A guide to Bass Rock near North Berwick

Written by Chris Thornton | 14th of October 2023
Bass Rock

The Bass Rock is an impressive island/rock on the North Berwick coast in the Firth of Forth, east Scotland. The island is now a wildlife sanctuary but also has a long history of human habitation, with castles, chapels and prisons built on the volcanic rock... but a more modern lighthouse still exists today. This steep-sided volcanic rock is 351 ft (307 metres) above sea level and lies about 3 miles northeast of North Berwick.

Looking out to sea from North Berwick, the Bass Rock actually looks quite strange with its angular shape and steep sides. Its most striking feature is its bright white colour (a mixture of the white nesting gannets and their excrement smeared all over the rockface!) - it looks like an iceberg!

The geology of Bass Rock

Bass Rock is a volcanic plug comprised of phonolitic trachyte rock. James Hutton, a famous Scottish geologist, was the first to recognise it as an igneous intrusion in 1847. He wrote about it at length in his book "Edinburgh and its Neighbourhood, Geological and Historical: with The Geology of the Bass Rock".

Bass Island
The impressive spectacle of Bass Rock.

The gannets of Bass Rock

Amazingly, 150000 gannets nest on Bass Rock in peak season over the spring to autumn months. They arrive at Bass Rock in late February and leave in late October, with most travelling to the west coast of Africa.

What are gannets?

The gannet is one of the largest seabirds in the British Isles, with a total wingspan of 2 m (6.5 ft). Their bodies are bright white giving way to yellow necks and heads; their beaks are a distinctive white with black highlights. Gannet wings are white but have black tips.

The largest northern gannet colony.
Bass gannets.

Gannets hunt by plunging headfirst into the water at speeds of 60 mph! It's quite amazing to watch; they fold their bodies into an arrow-like shape and pierce the water to catch fish. Absolutely amazing birds.

Interesting gannet facts:

  • Gannets have a lifespan of 17 years.

  • Gannets only lay one egg at a time.

  • Eggs take 42-46 days to incubate.

  • Fledgings take 84-97 days to mature.

  • Gannets are currently listed as amber in a green/amber/red conservation status.

Avian Flu

In 2022 the gannet colony was significantly affected by Avian Flu. With such high concentrations of birds on the rock, it spread like wildfire throughout the population. Hundreds of dead birds have washed up on the shores of East Lothian.

Sir David Attenborough

Famous TV wildlife specialist Sir David Attenborough has described the Gannet colony at Bass Rock as one of the 12 wildlife wonders of the world. Naturalist Chris Packham described the rock as "the most exciting birding spectacle in the UK".

Scottish Seabird Centre

The Scottish Seabird Centre is on a coastal peninsula west of Bass Rock. Dedicated to helping visitors learn about Scotland's marine wildlife, the centre offers a 5-star experience with many exhibits, workshops, and science shows.

The centre even has live camera feeds from the island if you don't feel like the epic boat trip.

Scottish Seabird Centre
Scottish Seabird Centre. Photo Tom Parnell.

History of Bass Rock

Here is a short chronological list of Bass Rock's history.

600 AD - The first inhabitants of Bass Rock were said to be Christian hermits.

756 - St Baldred, "The Apostle of the Lothians", dies on the island. The remains of his chapel still exist today.

Late 1000s - The island was said to have been a gift from King Malcolm III of Scotland to the Bass family, from which the island is now named. The gannets of Bass Rock were appropriately used in the family crest for the Bass family.

1318 - The Bass is owned by the Lauder family.

1567 - Sir Robert Lauder, a Mary Queen of Scot's supporter, is defeated at the Battle of Carberry Hill.

1650s - The island castle is used to resupply Oliver Cromwell's fleet.

1671 - Sir Alexander Ramsay sells Bass Rock to the crown. The island was used as an Alcatraz-style prison during Cromwell's invasion of Scotland. The existing castle was repurposed for holding prisoners; notable inhabitants were Walter Stewart (Earl of Atholl and King James I cousin), Covenanters, Jacobites and members of Clan Mackay.

1691 - Four Jacobite prisoners capture the island fortress while the garrison was busy unloading coal from a ship. They would hold the castle for three years, defending it against all attackers. They were eventually allowed to leave and become free men once more.

1701 - Most of the castle is dismantled.

1706 - Ownership of Bass Rock passes to Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple breaking ownership of the rock from the Lauder family after six centuries! Sir Hew was also the owner of nearby Tantallon Castle.

1902 - Robert Stevenson builds a 20-metre-tall lighthouse near the landing site of the island. The castle remnants received some repair work.

1988 - The lighthouse is no longer manned.

Use in Literature

"Catriona" and "Kidnapped" by Robert Louis Stevenson, "The Lion Is Rampant" by Ross Laidlaw and "The New Confessions" by William Boyd all prominently feature the Bass Rock.

In "Kidnapped", Stevenson described Bass Rock as:

“It is just the one crag of rock, as everybody knows, but great enough to carve a city from.”

Tantallon Castle and Bass Rock Lighthouse.
Tantallon Castle and Bass Rock.

How to get to Bass Rock

Bass Rock is inaccessible as it is a good distance offshore from North Berwick in East Lothian.

The Scottish Seabird Centre does offer trips out to the rock, both to land on it or just loop around it. If you don't fancy that level of adventure, Tantallon Castle is a brilliant place to view the rock from onshore.

How to get to the Scottish Seabird Centre

The centre is located in the town of North Berwick, directly next to North Berwick Harbour.

North Berwick is most easily accessed from the A1 motorway via one of the access roads:

  • A198

  • B1347

Google maps location

Boat trips to Bass Rock

As mentioned in this article, the Scottish Seabird Centre offers boat trips to Bass Rock; here are the trips on offer:

Bass Rock Experience: The only way to land on the rock and explore, perfect for wildlife enthusiasts and photographers. £140 per person and over 16s only.

Seabird Catamaran Cruise: The 55-seat catamaran offers an hour-long cruise around Craigleigh and Bass Rock, but no physical landing on the rock. Adults £27, Children (4 to 16) £12.

Three Islands Seabird Safari: In the islands of Lamb, Craigleith, and Bass Rock, this trip is taken on a RIB (rigid inflatable boat). This ride is a bit rougher, so unsuitable for small children or pregnant women.

Gannet Diving Photography Trips: A boat trip specifically for photographers, perfect for shooting gannets diving into the water just off Bass Rock. Adults only, £105 per person. Two-hour duration.

Tips for visiting Bass Rock

  1. Waterproofs are a must, especially on days with rougher seas.

  2. Take a travel sickness tablet a few hours before your trip if you don't have your sea legs.

  3. Bringing binoculars or a scope is highly recommended.

FAQs on Bass Rock

Here are a few frequently asked questions on Bass Rock:

Does anyone live on Bass Rock?

Not anymore; the lighthouse keepers left the rock in 1988 when it became fully automated. The gannets are now the sole inhabitants.

Why is it called Bass Rock?

The name comes from the Bass family, the earliest proprietors of the rock.

Can you land on Bass Rock?

The Scottish Seabird Centre offers Bass Rock landing trips at the cost of £140 per person for 16 years+ only. A boat trip to the rock is a fantastic opportunity for wildlife photography as it is the world's largest colony of northern gannets. The Seabird Centre has exclusive landing rights.

Where is the best place to view Bass Rock?

Tantallon Castle and Seacliff Beach are brilliant locations to view Bass Rock from the shore.

Is Bass Rock also called Ailsa Craig?

No, Ailsa Craig can be found offshore from Girvan on the west coast of Scotland. They do look similar, so it is easy to see why they can be confused. Ailsa Craig is also much larger.

Are there any other locations near Bass Rock worth visiting?

  • For film fanatics, St Abbs, the filming location for "New Asgard" in "Avengers: Endgame", is about a 50-minute drive to the southeast.

  • Tantallon Castle is an impressive castle ruin located on the coast; it looks out to Bass Rock and yields many great photo opportunities.

  • Torness Nuclear Power Station offers tours lasting 1.5 hours, Monday to Thursday, between 9 am and 4 pm.

  • Golfing opportunities at Glen Golf Course, Archerfield Links, Winterfield and Dunbar Golf Clubs.

  • John Muir Country Park includes forest walks, play areas, parks and beaches.

  • Gullane Beach to the west has great facilties and Gullane Village itself is lovely.

Tantallon Castle view of Bass Rock.
Bass Rock as seen from the battlements of Tantallon Castle.

Key information on Bass Rock

  • Bass Rock is an island offshore from North Berwick.

  • The rock is coloured white as it is covered in white birds and bird excrement!

  • Prisons, castles and religious buildings have existed on Bass Rock in the past.

  • Bass Rock is a volcanic plug.

  • Bass Rock is the world's largest colony of northern gannets, 10% of the world's population.

  • A lighthouse exists on the rock but is now unmanned.

  • The best places to see Bass Rock are Tantallon Castle and Seacliff Beach.

  • Boat trips are available from the Scottish Seabird Centre.

Beach view of Bass Rock.
View of Bass Rock with the tide far out.


Bass Rock makes for an awesome photo opportunity on your trip to east Scotland and is awe-inspiring to look out to from Tantallon Castle, Seacliff Beach and North Berwick. The boat trips would be an absolutely brilliant adventure, and I would love to experience it one day; if you ever try it, please let me know!

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

Claim Your Free 6 Day Travel Itinerary:

Simply enter your email and we'll send it your way!

Free Scotland travel itinerary

Hi, please leave a comment below, or why not start a discussion on the forum?