Bass Rock: North Berwick Icon

Think North Berwick: think Bass Rock.

Bass Rock is one of two iconic North Berwick landmarks (the other being North Berwick Law). It is the subject of many a painting, sketch or photograph created by the artists and visitors who are drawn to the area by the light, the coast and the beautiful town.

Where is Bass Rock in Scotland

Bass Rock is an island at the eastern end of the Firth of Forth. It is about 2 km (1 mile) offshore, and 5 km from North Berwick. It has an area of about 3 hectares (7 acres).

The Rock can be seen from many vantage points in and around North Berwick, and the flat East Lothian countryside means it is visible for miles around. As you travel around the area it often seems to float up unexpectedly into view.

What is Bass Rock?

Bass Rock is a weathered volcanic plug of igneous rock just over 100m high at its highest point. The Rock dates from the carboniferous era. It is a similar geological formation to the nearby Law, as well as the Edinburgh landmarks of Castle Rock, Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat. The rock is primarily composed of phonolitic trachyte rock, formed during the Carboniferous period.

All of these hard volcanic rock formations resisted the grinding and smoothing effects of glaciation in the last ice age, leaving them as prominent features in the otherwise ice-flattened landscapes.

Bass Rock cliffs
Cliffs of Bass Rock

The Firth of Forth, which can be considered as a fjord, was formed by the Forth Glacier during the last glacial period. This drainage basin covers a wide geographical area, including places as far as Ben Lomond, Cumbernauld, Harthill, Penicuik, and the edges of Gleneagles Golf Course.

Bass Rock is part of a group of islands situated in the outer Firth, off the coast of East Lothian near North Berwick and Gullane. This particular island group includes the Isle of May, Craigleith, Lamb, Fidra, and Eyebroughy.

Bass Rock from the grasses behind the East Beach

History of Bass Rock

Bass Rock has a rich history dating back centuries. The island was once home to a hermitage founded by East Lothian saint, Baldred, around 600 AD. The ruins of St Baldred’s Chapel, built on the site of St Baldred’s hermitage can still be seen on the island today.

In the 11th century, the Bass Rock became a strategic stronghold due to its inaccessibility. It is thought that King Malcolm III of Scotland (1058 to 1093) granted the island, along with a castle, to Walter Stewart. The Lawedre (Lauder Family) eventually inherited the island and the castle, now known as the Bass Rock Castle, in the 14th century. Sir Robert Lauder (1440-1508), known as Sir Robert Lauder of the Bass, a key figure in Scottish history, became the owner of the Bass Rock.

The Lauders were allies of the the Scottish kings of the period and from the 15th Century the island was often used as a prison to house political prisoners.

During the Commonwealth period, Bass Rock was seized by the forces of Oliver Cromwell, and from 1691 the island was used a prison for over 100 royalists and covenanters (those who supported the primacy of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland).

In the 1706, Bass Rock was purchased by Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple, a Scottish baronet, and it remains under the ownership of the Hamilton-Dalrymple Family today.

The excellent video below features drone footage over the island, showing the fortifications and other signs of human habitation.

The Gannets of Bass Rock

Bass Rock is now a nature reserve and houses what is reported to be the world’s largest colony of northern gannets. In fact the scientific name for these birds, Sula bassana, references their association with the Bass.

In the summer months the island shimmers white in the sunlight, as a result of being covered completely by the 150,000 strong colony of gannets (and their droppings).

Bass Rock gannets
Gannets on Bass Rock

Traditionally, gannets were a source of food for locals, the chicks were considered a delicacy and the eggs were harvested.

Now, the island and its inhabitants are protected. They are watched over by the cameras of the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick Harbour, which enable visitors to see the birds in situ, without disturbing their nesting grounds.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you visit Bass Rock?

You can visit Bass Rock, but you cannot land on the Island. The Bass is now a protected nature reserve and, only accessible by those with special permission. However, you can take a boat trip to Bass Rock, as noted below.

What are the best boat trips to Bass Rock?

There are several boat trips available to Bass Rock, but one highly recommended option is to take a boat from the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick. These trips allow visitors to get up close to Bass Rock and its abundant birdlife. I took all the close up images on this page were from the Seabird centre boat pictured below. There are more images of Bass Rock that I took from various vantage points around North Berwic here.

Seabird centre boat

When is the optimal time to see gannets?

The optimal time to see gannets on Bass Rock is between April and September, when the colony is at its peak. During this period, visitors can witness the daily life of these magnificent seabirds and enjoy the spectacle of thousands of gannets diving and nesting on the rock.

What’s the ideal season to visit?

The ideal season to visit the Bass is between April and September, coinciding with the presence of the gannet colony. This timeframe allows visitors to experience not only the incredible birdlife but also the longer hours of daylight and more pleasant weather conditions that prevail during the Scottish spring and summer months.

Are there puffins on the Bass?

While Bass Rock is most famous for its gannet colony, it is also home to a variety of other seabirds, including a small population of Atlantic puffins. Although the number of puffins on the island is far less than that of the gannets, visitors may still have the opportunity to spot these colourful and charismatic birds during their visit.

What is the historical significance of the Rock?

As noted above, Bass Rock has a rich history. It has been used as a prison, a retreat for early Christian hermits, and even as a fortress during times of conflict.

Is there a lighthouse on Bass Rock?

Yes, there is a lighthouse on Bass Rock which was constructed in 1902 by David Stevenson (cousin of writer Robert Louis Stevenson. The lighthouse serves as an important navigational aid for vessels traveling through the Firth of Forth. However, it is not open to the general public and can only be viewed from a distance during boat trips around the island.

Bass Rock lighthouse

All images taken by the author

3 thoughts on “Bass Rock: North Berwick Icon”

Leave a Comment