) extending onward from the rock, as the agreement states that "Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf". However, as Rockall lies within 200 nmi (370 km) of both St Kilda and North Uist, the island itself remains within the EEZ of the United Kingdom and as such, under international law the UK can claim "..the sovereignty of the coastal state in relation to the exploitation, conservation and management of natural and living resources fishery and mineral resources" of the rock itself and an area of territorial waters extending for around it. Furthermore, the United Kingdom and Ireland have signed a boundary agreement which includes Rockall in the United Kingdom area.
The earliest recorded landing on the island was on 8 July 1810 when a Royal Navy officer named Basil Hall led a small landing party from the frigate HMS Endymion to the summit. The frigate was taking depth measurements around Rockall when it drifted away in a haze. The expedition made a brief attempt to find the frigate in the haze, but soon gave up and returned to Rockall. After the haze became a fog, the lookout sent to the top of Rockall spotted the ship again, but it turned away from Rockall before the expedition in their boats reached it. Finally, just before sunset, the frigate was again spotted from the top of Rockall, and the expedition was able to get back on board. The crew of the Endymion reported that they had been searching for five or six hours, firing their cannon every ten minutes. Hall related this experience and other adventures in a book entitled Fragment of Voyages and Travels Including Anecdotes of a Naval Life.
The next landing was accomplished by a Mr Johns of HMS Porcupine, whilst the ship was on a mission, from June and August 1862, to make a survey of the sea bed prior to the laying of a transatlantic telegraph cable. Johns managed to gain foothold on the island, but failed to reach the summit.
On 18 September 1955 at precisely 10.16 am, in what would be the final territorial expansion of the British Empire, the island was officially annexed by the UK when Lieutenant-Commander Desmond Scott RN, Sergeant Brian Peel RM, Corporal AA Fraser RM, and James Fisher (a civilian naturalist and former Royal Marine), were deposited on the island by a Royal Navy helicopter from HMS Vidal (coincidentally named after the man who first charted the island). The team cemented in a brass plaque on Hall's Ledge and hoisted the Union Flag to stake the UK's claim.
The inscription on the plaque reads:
The formal annexation of Rockall was announced by the Admiralty on 21 September 1955.
The initial incentive for the annexation of Rockall had little to do with any territorial claim to rights of exploitation of the seas around the island. It was the test firing of the UK's first guided nuclear weapon, the American-made Corporal missile. The missile was to be launched from South Uist and over the North Atlantic. The Ministry of Defence was concerned that the unclaimed island would provide a unique opportunity for the Soviet Union to spy on the test by placing surveillance equipment on the island; and so in April 1955 a request was sent to the Admiralty to seize the island, and declare UK sovereignty lest it become an outpost for foreign observers.
On 10 February 1972 the Island of Rockall Act received Royal Assent to make the island administratively part of the Isle of Harris (St Kilda being administratively part of Harris), in what was then Inverness-shire, fully incorporating it into the United Kingdom. A navigational beacon was later installed on the island and the UK declared that no ship would be allowed within a radius of the rock. In United Kingdom law, it now falls administratively under the Outer Hebrides.
Iceland ratified UNCLOS in 1985; it was the first Western country to do so. A regulation was issued by the government in that same year outlining the area where Iceland claimed continental shelf rights for itself; the regulation was based on legislation from 1979 claiming for Iceland the exclusive right to research and exploitation of continental shelf-based resources within the limits of the Icelandic continental shelf. Regarding the Hatton-Rockall area, it claims the area within from the foot of the continental shelf and assumes that the UK and Ireland cannot claim a continental shelf outside their EEZs. To its fullest extent, this area reaches about to the south from Iceland's coast, which is further south than the United Kingdom's southernmost point.
In 2001, Iceland began working on its submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf; it is scheduled to finish in 2007. The most important aspect of this work is to survey the entire ocean floor in the areas claimed outside the EEZ and, in Iceland's case, a part of the area inside the EEZ as well. In all, 1.3 million square kilometres (500,000 sq mi) have been surveyed by Icelandic marine research institutions for this purpose, an area 13 times larger than the land area of Iceland. The commission does however not make proposals regarding areas that are claimed by two or more states unless they have already reached an agreement on its division. Therefore Iceland's submission is expected to deal only with the area that just Iceland has claimed and not the Hatton-Rockall area. Iceland also hosted an informal meeting of all parties to the dispute in 2001. It was the first such meeting regarding the dispute where all four countries participated.
The project continued until 1999, when the company sponsoring it collapsed and the experiment ended.
Ownership of the rock itself did not form part of the negotiations.
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