The following excerpt, contributed by Heather BONIFACE, is taken from one book of an 8-set volume that details events in Scottish history. This material pertains to the Seige of the Bass in 1691, about six years after the death there of the Covenantor, the Reverend John BLACKADER. The source material may be found in volume 7 of the series, in a section headed "Military History, Capture of the Bass 1691" (on pages 414-418).
The history of Scotland from Agricola's invasion to the extinction of the last Jacobite insurrection
by John Hill Burton, D.C.L. [1809-1881]. Publ. 1876 by William Blackwood and Sons (Edinburgh & London). The last known reprinting was in 1905.
[Pages 414-418 pertaining to the Seige of the Bass, 1691-1694]
The other instance was equally significant. The Lord Lovat had died, and left his property, according to Lowland Scots law, to an only daughter. But it was seldom that a female succession could be carried into effect in the Highlands, unless the heiress were immediately married to some redoubted warrior and statesman of the clan. Simon Fraser of Beaufort, better known to infamy as Lord Lovat, claimed the inheritance and leadership for his father and himself, collateral relations of the last lord. The clan took the side of the bold, unscrupulous, Athole, for many family reasons, supported the heiress, the Privy Council was year after year disturbed by applications for assistance of various kinds, including letters of fire and sword, to enable the supporters of the heiress to vindicate the law, and crush the adherents of Simon of Beaufort.
The latest lingering incidents of the war, so far as it was political, showed how little the art of besieging places naturally fortified was then known, and forms altogether a curious and romantic train of small events. The Bass Rock, occupied as a State prison, was yielded early in the war, the garrison being starved into submission. Imprisoned in it were four young Jacobite officers, who had been taken in the skirmish at Cromdale. They observed that when any vessel arrived with supplies, it was the practice for several of the garrison to go down to the rock without the gate, and help in the unloading, which, owing to the exposed landing-place, was an arduous task. A collier vessel was delivering her cargo, at a time when Fletcher the governor, and a considerable part of the garrison, were on shore at Castleton. The aid of all who remained was required for unloading: and the prisoners, promptly seizing the opportunity, shut the gate on those outside, and pointed the guns on them.1 With the addition of a gunner, who agreed to join them, these four young gentlemen found themselves thus in possession of one of the strongest fortresses in Scotland. They were presently joined by several companions, who seized a boat on the coast of Lothian, with which they escaped pursuit till they came in under the guns of the fort.
The proper garrison of the fort was about fifty men. The adventurers who had thus strangely acquired it, seem never to have amounted to half the number, but they were all high-spirited men, with a love of adventure, and worth a far larger force of ordinary troops. The idea of holding out, and leading a semi-piratical life in such a place, seems to have been an imitation of the adventures of Prince Rupert and his followers, in the Scilly Isles. The French Government, learning their position, sent a ship of war, which provisioned the fort, and left two war boats for the service of the adventurers. With these they made plundering incursions on the neighbouring coast, and sometimes on places where their presence must have been little expected, - such as the Isle of May, where a few sheep were pastured, which furnished a welcome prey. They seized several trading vessels, which had, in ignorance or confidence, come between their island fortress and the shore of East Lothian, and secured a plentiful victualling for their small garrison, including abundance of brandy.2
At first they were inspired by the consciousness of their importance, in commanding the principal fortress at the opening of the Firth of Forth, should a promising effort be made for the restoration of the exiled family. With Britain and her seas in the hands of the Revolution Government, it was impossible that the solitary rock could long remain a token of the Stewart dominion. Yet it was held by its adventurous little garrison from June 1691, until its surrender on terms in April 1694.
The most instructive part of this little history is in its evidence of the slight progress then made in the art of marine sieges of fortified places, The Bass is a fine natural fortification. So far as this term applies to a place which primitive people cannot seize, it would be difficult to conceive a better. It is a solid mass of trap, rising right out of the sea five hundred feet, and, save at the narrow point where it shelves towards the shore of East Lothian, it is a precipitous wall, in some places overhanging the water. Though it is held to contain seven acres of mountain grass, a visitor traversing it has a sensation that, were a storm to rise, there is no part of it, save in the ruins of the fortress, from which he is not liable to be blown into the sea. A more miserable fortress than these ruins represent, cannot well be conceived. There is not a vestige of a casemate among them: and no remnant of masonry stronger than the ordinary garden walls and unfortified houses of the seventeenth and of the present century.
Yet so little was the art of bombarding then understood, that during "the Siege of the Bass" as it was called, one war-vessel, sometimes two, accompanied by a fire-ship, professed to be besieging its little nest of buildings; and were so effective in throwing away random cannon-balls, that the garrison had at one time five hundred in their possession, which had been scattered over the rock by the besiegers. The Minutes of the Privy Council are filled with orders, "anent the Bass and its pretended garrison," which show alike the perplexity and indignation of the Government. One day an addition is made to an attacking armament - on another, a Jacobite prisoner is commissioned to negotiate. The Scots Secretary of State proposed that two vessels of war should appear in a sham fight before the Bass, and that one of them, having the French flag, should profess to be disabled, and, under pretence of seeking refuge, get in and seize the fort. There was no shelter, and no better landing-place than a little slippery point of rock, accessible only by a boat in very smooth water, and there was so little harbour even for boats, that those belonging to the garrison were pulled upon the rock by a crane. The ship could therefore have gained nothing, except coming under the battery. These indications of perplexity, and the occurrence of such a project in a history of this petty siege, of the great progress made in later times in naval destructiveness. There had then been nothing resembling the great bombardments even of the later part of the eighteenth century; and it seems to have been thought that a thing of timber, cloth, and cordage, floating on the wave, could never be a match for the edifice of stone built on a rock.
In the end, the garrison seeing starvation before them, were received on terms of honourable capitulation.
Their little romantic history has a characteristic conclusion in the negotiation. They had held out so well that their flag of truce was respectfully acknowledged. On the 18th of April 1694, Major Reid was commissioned by the Privy Council to offer to the besieged terms of capitulation, specifically set down in nine articles. These offered absolute indemnity for life, liberty, and fortune, including the arms and other things in immediate possession of the garrison. They were to be free either to remain at home or to depart for France, whither those who selected exile were to be removed at the expense of the Government. These terms, far better than they had any reason to expect, were at once accepted. But to preserve their dignity, and perhaps to insure their safety, the gallant little band kept up their original spirit to the last, and concealed from the enemy the wretchedness of their position. Though reduced to starvation-point, they had preserved some presentable remnants of provisions for the occasion, and received the messengers with an appearance of easy liberal hospitality. The Council presently afterwards issued an order for dismantling the fortress.3
1. Siege of the Bass; Melville Papers, 622. Records of the Privy Council.
2. There are entries in the Privy Council records, authorising the owners of such vessels to treat with them for the ransom of the cargo.
3. Minutes of Privy Council. Siege of the Bass, reprinted in Miscellanea Scotica. Memoirs of the Rev. John Blackader, by Dr Crichton-Appendix. That the fate of the garrison would have been very different had they not purchased terms by their courage, is shown by that of some of their number who were seized on shore. They were tried for high treason and hanged- See State Trials,xiii.843. The gibbet was erected on the coast opposite to the Bass, but a shot from the fortress alighting close to the spot, drove the executioners of the sentence to a safer place.
FAMILY RESEARCH NOTE:
From the book, THE OLD SCOTS NAVY, we have the following item:
"20 April 1694 --- A List of Persons who are to have the benefit of the Capitulation with those in the Bass, conform to the third article thereof, and that besides the General Article of Indemnity to all who have assisted or supplied the same:
Frazer, -- Halyburtone, James Hay, William Glaidstanes, Andrew Cadell, James Midletoune, William Witham, William Nicolsone, Gavin Johnstoun, William Robertsone and Alexander McGleish, all presently in prison, -- Dunbar, -- Blackiter, James Wilsone, George Hog in Wintoune, -- Douglas, vintner, -- Emeltoun in Dunbar, not in prison but under bail."
As the Reverend John BLACKADER died ca 1685, who is the 'Blackiter' listed in this piece??
Page last updated 5 Jun, 2001