View of Bass Rock from the coast.
Some of the cottages to be seen on it.
After the castle was converted into a State Prison during the reigns of Charles ll and his brother James Vll, a number of Covenantors were imprisoned there at a time of tyranny and persecution. The Covenanters rebelled against Charles's obsession for a change from Presbyterianism to his Roman Catholic style religion. After a violent struggle against the crown the Covenantors were finally defeated at the Battle of Sheriffmuir when 1,800 of them were brought to Edinburgh to stand trail. A section of Greyfriars graveyard was used as their prison when hundreds were deported and over 130 executed. About forty were incarcerated in the dungeons of the Bass Rock at different dates, varying from a few months to upwards of six years.
Most of them men of culture and learning, of unimpeachable loyalty and charged with no offence but that of preaching the gospel and worshipping according to their own consciences. These included John Blackadder, minister at Tragueer in Dumfries. Blackadder died on the rock in 1687 and is buried in the Churchyard at Kirk Ports. Among the other Covenantors imprisoned on the Bass by the Duke of Rothesay, then Lord Chancellor were Alexander Peden, Thomas Hogg, James Fraser of Brea, Robert Traill and John McGilligen, all of them ministers. Sir Hugh Campbell of Cessnock, and his son Sir George Campbell; Robert Bennett of Chesters and Alexander Gordon of Earlston.
The barbarity of life in the State Prison was beyond credibility. The prisoners unable to support themselves were kept on a diet of dried salt fish and only the guards had barrelled fresh water. The prisoners depended solely upon rock puddles for water so putrid that for a little more palatability they sucked it through porridge oats. In bad weather they starved until calmer seas allowed boats to land provisions and at the whim of the governor, a hated prisoner was confined in the lowest dungeon which was deathly cold from continuous sea spray. Those who did not perish in its vile and stinking cells suffered and died later from lung infections, fevers or rheumatic type ailments as freed men.
One who did survive was the minister Gilbert Rule whose imprisonment was brought to an end by the Revolution of 1688 and later was appointed Principal of the University of Edinburgh. Whitekirk Hill overlooking the Bass Rock was the site of a Covenantors Meeting on Sunday 5th May 1678 when a crowd of over one thousand assembled for the worship of God. The governor of the Bass, Charles Maitland, with sixty soldiers from the garrison, marched to attack and disperse them. As the soldiers approached, James Learmont a chapman or travelling merchant from Haddington exhorted the people to stand firm and defend themselves if attacked. The soldiers ordered the crowd to dismiss in the King's name; where upon they replied that 'they honoured the King, but were resolved to hear the word of God when preached to them.' A scuffle ensued and the soldiers were surrounded and disarmed, one of them being shot dead. Five of the Covenantors were apprehended and tried before the Privy Council in Edinburgh on 11th September 1678. James Learmont was found guilty and executed in the Grassmarket on 27th September 1678. He was guilty of nothing but worshipping the God of his fathers according to his conscience and his treatment at the hands of the arbitrary tyrants who then oppressed the country, outraged the population.
In 1688, most of the Covenantors we released when James VII was relieved of his Crown and William of Orange was proclaimed King. The majority of the country continued to be faithful to James until the Battle of Killiecrankie, after which the only Jacobite stronghold was on the Bass Rock. Where a handful of Jacobites held out for two years under the pro-stuart Governor Charles Maitland until they were starved into submission in 1690. The following year it was the Jacobites again who turned the tables on their captors when the new Governor, Fletcher of Saltoun was absent, by locking out the guards while they were unloading coal at the jetty. The guards had to be taken off by boat; the Jacobites - just four of them initially - managed to hold out for four years.
During this period various attempts were made by the Government of King William to retake the fortress, but in vain. Friends in France and in Scotland kept them supplied with food, and as they had plenty of ammunition, they defied all comers. It had been found that a man called Trotter was secretly supplying them with provisions. To terrorise them, preparations were made for hanging Trotter on the shore opposite the island. The defenders, however would not stand this, and a few well aimed cannon balls promptly dispersed the would-be executioners, and Trotter had to be hanged elsewhere out of sight. In 1694, William dispatched two warships, aided by smaller vessels to cut off all supplies to the rock and the little garrison capitulated in April. They had saved some bottles of the best French wine and these, along with some fine biscuits, led the commissioners to believe that they had provisions for years to come. Thus the rebels - eventually 16 in all - were able to negotiate good terms and were finally granted an amnesty.
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