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Birds at the Bass Rock

Home > Edinburgh > Animals and Wildlife | Day Trips | Island Hopping | Nature | Outdoor
by Cressida Ryan (subscribe)
Classicist and traveller
Published August 10th 2015
For all Seabird lovers, the Bass Rock, a volcanic plug far out in the Firth of Forth, 2km offshore and 5km NE from North Berwick, is a must-stop destination. The waters around Scotland are home to the highest density of seabirds in Europe, and the Firth is no exception, teeming with all kinds of birds.

gannets, bass rock, edinburgh, north berwick, firth of forth
Gannets over the Bass Rock

Best known for its gannets, from afar all you see is white, but close up the rock is a screeching, seething mess. This one small island is home to 10% of the whole world's North Atlantic gannets.

bass rock, gannets, north berwick, firth of forth, edinburgh
Gannets on the Bass Rock

Every white dot you see from a distance is really a gannet (or possibly guano!). In the peak breeding season the island is covered to such an extent that there is absolutely no room for humans. Over 150,000 gannets make this the world's largest gannetry.

north berwick, bass rock, gannets, firth of forth, edinburgh
Gannets over the prison and lighthouse at the Bass Rock

Historically it has been inhabited, first by a Christian hermit St Baldred, a castle, a prison, and in later years with a lighthouse (built 1902). Since 1988 the lighthouse has been run mechanically, so sailors still need not fear a crash in the dark. One lighthouse owner was the father of Robert Louis Stevenson. The Bass Rock and its myriad birds are known to have inspired some of his writings.

gannets, bass rock, edinburgh, north berwick, firth of forth
Gannets over the Bass Rock

There are so many gannets that the Latin name for gannet, Sula Bassana, is based on the rock. The island is now a designated bird sanctuary. You might even catch sight of jellyfish in the sea, or a seal beached on a lower rock.

bass rock, firth of forth, north berwick, sulla, gannet
The Bass Rock from North Berwick

There have been problems with mallow growing on the islands, the Bass Rock has been kept clear and preserved for the birds. There are plenty of birds other than gannets on the island. Puffins and shags are the next most common, flocking around the island. You might also find razorbills, cormorants, eider ducks and numerous gulls.

sea shag, bass rock, north berwick, firth of forth, edinburgh,
Sea shag on the Bass Rock

Cannets have their own body language, their own way of communicating with their beaks. 'Beak-fencing' is a way of showing affection, and you can spot gannets doing this around the nesting sites. Conversely, if a gannet feels threatened, it can push back its wings and hiss out a posture which says 'if you come closer I shall peck you with my beak'.

gannets, bass rock, north berwick, edinburgh, firth of forth
Beakfencing by some gannets - a sign of affection

You can continue your journey of seabird discovery at the Scottish Seabird Centre on the shore, at the Bass Rock harbour. This national centre has information about the birds, a model of the Bass Rock, and telescopes trained on various key vantage points. From the rock itself you get wonderful views of the coves and Tantallon castle, an ideal bay for smugglers in days of old.

tantallon castle, north berwick, firth of forth, edinburgh, bass rock
Tantallon from the Bass Rock

Live coverage is transmitted by cameras into the centre, so that visitors can watch the birds live. The bird populations have been dropping in recent years because their natural food source has been in decline. It is vital to their survival that the seas are not over-polluted or over-fished, and the Seabird Centre is working hard to raise awareness of this problem.

bass rock, craig leith, seabird, north berwick, firth of forth
A bird of prey filmed from the Seabird Centre

The island belongs to Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple. He has granted exclusive landing rights to the Seabird Centre, who run limited trips out there, weather permitting.

You can also take a boat trip with Sula II, the local boat which has been making this trip from North Berwick harbour since 1965 in the summer season. A trip takes at least an hour, and you should allow more time than that for delays, queues, tides and so on.

seagull, north berwick, firth of forth
Seagull on the shore

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Why? Home to 10% of the world's gannets
When: boat trips run during the sailing season in good weather
Where: Bass Rock
Cost: variable
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