Rockall, “the most isolated small rock in the oceans of the world“. (Photo & Stamp Images – www.cifr.it)
Rockall is an uninhabited islet located at 57°35’48”N 13°41’19”W, 301km west of the equally uninhabited Scottish island of Soay in the St Kilda archipelago and 424km off the sparsely populated north coast of Co. Donegal. It is perhaps best known for giving its name to a sea area frequently mentioned in radio shipping forecasts as one of the roughest and stormiest on Earth.
Geologically, Rockall is a volcanic plug (the summit of the eroded core of an extinct volcano). It became an island approximately 55,000,000 years ago, when the ancient continent of Laurasia was split apart by plate tectonics, Greenland and Europe separated and the north-east Atlantic Ocean was formed between them. The elevated seabed Rockall Bank and Plateau are part of the North American continental plate.
Rockall is surrounded by Helen’s Reef, which contains several smaller pinnacles such as Hasslewood Rock, not regarded as islands because they are often completely submerged, betrayed only by breakers or fleetingly exposed under certain types of swell.
The rock is about 25m / 83ft wide at its base, with a diameter of 27m, and rises sheer to a height of approximately 22m / 72ft. It has an approximate surface area of 570 m², regularly washed over by large storm waves, particularly in winter. There is no natural source of fresh water.
Rockall’s only permanent inhabitants are marine molluscs. Small numbers of seabirds, mainly fulmars, gannets, kittiwakes, and guillemots, use the rock for resting in summer, and some occasionally breed successfully if the season is calm with no storm waves washing over the rock.
The United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Iceland and Denmark (for the Faroe Islands) have all claimed jurisdiction over Rockall.
The etymology of the name ‘Rockall’ may derive from the Gaelic ‘Sgeir Rocail’, meaning “skerry /sea rock of roaring / tearing / ripping”. There may also be a link with the Old Norse ‘hrukka‘.
There is evidence to suggest the existence of the isle was known to mariners long before it was first documented.
Dutch mapmakers P Plancius and C Claesz show an island ‘Rookol’ northwest of Ireland in the their Map of New France and the Northern Atlantic Ocean (Amsterdam, c. 1594).
The first literary reference to the isle is found in Martin Martin‘s A Description of the Western isles of Scotland, published in 1703, an account of a voyage to St. Kilda mentioning “Rokol” as an island known to the locals as Rockabarra (Rocabarraigh).
The name Rocabarraigh is also used in Gaelic folklore for a mythical rock which is supposed to appear three times, the last being at the end of the world: “Nuair a thig Rocabarra ris, is dual gun tèid an Saoghal a sgrios” (“When Rockabarra returns, the world will likely come to be destroyed”).
Other Irish stories represent the island as a giant vanquished by Fionn Mac Chuaill or as an outpost of Hy Brasil, the wondrous land visited by Saint Brendan the Navigator in the C6th.
In 1686 Spanish and French crewmembers of a ship that had run aground on Rockall reached St Kilda in a pinnace. Their vessel ship may have been a fishing vessel based in the Bay of Biscay and bound for North Atlantic cod fisheries.
In 1812 the survey vessel Leonidas foundered on Helen’s Reef.
In 1824 the brigantine Helen of Dundee, bound for Quebec, foundered at Hasselwood Rock; “the crew left most of the passengers to drown, including seven women and six children“.
On 28th June 1904 the 3,318-ton steamer SS Norge was holed with 727 emigrants and a crew of 68, bound for New York; 635 lives were lost, with the 163 survivors being taken to Stornoway.
There have also been newspaper reports that at least two unexploded bombs from WWII lie within a 250-metre radius of Rockall.
The island’s only individually named topographical feature, 4m from the summit, is a 3.5 x 1.3m outcrop known as Hall’s Ledge, honouring Basil Hall, the Royal Navy officer who led the earliest recorded official landing party ashore from the frigate HMS Endymion on 8th July 1810. They spent several anxious hours waiting for the ship to reappear from swirling fog.
The next landing was accomplished by a Mr Johns of HMS Porcupine, whilst the ship was on a mission, from June and August 1862, to make a survey of the sea bed prior to the laying of a transatlantic telegraph cable. Johns managed to gain foothold on the island, but failed to reach the summit.
The RIA sponsored the first scientific expedition to Rockall in 1896, led by Miller Christie on board the Granuaile.
The British Empire’s last territorial expansion was the 1955 annexation of Rockall. The incentive was the test firing of the UK’s first guided nuclear weapon, the American-made Corporal missile, launched from South Uist over the North Atlantic. The Ministry of Defence was concerned that the Soviet Union might place surveillance equipment on the unclaimed islet to spy on the test.
At precisely 10.16 am on 18th September 1955 a Royal Navy helicopter deposited a team from HMS Vidal (coincidentally named after the man who first charted the island in 1831). They cemented in a brass plaque on Hall’s Ledge and hoisted the Union Flag to stake the UK’s claim. The inscription on the plaque reads:
“By authority of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, and in accordance with Her Majesty’s instructions dated the 14th day of September, 1955, a landing was effected this day upon this island of Rockall from HMS Vidal. The Union flag was hoisted and possession of the island was taken in the name of Her Majesty. [Signed] R H Connell, Captain, HMS Vidal, 18 September 1955.”
A British Act of Parliament, the Island of Rockall Act 1972 (1972 c. 2), consists of a single effective section, which reads, “As from the date of the passing of this Act, the Island of Rockall (of which possession was formally taken in the name of Her Majesty on 18th September 1955 in pursuance of a Royal Warrant dated 14th September 1955 addressed to the Captain of Her Majesty’s Ship Vidal) shall be incorporated into that part of the United Kingdom known as Scotland and shall form part of the District of Harris in the County of Inverness, and the law of Scotland shall apply accordingly.”
The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 abolished the County of Inverness and transferred administrative jurisdiction over Rockall to the Western Isles Council.
Rockall was much in the news in the late 1960s and 1970s as four countries disputed sovereignty for the purposes of defining the extents of their exclusive fishing zones and territorial waters for continental shelf mining / drilling rights.
A well-known Irish politician, who used to change his name by deed poll to highlight issues, became officially known as Sean Dublin Bay Rockall Loftus.
British survival expert Tom McLean, a former SAS member, lived on the islet from 26th May to 4th July 1985 to affirm the UK’s claim to the island.
In 1997 Greenpeace occupied Rockall to protest against oil exploration under the authority of the British Government, calling it the “new Global State” of Waveland and offering citizenship to anyone willing to take their pledge of allegiance.
The British Government’s response was simply to ignore them. When asked, the Home Office said that since Rockall was part of the United Kingdom, and since the UK was a free country, Greenpeace were perfectly entitled to be there.
The campaigners continued until 1999, when the company sponsoring them collapsed. However, they left a solar-powered beacon on the summit in order to prevent future shipwrecks. An adjacent tablet reads:ROCKALL SOLAR BEACON Let the sun and wind do their work, Leave the oil beneath the waves. Greenpeace July 1999
By the end of the C20th, more people had stood on the Moon than on Rockall.
The Kingdom of the People’s Republic of Rockall
An amateur expedition successfully landed on Rockall in 2005, and issued the following:
2005 Declaration of Independence
We, Kings of Rockall, representatives of the People’s Republic of Rockall, hereby solemnly publish and declare ourselves independent from each and every country and authority in this world.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. To secure these rights, we have decided, here on the top of Rockall, to separate ourselves from governments of the real world and to organize ourselves in the form of a People’s Republic, open to everybody, where all citizens equally are Kings.
The structure of this new Monarchic Republic and its relationships to the external world are set forth in a separate constitution.
For the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honour. Long live the People’s Republic of Rockall! Long live the Kings of Rockall!
Negotiations between the UK, Ireland, Iceland and Denmark about territorial rights over the continental shelf in the area are ongoing, and do not deal with ownership of the rock itself. The next legal submission is due in 2014.
Rockall 2011 is an expedition planned by Nick Hancock in order to raise money for charity. The challenge is to land on Rockall and survive solo for 60 days, thus setting a record for the longest occupation of Rockall.