Steve’s Sojourns The Bass Rock
The Bass Rock is the largest single island gannet colony in the world and described by Sir David Attenborough as one of Earth’s twelve wildlife wonders. Most people when seeing it for the first time are amazed at the sheer colour of it and assume that the white covering is guano whereas in fact it is simply the pure numbers of gannets.
There are over 150,000 gannets on the Bass and the scientific name for the Northern Gannet, Sula bassana or Morus bassanus, derives its name from the rock. The birds were traditionally known locally as ‘Solan Goose’ and as with other gannetries, such as St Kilda, the birds were harvested for their eggs and the flesh of the young chicks which were considered delicacies.
The lower ledges of the Bass are home to shags, razorbills and guillemots whilst puffins also nest in the ruins of the castle and prison below. The trip over to the Rock from the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick harbour can give you Cormorants, a selection gulls and numerous seaduck such as eider. On the way over the boatman will also start “chumming” for you and you can great shots of the birds diving into and under the water.
There are no facilities on the Bass so it’s a good idea to take food and drink, warm clothing etc. There is safe area where you can leave kit but there are no toilets. Sturdy walking boots are recommended and warm waterproof clothing is advised, as the weather can change suddenly.
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 real privilege to be able to do this job” she says “Not only do you meet some famous people such the Princess Royal and Sir David Attenborough but you get to meet some lovely members of the public. I can get real buzz out of making those people’s day out here so much more memorable.”
What Maggie modestly isn’t saying here is that visitors to the rock can include some of the top scientists and experts in the world who listen to her and seek her advice on the birds’ behaviour. Yet she also gives some of the best advice to ordinary visitors to the Bass.
Maggie is quite firm in her safety talk as she has to be. Landing on the Rock even with only a moderate swell running can be a risky business but she also gives some very sound advice when you’re out there.
“Stop for a while and put your camera down, you will see far more if you just still and watch, after all you’re here for three hours.” This advice proved invaluable to me as sitting still I soon found out what made a good photograph and the quality of my shots were far better by the end of the trip than I had anticipated. Plus too the joy of just sitting there with the birds wheeling and banking just above your head as they returned from the sea.
This was instantly followed by the greeting ritual of the adults and the chick’s beaks thrusting down inside the adult bird’s throat as they regurgitated their catch for the youngsters to feed. More to the point I had begun to understand the tempo of life on the rock a bit more.
“Yes that is one thing I have to say. You do see life in the raw here, red in tooth and claw, predation, injury, chicks being deserted. I never take it for granted being out here looking at incredible views of
The path way from the landing stage is quite flat at the bottom but does become quite steep as you travel up to the top near St Baldred’s chapel. It’s steep enough to make you stop and admire the view and the birds themselves. You will get very close to the birds, at times you have to shoo them off the path, but I cannot emphasise enough Maggie’s point about putting your camera down for a while, after all you are on there for three hours.
The top of the path at St Baldred’s Chapel is as far as you are allowed to go and the birds are very tightly packed here so you do get an excellent view of their behaviour and more often than not a selection of chicks in the various plumage stages of their development.
Nesting space on the rock is at a premium and many birds now nest no more than a few feet above the tide line. Their nests are so strong through being cemented together with excreta and spittle that they very rarely succumb to any waves that do wash over them. You must be prepared though for that lovely ”eau de seabird colony” fragrance that lingers here all the time as well as the wonderful, incessant “cack, cack, cack” noise.
Gannets are incredibly strong birds and as youngsters they need to be. When they are of 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 factors firstly jumping off very tall cliffs onto rocks and secondly not being able to fly properly.
Thus depending on what time of the year you go you are treated to the 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 what seems to be a selection of ramps and diving boards put here by Maggie to aid them in getting down to the shore. There is still however something worrying about watching them prepare to take the plunge to the rocks some 150 feet below, often they only jump when the pressure from those behind forces them to do so.
Looking up the sky is black with birds. One of the greatest experiences of my life was in a zodiac circumnavigating the Rock hugging its walls with the birds flying around above us like thousands of midges silhouetted against an evening sky. I can also state from bitter experience you should keep your mouth closed when you look up.
What does come over is Maggie’s love of the birds, try stepping over the designated pathways and see what happens, and her professionalism in making sure the human visitors return to the shore not just in one piece but also impressed and educated that little bit more about this marvellous jewel in nature’s crown.
From spring until October tickets to land may be purchased on the day, but it is advisable to book in advance by phone. It takes about an hour to get to the Rock. If the boatmen decide it’s safe to land you can stay on the island for three hours. However if the weather starts to turn Maggie will make a decision to evacuate the island.
The seabird centre also runs boat trips on high powered ribs and Catamaran cruises around the Rock from North Berwick. These trips get you right up close to the rock.
It’s also a good idea to visit the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick which has solar powered cameras located on the Rock which 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.
Scottish Seabird Centre
The Harbour, North Berwick