The Isle of May

Pilgrim's Haven

The Isle of May

Located in the mouth of the Firth of Forth, about 5 miles and a 45-minute boat ride from Anstruther, is the uninhabited Isle of May. I say uninhabited, but that’s not strictly true because it’s home to a fantastic collection of seabirds.

If you think that this is yet another lovely peaceful Scottish island, you’d be wrong because the first thing that will hit you when you arrive on this 1½ mile long island is the deafening noise made by around 200,000 birds.

Admittedly, it was breeding season when we came, and apart from bringing some ear plugs, I would also recommend wearing a hat, preferably a white one.

Terns
Terns

Most of the cacophony of noise seemed to be coming out of the beaks of the 4 different species of tern that breed here, who also had a nasty habit of dive bombing anybody who strayed a bit too close to their nest – and even those that didn’t.

I’m not sure why they felt threatened really, because the island is a National Nature Reserve, owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage who obviously make sure that the well being of the birds come first. When you arrive on the island a warden greets passengers off of the May Princess, and then gives a short talk about the island and guidelines on where you can, and can’t go. It’s mostly just common sense to be honest.

03-Map-of-the-Island

Before I go any further, I have to admit that although I love watching birds I’m no expert: Even so, it was easy enough to spot some of my favourites; there were plenty of Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Kittiwakes and Gannets (but not as many as there are on Bass Rock): There’s also a new addition to my list of favourites – the Eider Duck. I couldn’t help but fall for a female who was sat on her nest and not in the least bit bothered my presence.

The carousel shows some Guillemots, a Puffin and the female Eider Duck.

Guillemots and Razorbills
Guillemots and Razorbills
A Pair of Kittiwakes
A Pair of Kittiwakes

The birds are the undisputed stars of the show, but there are other things to see and do in the 3 hours or so that you’re given to explore the island.

A short distance from the arrival and departure point at Kirkhaven are the ruins of a priory built by Henry I in 1125 in memory of St. Adrian, an Irish missionary who was murdered here by Vikings in 875, but a more substantial relic from the past is The Beacon, Scotland’s first ever lighthouse.

It’s not difficult to see why The Beacon was built: After many shipwrecks and loss of life, Alexander Cunningham constructed the square tower near the centre of the island in 1636 with a coal-burning beacon on top.

You would think, wouldn’t you? that everybody would be grateful for this aid to saving lives, but not so. The problem was of course, that the cargo from shipwrecks found its way into the hands of locals who could put it all to a much better use, or at least that’s how they saw it.

No doubt The Beacon did help to save many lives, but perversely, there were some that it also took.

In 1791 a storm blew out the Beacon for two days, and a short time afterwards, the keeper, his wife and five of his six children were found dead: It seems that the embers from the Beacon caused poisonous Sulphur dioxide fumes to seep into their bedroom while they were asleep.

The Beacon

This Beacon was superseded in 1816 by the nearby unmistakable Main Light designed by Robert Stevenson (uncle of the author Robert Louis Stevenson). It’s still in use today but operated remotely. It’s not the only lighthouse on the island either, but the Low Light (built in 1844) is now used as a bird observatory.

Lighthouses are meant to be seen, and foghorns are meant to be heard, and there are two monsters on the island which thankfully didn’t need to be used during our visit, but I think we would have needed those earplugs if they had.

The Main Light
The Main Light
The South Horn
The South Horn
The Low Light
The Low Light

By the time you’ve walked around the island, observed the birdlife, and taken in some of the island’s features, it’ll be time to leave Kirkhaven.

Kirkhaven
Kirkhaven

Our journey from Anstruther to May had brought us along the eastern side of the island, but the return sailing was to take us around the other side, where not only could we see the cliffs and birdlife up close, but also some of the resident grey seals. Outside of the breeding season the numbers of seals that can be seen are around the hundred mark, but come the Autumn the population increases into the thousands when around 4,000 seals haul themselves ashore, mate, and give birth to around 2,000 pups.

Guillemots on the cliff edges
Guillemots on the cliff edges
Seals at South Ness
Seals at South Ness

The May Princess runs from the beginning of April to the end of September and so it’s possible to see some of the first pups at the end of the season. The breeding season for the seabirds is between April and July.

The trip lasts between 4½ and 5 hours and currently costs £28 for a full fare-paying adult and concessions apply (June 2019).

If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in the East Neuk of Fife and the weather’s looking good, take my advice and jump on board the May Princess and head out to the fantastic Isle of May. Even if you forget your earplugs and hat, you won’t forget the Isle of May.

https://www.isleofmayferry.com/index.php

The Western Coastline
The Western Coastline
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12 thoughts on “The Isle of May

  1. Odiseya

    It been a while but I think I would remember if I read the Isle of May story somewhere else. Thank you for this virtual tour, Malc.

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Hi Aleksandra. How are you? I didn’t write about the Isle of May on VT, so you wouldn’t have come across this post before. Thanks for checking it out 🙂

      Reply
  2. Stuart Templeton

    Sounds like a great trip Malc, what a fascinating little island – it packs a lot into it’s 1.5 mile length. I do like your pictures in this post, you’ve managed to get some cracking shots of those birds.
    The white hat and earplugs are sound advice – but I assume you need a peg for your nose as well? That’s certainly be the case with other seabird colonies I’ve seen.

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      LOL. I know what you mean Stuart. Thanks again for your uplifting comments. I always value them as you know

      Reply
        1. Malc Post author

          Thanks Stuart. My memory’s getting so bad these days that I have to go back and read some of of my own tips 🙂

          Reply
  3. Alli Templeton

    I couldn’t resist this one, Malc. I love watching wildlife too, and this island certainly looks packed with it! That’s a fantastic picture of a Puffin, and the Eider Duck must have let you get quite close to get a shot like that. 🙂 I always think they’re one of the oddest looking ducks, but charming in their own way. And I love those gorgeous seals! The history of the place is interesting too. I’d like to see the priory, and the lighthouse must have a few ghosts in it after the sad story of the family that lived, and nearly all perished in it. All in all, it looks an excellent trip out, and with a boat ride thrown in too it seems reasonably priced. And thanks for the warning to take a hat -although it is supposed to be good luck if you’re dive-bombed, so maybe if you do forget to wear one you should go straight home and buy a lottery ticket! 😉

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Sorry you were dragged away from your studies, but at least I took you somewhere worthwhile, unlike like the Bearpit. Thanks for your kind comments once again Alli 🙂

      Reply

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