The Out About Scotland complete guide to the Bass Rock offshore East Lothian
Category: Animals, Historic site, Island, Landmark
Suitable for ages: 5 to 10 years, 11 to 18 years, 18+ years, 65+ years
Ideal for: Couples, Families, Groups, Solo travellers
I rate it: 9 out of 10
About the Bass Rock
Just over a mile off the shore of North Berwick lies one of the most impressive islands in the Forth Estuary – the mighty Bass Rock. This rock outcrop is home to the largest northern gannet colony in the world and bird watchers from across the planet come here to take boat trips around the island to watch thousands of swarming birds nest and hunt for food.
The Bass Rock is absolutely enormous and reaches 107 metres above sea level at its highest point, with most of the sides of this 320 million-year-old volcanic plug standing almost vertical above the pounding waves of the Firth of Forth.
Swirling above it are countless birds in a seemingly endless display of aerial acrobatics in flocks so big it makes your head spin to look up at them. Perhaps this is why Sir David Attenborough has described the Bass Rock as one of the twelve wildlife wonders of the world (or was it Chris Packham?).
The gannets put on a fantastic show for visitors and it’s quite a spectacle to see them filling the sky overhead, and with the Bass Rock as a background it has to be one of the best photo opportunities in Scotland. However, you can’t exactly put your shoes on and take a walk out to see them so you’ve got two options to see the rock and its noisy inhabitants up close.
First off you can head to The Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick to view the spectacle through their powerful telescopes and the remote-controlled cameras installed on the rock.
Second, (and my recommended option) is to book a ride on one of the boats that sail out from the Scottish Seabird Centre each day to see the Bass Rock from just a short distance away. It’s an exciting cruise and one that’ll keep both wildlife enthusiasts and keen photographers very happy during the one to two-hour trip.
Things to do at the Bass Rock
More than 150,000 gannets nest on the Bass Rock at the peak of the season but these numbers gradually reduce towards the end of October when they set off on their long journey south, with many travelling as far as the west coast of Africa.
When you first catch sight of the enormous monolith glinting polar-white in the middle of the Firth of Forth you could easily be forgiven for thinking it’s either covered in snow or the rock has been painted white, but the truth is that what’s actually causing the colour are countless bird poops plastered across its surface!
I’ve yet to make the journey onto the rock but I can only imagine what the smell is like…
Nature-lovers have plenty to look at without the gannet’s presence though as the rock is also home to shags, guillemots, razorbills and puffins, and seals can be frequently seen hauling themselves onto the rocks below.
Visitors wishing to see the Bass Rock up close can book a tour on one of the boats run by the Scottish Seabird Centre on either a 12-seat RIB or a 55-seat catamaran, with the RIB taking you around three outcrops in this part of the estuary – the Lamb, Craigleith, and of course, the Bass Rock itself.
The boat trip is definitely the best way to see the rock as it’s the only way to fully appreciate both the size of it and the number of birds that live there. The Seabird Centre has exclusive landing rights and it’s not possible to land on the island without booking through the centre first, but for a reasonable price you can take a sailing tour around this unique natural wonder.
Departing from the Scottish Seabird Centre the tour boat sails out into the Firth of Forth for a return trip that takes around two hours which is fantastic fun when the sail is calm but not so much when the weather closes in and the sea gets a bit choppy.
The inflatable RIB is definitely more exciting as it’s much faster but then it’s also less relaxing (and much wetter) and possibly not so good for photographers. But whichever option you choose I guarantee you’ll enjoy the experience.
The Seabird Centre also offers private boat tours and charters and I have it on good authority that taking the tour that lands on the rock is an incredible experience, although very expensive, so maybe it’s something that should be saved for an extra-special occasion.
The history of the Bass Rock
The rock is uninhabited today but in the past it was settled by Saint Baldred (an early Christian hermit) in 600AD, and was also the site of a castle that was used as a prison in the 17th-century.
These days it’s left alone for nature to make use of thanks to its current owner Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple whose family acquired it in 1706 from the Lauder family who had owned it for the previous six centuries.
Although the Bass Rock is now free from human meddling there are a couple of man-made structures that have been left on it – namely the lighthouse that was built in 1902 and the remains of Saint Baldred’s chapel.
There are also a few cameras that have been installed to keep watch on the birds but other than that the rock has been given back to nature, which is exactly how it should be.
What I liked about this attraction
- This natural wonder is seriously impressive thanks to the amount of bird-life swooping over it
- The boat trip to it is great fun
- It’s a wildlife photographers dream attraction
My top tips
- Wear a waterproof jacket for the boat trip. The wind whips up the sea no matter the time of year and a decent jacket will stop you getting cold and wet
- Take a camera with a zoom lens. A camera phone will really struggle to get a decent zoomed-in picture of the birds
- You can get a great land-based view of the Bass Rock from Berwick Law
Address and map
Head to the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick to book boat trips to around the rock.
Scottish Seabird Centre,
Prices and opening times
Phone the Scottish Seabird Centre for the latest prices and boat departure times or go to their website which details the tours they have available.
As an example (in 2019) the Catamaran Cruise costs adults £24 and children £9, while the three island RIB tour costs adults £30 and children £20.
- Telephone: 01620 890202
- email: Scottish Seabird Centre (Scottish Seabird Centre)
- Website: North Berwick
Getting there: Access is via boat from The Scottish Seabird Centre
Getting around: Stairs, Uneven paths
On-site conveniences: Gift shop, Hot drinks, Picnic area, Restaurant or cafe, Snacks, Toilets (in The Scottish Seabird Centre)
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