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Bass Rock



Tantallon & Bass Rock
The Bass Rock viewed from Tantallon Castle
The Bass Rock is situated in the Firth of Forth, two miles east of North Berwick and one mile off the mainland. 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, a prior or monk of Lindisfarne sent out to the Lothians in the 8th century to convert its heathen inhabitants to Christianity. He used the island as a retreat for prayer and meditation. The small chapel above the castle was built around 1491 and dedicated to Saint Baldred in 1546.

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 in 753 AD, 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.

According to legend the Bass Rock was granted to the Lauders by King Malcolm III in the 11th century. Other sources suggest that around 1297, Robert Lauder was awarded the Bass and lands at Congalton by a grateful William Wallace for his assistance in naval exploits against the English near the Tay Estuary. In the first written affirmation of ownership the Lauders were given the rock by William de Lambert, Bishop of St Andrews in 1316 and in turn they had to supply a pure white wax candle for the alter at Tyninghame Church on Whitsunday.

Sir Robert Lauder was a member of an ancient Scottish family, the founder of which was one of the Anglo-Norman barons who came to Scotland with Malcolm Canmore in 1056. He died in 1311 and was buried in the aisle of lairds of the Bass in the Auld Kirk graveyard at North Berwick. The Lauders were originally Constables of Tantallon castle, a great coastal fortress perched on the cliffs east of North Berwick. The principal seat of the 'Red' Douglas family. However in 1406 the Lauders came into conflict with their Douglas masters over the ownership of Tantallon. The background to this conflict is complex.

In 1406 a form of rebellion was also brewing in Scotland. The Stewart of Albany the ambitious brother of the weak willed King Robert III of Scots (1390 -1406) who had been responsible for the death of Prince David at Falkland Palace was plotting to kill Robert's remaining son Prince James. So rushed plans were made to send the Prince abroad. For some strange reason David Flemming with Prince James and the 'leading men of Lothian' tried to seize Tantallon castle from the young 'Red' Douglas who's father had died after Homildon Hill possibly in an effort to use this as a safe stronghold to house the Prince before his evacuation to France. However the 'Red' Douglas's grandmother, a fiery individual and her kin the Sinclairs of Herdmanston were in no mood for political games and their verbal rebuke broke out into actual violence with Flemming and his 'strong band' fleeing with the Prince to the nearby North Berwick castle. From here the Prince was taken to the even safer Bass Rock Island castle opposite Tantallon in the Firth of Forth, to await a ship to France. Meanwhile the decoy royal army led by Flemming raced from North Berwick back up the coast drawing a rebel army out from Edinburgh castle led by James the 'Gross' Douglas(an ally of Albany). The royal army was 'overtaken' and routed at the battle of Long Hermiston Moor and Flemming killed. Unfortunately all this sacrifice was for nothing for the Prince en route to France was captured by the English and held captive for 18 years.

Bass Rock
Reconstruction by Andrew Spratt
In the early 15th century King James I imprisoned his political enemies on the Bass including Walter Stewart. 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. In 1581, James VI was so impressed by the rock he tried to buy it from William Lauder, the last of the family, who died without an heir. In 1630 his widow fell into debt and after a siege of the rock by her creditors, she finally acceded ownership. By 1649, the Bass was in the hands of Sir John Hepburn of Waughton, and following the Civil War in 1651, it was surrendered to Cromwell who kept a garrison of 18 men on the rock.

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 Charles II in 1671 for a State Prison. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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 boat service from Canty Bay was discontinued in the early 1920s and all visitors are now ferried from North Berwick.

The Covenantors

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.

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. His fifth son also named John Blackadder (1664-1727), went on to command the Cameronian regiment raised by the Covenantors to fight for William of Orange against James VII and II. He later became deputy governor of Stirling Castle. 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.

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.

During this period various attempts were made by the Government of King William to retake the fortress, but in vain. Friends in France and in Scotland kept them supplied with food, and as they had plenty of ammunition, they defied all comers. It had been found that a man called Trotter was secretly supplying them with provisions. To terrorise them, preparations were made for hanging Trotter on the shore opposite the island. The defenders, however would not stand this, and a few well aimed cannon balls promptly dispersed the would-be executioners, and Trotter had to be hanged elsewhere out of sight.

In 1694, William dispatched two warships, aided by smaller vessels to cut off all supplies to the rock and the little garrison capitulated in April. They had saved some bottles of the best French wine and these, along with some fine biscuits, led the commissioners to believe that they had provisions for years to come. Thus the rebels - eventually 16 in all - were able to negotiate good terms and were finally granted an amnesty. The Bass 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. This extract is when David Balfour realises where he is going to be kept in captivity - the Bass Rock.

".....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.

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 he founded, designed and constructed the lighthouse on the Bass (opened 1st. December 1902) and Fidra (1885).

The Bass Rock Lighthouse 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'. Every day the keepers would climb 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 and could be seen for twenty one miles. It was fuelled by paraffin supplied by James 'Paraffin' Young from his mineral works in West Lothian.

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


See also:

  • Dunbars Vs Douglas
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