Isle of May 2016
Helen Rose Outdoors
I enjoy visiting the islands around Scotland and have now visited about 39. In May I had the opportunity to visit the Isle of May with Scot-Trek http://www.scot-trek.co.uk. The Isle of May is located in the north of the outer Firth of Forth, approximately 8 km (5.0 miles) off the coast of mainland Scotland. It is 1.8 kilometres (1.1 miles) long and less than half a kilometre wide. The island is owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage as a National Nature Reserve. We travelled by minibus north east from Glasgow to Anstruther, a distance of about 75miles. Located south of St Andrews, Anstruther is the largest in a string of pretty, old-fashioned fishing villages along the stretch of Fife coast known as the East Neuk. On the way we saw the construction of the new Forth road bridge where the uprights now in place were glinting in the sun.
At Anstruther we had time to visit the Fishing Museum on the promenade for a lunch in their café. The cistern was interesting as it recycled the water for washing hands into flushing the toilet. An unusual concept in Scotland where we have plenty of rain! Anstruther is famous for the acclaimed fish and chip shop as the best in Scotland and we had a carryout fish and chips to eat on the minibus on the return journey. We boarded the boat to Isle of May with the journey taking about an hour. It was fairly choppy as we were going towards the North Sea.
Isle of May
We were greeted on the Isle of May by the representative from Scottish Natural Heritage who advised us on where to walk in the two and a half hours we had before the return boat. The paths are well marked and are covered by a distance of about five miles. The aim is to see as many birds as possible as it is a bird sanctuary. As the boat came in to land we saw seals basking on the rocks at the shore and they can be seen on the island in September when the pups are born. The bird that most people want to see is the Puffin.
Everyone adores puffins. They are such funny little birds with their distinctive yellow beaks in the breeding season and seem unafraid of humans being near them. They breed in large colonies on coastal cliffs or offshore islands, nesting in crevices among rocks or in burrows in the soil. The island is dotted with burrows looking a bit like rabbit holes. We did see lots of puffins just sitting around posing for photographs. The breeding season is only May to June when they are on land. The rest of the year they are on the water. It is amazing to think these little birds can survive on the sea.
Adult gannets are large and bright white with black wingtips. They are distinctively shaped with a long neck and long pointed beak, long pointed tail, and long pointed wings. At sea they flap and then glide low over the water, often travelling in small groups. They feed by flying high and circling before plunging into the sea. It breeds in significant numbers at only a few localities and so is an Amber List species. The Isle of May has a colony of considerable size and they are seen on the cliffs particularly to the north of the island where you can stand on the cliffs and look down on them nesting. They are wonderful to watch diving for fish as they tuck in their wings and look like they are dive bombing from a height into the water. I last saw them on the trip to Ailsa Craig, the bird sanctuary to the west of Scotland. The Arctic Skua was late in arriving and was not recorded until the 5 July.
The UK’s heaviest duck, and its fastest flying. It is a true seaduck, rarely found away from coasts where its dependence on coastal molluscs for food has brought it into conflict with mussel farmers. Eiders are highly gregarious and usually stay close inshore, riding the swell in a sandy bay or strung out in long lines out beyond the breaking waves. The males are distinctive black and white and the females, a dull brown. The females had nested on the path and just looked like a cushion as they sat very still and ignored us.
Its history dates back to the early custom of founding Monastic settlements on small islands and it was manifest in the choice of St Adrian, when, in the ninth century, he and his brother monks established their retreat on the Isle of May. Later, in the twelfth century, King David I founded a monastery on the island which he granted to the Benedictine Abbey of Reading in Berkshire. This was on the condition that nine priests be placed there to celebrate divine service for the souls of the founder, his predecessors, and successors, the Kings of Scotland. The Benedictine monks continued in peaceful occupation until the fifteenth century when the monastery was possessed by the sea of St Andrew. This act saw the disbanding of the settlement, and with the ravages of marauding invaders and the passage of time the buildings gradually fell into disrepair. Today the only remaining evidence of the island’s religious past is the fragmented remains of the chapel built in the twelfth century and dedicated to St Adrian.
A lighthouse has been operating on the Isle of May since 1635 in which year King Charles 1st granted a patent to James Maxwell of Innerwick and John and Alexander Cunningham of Barnes to erect a beacon on that island and to collect dues from shipping for its maintenance. This light, however, was a crude affair and consisted of a stone structure, surmounted by an iron chauffeur in which there burned a coal fire to serve as the illuminant. The coals were hoisted to the fire by means of a box and pulley and three men were employed the whole year round attending to the fire which consumed about 400 tons of coal a year. In 1790 a lightkeepers’ entire family was suffocated by fumes, except for an infant daughter, who was found alive 3 days later. Despite the fact that the light was regarded in its time as one of the finest in existence, its value as an aid to navigation, judged by today’s standards, must have been decidedly limited. The character of the light would naturally vary considerably with almost every change in weather conditions; One minute it might be belching forth great volumes of smoke and the next blazing up in clear high flames, while changes in wind directions would tend to alter its appearance. An easterly wind for instance would have the effect of blowing the flames away from the sea so that the light could scarcely be seen where it was most wanted. An instance of this occurred on the night of 19 December 1810 when two of HM Ships NYMPHE and PALLAS were wrecked near Dunbar because the light of a lime kiln on the coast had been mistaken for the navigation light on the Isle of May. In 1814 the Commissioners purchased from the Duke and Duchess of Partland the Isle of May, together with the old coal lighthouse which was built in 1816. It was converted to a Rock Station on 9 August 1972 and looks a bit like a small castle with its protective battlements.
The visit to the Isle of May was fascinating with the history and to see the birdlife in a photographers paradise.
Coming attractions; Jersey and Mèze.
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This section: Helen Rose Hillwalking Diary
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