This Tiny, Uninhabitable Islet in the North Atlantic Has Attracted Fishermen and Adventurers for Decades

Rockall, a rocky outcrop claimed by the United Kingdom, has become an unlikely battleground in the fight for fishing rights

Rockall, in the North Atlantic, is a small islet of large significance. (James Gentles, Gentles Ltd./Getty Images)
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This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com.

After a week at sea, fishermen round Drumanoo Head before dropping anchor in Killybegs Harbour, Ireland. Carefully, they unload their catch onto the quay, box after box of mackerel, haddock, monkfish, and squid; spindly tentacles and scaled bodies packed tightly under ice. These trawlermen have come back from the North Atlantic, where conditions are treacherous. High waves and powerful gales range across those waters even in the summer months. Protection only comes with the return to Killybegs, sheltered as it is from the worst of the storms up its narrow bay.

This geographic advantage has helped make Killybegs the largest fishing port in Ireland. Last year, its trawlermen landed almost 200,000 tonnes of fish, helping to feed a burgeoning national export market for seafood. A large part of this catch is found around 420 kilometers north in the Rockall Trough, a remote stretch of the Atlantic between Ireland, Scotland, and Iceland. Here, the fish gather in vast schools, especially near the region’s namesake pinnacle: Rockall, a tiny, uninhabited, jet-black outcrop of granite crowned by a pointillist splattering of guano.

This unassuming speck on the map was thrust into the spotlight this past summer when the Scottish government accused Irish trawlermen of overfishing in its territorial waters, before announcing that its coast guard would board any Irish fishing boat venturing into a 19-kilometer zone around the islet of Rockall. Trawlermen from the town of Killybegs, who have been casting their nets in those waters since the late 1980s, were dumbfounded.

“They find it incredible,” says Sean O’Donoghue, chief executive of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation. “The attitude, certainly among my members, [has been], we are not going to take this. They can come and arrest us and we’ll fight this all the way.”

Rockall map.png
Map data by OpenStreetMap via ArcGIS

For fishermen in Killybegs—where economic activity is concentrated overwhelmingly in the harbor—any exclusion from the water around Rockall could prove economically disastrous. O’Donoghue estimates that up to a third of the town’s herring and blue whiting catch comes from the 19-kilometer area around the outcrop. What’s more, he argues, Scotland has no right to prevent Irish fishermen from plying these waters. British claim of ownership over Rockall has never been legitimate, he says. “We … as an industry, and as an Irish government, have never recognized that.”

As Edinburgh and Dublin clash in distant boardrooms, Irish trawlermen continue to drop nets around Rockall, now under the watchful eye of Scottish enforcement vessels. For the moment, the outcrop’s status remains uncertain. But with Brexit threatening to cut off access to these waters to European Union trawlermen, Killybegs’s fishing community is set to be the first casualty in a maritime legal dispute decades in the making.

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Rockall is at least 52 million years old, the battered remnant of an extinct volcano. As high as a four-story building and slightly wider than a city bus, the seamount only began appearing on navigational charts in 1606. Early descriptions portray a familiar, if unusual, sight for mariners crossing the Atlantic. “Rokel [sic] is a solitary island … not unlike [Sule] Stack, but higher and bigger, and white from the same cause,” wrote Captain William Coats of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1745.

That cause—namely, the abundance of guano deposited by resting gannets and guillemots—along with Rockall’s almost vertical cliffs must have put off most sailors from landing, because it wasn’t set foot upon until 1811 when Lieutenant Basil Hall of the HMS Endymion led a small crew in two longboats to its summit. After having mistaken the islet for a ship under sail, an expedition was mounted as, Hall later wrote, “we had nothing better on our hands.”

The trip was a waking nightmare. First came the difficult landing and ascent, complicated by a high swell and Rockall’s slippery cliffs: one false step, Hall wrote, “might have sent the explorer to investigate the secrets of the deep.” By some miracle, the crew clambered up to the summit, only for a dense fog to descend. Frightened about losing their ship, Hall and his men hopped back onto their boats as fast as the rising swell would allow. After several hours rowing through dense mist, they made it back to the Endymion.

The Royal Navy wouldn’t return in force until 1955—this time with a helicopter, four marines, and a plaque declaring Rockall British territory to prevent it from being used as a base for the Soviet Union to spy on the United Kingdom’s missile tests. The annexation briefly fixed the islet at the forefront of British cultural imagination. Many found the episode faintly ridiculous. Satirists Michael Flanders and Donald Swann captured the public’s bemusement in a loving ditty:

We sped across the planet
To find this lump of granite
One rather startled gannet
In fact, we found Rockall.

Lord of the Flies author William Golding used the islet as a convenient, if unlikely, metaphor for the human condition. In his 1956 novel Pincher Martin, Golding’s protagonist is stranded after his ship is torpedoed, only to slowly realize that he is dead and Rockall is his purgatory.

The United Kingdom’s annexation also provoked a spree of visits from a cavalcade of nationalists and adventurers who considered the rock their personal ultima Thule. In 1975, the Dublin rock climber Willie Dick almost drowned attempting to plant the Irish tricolor on the summit, an act that grew out of the simmering outrage among Irish nationalists at Rockall’s incorporation into Inverness-shire, Scotland, three years earlier. A decade later, British Special Air Service (SAS) veteran Tom McClean sought to reaffirm British sovereignty over Rockall by becoming the first man to live on the rock. He spent 40 days huddled in a plywood box.

McClean was followed by activists from Greenpeace in 1997, who rechristened Rockall the Republic of Waveland in protest of oil and gas exploration in its surrounding waters; a group of Belgian ham radio operators in 2011 who became so violently seasick during their trip to the island that they had to return to Scotland the next day; and Englishman Nick Hancock, who holds the world occupation record of 45 days for his stay on the islet.

As the founder of the Rockall Club, membership in which is extended to anyone who has successfully landed on the islet, Hancock is probably the world’s leading expert on its history and morphology. Hancock spent most of his stay sitting and sleeping inside an adapted water tank hauled up on the islet’s flattest ledge. He remembers a windswept, barren place that stank of dead fish. Legacies from past landings, he says, were easy to find.

“There’s a couple of plaques left by the Royal Navy, and one commemorating Tom McClean’s stay,” says Hancock. On the summit lies the remnants of a light beacon installed by British military engineers in 1972 which, from the sea, resembles a subterranean hatch, and a piece of half-carved graffiti on the side of the main ledge left by the SAS veteran. “He got as far as Tom McCl——”

Hancock worried about getting lonely on the rock and vowed to keep himself busy. Sometimes that meant making friends with passing birds, including two pigeons and a starling. For the most part, though, Hancock spent his time reading, learning the harmonica, and conducting a series of scientific experiments, including the successful confirmation of Rockall’s height (0.85 meters lower than previously thought). Aside from the fierce storm that cut his expedition to just three days over the existing record, the memories that stick most in his mind are of sitting under crystal blue skies, “watching gannets diving and minke whales surfacing around the rock. And you were the only person there.”

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For fishermen like O’Donoghue, however, Rockall is less important for its natural beauty than its capacity to block access to vital fishing grounds. Their concerns are shared by the Irish government, which has never recognized the United Kingdom’s claim to Rockall.

On the face of it, Dublin’s position is in opposition to international maritime law, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This agreement, signed by the vast majority of the world’s governments, lays out the rules for deciding a country’s maritime territory, stating that rocks that “cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no economic exclusive zone or continental shelf.” However, it does permit the creation of territorial waters around said outcrop if a country stakes a valid claim to it.

The Irish government, however, refuses to recognize the United Kingdom’s title over Rockall. This means, in turn, that the waters around Rockall are not British territory at all, but just the far reaches of the United Kingdom’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Since both nations are currently members of the European Union, Irish trawlermen are entitled to fish in the United Kingdom’s EEZ under the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy. In Dublin’s eyes, therefore, Rockall should have as much bearing on fishing rights as an iceberg or a shipwreck.

The United Kingdom, of course, believes otherwise. It considers Rockall and the water around it to be British territory, and therefore exempt from the Common Fisheries Policy. It has continuously reinforced this claim through symbolic acts, including fixing various plaques by the Royal Navy on the outcrop proclaiming British sovereignty over it and legally incorporating the islet into Inverness-shire in 1972.

Rockall illustration.jpg
Vintage engraving from 1862 showing Rockall, a small, uninhabited, remote rocky islet in the North Atlantic Ocean. (duncan1890/Getty Images)

Though this may not seem like much, a “symbolic act on a tiny, uninhabitable speck of land is very significant in terms of getting international ownership,” explains Clive Symmons, a professor of maritime law at Trinity College Dublin. What is actually more unusual, Symmons says, is that though the United Kingdom maintains Rockall is its territory, it has given up using the islet to further its EEZ into the North Atlantic. Typically, a country’s EEZ is calculated to extend 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from its claimed territory. In 1997, however, the United Kingdom unilaterally decided to pull back the starting point for this calculation from Rockall to St. Kilda, an archipelago around 180 kilometers off the Scottish mainland.

Ironically, it is the last remnant of Britain’s hold over Rockall that is proving to be the most troublesome. And with Brexit looming, this situation could deteriorate even further.

The latest version of the Political Declaration on withdrawal seeks to preserve the status quo of fishing rights until a new agreement on access is reached between London and Brussels by July 2020, a deal the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation has endorsed provided no further concessions are made in permitting its European Union rivals to fish in British waters. However, because the federation’s members consider Rockall’s waters United Kingdom territory, and therefore never subject to the Common Fisheries Policy, access to the outcrop is likely to become an object of intense negotiation.

The situation will become much simpler if Britain leaves the European Union without a deal. Since Rockall lies at the westernmost edge of the United Kingdom’s EEZ, the British government would be within its rights to throw all Irish (and all European Union) fishermen out of these waters. The inverse is also true for British fishermen in European Union waters, says O’Donoghue. “They’re not going to accept that we can put them out.”

The Killybegs association chief executive suspects the Scottish government’s newfound belligerence is an attempt to whip up support for its own nationalist party against the Conservative Party in the country’s fishing communities, a claim disputed by officials in Edinburgh. As the United Kingdom’s withdrawal date nears, few can predict whether Brexit will lead to new opportunities for British trawlermen no longer bound by the Common Fisheries Policy or clashes with their European counterparts over who can fish where, as occurred last summer when French boats rammed their British counterparts in a row over scallop stocks in the Baie de la Seine.

Other observers, however, are keen to see how the British claim to the islet might evolve under these pressures.

“The Japanese are particularly interested in Rockall,” Symmons says. Japan, too, claims ownership of an isolated rocky outcrop hundreds of kilometers from shore. While the largest islet in the Okinotorishima reef is no larger than a double bed, the Japanese government has spent an estimated US $600-million literally shoring up its island status with concrete barriers and titanium netting. Unlike the United Kingdom, though, Japan continues to claim a 200-nautical-mile EEZ around the formation, “much to the displeasure of the Chinese, [who] of course cite the UNCLOS convention,” says Symmons.

Any future horse-trading over the territoriality of a granite outcrop in the North Atlantic could, therefore, set a valuable precedent in the ongoing tussle over an artificially sheltered atoll in the western Pacific.

The capacity for Rockall to create such mischief would have been unimaginable to its first visitors in 1811. To Hall and his crew, it was nothing but a curiosity that broke the endless monotony of the North Atlantic. “The smallest point of a pencil could scarcely give it a place on any map, which should not exaggerate its proportion to the rest of the islands in that stormy ocean,” he wrote. A moot point now, perhaps.

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