It is twenty degrees and sunny in the Highlands today. Sadly we are no longer in the Highlands and we have mist, drizzle, ten degrees and a very cold wind. We set off for the twenty mile trip to Anstruther, still unsure if our boat to the Isle of May will sail today. We arrive early, that would be early even by our standards. The boat, The May Princess, which takes 100 passengers, is full. It is mostly full of a party of fourteen year olds whose degree of preparedness for today’s activity varies. One girl is wearing a thin jumper that stops a few inches above her waist and has slashed sleeves. The lady next to us works on an Antarctic survey project. She at least is appropriately dressed. She claims that the Isle of May is one of her favourite places on earth. There are some very serious cameras on board. One man has a four foot long lens; I dread to think what it weighs or how it will fare in this drizzle. We have secured what appear to be the best seats on the boat, outside yet under an overhang to protect us from the rain.
Another toilet related comment alert. The comfort system that increases the availability of toilets, which we used in Aberdeenshire, has been disbanded in Fife. Chris therefore used the time whilst we were waiting for the boat to walk through the rain quite a long way and then was indignant at being charged thirty pence for the privilege. I have elected to wait until we board. This means that I have to wait until the boat is at sea before using the facilities. These are typical boat ‘heads’, with another puzzle as to how the flush works. Too late I spot the instruction to put toilet paper in the bin rather than down the pan. Without going into too many gory details, I will report that it did end up in the correct receptacle. Then comes the challenge of trying to keep on my feet whilst returning to my seat. The boat is lurching in a spectacular manner, with waves crashing on deck to the accompaniment of many girly screams from the school party and that was just the boys. This is the roughest sea I have experienced since whale watching. I am the proud possessor of seasickness tablets. They are at home. I remember the whale watching instructions to put pressure on the pulse points, this seems to work.
We see gannets and learn that they are part of the 150,000 strong colony on Bass Rock, the largest colony in the Northern Hemisphere. There are ¼ million sea birds on the Isle of May, including 92,000 puffins, surely I will at last see one. Puffins return to the same burrows each year and once they leave the island, the chicks do not come back to land until they are mature enough to mate three years later.
We start to see more and more seabirds through the mist and drizzle, including my first ever puffin! As we near the island the water is thick with guillimots, razorbills and more puffins. We have three hours to spend on the island and we walk most of the pathways. Departing from the marked routes is strictly forbidden in case puffin burrows are damaged. Even with my very basic £100 camera I manage half decent, recognisable shots of the islands birds. Apart from the puffins, razorbills and guillimots there are, oystercatchers, shags, fulmars, black-backed gulls (lesser and greater), fulmars and kittiwakes. There is also an active tern colony and the terns dive bomb the visitors making their strange ticking cries (that would be the terns’ cries, not the visitors). Eider duck nest right by the pathways; I had forgotten that the females were a drab brown, in contrast to their gaudy husbands. A tremendous plus for having had to do this part of the trip two years later than originally planned is that, had we made it here as intended in August 2014, there would have been far less to see. Despite the chilling wind I am having a great time, though I agree that slightly warmer weather would have been the icing on this particular cake.
A great deal of what is known about sea birds and migrations patterns is thanks to data collected on May. Only the researchers live on the island as the lighthouse is now automated. It is 200 years old and was built to replace the oldest lighthouse in Britain, which was a coal fired beacon tower dating from 1636. This took between one and three tons of coal a night to maintain, all of which was brought from the mainland and hauled to the top of the tower. The island used to be a monastic foundation, with St Ethernan’s shrine attracting pilgrims since the seventh century. The island was home to St Adrian until he carelessly got murdered by the Vikings in 875. In 1500, James IV had a picnic on the island, because he could I guess. After the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, three hundred fleeing Jacobites somehow got stranded on May for eight days without food.
We return to the boat and choose to sit on the top deck, as the drizzle has stopped. I ask which is the appropriate side of the boat to sit for the best view of the cliffs on the return journey. The island is home to 100 or so grey seals and we see these as we travel along the coast. The tide is very low and the gangplank is at a ninety degree angle. The chap in front of me is on crutches, he manages better than I. Yet another day when a serious defrosting is required when we get home.