Notes on...

‘Desolate, despairing and awful’: Britain’s uninhabitable island

29 February 2020

9:00 AM

29 February 2020

9:00 AM

In 1978, an invitation was sent to some 200 members of Oxford’s Dangerous Sports Club, which simply read: ‘Tea, Rockall, Black Tie.’ The good news was that invitees had never visited this part of the UK; the bad was that it is way out west. Forget Land’s End, or the Western Isles, or even far-flung Fermanagh. First get to the Outer Hebrides and then head into the Atlantic for 230 miles or so. There a single tooth of granite, 60-foot high, will emerge from the waves. Welcome to Rockall, the last acquisition of the British Empire.

Though known to the Vikings, and to map-makers since the 16th century, Rockall was until 1955 terra nullius: land claimed by no one. No wonder. With no trees, no bushes, no shrubs, no soil, and no permanent wildlife, Rockall is, well, all rock. But when Britain started nuclear testing in the north Atlantic, fears arose that this uninhabitable island would give a foothold to Soviet spies. So the Union Flag was raised in the 1950s, and a brass plaque affixed: ‘Possession of the island was taken in the name of Her Majesty.’

Tourism is not really on the cards. ‘No place,’ the Lords were told when Rockall became part of Scotland, ‘is more desolate, despairing and awful.’ It cannot sustain human life; even the gannets and guillemots that stop there are dislodged by storm waves that wash over the entire island. Save for the stoic periwinkle, there is no permanent resident. Intrepid humans wanting to give Rockall a go must bring supplies and lash themselves Prometheus-like to Hall’s Ledge, the only flat part of the rock. The record stay — 45 desperate days spent in a bespoke plastic pod —was set by Nick Hancock in 2014.

A couple of centuries earlier, in 1811, HMS Endymion had made landfall on Rockall. But most ships that end up there do so unintentionally, foundering on it or Helen’s Reef nearby. In 1904, the Danish liner SS Norge was suddenly ripped open, disappearing with her 650 passengers. The danger persists: although a light beacon was installed in 1972, it would not survive long.

So who’s in charge of Rockall? Angus Macneil, MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles)? Or the clan Mackay, who claimed Rockall for their own as long ago as 1846? Given the abundance of fish in the area, Ireland and Iceland keep a beady eye. And it was here, in 1997, that the last land invasion of the UK came: protesting at the growth of the oil industry, Greenpeace squatted for six weeks on the rock they redubbed Waveland. But, like the passports they issued, the relics of their time on the island were soon washed away.

Back to that invitation. Ten hearty souls made the trip to Rockall as a fierce gale blew in. After a five-day search for the blasted island, the team at last summited the rock. When they did, roughly the same number of humans had set foot on the moon. Scrambled eggs, champagne and a general knees-up ensued. When drink ran out, they leapt off the island, pilfering the plaque and rewilding its rock.

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