Isle of May
The Isle of May sits in the north of the outer Firth of Forth, approximately 8km (5 miles) off the Fife Coast. I`ve visited the island several times over the years, initially by boat from Anstruther. but the two most recent trips have been courtesy of the Scottish Seabird Centre on a RIB departing from the harbour at North Berwick on the south side of the Firth.
This fast-track option is definitely the way to travel and it only takes around 30 minutes to get to the island. Often bumpy, breezy and great fun with a face-full of sea spray at regular intervals! Waterproof outer-layers are supplied, as of course are life jackets. You have to make sure your photo gear is well-protected, unless of course you have a waterproof camera. I don`t and therefore didn`t risk taking any shots during the journeys.
Close-up views of the nesting Puffins which colonise the island from April until July are the main draw for most people. For the rest of the year the birds live exclusively out at sea. Once the newly-fledged chicks leave their burrows they stay out on the ocean for three years before returning to land to breed.
Due to its location, the Isle of May is a migrant `hotspot` and unusual and sometimes very rare birds turn up when blown off course or lost in the fog. Nets near the landing area are used to capture and ring these birds. The breeding season is the best time to visit unless you`re a serious birder hoping for a rarity, or want to see the new-born Grey Seal pups when it`s their turn in autumn.
There are actually three parts to the nature reserve here with the Isle of May being the largest by far. Immediately west is the peninsula known as Rona which is almost a separate island as it`s cut off from the main part at high tide. The western section of Rona is known as North Ness. In total, the island is around 1 mile (1.5 km) long and 0.5 km wide with cliffs around much of its coastline.
There is so much to see here in addition to the Puffins and depending on their peak nesting time some species of bird will only be seen early or late in the season. The terns will likely be the first to introduce themselves, diving on visitors as they run run the gauntlet between the dock and visitors` centre. In addition to administering a few violent pecks about the head, the terns often deliver some very smelly droppings!
The speckled brown female Eiders often nest right beside the paths too and never budge even when numerous feet tramp past inches in front of their bills.
Rather than being a grey, barren rock, the island is a colourful place in spring and summer with a profusion of wildflowers. Thrift, also known as Sea Pink, and Sea Campion are widespread and both species have leaves that don`t dry out too easily so that they can flourish in the salt-laden winds. A great deal of damage can be done inadvertently by visitors trampling on eggs or collapsing burrows if they stray off the path. Consequently, when the birds are nesting parts of the island are out of bounds to avoid unnecessary disturbance.
Left: This is all that remains of Scotland`s very first lighthouse, a coal-burning beacon that was built in 1616. Alexander Cunningham, who owned the island, had this square tower erected with a huge metal basket on the roof and arranged for a keeper to ensure it remained permanently lit at night. The light from the three-storey structure was blocked to any ships sailing to the north of the island when the Main Light was built and the original light was saved from demolition by Sir Walter Scott. On a visit to the island, the famous author suggested that it should be left as a picturesque ruin. One corner of the wall has been worn away possibly as a result of the bucket crashing against it as keepers hauled up the coal required. Up to a ton was used to keep the beacon burning each night. The building has had a well-overdue face-lift since this photo was taken in 2012.
The far larger Main Light is now the only Isle of May lighthouse still in use. No expense was spared during its construction in 1816 and the interior includes carved marble fireplaces and a magnificent spiral staircase. It has been fully automated since 1989.
Plaques dotted around give brief information about the island`s history. This one on the right below mentions ghostly footsteps in the mist. The other plaque is fixed to exterior wall of what was the `Loop Room` which stood here, controlling a state-of-the-art system known locally as `the boom,`that was designed to detect enemy submarines during the Second World War. Long loops of cable were laid on the seabed between the Isle of May and the mainland. Ships or submarines passing over them created a small electrical current which was picked-up by instruments in this building. No U-Boats ever managed to get into the Firth of Forth but the system did frequently trigger for false alarms, some of which were caused by fishing boats surreptitiously fishing at night. A RADAR station was installed on the May in 1942 to test its effectiveness.
Compressed air from pumps in the engine room was stored in these tanks and sent along giant pipes to the island`s foghorns.
Above: This grand-looking building, known as `The Castle`, was built to match the Main Light. It was constructed about 1816, originally to serve as the stables. The keepers used horses to transport the large quantities of oil required to keep the light burning and general supplies for the resident families.
On my latest visit in mid-July, most of the breeding Eiders had left the island but several families could still be found paddling on the island`s small loch.
Other species to be seen include Razorbill, Guillemot, Shag, Oystercatcher and lots of gulls!
Please bear in mind that all my images are subject to copyright. They are not free to use and have been embedded with a digital watermark.
The South Horn can be used as a temporary shelter from the elements and there is a small additional information display within.
The cliffs near South Horn are crammed with nesting Kittiwakes...
Shags also favour the crags here making South Horn one of the best spots on the island to watch and photograph both species of birds at close quarters.
Once the Pufflings are ready to leave their burrows they usually wait until darkness falls, otherwise they will be picked-off by the large predatory gulls. The birds will try to flutter or walk down to the water, and as previously mentioned once they paddle off they won`t return to land for 3 years. Unfortunately, some of the youngsters will become disorientated or come up against a fence, wall or other man made obstacle which will leave them at great risk as dawn breaks. Weak or inured adult Puffins are also pounced upon by the gulls as shown here.
Luckily for some, if any of the wardens or volunteers spots one in difficulty they`ll scoop it up, place it in a cloth bag and have the Scottish Seabird Centre boat crew release it well out to sea on the way back to North Berwick. Six or seven rescued birds at a time is not uncommon at peak times.
Three wee guys were saved during my latest trip and the tradition, more a bit of fun really, is that they`re named after the person who releases them into the sea, in this case three women - one puffling ended up with an Italian name and the others Irish ones! They didn`t seem to mind and paddled off quite happily.
A trip out to the Isle of May from North Berwick with the Scottish Seabird Centre usually includes a circuit of the Bass Rock, either on the outbound or return leg. The Bass Rock, or simply `The Bass`, is the place to go if you`re really into Gannets! With an estimated population of around 160,000 birds it`s the world`s largest single-island Gannet colony, ranking as one of the world`s great wildlife spectacles and consequently a must for nature lovers and photographers. Other species such as Shags, Razorbills, Guillemots and even Puffins, can also be found but in far fewer numbers.
The island also served as a grim fortress and a notorious prison, housing various political enemies of James I during the 15th century and, again, in the 17th century after it was captured by Cromwell's forces. The small resident garrison had used their guns to harry his supply ships. For decades thereafter, religious and political prisoners, especially Covenanters were sent there.