For author Gavin Francis, writing in the newly-published nature anthology Antlers Of Water, it’s a luminous volcanic plug sitting proud of the Firth of Forth like a nail God has neglected to hammer all the way in. For the tourists and locals who walk, play and (on those days when it shines) sun themselves on North Berwick’s Milsey Bay Beach, it’s a dramatic backdrop with a pleasing question attached: ‘Do you know what gives it that white colour?’ they’ll ask their kids, and be gratified by the wide eyes they get when they tell them it’s birds. Lots and lots of birds.

That volcanic plug/forgotten nail/avian hang-out is the Bass Rock, of course. The colour comes from the gannets that make it their home for six months of the year – 150,000 of them, the world’s largest single colony and one of the wildlife wonders of the world – and Gavin Francis is far from the first writer to find mighty words to describe the rock, or to want to spin stories around it. Robert Louis Stevenson, who holidayed in North Berwick and is said to have used the nearby island of Fidra as the model for Treasure Island, uses it in Catriona, his sequel to Kidnapped. It is also claimed as the inspiration for his short story The Wreckers, and his cousin David Stevenson designed the lighthouse which is (or appears to the naked eye to be) the island’s sole piece of architectural furniture.

In fact there are also the remains of a chapel and a castle, testament to a history of inhabitation that goes back probably to the Christian hermit St Baldred in the 7th century and certainly to the 13th century by which time the Bass Rock was in the hands of the Lauder family. Several of the Jameses visited at one time or another and more than one of them used the castle as a prison. Covenanters, Jacobites and sundry truculent clan chiefs all suffered on the Bass Rock, and yes the birds roosted there through it all – not for nothing does a gannet take pride of place in the Lauder of Bass coat of arms.

What to read

Where do you start? Probably with RLS and Catriona, though for a not-unrelated yet more fact-based read try Bella Bathurst’s excellent The Lighthouse Stevensons, which tells the story of the engineers in the family. You may also want to reach for James Robertson’s The Fanatic, which deals in part with the story of the Covenanter James Mitchell, imprisoned on the rock prior to be strung up in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket in 1678 for the sin of trying to murder an archbishop.