A voyage around three islands in the Forth

The Scottish Seabird centre in North Berwick run a number of boat trips from the harbour. We joined them for their voyage round three of the offshore islands; the Lamb, Craigleith and the Bass Rock which takes 90 minutes. Waterproofs and life jackets are provided. Fortunately, the day we went was very still and quiet in the East Beach.

We met our boat in the harbour.

The first island we visited was the Lamb. The small uninhabited island is home to cormorants, guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes, fulmars and herring gulls.

Ownership of the island traditionally lay with the feudal barony of Dirleton. In 2000, Brazilian businessman Camilo Agasim-Pereira bought the title and with it the island. Then, in 2009 it was bought by Uri Geller, who claimed it was the hiding place for a hoard of ancient Egyptian treasure. This theory was based on the fact that the layout of the islands of Lamb, Fidra and Craigleith seems to mirror the layout of the pyramids of Giza. From the Lamb you can see Fidra.

We then headed over to Craigleith which is visible from our house and is also is home to many sea birds.

In the 1990s it was home to 10,000 pairs of breeding puffins. But numbers reduced dramatically due the invasion of a non-native plant: Tree Mallow (Lavatera arborea) which grows up to nine feet high. It choked the puffin burrows and preventing the birds from nesting and rearing their chicks. To tackle this problem, the Scottish Seabird Centre set up a project called SOS Puffin in 2007. Work parties of volunteers make regular trips to Craigleith and the neighbouring islands of Fidra and the Lamb to cut down tree mallow. So far over 320 work parties have made regular trips to the islands to keep the tree mallow under control. This has largely been achieved. The northern half of the Island is now largely free of tree mallow, having been replaced with grasses, allowing puffins to breed again and numbers to recover. We saw some in the water as well as on the island.

The Isle of May which we visited in 2019;

https://carolhenshaw.com/2019/07/21/the-isle-of-may/  was visible in the distance.

The last island was the Bass Rock. I have photographed it several times from various points on the shore:

 but this was the first approach by sea. It has the world’s largest colony of northern gannets although numbers dropped last year due to avian flu. At this time of year, they are getting their nests ready for laying and we saw a few bringing sea weed back for them.

We sailed round the island

past the caves and the lighthouse.

The ruins of the fortress and the old chapel are on the rock. We then left the Bass Rock and returned to North Berwick harbour via Seacliff

Tantallon Castle

and Gin Head.

The Bass Rock

The Bass Rock is one of several volcanic remnants locally. It sits in the Firth of Forth near North Berwick and is just over 106 metres high. It is visible from the East Beach in Milsey Bay

the West Strand

from Drift Café above Canty Bay

and from Seacliff Beach.

The Bass has the remains of St Baldred’s ancient chapel on it. He used it as a retreat until he died in 606AD. The chapel was consecrated in his honour in 1542 and used as an occasional place of worship until the Reformation.  From the 15th to the 18th century, it was used as a prison; not for ordinary prisoners but those held for religious or political reasons. The Scottish kings used it. In 1406 Robert III put his son, the future King James for safekeeping from his enemies. James later imprisoned one of his enemies, Walter Stewart Earl of Atholl for treason before his execution in 1424. In 1428 14 year old Neil Bhass Mackay was held there as a hostage before he escaped in 1437 and became Mackay clan chief.

The Stuart Monarchy Restoration in 1660 was more popular in Scotland than the reign of Cromwell. However, when the Act of Supremacy had been passed which made the King supreme judge in all manners civil and ecclesiastical, installing bishops and another act annulled the laws in favour of the Presbyterians, things changed. Nonconformist held what were called conventicles: meetings in private houses, churches or fields, sometimes at night. In 1670 an act was passed prohibiting house conventicles and making it a capital crime to preach at field canticles. It was thought that the Bass Rock would be an ideal place for the confinement of nonconformists so in 1671 the Crown bought the Rock and refortified it to be used as a prison. Between 1672 and 1688 several Presbyterian Covenanters were imprisoned there and from 1688 to 1692 supporters of the deposed Jacobite Kings James II and VII.

The government abandoned the Rock in 1701 and Sir Hew Dalrymple bought it in 1707. His descendants still own it. The lighthouse was constructed in 1902 on the site of the castle keep by David Stevenson who demolished some of the older buildings. It was automated in 1988. In normal times 30-40,000 pairs of  gannets nest there in summer making it the largest northern gannet colony. There are also razorbills, puffins, guillemots, cormorants, eider ducks and other gulls. Appropriately the Latin name of the gannet is Sula bassanis.

We moved to North Berwick in late 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. No boat trips out to the Bass Rock were running. When they commenced in 2021, they were all booked up. This year, most were cancelled due to avian flu which has had a major impact on the gannet population.