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A large rock in the Atlantic Ocean, about 500 km west of the Scottish mainland, which makes it the westernmost and most isolated part of Britain. The name is from the Gaelic Sgeir Rocail 'Roaring Rock'.

No-one cared about it until the 1950s, when the prospect of its commanding a large part of the sea containing valuable oil deposits led to Britain sending a really titchy expeditionary force to claim it. Ireland, Iceland, and Denmark also claimed it but lost out. It was declared British territory in 1955 and incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1972.

This was commemorated in a Flanders and Swann song, about the decline of the Empire, ending with the marvellous lines "In fact, we found... Rockall".

The Wolfe Tones also wrote a song about this, "Rock on Rockall", in which they say the Irish tradition is that it was a pebble that Finn MacCool threw into the sea.

It is uninhabited. It is just a rock. A great big granite* rock about 20 m high, but a rock, not an island. In 1975 an SAS man spent forty days there. In 1997 Greenpeace occupied it and put in a claim for it, after having spent more than 40 days on it, in order to prevent commercial exploitation of the oil fields. See http://www.gpuk.org/atlantic/library/gallery/rockall.html for pictures of them occupying it, and a nice red sunset.

Rockall is also one of the regions of the shipping forecast, bounded by Bailey (to the north), Hebrides, Malin, and Shannon (to the south). There is also a Rockall Trough and a Rockall Bank to the west of Ireland.

The name Rockall has also been used for a fictitious country on a very big island in the North Atlantic, in what seems to be an e-novel at http://www.lights.com/rockall, with plenty of history and geography worked out for it.

* If in deference to the write-up below it is actually basalt, then Flanders and Swann made the same error: or at least, "granite" was a convenient rhyme for "gannet".

In qualification to the above writeup, Rockall is composed of basalt as opposed to granite. Rockall is part of the Giant's Causeway/Isle of Skye continental flood basalt province, that stretches to Greenland.

This formed in the rifting of the North Atlantic when Europe separated from Greenland and Canada under the influence of the mantle plume currently found under Iceland. This mantle plume has remained roughly in place, thus causing a hot-spot island to form at an oceanic ridge, which is why Iceland is so much bigger than Hawaii. This event occured 59 million years ago, at the beginning of the Tertiary period. Geologically speaking therefore, Britain has far less justification for owning this speck than Iceland. However, this didn't prevent it playing a key role in the Cod Wars of the 1950s-1970s, one of Britain's most surreal foreign policy adventures. One day Britain will stop having bizarre wars over territories acquired/influenced in the days of empire (Suez, Falklands, Iraq), but not today.

Though we're thrown out of Malta,
Though Spain should take Gibraltar,
Why should we flinch or falter,
When England's got Rockall.
1

Rockall is an uninhabited and largely uninhabitable lump of rock in the North Atlantic whose main claim to fame is its regular appearance in the Shipping Forecast. It stands some 65 feet (19 metres) high and measures 83 feet (25 metres) across by a 100 feet (30 metres) wide and is located at 57° N, 13° W, which puts it about three hundred miles from the coasts of Scotland, Ireland, and Iceland. Although it is often described as an 'island', Rockall fails the criterion for being an island, since its only inhabitants are gannets, seagulls and periwinkles. It is simply the remains of an old volcano that last erupted about fifty million years ago, a three-material granite rock whose chemical composition arguably identifies it as part of the North American continental plate.

Rockall first made an appearance on a Portugese map dating to around 1550 which indicates the position of a 'Rochol' somehwere vaguely in the same place as the modern outcrop and an Amsterdam atlas published in 1606 places it only eighty-seven miles from its actual location but a seventeenth century Norwegian map fairly acurately places 'Rocol' where it should be.

As it happens, seafarers have always had an interest in knowing the exact location of Rockall, as Rockall itself is merely the visible part of the Rockall Bank, a reef that represents a danger to any passing ships. Since the the rock itself causes a magnetic anomaly, which confuses ships' compasses, most prefer to steer well clear, but not all have managed to do so. The first recorded shipwreck was in 1686, after which a rather bedraggled group of French sailors eventually managed to make their way to St Kilda. In 1824 the Helen of Dundee foundered on the reefs at Rockall when the crew earned themselves a certain notoriety as they abandoned their complement of passangers to their fate. The most recent incident was in 1904 when the liner Norge, en route from Copenhagen to New York hit the reef, and 600 of the 800 or so on board were drowned as the lifeboats were insufficient to meet the sudden demand for an alternative means of transportation.

Aside from shipwrecked seafarers few people have had the inclination to set foot on Rockall. In 1811 the HMS Endymnion sent a landing party under the command of a Lieutenant Basil Hall to investigate the rock. They had little to report other than the discovery of the only flat area on Rockall, a small ledge measuring 11 feet by 4 feet that thereafter bore the name of Hall's Ledge. In 1862 another landing party was sent by the HMS Porcupine to attempt an assent of the rock. One man managed to get ashore to was unable to reach the summit, although in 1888 the captain of a Grimsby fishing smack landed and succeeded in climbing to the summit, although what prompted him to do so is not recorded.

The British claim to Rockall

You might imagine that no one would have the slightest interest in a lump of rock stuck in the middle of the ocean three hundred miles from anywhere, but you would be very wrong.

The first thing was that the British government had a firing range at South Uist in the Hebrides which was used for missile testing. During the 1950s as the Cold War raged, the British became concerned that the Soviet Union might use Rockall as a base for spying on their missile tests and therefore resolved to claim Rockall as British territory in order to deny the Russians the opportunity of making use of it themselves. As a Foreign Office official stated at the time "it would be rather unfortunate if someone claimed it first and used it as an observation point". So in order to make good their claim to Rockall the Government ordered R.H. Connell, Captain of the HMS Vidal, to set sail for Rockall and on the 18th September 1955 despatched a helicopter which lowered down two soldiers, a civil servant, a flag, a plaque, a bucket of cement and a couple of trowels. Under no doubt, the close supervision of the civil servant, the soldiers busied themselves with erecting the flag and fixing the plaque which bore the following text;

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 etc, and in accordance with Her Majesty's instructions dated the 14th September 1955 a landing was effected this day upon this island of Rockall from HMS Vidal. The Union flag was hoisted and possesion of this island was taken in the name of her Majesty

This action did prompt one response from the octogenarian Abrach Mackay who stated that, "My old father, God rest his soul, claimed that Island for the Clan of Mackay in 1846 and I now demand that the Admiralty hand it back. It's no theirs." 2 However aside from the representatives of the Clan Mackay, no one else appeared to be interested, and the British claim to Rockall was viewed with amusement by its neighbours as a mixture of paranoia and quasi-Victorian imperialism. Even in 1969 when the British Government so fit to "assert for Great Britain the exclusive right to exploit resources on or under the Rockall Bank" no one complained and there was a deafening silence when Parliament passed the Rockall Act 1971 which formally incorporated Rockall into the United Kingdom and declared that it was now part of Invernesshire. The Act duly received the necessary Royal Assent on the 10th February 1972 and in celebration of this fact in June of that year two helicopters from 816 Squadron from HMS Engadine were engaged in the task of fixing a navigational beacon on the rock to aid shipping.

The price of oil

As a result of the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 the price of oil was deliberately hiked by OPEC. The resulting 'Oil Shock' suddenly made everyone interested in the commercial potential of the oil that might or might not be present in the Rockall bank. Thus by 1974 the United Kingdom had competition in the form of Ireland, Denmark and Iceland all of whom now claimed that Rockall now belonged to them.

However it wasn't until 1985 the United Kingdom began issuing petroleum licences for the Rockall and Faeroe troughs. On the 7th May 1985 Denmark retaliated by claiming 30,000 square kilometres of the Atlantic over what they called the 'Faeroe-Rockall micro-continent'. Three days later Iceland claimed that Rockall was part of 'their' continental shelf, whilst the Irish also began to organise their own exploration licences.

In 1988 the governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland reached an agreement on the division of the continental shelf between themselves. Oddly enough once the Irish government had reached what it considered an equitable division of the spoils, they lost all interest in Rockall and announced that "the current position is that, given that Rockall is no longer used as a measuring point, its very existence is immaterial insofar as delimitation is concerned".

However, despite the scramble over Rockall, as yet no one has found any oil. Or at least not in sufficient quantities to make it worthwhile overcoming the considerable obstacles that exist to extracting the oil from such a deep water location. Thus the gannets, seagulls and periwinkles have largely been left alone to enjoy the North Atlantic climate without much interference.

The inhabitants of Rockall

There have so far been two occasions when the aboriginal inhabitants of Rockall have been forced to share their home with human interlopers.

Firstly, as a response to the foreign claims of 1985, a building firm by the name of Milbury Homes organised a publicity stunt and sponsored a former paratrooper, member of the SAS and self proclaimed survival expert named Tom Mclean to take up residence on Rockall. Having reached the rock by fishing boat, he then set up home and stayed there from the 26th May to the 4th July spending most of his time in a wooden shelter bolted to the rock.

Twelve years later three Greenpeace activists named as 'Peter', 'Meike' and 'Al' were winched down by helicopter, announced that they had seized Rockall and proclaimed a new state by the name of Waveland. The official Foreign Office response to this 'invasion' of British territory was polite, diplomatic, and serves as evidence that intelligence and wit has somehow survived in the upper reaches of the British Civil Service, namely that, "Rockall is British territory. It is part of Scotland and anyone is free to go there and can stay as long as they please." The Greenpeace activists eventually left after forty-two days, and the 'Atlantic Frontier campaign' was wound down.

In April 2005 the author and television presenter Ben Fogle also attempted to claim Rockall and rename it 'Benland', but he only got as far as sticking a yellow Post-it note on the rock bearing the message "This belongs to Ben". On the 16th June 2005, the satire website known as The Rockall Times managed to get nine people on top of Rockall and promptly declared the Peoples Republic of Rockall, although they do not appear to have stayed overnight and thus the Foreign Office did not feel obliged to issue any formal statement.


It is also claimed that in 1974 the British government set up a temporary sentry box and flag on Rockall and stuck two Royal Marines in full ceremonial dress on guard next to it. There is a picture of this very incident which it is claimed was 'released' in 1984 as a celebration of the rock's Britishness. I am not sure whether Photoshop was around in 1984 but the photograph seems fairly obviously faked.


NOTES

1 Flanders and Swan, who are actually quite wrong, England hasn't "got Rockall", Scotland has.
2 Which statement only proved that Councillor Mackay did not understand the difference between ownership and sovereignty.


SOURCES

  • The Rockall Times at http://www.therockalltimes.co.uk particurlarly Kieren McCarthy The complete history of Rockall
  • Greenpeace UK at http://www.gpuk.org/atlantic/press/advise/background.html and
    http://archive.greenpeace.org/majordomo/index-press-releases/1997/msg00182.html
  • Waveland ar http://www.waveland.org/
  • Ben Fogle, I will be king of Rockall 27/04/2005 www.telegraph.co.uk

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