Bass Rock opens to human visitors

THE GANNETS of the Bass Rock, 150,000 of them at peak of season, are a far-travelled breed. Early each year, they make the arduous return journey from Mediterranean and equatorial African waters to their birthplace, the 350ft high outcrop of volcanic rock which rears from the Firth of Forth.

The largest "single rock" colony of northern gannets in the world (the largest colony, at St Kilda, is scattered over three sea stacks), the Bass Rock has been described by Sir David Attenborough as "one of the 12 wildlife wonders of the world".

Now, for the first time, expertly guided photographic trips are being granted permission to land on the rock on a regular basis by Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple, whose family have owned the islet, three miles off North Berwick, since 1707.

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For years a local boat, the Sula II, has taken daily excursions round the rock in season. This month, however, the Scottish Seabird centre, established at North Berwick in 2001 with remote CCTV coverage of the Bass nesting sites, has started offering guided photographic trips actually on the island. Further guided, but non-landing, excursions around the rock are due to start on 30 May.

The additional excursions are to help answer growing demand, explains Lynda Dalgleish, marketing manager of the Scottish Seabird centre. "Every day, we get around 50 calls from people wanting to go out to the Bass," she said.

Already, many of the exclusive photographic trips, at 85 per head, are booked up: "We're only doing so many landings, because we want to do it sustainably. We have this fantastic spectacle and we don't want to ruin the very thing that we're celebrating."

The gannets which fill the sky around the Bass, plummeting into the sea from as high as 100ft, are Britain's largest seabirds, their scientific name, Morus bassanus (formerly Sula bassana), derived from the rock itself. Powerful flyers, gannets from the Bass have been satellite-tracked as far as Norwegian waters on hunting expeditions.

It is not just its natural history which is notable. The first human inhabitant is said to have been St Baldred. But it was as an impregnable fortress that the Rock became known, housing prisoners, such as troublesome Covenanting preachers.

The gannet, or solan goose, as it was known, was once a domestic essentia l. King Charles II once remarked that the two things he liked least about Scotland were "solan goose and the Solemn League and Covenant".