5. Barrier Lands

A Lonely Isle
5. Barrier Lands

Rockall is a contested space, politically and socially. John Vidal wrote for The Guardian in 2011 about his landing with Greenpeace in 1997, while Fraser Macdonald has written about the island and its role as a test-bed for post-colonial masculinity.



NARRATOR: Whichever way you look at it, the “adventure” of getting onto Rockall winds up butting up against the island’s lack of grandeur. Ragged and empty, Rockall doesn’t really have value as an island. It has value because of what islands have come to mean.

JOHN VIDAL: From a distance Rockall is a minute speck in a giant sea; from below it is formidable, with no obvious landing spot or route up.

NARRATOR: John Vidal was one of the Greenpeace team who took Rockall in 1997. They renamed it Waveland, declaring that the island and the oil beds around it belonged to the ocean, and not Britain. Remembering the landing for the Guardian, Vidal wrote:

JOHN VIDAL: A six-inch wide potholing ladder had been lowered, and I was instructed to wait until the dinghy was at its highest point on the swell, then to leap out of the boat and grab the ladder. There was just one chance of getting it right.

The ladder snaked down, the boat rose, I jumped and clung on, before clambering upwards. Ten minutes later, knuckles grazed and still in an extreme state of fear, I reached the top, and was violently sick. There was not much to Rockall beyond a small ledge and a summit.

NARRATOR: “a small ledge and a summit” – that’s about as specific as any description of Rockall gets.

The Greenpeace demonstration has its roots in the island’s geoligical history. James Fisher described Rockall as part of the “ancient barrier lands” between the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. The waveland, then, is a continental fragment cast into an open ocean.

Rockall exists as both a physical location and an idea of place, spilling out into the waters around and conveying semi-permanent ownership to one political reality or another. As Fraser Macdonald wrote in his essay “The last outpost of Empire”

FRASER MACDONALD: The sea is an unsupportive medium for marking boundaries or declaring ownership. As Steinberg has observed, many geopolitical discourses construct the ocean as ‘unclaimed and unclaimable ‘‘international’’ space’, the site of ‘anarchic competition par excellence, where ontologically pre-existent and essentially equivalent nation-states do battle in unbridled competition for global spoils’.

For the needs of the British state, Rockall was important because it was one tiny space of representation in an expanse of (seemingly) unsignifying nothingness.

NARRATOR: Basically, “Rockall”, in this context, is fishing rights, and oil rights, and territorial waters, and all of the rest. “Rockall” is the map, and not the terrain. That’s why Britain claimed it.



Ann Scantlebury
Audio producer and director

Matt Addis
Voice actor

Matthew Sheret
Writer and narrator

Richard J. Birkin
Composer and creative director

Time Travel Opps
Digital production

Reverend Spotswood-Green
Original Painting

Joe Caithness
Mastering (Soundtrack)


A Lonely Isle is a collection of anecdotes about Rockall, a remote island in the Atlantic ocean. Each chapter is based on accounts written by visitors over the last two hundred years. 

The project came together by a process of dead reckoningResearched in 2012, written in 2014, recorded in 2015, scored in 2017, and published in 2018, it’s a product of guessing and sun-sights, serendipity and cumulative error.

Original Soundtrack

The Last Outpost of Empire (music for A Lonely Isle)
by Richard J. Birkin

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