Seabirds and Lighthouses Galore on the Isle of May

The last few months have been a bit depressing – grey skies and rain interspersed with the occasional day of glorious sunshine. Fortunately things brightened up a bit last week. I’ve realised I’ve wasted too much time waiting for summer to arrive – it probably never will. I need to crack on and have some fun all the same. With this in mind, I booked myself on a boat trip to the Isle of May.

For someone who lives on the Black Isle, I seem to spend a lot of time in Fife! I had a good drive across the county and caught my first glimpse of the Isle of May on the approach to Pittenweem. The weather was changeable – sunshine and showers – but thankfully the visibility was good. The Isle of May is only five miles off Fife Ness but I hardly saw it when I walked the Fife Coastal Path last year due to the haar. It’s crazy to think that in all my years of visiting the East Neuk, I’d never previously been out to the May.

May Princess, Anstruther
May Princess, Anstruther

I arrived in Anstruther two hours before the boat was due to leave – plenty of time to grab a hot chocolate, organise my gear and stand at the front of the queue in order to nab what looked to be the best seat on the ferry! There are two boats servicing the Isle of May from Anstruther – the Osprey (a high speed rigid inflatable boat (RIB)) and the May Princess (a small ferry which can carry up to 100 passengers). I love the thrill of travelling by RIB but the Osprey was fully booked. Instead, I’d reserved a place on the May Princess and enjoyed a more sedate crossing, soaking up the surroundings from the upper deck. I looked out for minke whales (no joy but there’s always a next time) and focused my binoculars on gannets over from the Bass Rock on the other side of the Forth estuary.

Approaching the Isle of May
Approaching the Isle of May

Upon reaching the Isle of May, the ferry hugged the north shore of the island, giving the passengers good views of a colony of grey seals before berthing at the jetty. Before I even set foot on dry land, I was struck by the sheer number of seabirds – Arctic tern, kittiwake, puffin, razorbill, guillemot, shag, cormorant and oystercatcher – and this was a couple of months after the best time to see them. I’d love to return to the island some September for Doors Open Day, in order to gain access to the lighthouse buildings, but it would be a completely different experience in the absence of the summer avian visitors.

The ferry passengers descended on the island and were welcomed and briefed by Scottish Natural Heritage staff on the dos and don’ts on this National Nature Reserve. I had the best part of three hours to explore and I planned a circuit to take in the main sights. After a quick trip to the visitor centre, I headed to Lady’s Bed on the island’s east side. I was rewarded with close-range views of shags, kittiwakes and puffins, my personal favourite.

Puffins, Lady's Bed, Isle of May
Puffins, Lady’s Bed

From Lady’s Bed, I walked past a disused fog horn (the South Horn) on my way to Pilgrim’s Haven, a bay which is home to one of the Scottish Seabird Centre’s webcams. With the cliffs and the seabirds, I felt as though I could have been over on the Hebrides, say on the Shiants. Only the familiar shapes of the Bass Rock, North Berwick Law, the Pentland Hills and Largo Law on the horizon reminded me that I was on an island in the Forth and only a stone’s throw from the Fife coast.

Pilgrim's Haven, Isle of May
Pilgrim’s Haven

The oldest lighthouse in Scotland, the Beacon, was lit on the Isle of May in 1636. It comprised a coal fire contained in a metal basket mounted on a stone tower. The remains are still standing today but would have been three times higher back in the seventeenth century. The Beacon is somewhat overshadowed by Robert Stevenson’s Main Light which was built in 1816 and automated in 1989.

The Beacon - Scotland's first lighthouse
The Beacon – Scotland’s first lighthouse

A short walk to the north west of the Main Light took me to the Low Light, a separate lighthouse dating from 1844. By lining up the beams from the these two lighthouses, sailors could navigate around the treacherous North Carr Rock seven miles off the Isle of May. The North Carr Lightship and Fife Ness Lighthouse made the Low Light redundant in 1887. It is now a bird observatory used by visiting ornithologists. It must be fantastic to stay here and explore the island at dusk and dawn in the absence of day trippers.

Main and Low Lighthouses, Isle of May
Main and Low Lights

The Isle of May is a small island (approximately 1.8km long and less than 0.5km wide) but I quickly ran out of time to explore it all. I ended up jogging around with ~10kg of camera gear on my back (resulting in some complaints from my leg muscles over the following couple of days!). I’ll need to return to the May in order to visit the spots I didn’t make it to and to re-visit others. The whole experience was so rewarding that I can imagine this becoming an annual pilgrimage. All too soon, it was time to re-trace my steps to the jetty for the return sailing to Anstruther via the impressive cliffs, caves and sea stack on the south side of the island. I had hoped to capture some images of these features from the boat but I failed to get the necessary seat on the starboard side. One more thing to tick off the list next time!

Flat light at the Low Light
Flat light at the Low Light – time to head back to the ferry

Have you been to the Isle of May? If so, what did you enjoy the most? Or are you planning a trip there? Please leave a comment below!

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128 thoughts

        1. Same to you – thanks for dropping by and commenting! I’m sure I’m going to enjoy your blog too – lovely images and poetry. I hope you have a very Happy New Year when the time comes!

      1. Thank you Jody! Puffins are the best – they’re so comical on land but quite graceful underwater. I’m hoping to capture some more seabird photos on the Isle of May this year.

    1. Thanks Josh! I need to start capturing more videos when I’m out and about as I think it adds an extra dimension to the blog. I’m looking forward to returning to the Isle of May again this summer! 🙂

    1. Thanks! I’m looking forward to returning to the Isle of May in the breeding bird season this year to capture some more photographs and am hoping to get inside the lighthouse too! 🙂

    1. Thank you! It was an excellent day trip and one that I am looking forward to repeating this year. My only regret is that I didn’t venture out to the Isle of May years ago!

    1. Thank you for commenting, Becky! It’s a pleasure to be able to share my experiences. I want people to enjoy the photographs and writing but also feel inspired to head outdoors and explore.

    1. Thanks for checking out my blog. The Isle of May lies a short distance off the Fife coast and so I’ve always found it quite enticing (but more so now that I have experienced it first hand and want to return!).

  1. I loved the pictures, and I love puffins, too. When you come back post another article about this, I would love it. And, now I feel like visiting there, too.

  2. Thrilled to see your wonderful post about the Isle of May – my husband and I are living and working in China at the moment, but our family house is in Pittenweem and I look over at the Isle of May every day! I remember, before I’d ever been there, asking one of the fishermen what was on the island – ‘Rhubarb and rabbits’ was his answer! It is a fantastic place to visit, we send visitor there regularly, giving them a picnic and waterproof clothing just in case, and making sure they have their cameras and binoculars. Your fantastic photos have made me feel all homesick, sitting here in Beijing. Zai jian!

    1. Thanks very much. I love the ‘rhubarb and rabbits’ anecdote! Cameras and binoculars are essential! They add so much to the experience. I imagine living and working in China must be a bit of a culture shock after Pittenweem! I will experience that myself later this year as I’m planning a trip to Beijing to visit my brother. I’m sure it will be an incredible experience but I expect I will feel more than a little homesick for Scotland. If you can cope with some more homesickness yourself, you might like to check out my Fife Coastal Path blog here: Enjoy!

  3. Lovely pics and well put article about Isle of May. I moved to Europe 6 months back and as time permits planning for travel. Reading your post , I am tempted to visit Scotland .

    1. Thank you! Feel free to have a scroll through my blog for some other ideas on places to visit in Scotland, particularly the Highlands and Islands. I hope you’re enjoying living in Stockholm and you find the time to explore Europe!

    1. Thanks very much. My Isle of May trip was a snapshot kind of day, so I hope you’ll enjoy looking through my more recent posts which feature my more ‘serious’ photographs! I’ll be back on the Isle of May in a few months’ time and will be hoping for some good light and seabirds in abundance!

  4. Reading your story reminds me of the times and summers I spent along the rocky coast of Maine… Eating fresh seafood, salt spray, the smells, the sights. If all came right back…. Good job…

    1. I’m delighted to have brought back some happy memories for you! Memories of summer and simple pleasures are so often the best ones. Your days on the Maine coast sound carefree and idyllic.

      1. They were amazing… Every year my parents would pick a different little peninsula on the map and that’s where we would go….eat fresh lobster..clams..and all the beautiful scenery… It is where I learned to draw lighthouses…. It sounds beautiful where you are too…

  5. It still looks a little cool for a boat trip at this time of year but the oldest lighthouse in Scotland looks worth it. 🙂 I enjoyed your company. It’s a part of the world I keep meaning to visit and never quite make it.

    1. Thanks Jo. I think the boat operators would agree with you! The ferry runs from 1st April to 30th September. Hopefully it’ll have warmed up a bit by then! If you make to to Fife one day, I’m sure you’d enjoy a trip out to ‘the May’.

    1. Thank you! I was particularly pleased with the Puffin picture!

      Thanks for the link to your blog. Bee conservation is a hugely important topic and I will read your posts with interest.

  6. I loved your photographs and post. We lived in Edinburgh for 18 years, enjoyed many daytrips to the Fife coast. Have you tried the famous Fish &Chips at Anstruther? Beautiful puffins! Enjoy Scotland. I miss it so much. 🙂

    1. I hope you make it back to Scotland for a visit from time to time! The queue has always been enough to put me off but it’s a sure sign of a quality chip shop! I’ll be back in Anstruther again fairly soon for another trip to the Isle of May so, if it’s a bit quieter, I may treat myself to a bag of chips! 🙂

      1. It’s always been busy because of winning awards, but I know what you mean, if you’re very hungry you want to eat! Have you come across the tiny sweet and ice-cream shop at the harbour in Pittenweem? It’ll send you back to your childhood. A real gem for treats!:-)

        1. Yes, I have! I had an ice cream from there a few years back! I’d forgotten all about it until now. I’ll have to treat myself next time I’m in the East Neuk. 🙂

    1. Thank you Paul! Be sure to pop back again soon as I’ve recently re-visited the Isle of May and managed to capture some more seabird photographs at the height of the breeding bird season.

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