Pecking order at Bass Rock
I had left Glasgow at a little before five in the morning, the only car on the road, the eyes of startled foxes shining green as traffic lights. It would have been possible to take the lunchtime sailing instead, but I wanted that feeling of travelling beyond the quiet dark city, from the centre to the edge, towards the noise and wildness and whiteness of the Bass. Already, as the Fisher Lassie ploughs through the waves, Dunbar harbour feels very far behind.
“Just look at that,” says Gordon Easingwood, the skipper, nodding towards the island. “Would you no’ say that’s awesome?”
Being a 63-year-old lobsterman and not a daft teenage boy, Easingwood is using the word “awesome” in its older, truer meaning of something weird, almost dreadful, provoking reverential fear and wonder. And he’s quite right. The Bass Rock is awesome. Robert Louis Stevenson, in Catriona, called it “an unco place by night, unco by day” and noted its unsettling sounds, worse on calm evenings, when the haunting noise of water in the tunnel that runs through the crag jangles the nerves of anyone attempting to sleep.
The Bass Rock is a huge lump of volcanic clinkstone, 350 feet high, red with iron in places and in others a serrated grey. At its base, where it meets the Firth of Forth, it bristles with limpets and is slick with kelp. From the air or from the battlements of Tantallon Castle, it looks like an iceberg, but this glacial appearance is an illusion.
As the Fisher Lassie nears the island, it becomes apparent that what seemed a cloak of ice or snow is in fact thousands of birds – to be specific, gannets or Morus bassanus.
Around 150,000 gannets call the Bass Rock home; it’s the largest concentration of the species on any single island in the world. Though St Kilda has slightly more, the gannets there are spread across the archipelago. Scotland, as a whole, has 60 per cent of the world’s gannet population. The birds live and breed on the Bass Rock between February and October, arriving from warmer climbs around Valentine’s Day with sweet loving on their minds.
We put in at the East Landing, one of two relatively safe places, depending on wind and tide, where it is possible to get on to the island. There are 12 of us on board the small lobster boat, not counting the two crew, mostly amateur wildlife photographers.
As soon as the first passenger steps up on to the gunnel, a gannet flings itself on to the deck with a loud bang. This is quite alarming. They are Britain’s largest seabird, with a six-foot wingspan and a wicked bill. They are panicky and can be aggressive. Last month, a man had an eye pecked out when he tried to rescue an injured gannet on a beach in South Wales.
Eric Gray, one of the Fisher Lassie crewmen, grabs the gannet, holding its bill closed and heaves it overboard. He’s left bleeding a little from one hand. “Don’t worry about your fingers,” the skipper tells him. “They’ll grow back.”
“You should have distracted it with something,” says Maggie Sheddan, the guide on these tours run by North Berwick’s Scottish Seabird Centre.
“If I’d had a hammer,” Eric replies wryly, “I could have distracted it with that.” Clubbing gannets, as Eric hints, is the way to kill them. You can’t really wring their necks; they have tough muscles there, designed to withstand the impact of hitting the water at up to 60mph as they dive for fish. The guga-hunters from the northern community of Ness on Lewis club the gannet chicks – or gugas – they catch each year during their annual trip to the small island of Sula Sgeir. Some 2,000 gugas are taken and eaten. The hunt is licensed by the Scottish Government on the grounds of its cultural significance. On the Bass Rock, as elsewhere, gannets are a protected species.
Standing on the deck of the Fisher Lassie, feeling the swell, it is astonishing to look up at the rock. It is like being inside one of those photographs of ticker-tape parades in New York. In this case, the skyscrapers are the sharp and vertiginous cliffs on every tiny ledge of which sits a bird. The air is thick with gannets wheeling and gliding, approximately cruciform in silhouette. There are so many of them in the air that it is a miracle they do not collide. As they come in to land, their wings form a V and there is something of the avenging angel about their appearance – ghostly, noble and without mercy.
We walk on to the Bass up steep stone steps and through the ruins of the old prison. This was, during the late 17th century, a sort of Scottish Alcatraz. Covenanting preachers were imprisoned here, their diet including herring and mackerel caught and regurgitated by the gannets. The island also includes the remnants of a garrison and a tiny church.
St Baldred’s Chapel is a stone shell with gannets perched on every arch and in the gap where the keystone should be. It is thought to have been built in the 16th century on the site where the saint, who died in 606AD, had his hermit’s cell. In 1961, the chapel became home to Dr Bryan Nelson, the world’s foremost expert on gannets, who spent three years living on the Bass Rock with his wife June. They erected a wooden hut, 12 feet by eight, inside the chapel walls, and spent a jolly and productive time studying the birds and developing a taste for herring gull egg and chips. Now 79 and living in Galloway, he recalls: “It was a very restricted life and the weather was often severe, but the experience was peculiarly satisfying because you were cut off from all the distractions of everyday life and you could concentrate entirely on your work. You become tremendously attached to a romantic, wild place like that.”
He and June shared the Bass at that time with three lighthouse-keepers. But with the coming of automation, the lighthouse, which was built in 1902 by the Stevenson family, has lain empty since 1988. Inside, it smells of rot. A rust-crusted tobacco tin full of tacks sits alone on a shelf. A window sill is covered in feathers. There is a very strong sense, everywhere on the Bass Rock, that this is no longer a place for humans. The birds have taken over almost entirely. The ruinous fortifications add to the idea that this is a surrendered territory.
“Just seven years ago, I could walk all the way round the chapel and up that path,” says Maggie Sheddan. “I remember saying to the Seabird Centre, ‘You’ve got to land regularly or you’re going to lose the path.’ And they have. It’s really a no-go area.”
Everywhere you look, there are gannets. They have annexed every single spare patch of ground. The Bass Rock has been described as “a seabird city” and that’s exactly how it feels – a great thronging wen of the sort Hogarth would recognise, full of drama and violence and sexuality and death.
Visiting is an entire sensory experience. The Bass Rock stinks so strongly of ammonia from the guano that you can almost taste it. Fishermen are said to be able to navigate in the fog by the reek. Then there is the noise. The massed gannets utter a sort of mesmeric, pulsing croak, which makes perfect sense of their Shetlandic name, Crockak. They are very loud indeed. Lower down the rock, perched on the crooked chimney pots of an old cottage, a gang of gallus herring gulls try to keep their spirits up with a defiant seaside shriek, but they are like travelling support at a football match, their noise drowned out by the home fans.
Although the gannets protect their nests and gugas very aggressively, pecking at each other and at visitors, it is possible to get surprisingly close, actually within arm’s length, if you move slowly and calmly. The most striking feature, up close, are the birds’ eyes, which are surrounded by a light blue rim, recalling the pale water round a Hebridean island.
After three hours on the Bass it is time to return. Gordon and Eric have been away hauling up their lobster pots while we’ve been on the island, and the Fisher Lassie is full of their catch. The skipper knows these waters incredibly well. He’s fished them since leaving school in 1963. He knows all the rocks and treacherous shallows by their local names – Satan’s Bush, The Beggar’s Cup, Wallace’s Head. Yet he never tires of the Bass Rock or its gannets. “Look at that one banking,” he says. “It’s like Concorde.”
As the skipper steers the boat back to Dunbar, Eric throws whiting and flatfish into the water. This creates a sensation among the gannets; they fold up their wings and dive at great speed into the waves, visible beneath the surface, pale green and fizzing. The Hockney splashes of their ingress have barely subsided when they are up and out again, swallowing the fish.
It is extraordinary to think that by November this will all be over. Most of the gannets will have fled their craggy city in search of winter sun and the Bass Rock will become – as Stevenson might have put it – unco quiet once more. For the moment, though, it remains awesomely alive out there in all that freezing, killing vastness. It has been a privilege to see it.