Sailing to Save Lives

The Bass Rock is a volcanic crag in the Firth of Forth that towers 106 metres above sea level. Located a little over a mile from the shore, it was originally used as a retreat for Christians and was allegedly the home of Saint Baldred in the early seventh century AD. It is not known precisely when Bass Rock Castle was built but the Lauder family acquired the island during the reign of Malcolm III (1058-1093). It is likely they built a residence on the site of the later castle around this time although a significant portion of the island remained under church control until 1316. The first mention of any castle dates from a sixteenth century record which suggests that in 1406 Robert III sent his son, James (later James I), to the Bass Rock Castle to ensure his safety. The first surviving contemporary record dates from 1424 when James I sent his uncle – Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl – to the castle as a prisoner. On both occasions the castle was owned by Sir Robert Lauder. The family retained ownership of the castle and the favour of the King with the Bass Rock hosting James IV in 1497 and James VI in 1581.

Bass Rock Castle occupied a flat terrace about 30 metres above sea level on the south-east side of the island overlooking the only landing point. The castle inevitably evolved over time but by the seventeenth century consisted of a curtain wall, 12 metres tall, which enclosed the terrace and was augmented by numerous round towers. A projecting wall descended down from the castle to a round tower which overlooked the landing point. This was equipped with artillery positions and later was known as Crane Battery due to it being fitted with a crane to lift supplies from adjacent vessels. Whilst many supplies would have been imported onto the island, the castle had its own small farm with a flock of sheep and would have also made use of the plentiful resources of the Forth Estuary.

The castle’s main role seems to have been to serve as a prison. In 1428 Neil Bhass Mackay was incarcerated within the castle as a hostage to ensure the good behaviour of his father. He remained a prisoner there until 1437 when he escaped and became Chief of Clan Mackay. However, despite its role as a gaol, the castle also had military significance. During the War of the Rough Wooing – where England attempted to force a marriage between Mary, Queen of Scots and Edward VI – the English unsuccessfully attempted to capture the rock on two attempts (1548 and 1549). A decade later Mary, Queen of Scots installed a garrison of 100 men on the Bass Rock in order to ensure control of the Firth of Forth.

The Bass Rock passed into the hands of Sir Patrick Hepburn of Waughton, a Covenanter during the turbulent years of the Wars of Three Kingdoms. He used the site to bombard English supply ships heading into Leith following the Cromwellian invasion of southern Scotland after the Battle of Dunbar (1650). The garrison were duly besieged and eventually starved into surrender in April 1652. Thereafter the island and castle were returned to the Lauder family but in 1671 were taken into Crown control and was used by the Scottish Government as a prison for both religious and political prisoners. One notable inmate was John Blackadder, a Covenanter, who died on Bass Rock in 1686 during the reign of the Catholic James VII (II of England). Between 1691 and 1694 the castle was used to hold Jacobite prisoners. Both castle and prison were decommissioned by the Scottish Government in 1701 and the island was sold to Hew Dalrymple in 1706. A lighthouse was built within the former castle enclosure in 1902. Today the island is uninhabited but is home to a large colony of gannets.