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.
The island is a volcanic plug of phonolitic trachyte rock of Carboniferous (Dinantian) age. 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.
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". 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 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.
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.
The earliest recorded proprietors are the Lauder of the Bass family, from whom Sir Harry Lauder is descended. 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.
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".
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.
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.
During the 15th century James I consigned several of his political enemies, including Walter Stewart 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.
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 such as Prophet Peden, were sent. John Blackadder, one of the Covenanting martyrs, died on the Bass in 1686 and is buried at North Berwick, where a United Free Church was named after him.
Charles Maitland, 3rd Earl of Lauderdale held the Bass for James VII for a brief period after the Scottish parliament declared his abdication. The fortress was destroyed 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.
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 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.
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 the 5 January 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 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). 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). 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, 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 a range of 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 range of boat trips going around, and landing on, the islands throughout the year, weather permitting.
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.
Due to its imposing nature, prison and connection with Scottish history, the Bass has been featured in several fictional works.
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 local lore is credited as the inspiration for his short story The Wreckers.
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.
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.
The Bass Rock is a key location in The Fanatic (novel) 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".
The Bass Rock appears as background in one song sequence of the 1998 Bollywood movie Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.
An old saying has the following:
This meant to do something impossible.