Scotland’s Alcatraz

23 Mar 2021

By Elaine West, Visitor Services Assistant

Bass Rock is a small island of volcanic rock located off the Scottish Coast, which rises over 100 metres above sea level. The island has been used as a religious retreat, a fortress, a prison, a place to fish, to collect specimens and finally as a wildlife sanctuary.

This exact reconstruction of such a remote area would have been both unusual and impressive to ornithologists in the 1900s, as well as fascinating to visitors of the Museum. This was because, even a hundred years ago, Bass Rock was known to be a famous site for bird life.

​The Bass Rock display was constructed in 1903 thanks to a legacy bequeathed to Ipswich Museum by Lord John Hervey (1841-1902) the third President of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and Natural History.


A black and white photograph of a man in a bearded man in a black suit. The photograph is of the man's face and chest. He is looking off to the right

Lord John Hervey photograph from Ipswich Museum’s records


Collecting Specimens

Edward Packard, who was Chairman of the Museum Committee, visited Bass Rock with Frank Woolnough, the Curator of Ipswich Museum. His aim was to obtain specimens, take photographs and make sketches of the area, so the display could be accurately reconstructed at Ipswich Museum.


The Legacy

A hand written list in italicised wiriting.

List from Ipswich Museum’s records, dating from 1903.

The display consisted of various gannets (seabirds), razorbills, guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes, nests, eggs and even seaweed. The original display included 58 specimens, many of which are still on display.




A black and white photograph of a large diorama behind glass. The scene depicts a sheer cliff face with flying and perched birds

The original Bass Rock display

Having been on display for just over 100 years, the Bass Rock was cleaned and repaired in 2006. The rock face was originally constructed by Robert Hall from the British Museum and, when the rocks were cleaned, signatures were found on them dating back to 1915:


3 examples of signatures and sets of initials written onto what looks like rock


Even though the display was over 100 years old the salt from the sea could still be smelt when the seaweed was cleaned.


First Human Inhabitants

Bass Rock is an island located in the Firth of Forth off the East coast of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Although the island has long been an important location for seabirds it also has an interesting history of human habitation. The rock was said to have first been home to St Baldred, an early Christian monk in around 600 AD. The remains of his chapel are still present today.


Lauder Family

A few centuries later, Malcolm III of Scotland is said to have gifted the island to the Lauder family during his reign between 1058-1093AD, but the chapel remained under the control of the church until a much later date. There is documentation dating back as far as 1493, which shows that the Lauder family tried to restore the chapel on numerous occasions over the 600 years it was in their possession. They also constructed a castle on the island and its ruins are still visible today. In 1406 Robert III used the castle to protect his son, who would soon become James I. Its location and its inaccessibility made for a perfect impenetrable fortress.



The rock was even used as a prison from the 15th Century, earning it the nickname of Scotland’s Alcatraz. The Lauder family lost possession of the Bass Rock in the 1600s, when Cromwell claimed the island as property of the crown. However the castle continued to be used as a prison for political and religious prisoners.



In 1691 four Jacobite prisoners managed to seize control of the island when most of the soldiers were dealing with a delivery of coal! The soldiers were forced to return to the mainland on the supply boat, leaving the prisoners in charge. The four Catholic Jacobite officers were originally imprisoned by the Government, as they were opposed to the reign of Protestant Mary II and her husband William III. They believed that the exiled James VII had been appointed by God and his removal from the throne was illegitimate, as the divine right of Kings could not be removed by their subjects. The decision to take control of the Bass Rock proved to be a clever manoeuvre. The Government were unable to regain control of the island due to the position of the castle and the island’s natural defences, which made the rock impenetrable. In addition, many Jacobite supporters using small boats would discreetly send supplies to the liberated prisoners. The island remained under the prisoners’ control for three years when, in 1694, an agreement was reached that granted the prisoners and their associates freedom.


Dalyrmple family

The Dalyrmple family purchased the island from the Government in 1706 and the island remains in their family to this day. The rock was let out to tenants until WWI and used for fishing and even for sheep to graze on! In 1902 a lighthouse was built using rocks from the partly demolished castle and in 1988 it became automated, meaning that the lighthouse was operated remotely. At the top of the island, where there was once a freshwater well, is now a foghorn, which sounds to warn vessels of hazards in foggy conditions when the lighthouse is less effective. To build anything in such a remote location was an engineering triumph, especially as there was only one accessible point to the island and any deliveries had to be lowered down by crane. This is probably why the stone from the castle was reused to construct the lighthouse.


Wildlife sanctuary


A drawing of a Northern Gannet in flight. The body of th ebird is white with a yellow head. The tips of it's wings are dark grey


Bass Rock is now home to one of the world’s largest colonies of gannets, with over 48,000 pairs of northern gannets breeding there. There are so many birds on the rock during the Spring and Summer that the cliff face looks white! The lack of human presence means that nature has regained control of the island. The Bass Rock has now been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of these birds and access is now restricted by the Seabird Centre that manage the wildlife sanctuary and protect the birds.


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