In our globalized and infinitely connected world, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine any corner of the globe that has not been thoroughly explored, documented, and homogenized by mankind. Sitting in a busy café on a city street, or driving through never-ending suburbs, I have sometimes found myself lamenting the lost sense of adventure that the world used to hold. In the golden age of exploration, how must khaki safari jacket-clad explorers have felt, cutting their way through dense jungle with machetes, to come upon an ancient lost city? I sometimes imagine the otherworldly thrill that must have scuttled down Howard Carter’s spine when he cracked open Tutankhamun’s tomb, to be met by the smell of ancient Egyptian incense, still as pungent as the day it was sealed in. Sometimes the world of adventure, exploration and travel can seem a little contrived these days – Have we really come this far, only for the value of travel to be reduced down to a slew of Instagram photos accompanied by a cheesy quote?
For me, it is refreshing when I stumble upon a write up or essay detailed a previously undocumented corner of this rock we call home. From a comfortable seat in a warm house, it somehow comforts me to know that, yes, there are still great wildernesses out there, still to explore…
Distance to Civilisation (Km)
“It is a dreadful place. There can be no place more desolate, more despairing, more awful to see in the world” These are the words of Scottish Labour Peer Lord Kennet in 1972. His object of ire? The UK’s most recent territorial acquisition: Rockall. There are few places on earth so bleak, desolate and inhospitable as Rockall – a windswept spire of jagged rock, towering out of the North Atlantic Ocean. Rockall lies 301 kilometres (187 miles) east of the uninhabited Scottish island of Soay. Lord Kennet, once a sailor himself, was speaking ahead of Royal Assent being given to the “Island of Rockall Act”, a law which incorporated Rockall into the UK. The passing of this act is just one small piece in the very strange puzzle that is the UK’s relationship with this bleak and inhospitable spire of granite in the Ocean.
Rockall by any measure is tiny, as islands go. It measures just 25 metres wide by 21 metres high. It is the most inaccessible part of continental UK, located 240 miles west of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. However, despite Rockall’s remoteness and inaccessibility, it is officially claimed by four European nations, and the centre of a years old and often times bitter dispute. The United Kingdom, Denmark (on behalf of the Faroe Islands), Ireland, and Iceland all lay claim to Rockall as their own.
Rockall’s characteristics are not indicative of a typically desirable or disputed piece of land. There is no soil, no fresh water, and in stormy seas the waves crash right over the black slicked rock, sending spray 60ft or more into the air. Even on calm days, the Atlantic swell rises and falls 30ft, making landfall on Rockall’s barnacle-encrusted sheer walls extremely arduous. In 1956 the British scientist James Fisher referred to the island as “the most isolated small rock in the oceans of the world” The only inhabitants of Rockall are hardy seabirds, their excrement streaking the black granite sides of the outcrop.
Rockall was first mentioned in records at the end of the 15th century, although it is probably that some Atlantic fishermen knew of the rock long before these historical accounts were made. Scottish Gaelic folklore features a mythical rock named “Rocabarra” which many believe refers to Rockall. In the Gaelic folk stories, Rocabarra is a harbinger of the apocalypse. Rocabarra is said to appear three times – its last appearance being at the end of the world. The folklore states: “When Rocabarra returns, the world will likely come to be destroyed” Lord Kennet was evidently not the first person to view Rockall as a bleak and godforsaken place. Fishermen and sailors always avoided Rockall and viewed the bleak and gloomy outcrop with suspicion and dread. No person had attempted to land on Rockall until September 1811, when Basil Hall of HMS Endymion led a small Royal Navy landing party to the summit. Since the news of Hall’s daring exploit spread around Georgian Britain, isolated Rockall has captured the imaginations of adventurers, thrill seekers and would-be record breakers and colonists, who have attempted to land on, occupy or even colonize this wave-dashed spire of black rock over the years. In any case, the seas around the rock have been a place where many sailors have perished. 1686 a Spanish-French ship ran aground on Rockall resulting in the death of some of the crew. There were fatal accidents on nearby rocks in 1824, and over 600 people died in a shipwreck in 1904 when the steamer SS Norge ran aground on a neighboring reef.
Rockall experienced resurgence as a point of curiosity on September 18 1955, when it became the last territorial expansion of the British Empire. A Royal Navy helicopter lowered three servicemen onto the Rockall’s jagged summit who officially annexed the rock, claiming it as the last land grab of the British Empire. The men recited the passage: “In the name of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I hereby take possession of this Island of Rockall,” becoming the last of a long line of British servicemen to formally claim a remote part of the globe for the Crown. The men finished the ceremony by raising the Union Flag and cementing and bolting a brass plaque to the summit. This same plaque was famously detached and screwed back on back-to-front by Greenpeace activists in 1997. The plaque has since gone missing from Rockall, sparking investigations from amateur armchair detectives, and prompting promises from individuals to visit the rock and replace the plaque.
The official annexation was driven in part by the British government’s cold war paranoia that the Soviet Union would use the rock as a place from which to spy on the UK, or as a base of operations. Thus, on February 10, 1972, Rockall officially became administratively part of the Scottish Isle of Harris. In truth though, the isolated Atlantic outcrop has generated fierce international rivalries since the Royal Navy sailors became the first men to set foot on Rockall in 1811. It was not only the Soviet threat that spurred on the bitter Rockall dispute however. The location of the rock became central to the potential oil, gas and fishing rights located in the North Atlantic. In the 20th century, large deposits of oil and natural gas were discovered buried in the continental shelf, and this ignited, and continues to fuel the fierce debates between London, Dublin, Reykjavik and Copenhagen, which have been a constant feature in UN courts for decades.
The British Empire’s final claim to land was set back by the international ratification of the UN convention on the law of the sea in 1982. This states: “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.” British Foreign Office files on Rockall dating back to the early 1970s remain closed to researchers for 50 years, on the grounds of “prejudice to international relations”. The dispute over the Rock is clearly still a sore one.
Despite the negotiations, the brutal weather of the North Atlantic Ocean and the incredibly inaccessible nature of the rock, Rockall retains a symbolic attraction for adventurers. Tom McClean, an SAS veteran, lived for 40 days roped to the rock in 1985 in order to bolster the UK’s claim to the outcrop. In 1978 eight members of “the Dangerous Sports Club” held a cocktail party on the island.
Rockall’s Southern face, and Rockall from the Southeast. Source : Wikipedia
.In 1997, Greenpeace activists seized Rockall and attempted to colonize it, in an effort to protest against oil exploration. They renamed the rock “Waveland” and declared it a new nation. 15,000 passports were issued by Waveland, and Greenpeace declared the island to be a “new Global State” – qualifying it as a micronation. Greenpeace offered citizenship to anyone willing to take their pledge of allegiance. However, by 1999 they were forced to give up their new colony due to lack of funds, low morale, and the inhospitable nature of the rock. The most recent occupation of Rockall was by British adventurer Nick Hancock. After a failed attempt to land on the rock in 2013, a year later on 5 June 2014 Hancock successfully landed on Rockall to begin an attempt at a record-breaking 60-day survival. Hancock was forced to cut his 60 day goal short after losing supply barrels in a storm, Hancock did remain on the barren island for 45 days. For the “loneliest islet in all the world’s seas,” Rockall has seen an extraordinary amount of attention and activity.
No more than 20 people have ever landed on Rockall. In a British parliamentary debate in the 1970’s, politician William Ross stated: “More people have landed on the moon than have landed on Rockall.” And he is right. This wave-battered bastion of the Atlantic remains one of the most scarcely visited by humans, remote, and inaccessible places on earth.