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Today in history... a new British territory is announced

12:00am | & News

If you've heard the name "Rockall" it is probably as one of the sea areas listed in the shipping forecast broadcast daily on BBC Radio 4. But 61 years ago today, the desolate lump of granite 300 miles off the west coast of Scotland was in the news for other reasons.

Sticking up almost 60 feet out of the wild ocean which surrounds it, Rockall is home only to various seabirds and marine molluscs. But in 1955 Britain considered it valuable enough to formally annex it as part of its sovereign territory, announcing on September 21st that the mission had been accomplished.

The reason was that Britain was planning to establish a guided missile testing range in the Outer Hebrides, firing from South Uist across the North Atlantic. Rockall – positioned some 230 miles west of Uist ­– was considered close enough to be used as an observation base by Russian spies! It might sound far-fetched now, but this was the height of the Cold War and the Admiralty was taking no chances.

The annexation of the barren and storm-lashed rock had to be authorised by Her Majesty the Queen and performed by a group of men landing on Rockall to claim it for the Crown. The Queen's instructions to the landing squad stated: "On arrival at Rockall you will affect a landing and hoist the Union flag on whatever spot appears most suitable or practicable and you will then take possession of the island on our behalf."

The four-man team tasked with the mission comprised two Royal Marines and a civilian naturalist, led by Lieutenant Commander Desmond Scott, of the Royal Navy. They sailed out to Rockall aboard survey ship HMS Vidal, coincidentally named after the Royal Navy surveyor who first charted Rockall in 1831, Captain Alexander Vidal.

The ship was equipped with a helicopter to ferry the men onto Rockall, but high winds prevented them from landing for the first three days after reaching the rock. They finally managed it on September 18th, when Royal Marine Sergeant Brian Peel became the first man to set foot on Rockall since a previous landing by the Royal Navy in 1862.

An experienced rock climber, Sgt Peel was tasked with climbing down to the waterline to collect seaweed and other samples for the team's naturalist, James Fischer, himself a former Marine. Sgt Peel managed the climb easily enough, but misjudged the heavy Atlantic swell and at one point was engulfed by a wave as he started his climb back up.

"I had to grab a handful of seaweed, ram it in my mouth and get up the rock as fast as possible," he later told reporters.

The men's main job on Rockall was to raise the Union Flag, symbolically claiming the islet for Britain. They also cemented a plaque in place to let any other visitors know they were on British territory. Mission accomplished, they returned to their ship, the trickiest part of the whole operation being to safely land the large helicopter on HMS Vidal's deck.

"The landing space on our flight deck is only 33ft square and the rotor blades of the helicopter sweep an arc of 49ft, so the pilot has to be very, very careful," said a relieved Lt Commander Scott.

There was only one objection to the annexing of Rockall, when 84-year-old J. Abrach Mackay, of the Clan Mackay, declared: “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!"

Despite the Clan's claim, Britain's grip on Rockall was further strengthened in 1972 when the Isle of Rockall Act was passed in Parliament, making the rock officially part of Inverness-shire, in Scotland. A number of adventurers have since visited the rock, some attempting to live on it for extended periods.

In 1978, eight members of the Dangerous Sports Club held a cocktail party on Rockall, and in 1985 former SAS soldier and survival expert Tom McClean lived on the island for 40 days. In 2013 explorer Nick Hancock set out to survive alone on the rock for 60 days, but was forced to abandon after 45 days when many of his supplies were blown into the ocean during a fierce storm. He currently holds the record for the longest occupation of Rockall.

As far as anyone knows, no Russian spies have ever attempted to occupy Rockall.

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