The Bass Rock, in the Firth of Forth, east of Edinburgh, is the largest single island Gannet colony in the world and has been described by Sir David Attenborough as one of Earth’s 12 wildlife wonders. There are over 150,000 Gannets on the Rock. In fact the scientific name for the Northern Gannet, Sula bassana or Morus bassanus, derives from the Bass Rock. Most people, when seeing it for the first time, are amazed at the colour of the Rock, and assume that the white is guano. However, it is simply the vast numbers of Gannets covering every surface. In the winter, when the birds have left for the warmer climes of the West African coast, the Rock becomes brown again.
In fact, the Bass Rock was once green, with sheep grazing on it. It is only comparatively recently that an explosion in the Gannet population has resulted in the birds taking over and the sheer numbers eroding any soil that was once there. The birds were traditionally known as Solan Goose and as with other gannetries, such as St Kilda, the number of birds was kept down as they were harvested for their eggs and the flesh of the young chicks, both of which were considered delicacies.
A retreat for early Christian hermits, including St Baldred in 600AD, the Bass Rock was later the fortified home of the Lauder family and, in Cromwell’s time, a notorious gaol for political and religious prisoners. In 1902 a lighthouse was built, which has been unmanned since 1988.
The lower ledges of the Bass are home to Shags, Razorbills and Guillemots, while Puffins nest in the ruins of the castle and prison below. The trip over to the Rock from the harbour at Dunbar can give you Cormorants, a selection of gulls and numerous seaducks such as Eider. During the trip the boatman will pause to throw in ‘chum’ and give you great views of the birds diving into and under the water.
Maggie Sheddan has worked on the Bass Rock for six years as the Scottish Seabird Centre’s guide, taking people out and helping them experience the uniqueness of the place.
“It is a real privilege to be able to do this job,” she says. “Not only do you see famous people such the Princess Royal and Sir David Attenborough, but you meet some lovely members of the public, too. I get a buzz out of making people’s days out here memorable.”
Visitors to the Rock can include some of the top scientists and experts in the world who seek Maggie’s advice on the birds’ behaviour. Not only that, but she offers sound advice for good visitor behaviour, too.
“Stop for a while and put your camera down,” she says. “You will see far more if you just stand still and watch. After all, you’re here for three hours.” There is certainly a joy in just sitting there with the birds wheeling and banking above your head as they return from the sea with food for their chicks. As you watch you begin to understand the tempo of life on the Rock.
“You do see life in the raw here,” says Maggie. “Red in tooth and claw, with predation, injury, and chicks being deserted. I never take it for granted. Being out here, looking at incredible views of the coast, I am often overwhelmed by the nature of my job.”
On my visit, Maggie’s dedication to her work had her crawling down a steep slide to rescue an emaciated, abandoned chick balanced on the edge of the deep muddy bog halfway up the south side of the Rock. It was taken down to the lighthouse and would be sent to North Berwick for recuperation before being released back into the wild. “This does show that the most difficult thing in this job is keeping clean,” says Maggie. It’s not surprising when she can find herself wading through dense undergrowth to rescue chicks that have jumped from the cliffs above to get to the sea and have missed. I even noticed her cutting back huge swathes of plants to rescue a pair of expensive sunglasses dropped by a visitor.
The pathway from the landing stage is flat at the bottom but becomes quite steep as you travel up to the top near St Baldred’s chapel. That’s no bad thing, as it’s steep enough to force you to stop every now and then to admire the view and the birds. You get very close to the Gannets, at times you have to shoo them off the path, and at the top the birds are very tightly packed together so you get excellent views of their behaviour and the chicks in the various plumage stages of their development.
Nesting space on the Rock is at a premium and many birds now build no more than a few feet above the tide line. Their nests are so strong through, being cemented together with excreta and spittle, they very rarely succumb to any waves that do wash over them. One thing the visitor must be prepared for is that lovely ‘eau de seabird colony’ fragrance that lingers here all year round, as well as the wonderful, incessant ‘cack, cack, cack’ noise.
Gannets are incredibly strong birds which, as youngsters, they need to be. When they reach a certain age the adults simply desert them and they are forced to make their way down to the sea in order to feed. Unfortunately this involves two hazardous factors – having to jump off very tall cliffs onto rocks while not being able to fly properly.
As a result, if you are there at the right time of the season, you are treated to a sound of frantic flapping, whooshing past your ear, closely followed by a loud thump as they land. The buildings of the Bass are topped by a selection of ramps and diving boards put there by Maggie to aid the chicks to get down to the shore. There is always a feeling of anxiety watching the young birds preparing to take the plunge to the rocks 150 feet below. Often they only jump when the pressure from those behind forces them to do so.
The other wonder of the Bass Rock is looking up at a sky that is black with birds. One of the greatest moments of my life was in a Zodiac circumnavigating the Rock and hugging its walls, with the birds flying around and above us, silhouetted against the evening sky like thousands of midges. It is an awe-inspiring experience. Although, if you take my advice, gleaned from a harsh lesson, keep your mouth closed when you look up!
There are no facilities on the Rock so it’s a good idea to take your own food and drink. There is a safe area where you can leave kit but there are no toilets. Sturdy walking boots are recommended as well as warm, waterproof clothing even when it’s fine, as the weather can change suddenly. There can be spray on the boat journey so waterproofs and covering for cameras and optical equipment are advised. The Scottish Seabird Centre also runs trips in high-powered boats around the Rock from North Berwick, in partnership with Sea.fari Adventures. These trips get you up close to the Rock, which you can’t do in regular boats. From April until the end of September tickets to land on the Rock may be purchased at the harbour on the day, but it is advisable to book in advance by phoning 01620 890202 as places are limited to just 11 per trip. Tickets cost £98 per person for a five and a half hour trip. If the weather does not permit a landing on the Rock, there is a 50% refund. There is very limited parking at the harbour but there are spaces at the leisure centre above the harbour, no more than 200 yards away. It’s also a good idea to visit the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick which has solar powered cameras located on the Rock to beam back live close up images of the seabirds to large screens. The images are sharp enough to read the ID rings on birds’ feet.