Friday, April 10, 2015


When I was about 13, my mother took my brother and sister and I on a several-day excursion to Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Cape Cod. This was very nice; we seldom got to go on overnight vacations. My mom knew that the history and natural history angles of the trip would appeal to me, her bookish kid, and that it would be good exposure for my younger siblings as well. None of the Disney / Six Flags crap that kids today are spoiled on! (Our day trips were mainly to historic houses and museums in New Jersey, such as the Thomas Edison lab in West Orange. We also liked zoos a lot.)

One highlight of the Massachusetts trip that I vividly recall was a visit to the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, which has interesting nature trails as well as indoor exhibits. In the museum gift shop, I became fascinated by a hardcover book by Raymond H. Ramsay called No Longer on the Map, about places, mainly islands, that used to be mapped but were ultimately removed -- usually because they didn't in fact exist (or had been confused with places that did). Ever thoughtful, my mom noted my interest and bought the book when I wasn't looking. She saved it for a Christmas present for me that year, which I was completely delighted by. She was always doing stuff like that. I know I was lucky!

The word for being smitten by islands is "islomania," and from that time on, I had that condition. I haven't spent as much time on islands as I would like, not by a long shot, but I have always enjoyed reading about them. Many years later I discovered another book similar in theme to Ramsay's, Lost Islands by Henry Stommel. Naturally, I devoured it. Both Ramsay and Stommel refer to a North Atlantic islet called Rockall, almost 200 miles west of the Scottish islands of St. Kilda. Very close by to the 70-foot-high Rockall are the much tinier Helen's Reef (almost always just beneath the waterline) and Hasselwood Rock ("just visible above sea level in calm conditions"). There was a picture of Rockall in Ramsay's book that made me want to know more about this remote, desolate bit of land. A more modern color shot is atop this post.

Since British enthusiasts can always be counted on to pay close attention to minutiae -- it is a persistent national charm -- it is not entirely surprising that there is a whole book on the subject of Rockall, published by James Fisher in 1956. It's almost as obscure a book as Rockall is an island, but I managed to locate a copy through interlibrary loan a few years ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. This insignificant-seeming rock actually has quite a history. Sovereignty over it has been a point of dispute between the United Kingdom and Ireland. About 20 people are known to have landed on Rockall (which is not easy to do). One stayed for 40 days (Tom McClean in 1985) and another for 45 (Nick Hancock in 2013, falling short of his goal of 60 days).

Here is an alarming aerial photograph of a wave breaking to a height of 170 feet against Rockall's west side on March 11, 1943:

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