An examination of many articles on East Lothian and the Bass
reveal a failure to mention many of the pre-Union feudal lairds. Until the 17th
century – one of appalling corruption and the Great Civil War – the ancient
Scottish family of Lauder were Lairds of the Bass and extensive landowners, Royalists with
a 600-year history of service.
In 1057 Malcolm Canmore gave Sir Robert de
Lavedre extensive lands in East Lothian and Berwickshire for assisting him recover his
crown from Macbeth. Included in these lands was the lower part of the Bass, and
Tyninghame. Numerous sources, including The Bass Rock (1847) state that the Lauders
are the earliest recorded proprietors of the island. However, that is not entirely true,
as The Church owned the upper half of the Bass owing to the fact that an obscure pious
Scottish saint, Baldred, died there in 606 A.D. The Church would not grant this part of
the Bass to the Lauders until 1316.
In Famous Scottish Houses (1928) Thomas Hannan relates how Tyninghame
Manor existed in 1094 "when it was owned by the Lairds of the Bass." We also
know that as early as the 13th century Sir Robert de Lawedre of Bass invited
the Bishops of St.Andrews to use it as a summer residence, in return for which they
subsidised additions to the house. The Lauders were still working on the manor as late as
1617 when the dowager Lady Bass, Isabella (nee Hepburn), relict of Sir George Lauder of
Bass (d.1611) carried out further additions.
The first Sir Robert de Lavedre commenced work immediately on the construction
of a Norman keep and fortress on the Bass. For successive centuries the Lauders extended
and rebuilt the castle to become, according to the 16th century work Mr
Rapin’s History, one of Scotland’s most prominent castles. Halfway up the
Bass was a cell where St.Baldred had died and where a chapel was built. The Lauders
rebuilt this at least twice – in 1493 and 1542. At the latter re-consecration
ceremony there was in attendance, Master John Lauder, son of the Laird and Archdeacon of
Teviotdale, Secretary to Cardinal David Beaton and also the ‘Public Accuser’ of
heretics in Scotland.
It is on record that in 1188 another Sir Robert de Lawedre (almost every
generation named their eldest son Robert) accompanied David Earl of Huntingdon, brother of
King William the Lion, on the 3rd Crusade. Burke refers to this Sir Robert as
the fifth baron.
A century on, one of Sir William Wallace’s foremost supporters (says Blind
Harry) was Sir Robert Lauder of Bass and we subsequently find him at the battle of
Stirling Bridge in 1297. Sir Robert and his son were both present at the disastrous battle
of Falkirk following year, and Sir Robert senior died in 1311.
Upon a stone originally within the floor of the Old Kirk at North Berwick was
written, in latin, "here lies the good Robert Lauder, great Laird of Congaltoun and
Bass who died May 1311." (Nisbet).
His son was ambassador several times for King David II and was Keeper of the
castle at Berwick-upon-Tweed becoming, later, Chamberlain of Scotland. This Sir Robert and
his eldest son, Sir Robert Lauder of Quarrelwood (in Moray – originally part of
Macbeth’s own lands) were at the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333 after which Robert
junior hastened north to hold Urquhart Castle against the English King.
The influence of the Bass family was considerable and they held many posts of
note. Certainly they were receiving customs annuities from Haddington and North Berwick
between 1397 and 1426. The castle on the Bass was, at that time, described as "a
fortress, a stone castle with a curtain wall over the landing stage." It was from the
Bass that Sir Alexander Ramsay sailed in 1358 with supplies to the besieged ‘Black
Agnes’ in Dunbar Castle.
In 1388 Sir Robert Lawder took part in the battle of Otterburn and Froissart
describes him as "a renowned hero." However, at the battle of Nesbit Moor in
1402 the English took him prisoner.
Fearing for the safety of young Prince James, King Robert III entrusted him to
Sir Robert Lauder of the Bass. In March 1406 the young lad and his entourage embarked
under cover of darkness in a ship from Danzig en route for France but this vessel was
waylaid by English pirates off Flamborough Head and the Prince taken prisoner. He remained
in captivity for years. But in 1423 Sir Robert Lauder carried out the delicate final
negotiations for his release in London. A year later, Sir Robert accepted the wardship on
the Bass of the King’s prisoner, Walter Stewart, eldest son of the Duke of Albany.
Lauder was Justiciar of Scotland at this time.
In 1425 Royal Charters reconfirmed him owner of the lands of Craig and Balgonie,
near North Berwick, and Edrington in Berwickshire. Between 1425 and 1433 Sir Robert Lauder
of Bass was Governor of Edinburgh Castle and his name appears on the board of Governors
hanging in the castle’s Great hall today. In 1460 "a son of the laird of Bass,
David Lauder," owned Popill, near Whittinghame in Haddingtonshire. About this time
the Lauders became involved in court actions with the Hepburns of Wauchton which would
eventually lead to an enduring friendship, including intermarriage, between these two
great houses lasting 200 years.
In 1497 King James IV stayed on the Bass with the Laird; and on 25th
February 1510 one Thomas Dickson "from the monastery of Haddington" was fined
after he and others destroyed a house at Whitecastle "the property of Sir Robert
Lauder of the Bass, knight." (We assume Thomas was not one of the monks!) This Sir
Robert was on an Azzize, in the presence of the King, to try William Douglas of Drumlanrig
for killing Robert Crichton of Kirkpatrick.
In Balfour’s Annals (c1548) we read that "Sir Robert Lauder of
Basse, with the French garisone of Dunbar Castle, takes the English provisione going from
Berwick to Haddingtone; kills many shouldiors and takes the Governor of Haddington, named
This was after the Battle of Pinkie, in which Sir Robert is noted, with his
kinsman Sir Alexander Lauder of Haltoun, in the cavalry. Unfortunately Sir Alexander was
killed. This Sir Robert built Lauder’s Hospital in North Berwick and died in 1561.
His son, another Sir Robert (d.1576), husband of Elizabeth Hay of the Yester family, was
at Carberry Hill with Queen Mary to whom he had loaned £2000, never recovered.
In 1581 King James VI stayed in some comfort" in the castle as a guest of
the new laird George Lauder of Bass. They became close friends and scarcely a year passes
in the public records of the period in which George is not mentioned. He was knighted at
the Queen’s coronation in 1590 and subsequently became tutor to the young Prince
Henry. Sir George married Isabella, daughter of Sir Patrick Hepburn of Waughton &
Redbraes, and they had only one child, George (b.1597). Although Sir George had several
brothers, George junior was destined to become the last Lauder Laird of the Bass.
In Sir George’s testament (he died on 27th June 1611) the great
extent of the Lauder estates became apparent. Some of the properties named therein are:
The Bass, Balgonie, Tyninghame, Beil, Kirklandhill, Newbarnes, Duchrie, Poppil, Preslaw,
Pensheills, Kingsyde, Banbeyth & Mountflourie, Ramersyde, Liehouse, Friardykes,
Knowes, Pitcox, and others. His moveable goods alone amounted to £30,000, a considerable
sum at that time.
His mother dominated George Lauder junior, the new Laird of Bass, and between
them they seemed financially incompetant. The greedy wheeler-dealers, corrupt lawyers,
new-rich, and new ‘aristocracy’ (most of Scotland’s titles originate in the
17th century) also coveted their possessions. Loans and mortgages were
forclosed upon on conditions that would be illegal today. Lady Bass was evicted from her
winter home, Tyninghame Manor, for 600 years a Lauder residence. When Sotheby’s held
their auction there in 1987 they failed to mention in their history of the house its
The Great Civil War commenced and the Bass was hurriedly transferred to Sir
Patrick Hepburn of Waughton, a Covenanter and George’s uncle. The Lauders being
notorious royalists it was hoped that by this ruse Cromwell would leave it alone. However,
Sir Patrick unexpectedly died and his son John was served heir of all his estates,
including The Bass, on 9th November 1649. John had been an Episcopalian
minister and was a Royalist. The dye was cast.
In 1650 the castle on the Bass was busy bombarding supply ships heading for
Leith. One ship, the John o’ London was captured, looted and sunk. It
contained Oliver Cromwell’s personal luggage. He was not amused and
Proclamations "against Intercourse with the Garrison of the Bass" were posted on
both sides of the Firth of Forth. Surrender of the Bass was demanded by the Deputy
Governor of Leith on 22nd October 1651 to no effect. A setback occurred two
days later when "the Lady and two brothers of the Governor of the Bass island"
were captured and their estates sequestrated. Still, the Bass held out.
In April 1652 the garrison of 112 men were finally starved and frozen out.
The Lauders never regained their island home and fortress and it subsequently
became a state prison for Covenanters under King Charles II and was abandoned in 1701 when
sections were demolished. The remainder of the buildings and some walls were quarried for
stone to build a lighthouse there in 1902. A sad story and sorry end to a castle with a
great history. What of the Lauders and Hepburns et al? Whence has flown thine ancient
This original article, to which minor amendments have been made, appeared in issue 22
of East Lothian Life in Autumn 1996 (ISSN 1361-7818). A further article appeared in
issue 29 of the same magazine, Spring 1999, by Andrew Spratt, about the history of North
Berwick Castle, the Lauder’s construction in the 14th century of its
tower, and their involvement in local history.
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