When you think of the best countries in the world for wildlife-spotting, you might not consider the UK. Right now you’re probably picturing herds of wildebeest in the Serengeti, or penguin colonies in Antarctica. So you might be surprised to learn that one of the wildlife wonders of the world – according to Sir David Attenborough, no less – is right here in Britain: the spectacular gannet colony on the Bass Rock in Scotland.
I’d never even heard of the Bass Rock, and wasn’t fussed about gannets, when I took the train up to North Berwick one sunny weekend in May. My destination was another seabird paradise, the nearby Isle of May, which is the summer residence of about 100,000 Atlantic puffins. I was laser-focussed on seeing and photographing these adorable little ‘clowns of the sea’, and I wasn’t about to be distracted by anything else.
It’s only when I’m already en route to the Isle of May that I discover what I’ve been missing. Our short boat trip takes us right past the Bass Rock, and for a brief moment as the skipper slows the engine so we can take a quick look, I feel like I’ve drifted into a seabird explosion.
It turns out the Bass Rock is not just a rock. Nor even a quite-interesting rock with some fun birds to look at. Scotland’s Bass Rock is, quite simply, one of the most intense wildlife experiences it’s possible to have, not just in the UK, but anywhere in the world.
What’s so special about the Bass Rock in Scotland?
The Bass Rock is home to the word’s largest colony of northern gannets. Every year during breeding season, over 150,000 of them return here to nest and rear their chicks. Every single perchable square foot of rock is occupied, so much so that the normally dark grey rock turns white from the sheer number of birds, and the noise of the boat engine is drowned out by their raucous and repetitive cackling.
You don’t even need to set foot on the Bass Rock itself to experience it. Because as you approach, the gannets come to you. Hundreds and thousands of them, launching off from their rocky perches and swirling overhead in an enormous, living cloud, gracefully soaring on two-metre wings before plummeting down into the sea to grab their next meal. You stare up, open-mouthed in awe at the yellow-and-white swarm around and above you – but be careful. With so many seabirds in the sky, you may find yourself ingesting your own, less welcome, mouthful.
We only pause for five minutes, but that’s enough to tell me that I NEED to go back and take a closer look. So that afternoon, on our return from the Isle of May, I charge back into the boat trips booking office, desperately hoping for a chance to take a closer look at this natural extravaganza.
Bass Rock landing trips are sold out, but I do manage to grab a last-minute place on a Bass Rock boat cruise, and less than an hour later I’m in my seat aboard the Seabird Centre’s 55-seat catamaran, camera at the ready, heading back into the eye of the gannet storm.
Gannets, gannets everywhere
Bass Rock boat trips last about two hours and take you on a gentle cruise, first past nearby Craigleith Island, and then to the Bass Rock and all the way round it, pausing every so often to allow the skipper to tell you more about the feathery inhabitants, and allowing plenty of time for photographs.
Since you stay on the boat, you can’t get close to the gannets, but the Bass Rock’s magnificence is not so much in the individual birds, as in their overwhelming numbers, the noise and the smell, the intensity of having thousands of them swarming and gliding all around, above, and alongside you.
History on the Bass Rock
As we gently turn around the perimeter, there are other things to see too. A set of stone steps leads from the landing site up to the crumbled remains of a castle, built at least as far back as 1405 by the rock’s first owners, the Lauder family.
Over the cacophony of gannet calls our guide tells us that in the 16th century the Bass Rock Castle was home to a small garrison of 100 men whose role was to defend the Firth of Forth from the English. Later, in the 17th century it was used by the Scottish Government to imprison political and religious opponents before being decommissioned in 1701.
The Bass Rock Lighthouse
On top of the castle there’s also a lighthouse, built in 1902 and designed, so we are told, by a celebrated Scottish lighthouse engineer named David Stevenson.
The skipper points out the colours of the lighthouse: white and yellow.
‘Remind you of anything?’ he asks.
We all frown, confused, as we float past cliffs packed with white and yellow gannets. Our brains have clearly been addled by the spectacle.
The lighthouse was manned until 1988; it’s now operated remotely from Edinburgh. What a job that must have been, living alone on this tiny island, just you and hundreds of thousands of extremely noisy and smelly neighbours.
The Bass Rock had another intrepid resident too, the Scottish monk St Baldred, who lived in the 8th century. He spent time here as a hermit in a chapel he built himself, and is thought to have died on the Rock. The ruins of the chapel are still there, though hard to spot from sea level.
But it doesn’t matter, because it’s all about the gannets anyway. The way they coat the cliffs like thousands of those little white polystyrene beads you get in beanbags. The way they churn up the air or pierce the surface of the sea like arrows raining down from a company of archers. Even if you’re not a wildlife photographer, or much of a bird-lover, you can’t help but be amazed by the experience.
Puffins? Who needs puffins?!
Visiting the Bass Rock in Scotland: Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Bass Rock?
The Bass Rock is a small island in the Firth of Forth. In geological terms it’s a freestanding volcanic plug, formed around 340 million years ago when magma hardened inside the vent of a volcano and then, over millions of years, the softer rock around it eroded away, leaving just the hard plug behind.
Today it’s a site of special scientific interest thanks to its colony of northern gannets – the largest in the world with over 150,000 birds.
Where is the Bass Rock?
The Bass Rock is located about 3 miles (5 km) north east of the charming seaside town of North Berwick, in the Scottish Borders. North Berwick is easily reachable by train from Edinburgh in about 30 minutes, and is also a really great place to stop off on a Scotland road trip.
How big is the Bass Rock?
The Bass Rock stands about 107 metres (351 feet) tall at its highest point and is almost a mile in circumference.
Who owns the Bass Rock?
The Bass Rock is privately-owned, and belongs to the Dalrymple family who bought it from the Lauder family in 1706. The current owner is Sir Hew Richard Dalrymple, the 11th baronet.
Does anyone live on the Bass Rock?
Over the course of its history the Bass Rock has been home to a castle, a prison and a lighthouse, but the last human inhabitant left in 1988 when the lighthouse was automated and now the only residents of the island are the northern gannets and a range of other seabirds including guillemots, razorbills, shags and gulls.
What are gannets?
Gannets are large seabirds, distinctive-looking thanks to their pale yellow heads and bright blue eyes. The northern gannet is the largest gannet, with a wingspan of nearly two metres.
Gannets are best known for their impressive diving skills. They can spot fish in the sea from heights of up to 70 metres (230 feet), and when they see their prey, they dive headfirst into the water with their wings tucked in, reaching speeds of up to 62 mph (100 km/h) and depths of 20-25 metres (60-80 feet).
They swallow the fish underwater before returning to the surface – so unlike puffins you won’t ever see a gannet flying with a fish in its beak.
Are gannets endangered?
Gannet numbers are doing well, and they are listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN red list of endangered species.
Interesting gannet fact: Gannets used to be hunted for food; in fact young gannets (which are called guga) are still considered a delicacy in the Faroe Islands and the Outer Hebrides.
How do you visit the Bass Rock?
The only way to visit the Bass Rock is on a boat trip, normally from North Berwick, though there are some departures from Dunbar. Boat trips are offered by a couple of different companies and usually take 1-2 hours to speed out to the rock, cruise round it, and return. Some trips also pass by nearby Craigleath Island as well.
Bass Rock boat trips cost about £26 per person.
Can you land on the Bass Rock?
The only company licensed to land on the Bass Rock is the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick. Landing trips cost £135 and, as the name suggests, offer a unique chance to get up close to this amazing colony. Be aware that if there is too much swell or the weather is bad, landing on the Bass Rock may be impossible, and landing trips are frequently cancelled if the staff decide it’s not safe.
For photographers, the Seabird Centre also offer gannet diving trips, where they throw food into the water to encourage the gannets to show off their spectacular diving skills for your camera.
What should I bring on a Bass Rock boat trip?
The weather in Scotland is unpredictable and changeable and it can be cold on the water, so make sure you check the forecast before you travel, and bring a warm jacket if necessary. Wear comfortable clothes and bring waterproofs. And don’t forget your camera!
When is the best time to visit the Bass Rock?
Boat trips to the Bass Rock run from April to September. They’re very popular so make sure you book well in advance, though if you are a solo traveller like me you might get lucky with a cancellation.
If you visit at the start of the season you will see gannets nest-building and incubating eggs; from late June onwards the chicks will start to hatch and if you do a landing trip in late July or August you should get to see lots of chicks.
Where is the best place to stay near the Bass Rock?
North Berwick is a really cute seaside town not far from Edinburgh. It has two beaches, a pretty harbour, and a high street crammed with shops, cafes, bars and restaurants. There are loads of guest houses and B&Bs to suit a range of tastes and budgets, so click the link and pick one that takes your fancy. It’s a lovely place for a wander, and definitely worth adding to your Scotland itinerary.
I paid in full for my Bass Rock boat trip. All opinions are my own and all prices correct at the time of writing. There is more still to come so please do sign up to updates by email to get notifications about new posts, or follow me on Twitter or Instagram.
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