Where it all began

Our origins

The vision for our charity came from a local businessman and community councillor Mr Bill Gardner MBE in the late 1980s. A keen ornithologist he spotted the opportunity to use technology to bring the wildlife of the Firth of Forth closer to people, whilst minimising disturbance to it.

It took a further 10 years of hard work by a dedicated team of volunteers (led by Frank Thomas) and supporters and the support of Sir Hew Dalrymple the owner of the Bass Rock, to bring the vision to reality. The charity was formally registered on the 12 February 1997 (SCO25837). The charity is supported by a not-for-profit trading entity Scottish Seabird Trading Limited (SC183214) which was registered on the 28 February 1998.

Neil Rankin CBE was the founding chairman of the charity and Tom Brock, a zoologist and tourism manager with international experience in waterside revitalisation, was appointed as its first Chief Executive. Tom led the organisation until 2018.

Opening our visitor centre

The initial construction of the charity’s visitor centre started in March 1999 and the building was officially opened on 21 May 2000 by HRH Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay. The Centre played a significant part in the economic regeneration of the harbourside area and town of North Berwick, East Lothian. The distinctive building, with its swooping copper roof designed to resemble a bird’s wing, created a stunning new landmark at the harbour.

David Windmill took over the chairman role in July 2012, steering the charity through a period of significant change. Initially a major capital programme of work was delivered in 2016 to add an additional underground tunnel to extend the exhibition space by creating a ‘flyway tunnel’ to explain bird and marine mammal migration patterns. The tunnel remains a popular part of the experience today.

A bigger role in marine science communications

A business case was developed in 2015 to transform the existing facilities of the charity to create a National Marine Centre for Scotland. The development of the business case and supporting activity plans was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The objectives were to increase the impact and reach of the charity’s objectives by helping people become more knowledgeable about the marine heritage, to create new partnerships that would share contemporary insights on marine science and to help build marine environmental citizenship.

The proposals required planning permission to be secured to wrap an extension around the existing site, creating additional exhibition and modern learning spaces over two floors. That permission was refused by East Lothian Council in November 2018, following a local opposition campaign from stakeholders around the harbour area and in the local community. The opposition was primarily to the physical building plans rather than to the aspiration to do more to communicate information about Scotland's marine environment to wider audiences.

Developing our conservation, education and community activities

Susan Davies was appointed as the new Chief Executive of the charity in January 2019. With this appointment the Trustees signalled their intention to focus much more prominently on the conservation, education and science communication objectives of the charity, as well as fostering better relations with the stakeholders around the harbour areas and in the local community.

Refurbishing our visitor attraction

An extensive refurbishment project of the core of the existing Centre was fully implemented in 2019. The Discovery Experience was transformed with new story boards and digital and mechanical interactives that can be used to better tell the story of the importance of Scotland’s marine environment and the learning hub was modernised to better support our educational activities. The welcome areas and our not-for-profit trading company café and retail offer was also refreshed. Visitors are introduced to our work via our new website and the moment they enter our Centre.

The refurbishment works were funded by donations from the Coastal Communities Fund, the Wolfson Foundation, Scottish Enterprise, Ellem Foundation, the Hugh Fraser Foundation and AEB Charitable Trust, alongside a range of other small charitable foundations and individual donations. The design ideas were developed in partnership by Glasgow Science Centre and delivery was through a range of specialist contractors.

A significant upgrade of the remotely operated camera technology on the Bass Rock and supporting infrastructure was also completed – funded by the Dulverton Trust and The Robert Barr Charitable Trust as well as other charitable trusts and individual donations. The donations from our Friends for Life and Founder Members also made a significant contribution to the camera upgrades.

The education classroom was also upgraded to better meet our participants needs. This was funded by the Robertson Trust and Ellem Foundation.

Throughout the refurbishment project the Charity received support, both creative ideas and direct funding, from its active Volunteer Group.

Looking to the future

Following consultation with local and national stakeholders a new Strategic Plan (2020-25): Inspiring people to care for our marine environment was launched, setting out our vision of “helping to ensure that Scotland’s marine environment is healthy, wildlife-rich, valued and enjoyed by all”. The four pillars of this strategy – Conservation, Education, Community and Experience will provide the platform for the charity to engage in a wider range of projects across Scotland which bring the charity’s purpose to the fore.

COVD19 financial impact

Like many organisations the Charity’s financial foundations have been severely impacted by the financial crisis flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic. We launched our first ever urgent appeal to help survive the short-term financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis – the goal being to raise £200k by the end of July 2020 to secure match funding from some generous individual donors. That financial goal was reached and has enabled our Charity, as COVID19 lockdown restrictions were relaxed, to re-open the visitor attraction doors in late July 2020 and to return to delivering our charitable activities.

Looking to the future
Find out more about our plans for our future conservation and education activities.