The Bass Rock

The Bass Rock lies about two miles off the North Berwick coast although it looks closer, and is opposite the ancient castle of Tantallon. Today it is a well known sea bird sanctuary with a large colony of about 100,000 gannets, but it has a much darker past as a singularly desolate prison for many of the Covenanter leaders between 1673 and 1687. The Bass, dedicated to St Baldred (who is said to have died there, 6th March 606), was united to the Parish of North Berwick in 1581. A curious remnant of old ecclesiastical privilege still exists twelve solan geese with the feathers on being annually paid to the minister of North Berwick as "Vicar of the Bass."

 The island at one time belonged to Sir Andrew Ramsay, Provost of Edinburgh who saw the opportunity of profit when a place to lock up Covenanter prisoners was needed. He had been a member of a committee that had considered  what might be done to prevent conventicles and punishing persons who withdrew from the parish church ordinances. At this time ( March 1671) the government was in need of a prison for the growing number of Covenanters being taken into custody. One version is that the Bass was part of the estate of Waughton, near North Berwick and that Ramsay came to ownership through marriage to the heiress. Another version is that he bought the island for 400 and convinced Lauderdale, Secretary of State for Scotland, that it would be a suitable place for a prison. He sold it for 4000 probably with the hope that he might be made the salaried Governor of the  prison. Lauderdale had it turned into a prison which was to house 39 Covenanters in extremely tough conditions.

basscliff.jpg (24048 bytes)The Bass Rock is itself only about three quarters of a mile in circumference with sheer cliffs on three sides rising to over 300 feet, on the fourth is a narrow and dangerous landing point. Even on calm days the seas swell and roll round the island with a dangerous tidal flow between it and the mainland - not a place to attempt escape by swimming. On the island, once a retreat for a Welsh monk in the seventh century, there was little shelter until the building of the prison quarters and a Governor's house, which in heavy seas would be awash. Some of the cells had only one small window which was out of reach of the prisoner - who was therefore unable to view the outside. Other cells looked only upon a paved walkway where the soldiers stood guard. There was, too, a dark, dank dungeon - the Black Hole. Into the Bass were cast many of the more troublesome Covenanters for periods ranging from a few months to years including John Dickinson who had two visits to the Edinburgh Tolbooth and then spent nearly seven years as a prisoner on the Bass Rock. A prominent lay man - who was the last prisoner to leave the Bass in 1687, was John Spreul, apothecary of Glasgow who suffered greatly for his conscience. Being well off by the standards of the time, he was a special target of the grasping oppressors.

wyliebass.jpg (42690 bytes)

There has been some debate over the years who exactly was imprisoned on the Bass. One would expect that the Rev John Blackadder (who died there) would have a good idea who his companions were and gives one list in his `Memoirs`. It is, however, generally accepted that the list of the Rev. James Anderson, contributor to McCries The Bass Rock: Its Civil and Ecclesiastical History (1847) is nearest the mark (he rejected twelve of Blackader`s list). The Anderson list, cited in Johnstons Treasury is:

George Scot of Pitlochie 

Robert Bennet of Chesters

Alexander Gordon of Earlston 

Sir Hugh Campbell of Cessnock

Sir George Campbell of Cessnock 

Rev James Fraser of Brea

Rev John Blackader of Troqueer

Rev Patrick Anderson, Walston

Rev John Campbell, Ireland  

Rev John Dickson, Rutherglen

Rev James Drummond, chaplain to Marchioness of Argyl

Rev James Fithie, Chaplain, Trinity Hospital, Edinburgh 

Rev Alex Forrester, St Mungo

Rev John Grieg, Carstairs

Rev Thomas Hog, Kiltearn 

Rev Peter Kid, Carluke

Rev John Law, Campsie

Rev John McKilligan, Fodderty

Rev Alexander Peden, New Glenluce

Rev John Rae, Symington

Rev Archibald Riddell, Kippen

Rev Gilbert Rule, Prestonhaugh

Rev John Stewart, Deer  

Rev Robert Traill, Cranbrook

Rev Thomas Ross, in the North 

William Bell, preacher.

Alexander Dunbar, preacher.

Robert Gillespie,preacher.

James Macaulay, preacher

James Mitchell, preacher.

Michael Potter, preacher. 

Robert Ross, preacher.

Alexander Shields, preacher. 

William Spence, schoolmaster, Fife.

Major Joseph Learmont, Army  

William Lin, Writer in Edinburgh.

John Spreul, Town Clerk of Glasgow.

John Spreul, apothecary in Glasgow.

Robert Dick, Saltgrieve to Lord Carington.


 The transfer of John Law, John Dickinson(e), Francis Irving, Robert Gillespie to the Bass. is recorded in the records pf the Edinburgh Tolbooth, along with  Alexander Peden on his capture in England, and latterly  Alexander Shields (Shiells). Extracted from The Book of the Old Edinburgh  Club Vol VI. Another record is that of Alexander Riddell, a noted conventicle preacher (Vol VIII)



 Blackness Castle   Dunnottar Castle     Greyfriars Kirk Yard

Home Scottish Reformation The Covenanters Ulster Scots English Reformation European Reformation General Topics & Glossary My Books & Bibliography Contact