Isle of May: Paradise Found

The legend of King Arthur dates from the days before the Brythons of Lothian were subsumed into what became Scotland. Arthur’s Seat links him to the area and there is a legend that the fabled Avalon was the Isle of May. Just back from guiding a trip there for the first time this season I, for one, am signed up to any such legend.

Leaving North Berwick harbour with 12 guests on a fast RIB is hardly mythological but, as you approach the stern cliffs that the island presents to the Southwest, the May looks unassailable, defying you to land. But after cruising north round Rona and the Mars Rocks, through rafts of puffins and guillimots hanging out on the water in clumps, as if part of some giant informal kaffeeklatsch and flotillas of grey seal heads bobbing up in curiosity, Kirkhaven landing still comes as a surprise, hidden as it is on the far side.

Arctic terns are ferocious as well as elegant; here they attack guests returning to the landing

Running the gauntlet of the terns nesting near the landing, a slow stroll along the island’s many paths reveals a rich diversity of views, history and wildlife, crammed onto an island barely a mile long. The 12th © monastery was off-limits, having been taken over by terns but Holyman’s Road to the Low Light passed endless clumps of puffins socialising, abundant rabbits and the odd black back gull lurking ready to seize any unprotected chick. At Three Tarn overlook, the western cliffs were thick with birds—puffins, razorbills, guillemots and the cries of kittiwakes around the Bishop below. Those birds closest to the path barely noticed people; one razorbill landed 2m away and began preening.

Gregarious puffins socialise along Holyman's Road, Isle of May

At the top of the island, history is all around, with the oldest lighthouse in Scotland (1636) capping one ridge and its resplendent castle-like Stevenson replacement of 1815
on the other. The views from here on a clear day like this encompass the entire Forth as far as the bridges and must have awed the generations of keepers who peched up Palpitation Brae to their shift from the less exposed living quarters down by Mill Door loch. Down there, eider ducklings were just peeking out from under their mothers and the whir of seabirds coming to drink was constant.

Isle of May Lighthouse, built by the Stevensons in the Napoleonic era when no magnificence was spared

Back at the small visitor centre, there was barely time to wolf down whatever packed lunches had been brought; two hours had disappeared like minutes. Because of its size and variety, I never tire of visiting the May but it is especially enjoyable with 12 people who have never been before and discovering it vicariously anew through the awe and delight, the amazed expressions of each new convert.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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