30 Apr 2011

Isle of May: Highlights

The Isle of May will make you think of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World. On the island’s western side, sheer cliffs reach up from the waters of the Firth of Forth. Noisy guillimots - around 30,000 of them - clutter every available rocky ledge, while thousands of kittiwakes dive and squawk in what seems to be a mad, confused display.

If you are prone to seasickness and the water is choppy, you will not enjoy the more than 45-minute journey to the island. As eager as you will be to take it all in as you approach, all you will be able to do is look towards the horizon and focus on your breathing.

Once your shaky legs touch solid ground again, you look up to see your first puffin, sitting at a distance atop a concrete outbuilding. Today the Isle of May is inhabited each summer season by a handful of researchers from Scottish Natural Trust, but over the centuries it has been a holy retreat for monks, a village for fishermen and their families, the site of Scotland’s first permanent lighthouse, and a wartime lookout post.
You have two hours to follow the paths around the two-kilometre long island. If you thought you were excited about seeing one puffin, prepare to fall utterly in love with these tiny clown-faced birds. From just 10 pairs in 1950, the Isle of May is now home to the largest breeding colony of puffins in the UK.

As tempted as you may be to leave to path to get closer, don’t! You could disturb a puffin burrow or the nest of a female eider duck, who, unlike the drake with his stark black and white plumage, blends in neatly among the tufts of uneven grass.
There will be so much going on around you that you won’t know where to look. These seabirds descend en masse to breed and raise their young, rattling every fibre of life while there is time.

If you are lucky, you will spot some grey seals sunning themselves on the beach on the west side of the island, or poking their heads out of the water. In the autumn the birds will return to the sea as the seals come ashore to welcome another 2,000 pups into the world.
It will be difficult to leave, and not just because you are dreading a second bout of illness on the way back to Anstruther. What is most precious is being a passive observer among creatures who are so oblivious to you.

You are a curious two-legged thing that walks by and will not harm them. When you leave you will not be remembered. But you will remember them and be grateful for all the rapturous life that will continue when you are gone.

The journey back is fine, since you head straight to the upper deck and an endless supply of cold, fresh air. Yes, your bones will feel as if they have atrophied by the time you enter Anstruther harbour, but it will be worth it.

If you want to learn more about the Isle of May, Scottish Natural Heritage offers a great virtual tour.
On a side note, the Isle of May is a wonderful place to get engaged.

Particularly if you are looking out at a view like this one.

Happy Beltane, everyone!

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