The Bass

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.
Bass, dedicated to St
Baldred (who
is said to have died there, 6
March 606), was united to
the Parish of North
Berwick in 1581.
A curious remnant of
old ecclesiastical privilege
l exists twelve
solan geese with the feathers on
being annually
paid to

minister of
North Berwick as “Vicar of the

 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)
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.
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 

Hugh Campbell of Cessnock

George Campbell of Cessnock 

James Fraser of Brea

John Blackader of Troqueer

Patrick Anderson, Walston

John Campbell, Ireland  

John Dickson, Rutherglen

James Drummond, chaplain to Marchioness of Argyl

James Fithie, Chaplain, Trinity Hospital, Edinburgh 

Alex Forrester, St Mungo

John Grieg, Carstairs

Thomas Hog, Kiltearn 

Peter Kid, Carluke

John Law, Campsie

John McKilligan, Fodderty

Alexander Peden, New Glenluce

John Rae, Symington

Archibald Riddell, Kippen

Gilbert Rule, Prestonhaugh

John Stewart, Deer  

Robert Traill, Cranbrook

Thomas Ross, in the North 

William Bell, preacher.

Alexander Dunbar, preacher.

Robert Gillespie,preacher.

Macaulay, preacher

Mitchell, preacher.

Michael Potter, preacher. 

Robert Ross, preacher.

Alexander Shields, preacher. 

William Spence, schoolmaster, Fife.

Joseph Learmont, Army  

William Lin, Writer in Edinburgh.

Spreul, Town Clerk of Glasgow.

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)



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