Let’s take an imaginary journey to the British Empire’s last territorial acquisition.
Hang onto your hat: it could get rough.
Off we go, our ship chugging past the inviting harbours of the Outer Hebrides, the sea starting to roil as we leave the land far behind. A few hours and 40 miles out, we’re passing the archipelago of St Kilda, a broken scatter of islands, some so vertiginous they look like they’re up on end. But we’re not here to linger, so we head past them and out into empty sea. There’s nothing out here but heaving ocean. Truly nothing. Best to turn round while the weather holds, surely?
But we keep going, into choppier waters. And 187 miles west of St Kilda, through the driving sea-spray as the deck rollercoasters from one wave to the next, we see…something. A sail, perhaps – a steady fleck of white against the gunmetal sea. It’s tiny – hardly there at all. Yet in a landscape of movement, it’s the only stationary thing.
I’m 8 years old.
I’m curled up on the airline seats we’d salvaged from a scrapped passenger plane, on the patio at the back of my parents’ U.N. (British forces) married quarters in Nicosia, Cyprus. On the seat next to me is our black plastic tape recorder with the see-through lid that flies off when you press Eject. It’s whirring – crackling out episode 4 of season 6 of The Goons, entitled “Napoleon’s Piano”.
Picture this (it’ll be a struggle, but please try): the Goons, for reasons too ludicrous to explain, are sailing the ‘fabled’ piano of Napoleon Bonaparte back to England. After various days at sea – signified by one of the cast pretending to puke, which I loved – a helicopter appears and drops Sea Ranger Bluebottle into the water. He clambers onboard.
[Straining] Heeuuueeeuuueeeuuup! For those without television, I’ve pulled him back on the piano.
Piano? This is not a piano. This is Rockall.
This is Napoleon’s piano.
No.. no, it is not.
No, it isn’t.
It’s Napoleon’s piano.
No, this is Rockall. We have tooked it because it is in the area of the rocket testing range.
Rocket testing range? I’ve never heard so much rubbish in all my…
This being the pre-Google 1970s, I ask my Dad. He mumbles something vague about the shipping forecast.
Northwest of Ireland, the Rockall Trough marks where the continental shelf ends, the sea floor dropping away to an abyssal depth – and at the other side of it rises a plateau of rock almost as long as Scotland. In just one place does it break the surface – a small nib of granite, the remains of a volcanic plug, poking just 20 metres (70 feet) above waves that occasionally burst right over it.
…the smallest point of a pencil could scarcely give it a place on any map that should not exaggerate its proportions.
– Captain Basil Hall
There are a few accompanying sea-level reefs that just break the waterline, including Hasselwood Rock, 200 metres north of Rockall. But that’s all.
This is worth stressing. Stand on Rockall, and you’re standing on the only piece of land for hundreds of miles in every direction, in some of the tallest seas in the world. (In 2000, oceanographers recorded individual waves up to 29 metres tall over the Rockall Trough).
So you’d be mad to try? Tell that to survival expert Tom McLean, who clambered onto the islet on the 26th May 1985 (after more than one attempt) and stayed until the 4th of July, living in a homemade plywood box. Tell that to Nick Hancock, who intends to beat that record in 2011 with a whopping 60-day stay. Tell that to Greenpeace, who landed on it in 1997 and renamed it “Waveland”, a micronation protesting against plans to drill for oil in the area. (The British government drolly replied that since it was British territory, Greenpeace’s British citizens were perfectly within their rights to go there – and then proceeded to ignore them entirely). Tell that to Ben Fogle, who…well, better luck next time, mate.
So why on earth did Britain take great pains to lay claim to Rockall in the first place? Because it wasn’t just a case of drawing a line on a map – it required a landing. The first recorded footfall was Captain Basil Hall’s foray from HMS Endymion on Sunday, 8th September 1811…so why wait until 1955 to annexe the islet (formalized in 1972 with the Island of Rockall Act)? The truth seems to be a mixture of paranoia and farce. It’s not about securing oil or fishing rights – it’s about foiling those pesky Russkies.
Secret weapons testing is a tricky business. You need lots of room (as befits the “weapons testing” bit) and you need to be away from prying eyes (“secret”). And here in one of the most crowded corners of Europe, you’d be hard-pressed to find either. The logical solution is to take to the sea, and what better direction than into the sparsely inhabited fringes of the Outer Hebrides? These therefore became the theatre for the testing of the UK’s first surface-to-surface nuclear missile, the Corporal II, with launches tracked by a radar installation on St Kilda.
And here’s where it turns into an episode of Dad’s Army. It’s quite possible that someone in the government glanced at a report on Rockall, saw the word “land” and immediately envisioned a hammer and sickle fluttering above an island fortress festooned with radar dishes. Rockall was, in the words of Fraser MacDonald, “sufficiently near to the range to be an embarrassment if it were acquired by some foreign power”. Never mind the fact that nothing can cling to Rockall for long, barring truly astounding quantities of bird shit. Never mind that Soviet spy ships could have done the job for a fraction of the cost and scarper out of range when detected. No – being “land”, Rockall was a threat to national security. It was obvious. We had to have it.
Half a century on, Rockall continues to exert its curious pull on the British imagination. It’s not now true that more men have landed on the Moon than on Rockall, but the numbers aren’t far off. It remains a challenge for the adventurous, a curiosity for historians, and for me, a word associated with my earliest stirrings to see the world’s remotest corners…
But you’d never, ever get me up there.
(Best of luck, Nick).
- “The last outpost of Empire: Rockall and the Cold War” – Fraser MacDonald: Journal of Historical Geograpy 32 (2006) (pdf)
- “I will be king of Rockall” – Ben Fogle, Daily Telegraph, 27th April 2005.
- Rockall 2011: In Aid of Help For Heroes – Nick Hancock.