THERE are places across Scotland which have a fascinating history all of their own and in time

I hope to write about all of them, especially castles which I find fascinating.

One such place is the Bass Rock, that astonishing remnant of an ancient volcanic era which stands sheer in the Firth of Forth off North Berwick. It’s about 350ft (106m) high and is covered in little vegetation but plenty of birds, especially the Northern Gannet, Britain’s largest seabird. Its Latin name Morus bassanus recognises the Bass Rock’s importance to the species as one of its main nesting places.

Dating back 300 million years or so, the island is about one mile in circumference and is currently uninhabited. It was not always so, however, the first recorded person to live there being the seventh-century hermit Saint Baldred.

Its ownership has rested mainly with just two families, the Lauders and the Hamilton-Dalrymples, who currently own the island. There was a castle built on the island by the Lauders before 1406, because in that year King Robert III’s son, later King James I, was consigned to the care of Sir Robert Lauder on the impregnable Bass Rock. It was from there that young James set out on his ill-fated voyage to France which saw him captured and kept in English custody for 18 years.

The Lauders of Bass stayed close to the Stuart kings and their castle was occasionally used to imprison Stuart enemies, while such was its strategic importance at the mouth of the Forth that English rulers often tried to seize it. Only Oliver Cromwell succeeded, starving out the garrison in 1652.

On the Restoration of the Monarchy, King Charles II’s privy council took over the Rock and used its castle as a prison for Covenanters, including Alexander Peden, known as Prophet Peden, who was imprisoned there fore more than four years.

He survived – many other Covenanters did not – and left a description of the conditions. : “We are close shut up in our chambers, not permitted to converse, diet, worship together, but conducted out by two at once in the day to breath in the open air. Envying with reverence the birds their freedom, provoking and calling on us to bless him for the most common mercies, and again close shut up day and night to hear only the sighs and groans of our fellow prisoners.”

A harsh prison, then, at a time of great religious and political tumult. It is from that time that the most extraordinary story about the island emerges – the Siege of Bass Rock.

The Jacobite Rising in Scotland Ireland after William and Mary usurped the thrones of England and Scotland was fierce, bloody and shortlived. Only the Bass Rock in all of Scotland held out for James VII and II after 1690, but the defiance of the Jacobites there did not last long and its governor, Charles Maitland, handed the Rock over to the Williamite Government.

Officers who had fought for King James were hunted down and several of them were sent to the Bass Rock’s main building, then re-instated as a state prison. It was there on June 18, 1691, that the astonishing events of the siege began.

Led by Captain Michael Middleton, who was joined by Lieutenant Haliburton and Ensigns Roy and Dunbar, the four prisoners took advantage of the fact that the main body of the garrison had been forced to go down to the Rock’s jetty to help unload a coal-carrying vessel. The daring four quickly overpowered the rest of their captors, and with the prison’s cannon now pointing at them the entire garrison had no choice but to sail away.

Thus began an amazing interlude in Scottish history that is rarely told, probably because it was a Jacobite marvel and has been suppressed by Unionists ever since.

The best and most comprehensive account of the siege is that by the East Lothian historian Reginald P Phillimore, and he makes it clear that the “siege” was hardly that – for the four freed captives almost immediately began a small reign of terror on the Forth and its shores.

THEY were joined by fellow Jacobites fleeing certain imprisonment and probable execution, including the Laird of Ardmillan and two Irish sailors. The latter were to prove very useful as the Bass Jacobites – eventually there would be 16 of them – started piracy on other small ships and even carrying out

shore raids.

Phillimore recounts how the Bass Rock raiders, having held up a ship laden with wheat, made for the island with their prize: “But the wind suddenly changing, they found themselves driven northwards, and eventually had to run their vessel ashore on the coast of Montrose. They managed to land and escape capture, and, dispersing, attempted to get back to the Bass.”

Five of them were captured, however, and were taken to Edinburgh, and brought to trial. They were condemned to be hanged as rebels. The sentence, however, was never carried out – it seems the Williamite Government were finally wary of creating martyrs.

The Bass Rock raiders brazenly went on to the mainland and got coal for the coming winter, as well as mutton and poultry from farms. One raid on the Isle of May led to the capture of sheep usually kept for the lighthouse there.

Phillimore recounts: “The government and its military advisers were perplexed and powerless. The small guards they established on the opposite coasts of Fife and Haddingtonshire were only partially effective. King William was especially annoyed that a few desperadoes should thus continue to defy his Government. He declared the island must be taken, even if it cost “the whole revenue of the kingdom”.

The Royal Navy was sent for. Two frigates, one of 60 and the other of 50 guns, started to bombard the castle-prison. According to Phillimore: “They lay off the Bass for two days battering away at the Rock, but the cliff-built towers were too high up for the guns of the vessels to be aimed at the necessary elevation. So no damage whatsoever was suffered by the garrison. On the other hand, his Majesty’s ships had several seamen killed, their rigging and sails cut and riddled with cannon balls.”

The fame of the Bass Rock men spread far and wide in the Jacobite community and numerous supporters risked their lives to bring them supplies. The news of their deeds even reached King James VII and II in his exiled court in France.

He wrote to Middleton asking about the state of the small band of his adherents, and thanking them for their activities, James also promised that further provisions and supplies would be sent.

Phillimore wrote: “On the other hand, the authorities were unremitting in their efforts to put an end to a state of affairs that was’ becoming intolerable and a serious annoyance to the people of Fife and Lothian. Instructions were sent to the various villages and ports to co-operate with the Government in carrying on a rigorous blockade.

“Dunbar seems to have zealously carried out its duty in this matter, as we read in a letter from the Chancellor thanking the magistrates for their diligence, especially in connection with seizing a vessel bearing coals to the Bass, and obtaining information that led to further arrests.”

It was even made an offence punishable by death for anyone to have any dealings with the Jacobites on the Bass.

ONE supporter named Trotter was caught near Whitekirk and, after a show trial, he was condemned to death. The execution was set to take place near North Berwick, with the people of the surrounding area forced to come and watch an execution which, the magistrates hoped, would terrify the men on the island into surrender.

Out on the Bass Rock, the erection of the gallows and the gathering of the crowd was noticed and Middleton, realising what was happening to Trotter, promptly let fly a cannon shot that so scared the executioner and crowd with its accuracy that they took to their heels. Trotter did not escape, however, for the gallows was again re-erected out of reach of the cannon, and Trotter was hanged. To this day the area where he was executed at Castleton is known as Gallowrig.

It had now been almost three years since Middleton and his three companions had seized the Bass Rock. Events such as the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692 had shown

how ruthless the Williamite Government could be in pursuit of any opponents, but their savagery had mellowed and with each passing month the hope dimmed of any further rising.

King James did send supplies as promised, and the Royal Navy did not attack the French frigate who landed them at the Bass Rock.

By April, 1694, Middleton and his men were ready to quit. They sent a signal ashore that they were ready to negotiate peace terms.

Phillimore states: “Major Robert Reid and two members of the council at once took ship for the Rock to have a personal interview with the redoubtable captain.

“That resourceful man, before admitting his visitors and allowing them to realise the paucity of their numbers and their destitute condition, caused a number of hats, coats, and great coats to be cunningly disposed about the fortifications, so as to give his visitors the impression that his forces were quite ample to continue a vigorous defence for an indefinite time longer.

“A few bottles of the best French wine and brandy and some good biscuits, which luckily remained in the possession of the Governor, were ostentatiously brought out and placed before Major Reid and the two commissioners with an invitation to partake freely, as they had an ample stock of supplies.”

The ruse worked. The major and his two companions fell to eating and drinking and then returned to Edinburgh to report on how the Bass Rock Jacobites were flourishing.

Phillimore stated: “The council was duly impressed and lost no time in agreeing to the whole of the terms on which Middleton announced he was willing to give up the fortress.

The terms of the articles were the following: 1. That the garrison should come ashore with their swords about them: that there should be a ship appointed by the government with fresh provisions to transport such of them as were willing to go to Dunkirk or Havre de Grace, and that in a month after the surrender those who pleased to stay at home might live without disturbance.

2. That all they had taken, and what belonged to them after, they surprised the place, they should be allowed to dispose of to advantage, together with their boats, and all things pertaining to any of them.

3. That such of them as should incline to go abroad might stay in Edinburgh until the ship was ready, without molestation, and have so much a day according to their several stations.

4. That all who had belonged to the garrison, or had aided or assisted it, should have the benefit of the capitulation ; that those who were dispersed over the kingdom

should have time to come in ; and that those who were condemned, in prison, or otherwise distressed, should be set at liberty the same day the garrison should come ashore, without any fees or other charges whatsoever.

Thus with all the honours of war, Captain Michael Middleton and his gallant men marched out of the Castle of the Bass.

The siege was over, and the most remarkable chapter in the history of the Bass Rock had ended very satisfactorily for the Jacobites who had made the island their home for so long.