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Isle of May

I've wanted to visit the Isle of May for a LONG time now, and in my impatience to do so this season we went too early and there were no Puffins to be seen on the island.

The Isle of May from the May Princess (Rona in the foreground, with the North Horn)

This was, in hindsight at least, a good thing.


I know many people go to the islands a lot, but I can't afford the life of a constant holiday, so such trips are a treat to savour. I had a week booked off work in late April with the view to visiting the island, but The Beast from the East and then the Mini Beast from the East really took their toll on the breeding seabirds, and the start of the season has been delayed as a result.

On the 17th March the 'Mini Beast from the East' hit, with many birds washed up dead and exhausted on the East Coast. This Guillemot on Montrose Beach was one of the lucky ones.

However, the 19th April promised to be the start of some genuinely good weather so we booked our places on the boat. This would also be Hayley's first real wildlife photography day, so we were both excited, and we had a good tour guide and tutor in Ian Hastie, who has been many times and even stayed on the island for a week in the past.

The May Princess (photo by Hayley) - a remarkably luxurious boat, with a bar and everything!

So, when the Isle of May is famous for its population of over 90,000 Puffins, why was it a good thing that there were none to be seen? Well, it's a fascinating place. When I went to Troup Head for the first time I was so utterly gobsmacked by the Gannets that I missed a lot of the peripheral details and came home with hundreds of nearly pictures that failed in terms of composition and thought. I think the same would have been true of the Isle of May if we'd been greeted with thousands of Puffins.


My photos on this site might give a hint to my fascination with lighthouses, and the Isle of May is a very important part of the Scottish lighthouse story.


The island was home to the first permanently manned beacon, built in 1635/36 and operated by 3 men who winched up to 5 tonnes of coal up to the top each night of the year.

The remnants of the Beacon, which used to be around 3 times as tall as it is now.

The Stevensons revolutionised lighthouses in Scotland, with three generations of engineers building some of the most iconic and remote lights in Scotland, almost all of which are still in use today to guide ships. In 1816, a new lighthouse was built on the Isle of May, by Robert Stevenson. It was his third lighthouse - his first being the remarkable Bell Rock off Arbroath.

Robert Stevenson's Main Light, built in 1816

The Isle of May is visible from much of the Fife coast, and it wouldn't be the same view without the light, designed to resemble a castle. For a functional industrial building, constructed 5 miles from the coast, it is frankly mind boggling to behold the effort and attention to detail that went into it. I don't think we can underestimate the contribution that the Stevensons made to the Scottish coastline in terms of iconic buildings and structures.


In 1844, a second light was built to ensure sailors avoided the North Carr rocks, and to allow navigation by aligning the two lights. This lighthouse is no longer in use and is now a bird observatory.

The Low Light, taken from the boat
All three lighthouses viewed from the boat (taken with a long lens on a bobbing boat, so excuse the composition fails!)

The lights were complimented in the late 19th and early 20th century by two foghorns, at the north and south of the island. These were fired with compressed air, stored in tanks and powered by diesel generators in the centre of the island. Although no longer used, the network of air pipes and tanks remain on the island, which in themselves are a remarkable piece of engineering.

Compressed air tanks by the generator buildings in the centre of the island, with the Main Light behind
The South Horn (1886) - you can make out the air pipes in the foreground and the tanks by the horn itself

This stuff really fascinates me. The effort that went into the design, construction and operation of these lights and horns, in harsh and uncompromising environments and locations is a marvel that can't be rivalled in the modern age.


I think if there were Puffins everywhere, it would have been too easy to skip past these elements of the island without paying them the heed they demand.


But back to wildlife - and despite the lack of the iconic puffins, there was plenty to see. The island is also famous for it's population of Shags, and visits offer an opportunity to get unusually close to these magnificent and almost reptilian looking birds. One of my main ambitions was to get a good portrait shot of a shag. After getting off the boat, we headed south towards the South Horn, and were not disappointed.

Shag

Smaller than a cormorant, and notable in the breeding season by their crests, the shag is dark green with stunning emerald eyes. Shags dive to depths of more than 45 metres to catch fish.

Shag portrait - this bird was perched around 30 feet from us and remained quite contently while we took pictures

The island is also home for many other seabirds, and despite being able to see many of them nearer to home, the island offers a beautiful backdrop to photograph them. This pair of Fulmars certainly seemed content in their surroundings

Fulmars pair up for life, and can breed well into their 50s, at the same nest sites every year. They always look like such happy couples - this pair seem to have found their dream home too

The island also has a large population of Lesser Black Back Gulls. I've never really seen them up close before, but they are noticeably more attractive and charismatic birds than their Greater Black Back and Herring Gull relatives. Lesser Black Backs are migratory, and return to the island to breed. We watched one pair of males try to impress a female, one providing a gift of food. It was great to watch.

Lesser Black Back Gull giving a gift of food
Gratefully accepted

The early visit to the island also meant that there were a number of migrant visitors passing through. We were lucky to see groups of both Wheatear and Fieldfare.

Fieldfare
Wheatear

The island also has an apparently massive population of rabbits. Who doesn't love rabbits (except farmers and greenkeepers maybe)?

There are numerous smokey grey and black rabbits among the population

We had two and a half hours on the island - and managed to explore most of it (given that you have to stick to the paths to avoid damaging Puffin burrows). I feel that I will know where I am going when I return again now, and hopefully not make the same mistakes that I made at Troup Head on my first visit to see the Gannets.


The return sailing was great too, because the boat goes around the island to show more of the higher cliffs from the sea, where Kittiwakes were shouting and Eider Ducks were in the sea below. We also had a flyby from a number of strings of Gannets, making their way across the Firth of Forth to the Bass Rock to the south. Almost back in Anstruther, one bird followed the boat very closely - perhaps mistaking it for a fishing boat and the promise of free food. That really made me want to revisit Troup Head as soon as possible to see these majestic birds again.

Bishop's Cove - the skipper asked hat wearing passengers to tip their hats to the bishop - a sailors superstition

I really cannot wait to return to the island to see more of the bird life, but am grateful for this trip as a superb introduction to what the place has to offer. It was also beautiful weather, and a nice calm sailing too, so there was little to complain about!

The day wasn't completely bereft of puffins though, there were several in the water!

Many thanks to Ian for showing us the island and sharing such a great wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm as always, and Hayley for a great day out.

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© 2020 By Ben Freeman