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Issue 66 - Battle of the Bass

Scotland Magazine Issue 66
December 2012


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Battle of the Bass

James Irvine Robertson looks at the history of Bass Rock

It was Scotland's Alcatraz. A fortress built on an island, a steep-sided volcanic plug that erupts 350 feet from the Firth of Forth just over a mile off North Berwick to the south. From the mainland large parts of the island look white owing to the guano from the razorbills, guillemots, cormorants, puffins, eider duck, various gull species and above all the 50,000 pairs of gannets that have nested there from time immemorial.

This bird's Latin name Morus bassanus is derived from the word Bass, the original meaning of which is lost. There is no harbour; now the rock is uninhabited and landing is often impossible in the stormy seas but tourists, as they have done for centuries, make the mile circuit of the island and marvel at the spectacle created by 10 per cent of the world's population of gannets.

The island was a retreat for early Christian hermits; St Baldred is said to have lived there in 600 A. D. The first recorded prisoner was in 1424 when James I placed his cousin Walter Stewart in the castle, built beside the only possible landing point on the south side, until his execution the following year. Then 14 year old Neil MacKay, the eldest son of the chief, was sent to the rock in 1428 as hostage for his father's good behaviour and stayed there for eight years. It became a state prison, a cold, stormswept, squalid place to hold political and religious internees, particularly leading Covenanters in the late 17th century, mostly ministers and preachers, though a few women are recorded as being incarcerated there, and one unfortunate popish priest.

The first Jacobite Rising after the accession of William of Orange never recovered from the death of its leader Viscount Dundee at the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. Although it rumbled on until the Glencoe massacre in 1692, Cromdale was the last formal engagement in the spring of 1690 where the rebels were scattered. Four captured Jacobite officers were imprisoned on the Bass, Lieutenant Middleton, Lieutenant Halyburton, Ensign Roy, and Ensign Dunbar, and they hatched a plan.

Coal was landed on the island using a crane and members of the garrison would go down to the exposed landing place to help. On 16th June 1691, the arrival of the collier coincided with the absence of the castle governor and the majority of the 50- strong garrison on the mainland. Most of the remaining guards went beyond three of the four gates between the castle to the sea and the Jacobites overpowered the three soldiers left and locked the others out. The captured men, who included the gunner, were pressed into service and, with the castle's cannon pointing at them, those outside had no option but to return to the mainland in the supply boat. That evening four Jacobite coconspirators on the mainland stole a longboat, loaded with provisions, a hogshead of brandy, barrels of beer, butter, salt, vinegar and enough fish and meal to keep them all for months, and rowed out to join them.

With the seas to the south commanded by the castle's guns and sheer cliff round the rest of the island, a direct assault was futile. The following morning troops lined the coast to prevent any attempts to resupply the Bass and, at night, a patrol of two boats with a dozen men apiece was set up to circle the island as a blockade. This proved inadequate and the patrol was strengthened with a couple of ships of 30 tons apiece. But, with the wind gauge, it was all too easy for little vessels to scud into the shelter of the guns and unload at leisure. It proved impossible to stop supplies being landed and others - including women - joining the castle's new residents. They had two boats; one was sent across the firth to Fife and returned with men and provisions. Blissfully unaware of the new order, a Danish ship sailed, within artillery range of the Bass and was stripped of anything useful before being sent on its way.

News of the castle's capture swiftly spread and the French sent a frigate to deliver more stores.

The Admiralty sent two warships to the rock to 'break their crane and boats, dismount their cannon and ruining what houses were upon it.' But a land-based cannon is more dangerous than one on a pitching ship and the sea-borne guns could not elevate sufficiently to do damage. All the assault achieved was providing the castle with another 500 cannon balls that were added to the bulging arsenal.

Troops were stationed to prevent the Jacobites pillaging the coast, but they raided the Isle of May for their coal and pirated with virtual impunity ships crossing the firth. The government buckled down, sending a frigate, the Lion, and two supporting gunboats to cruise constantly round the Bass. Any civilian vessel trying to sail between the island and the mainland was a declared a lawful prize and a ship moored down the coast to intercept and warn foreign craft. But nothing could keep boats, many of them from France, slipping beneath the protection of the battery of 14 cannons in the castle.

The Bass became the last piece of British soil controlled by King James’ supporters. Their fame spread through Europe and the government was powerless to do anything about it. But in the spring of 1694 the Lion beat off a privateer from Dunkirk bringing vital supplies. The captain of the garrison, Lieutenant Middleton, began negotiations to yield up the castle and an agreement was reached. The Jacobites were to be allowed complete freedom, as was anyone who had assisted them. They could keep their weapons, go where they pleased and sell all the goods they had amassed if they so desired. Should they wish to go to France, the government would provide them with transport - and pay the bill. The terms were accepted. Middleton and the others handed over the castle and lived happily ever after.

Subsequently the government of King William ordered the complete destruction of the castle and since then, bar much of the 20th century when a lighthouse was built and manned, the Bass has been left to the sea birds.