Rockall is a tiny island in the North Atlantic Ocean. With a total length of 31 m and a width of 25 m, the rocky islet covers an area of 783 sq m. Its highest elevation is about 21.4 m above sea level. Located about 300 km west of Scotland, the island is often washed over by gale force winds and large storm waves, particularly during winter. The world's largest recorded oceanic waves (of about 29 m) were recorded near the island in 2000. Given its tiny size and harsh conditions, there is no permanent settlement. In fact, the nearest human settlement is 300 km away at Hirta, the largest island of the St. Kilda group.
Nonetheless, the island is currently claimed by four countries - United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark and Iceland. In March 2011, all four countries have made their respective representations to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The final decision is expected in 2012, which many believe would largely depend on the experts' assessment of the island's geological origin as well as the validity of each country's historical records.
The island is actually the summit of an extinct volcano. Composed mainly of granite, it has no soil or fresh water source, but only algae and seaweed. Its main visitors are the seabirds which use it as a refuge or place for rest. Given its isolation from the rest of the world, people have described the island in the following terms.
"the most isolated small rock in the oceans of the world"
"More people have landed on the moon than have landed on Rockall."
According to Scottish forklore, the island was known as far back as the 6th century. It was then known as 'Rokol' or 'Rokal' or the Gaelic name 'Rockabarraigh'. It was officially discovered by Captain Basil Hall of the British ship HMS Endymion in 1810, after which the name Rockall has been used to this day.
Due to its position in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it has actually been the site for several shipwrecks going back to the 17th century. In 1904, a steamer Norge was shipwrecked in the vicinity, with the loss of 600 lives.
Although there had been previous landing attempts on the island, a British team of four men was sent via helicopter in the morning of 18 September 1955 with the objective of occupation. Led by Lieutenant Commander Desmond Scott, the team landed on the island and hoisted the Union Jack. After that, they also installed a plaque on the island which read
"By authority of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island and of her other realms and territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, and in accordance with Her Majesty's instructions dated the 14th day of September, 1955, a landing was effected this day upon this island of Rockall from HMS Vidal. The Union flag was hoisted and possession of the island was taken in the name of Her Majesty. [Signed] R H Connell, Captain, HMS Vidal, 18 September 1955."
Interestingly, this act was considered the last territorial expansion of the British Empire. The reason for doing so was to ensure that no other country, especially the Soviet Union, could take advantage of the unclaimed island to put surveillance equipment there to track an upcoming test-firing of the Corporal missile, the United Kingdom's first guided nuclear missile, over the North Atlantic
The key reason behind the various claims was the suspicion that there could be rich oil and natural gas reserves (supposedly worth US$160 billion) in the vicinity of the island. As the island belonged to the Rockall Plateau, each of the four countries - the United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland and Denmark (acting on behalf of the Faroe Islands) which border the plateau had the right to claim the island in accordance to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. Another reason is the concern that any country which successfully claims Rockall now might have future grounds to claim exclusive rights to exploit any resources on or under the ocean floor around the island.
For Britain, besides its official act of annexation in 1955, it had also legislated this fact by the 1972 Island of Rockall Act, which made the island part of Scotland. Britain is also basing its claim on the island on the continental shelf rights in the area. Although, according to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, "rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf’. Hence, in June 2011, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf's panel of marine experts ruled that the island was too slender to generate Britain's rights to an extended zone of the submerged continental shelf.
The Faroe Islands' claims are based on the fact that Rockall shares the same continental shelf, which it terms as the "Faroes-Rockall Plateau".
Iceland's claim actually involves a larger area of which Rockall falls into.
Ireland's claim is based on the fact that Rockall is geographically closest to the Irish mainland (430 km), compared to the UK's claim of proximity which was only measured to the nearest islands of the United Kingdom.
In September 2007, the four countries met for the first time in Reykjavik, Iceland to discuss this issue. Since then, they have also hosted discussion talks in their respective capitals, in the hope of reaching an amicable and mutually acceptable solution, but to no avail. Now that each country has made its case to the UN's Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in March 2011, they can only wait for the decision due in 2012.
As the four countries continue to haggle over the rocky islet, Rockall remains "the world's loneliest islet in the world's seas", oblivious to the commotion over it.