Saturday, July 16, 2011
From the Guardian,
On 15 September 1955, three marines and a civilian scientist from the Royal Navy's new survey ship HMS Vidal were winched from a helicopter on to a tiny, pyramid-shaped outcrop of granite sticking out of the Atlantic Ocean 240 miles west of the Orkneys. It was the height of the cold war and their secret mission was to annex the uninhabitable islet of Rockall and claim it as the last land grab of the British Empire.
Witnessed only by a few gannets and sooty fulmars, Sergeant Brian Peel, Lieutenant Commander Desmond Scott, Corporal Anthony Fraser and the naturalist James Fisher mixed buckets of cement and erected a flagpole made from old propeller shafts. Then they bolted a brass plaque commemorating the event to the rock, raised the union flag – standing back carefully in case they fell into the sea – and saluted.
"In the name of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I hereby take possession of this Island of Rockall," said Scott, becoming the last of a long line of sailors to formally claim a remote bit of the world for Britain.
But did he? Today, Britain, Ireland, Denmark and Iceland all claim Rockall, and within weeks the UN will examine rival claims to the mining and fishing rights of thousands of square miles of seabed around it. The final decision, expected by 2012, hangs on whether Rockall is geologically part of the continental shelf, as well as on historical records.
In 1955, the British were only interested in Rockall's strategic importance. The fear was that the Soviet Union could use it to spy on British nuclear tests, to be carried out from an experimental missile station on South Uist. These days, legal possession of Rockall could be worth £100bn or more, because it sits in the middle of a potentially vast oil and gas field. In times past, Britain would have gone to war over it; today a compromise to share it is most likely.
My own relationship with the lonely rock began in 1957 when my family was summoned by the navy for lunch on HMS Vidal, then berthed in Hull. We were supposedly descended from the great Captain – later Vice Admiral – Emeric Vidal RN, a brilliant young surveyor who mapped much of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans and who, in 1831, pinpointed Rockall for the first time at 57 deg 35 min N, 13 deg 41 min W. HMS Vidal was named after him.
As our adult relations drank pink gin with Captain Richard Connell, we children explored. Years later we discovered the navy had probably got their Vidals muddled up. Our side of the family were more likely descendents of the less salubrious Captain Charles Vidal RN, a slave owner and sugarcane grower in Jamaica.
For the next 40 years, Rockall went off my radar. The name was intoned every night on the shipping news; HMS Vidal was broken up in 1975 after an epic voyage taking scientists to the US nuclear station in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Its bell is reputedly with the family.
But then, in June 1997, the rock itself beckoned. Greenpeace was planning a landing on Rockall, claiming it as a micro-nation, renaming it Waveland in a stunt to resist the companies which were, even then, circling the seas around it in search of oil. Until then, more people had landed on the moon than on Rockall. I was invited along to become one of only a handful of people ever to have spent the night on the island.