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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!