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!

25 Apr 2011

Kirkcaldy to Dysart: The longest short walk

Looking at a map, the walk from Kirkcaldy to Dysart is short. The two are so close in fact that Dysart is considered another suburb of Kirkcaldy and if you stick to the roads the two communities flow together almost seamlessly.

But if you take the trail from Ravenscraig Castle along the shore to Dysart, you can easily forget there are any towns nearby at all.

Start at the beach below Ravenscraig. If you are the type who loves to wander beaches collecting pebbles, don’t be surprised if glance at your watch and find that an hour has passed rather than 15 minutes.

Years of wind and waves have created incredible contours and designs in some of the larger rocks, whose features warp and sway like frozen lava. Scattered here and there are particularly unique specimens, like the stone I have named “Batman rock” for its bizarre shape. Where did it come from? What might it have been used for?
I propped it up on another larger stone to photograph it and this is where I left it, with its blind eyes looking out to sea. Mind you, if I had brought my backpack along you can be sure I would have hauled it home. I wonder if anyone else saw it and did just that.

When you finally leave the beach below Ravenscraig you have the option of retreating to one of a number of waterside nooks that exist next to a long curved rock wall that looks like pulled sugar. Shorter rock walls descend to the beach, creating secluded enclosed areas ideal for picnics or just a little quiet time. At least until the tide comes in.
Eventually you must make your way through a large stone tunnel before emerging at Dysart’s quaint harbour. On one side the gaps in a massive stone wall have become home to nesting seabirds, while on the other a myriad of boats bob and rock in the quiet water.
To get a sense of Dysart’s fishing past and the history and geological background of The Fife Coastal Trail, it is ideal to first pay a visit to The Harbour Master’s House, which was opened in 2006 as Fife’s first coastal centre and the headquarters of the Fife Coast and Countryside Trust.

The old workers houses along the harbour front were restored in the 1960s. Their whitewashed walls face the lapping sound of the waves. I imagine the view from the windows would be incredible during storms, and of course just a few short steps from the doors is the water and plenty of opportunity for watching the local sea and bird life.
From here you can continue on the Fife Coastal Trail, or head back to Dysart, choosing a high trail out of the village, which provides a postcard view of the harbour. Walk a little further and you won’t miss the end of daffodil season when you see the carpets of bluebells stretched out between the budding trees.

Depending on the kind of experience you’re after, the short walk from Kirkcaldy to Dysart can take as long as you like. Start in the morning to give yourself plenty of time. Bring a picnic. Bring a book. Don’t rush. If you’re lucky, the sun will shine high and the breeze will blow warm. A short afternoon can stretch out like a week.

18 Apr 2011

Daytrip to Kirkcaldy and The Links Market

When I first arrived in Kirkcaldy I was underwhelmed.

My first impression was that of a practical town, a mix of the occasional charming stone building, horrendous apartment blocks that were all the range in the 1970s but which now resemble aging Lego pieces, and a high street where you can pick up a Greggs sausage roll on your way to buy designer sunglasses.

I arrived early (part of my German heritage - can’t be helped) in order to have time to wander around before taking in the annual celebration of noise and calorific merriment that is The Links Market, the longest street fair in Europe.

The high street in Kirkcaldy goes on for miles; it’s no wonder it’s often called "The Lang Toun." But other than the library, which has such lovely grounds it looks like a miniature university campus, it wasn't until I had made my way to the seaside esplanade that I began be be charmed by Kirkcaldy.

The steps at the far end of the beach curve like an amphitheatre, except instead of actors the sea itself is the show. At the intermission the tide comes in and tries to wash away the spectators.
In the 1600s Kirkcaldy was one of Scotland’s most vibrant ports. This same stretch of sea and sand would have been alive with all matter of trade.

Now the gulls scan the lunches of passing walkers, ready to make a meal of any unguarded chip, while the sandpipers wade through the shallows, busy and skittish. The broad harbour is vacant except for one lonely dredger heading back in to anchor.
Leaving the city centre the road leads uphill towards Ravenscraig Castle, which sits with the modern world at its back and the broad palette of nature before it.

James II built Ravenscraig in a fit of protective flamboyance, keen to erect something that could weather the storms of the fiercest weaponry of the 1450s.

A small bridge crosses the dried moat, giving access to the sparse ruins of the headland, where cliffs fall away steeply on either side and a twisting set of stairs lead down to the pebbled beach below.

The castle is unmanned and access to the interior is blocked off, but the views out to the sea are remarkable.
If I were to take you to this beach right now, I would be hard pressed to get you to leave. The pebble collecting value alone is worth several hours of exploration, let alone the intriguing trails that lead off along the coast.

But if we go now this post will be far too long, so I will save it for the next time. For now we make our way back to town, the esplanade and Links Market. It really does go on for a terribly long way, and can be summed up in a barage of rhythmic repetition:

Candyfloss-hotdogs-ballgame-crazy throw you through the air ride-crying child-barking dog-laughing child-whiff of hash-haunted house-burgers…(deep breath…) Candyfloss-hotdogs-ballgame-crazy throw you through the air ride-crying child-barking dog-laughing child-whiff of hash-haunted house-burgers…

Oh, and one old guy relating the perils of sin with a handmade sign. As you do.
So it goes. See you next time for a walk along a small but stunning section of The Fife Coastal Path.

17 Apr 2011

Sunset over Blackness Castle

Few words tonight my bloggy friends. Just a fine Scottish sunset falling behind the stones and harbour of Blackness Castle.

Often referred to as “the ship that never sailed,” Blackness juts out into the Forth River, providing formidable military defense since as early as the mid-1400s.

It was one of those rare cloudness days that held us all in awe, the sun’s final glow giving a false warmth to the castle walls. We held out until the breeze turned too cold, then retreated gratefully to the car.

Do you have memories of a beautiful Scottish sunset? Where was it? Do tell.

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