The Firth of Forth is a steely, grey estuary which flows into the North Sea. It’s fringed by Fife to the north and the Lothians to the south. I’ve spent my entire life living next to it. One of my earliest memories is of 3-year-old me paddling in its chilly waters, wearing a little woolen kilt! I remember shrieking when I realised I was sharing my paddling pool with crabs!
My primary school, house groups were named after islands in the Firth of Forth – Cramond (my house), Inchcolm, Inchkeith and Inchmickery. Until a couple of years ago when I visited Inchcolm, I’d only ever set foot on the tidal Cramond Island.
That all changed last weekend when Mr G and I took a boat trip from the pretty harbour town of Anstruther in Fife, to the Scottish National Nature Reserve on the Isle of May. We were on the lookout for those adorable sea clowns known as puffins.
It was dreich (Scots for yucky weather) as we boarded the May Princess with 94 other waterproof clad, puffin spotters.
The choppy one hour crossing turned a few gills green. I kept my eyes fixed firmly on the horizon – my stomach and sea legs held fast! Scottish travel blogging has turned me into quite the seafarer.
As we approached the island I could see that it was teeming with seabirds. I scanned the horizon searching for puffins, but the birds all looked like seagulls to me. For someone who’s always lived by the sea, my knowledge of seabirds is non-existent. If it’s white, greedy and hanging around the beach it’s a seagull. I couldn’t tell the difference between a guillemot and a gannet if my life depended on it.
We were welcomed to the Isle of May by Reserve Manager David, who told us we were in luck as puffins were rather fond of rain. He also told us the small island was currently home to 40,000 breeding pairs of puffins – yay. We were free to explore for three hours, so we set off, excitedly keeping our eyes peeled for clown like faces.
We didn’t have to wait long – they were everywhere. It’s impossible to look at a puffin without smiling. They’re unbelievably cute and are full of character, waddling around with their puffed up chests like little bodybuilders.
I snapped away, in seventh heaven. They were fascinating and comical to watch, and paid little heed to the gawping humans photographing them.
These cheery looking birds live a hardy existence. Born on land, they leave for sea at a few months old and remain there for the first four years of their lives. As adults they only spend the breeding season on dry land, making their nests in burrows underground. They’re not feathery philanderers either as they mate for life.
Beside seabirds, the island has a fascinating history covering everything from Viking raids, witchcraft, and smuggling to Jacobite risings and murdered saints. Evidence of Bronze Age burials have been also discovered, and the remains of one of Scotland’s earliest churches still survive. Despite the existence of medieval ruins I didn’t visit them as I was too consumed by puffin spotting. Who knew the die hard history geek would one day opt for twitching over ruins!
The island is also home to three lighthouses – the oldest, a coal-fired beacon dates to 1636, it was Scotland’s first lighthouse. I hazarded a guess that one would have to be a Stevenson lighthouse, and I was right. Robert Stevenson, the Grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson had built the grey castle like lighthouse on the island. Stevenson lighthouses seem to follow us on our travels around Scotland.
I found out too, that a haunting sound from my past once emanated from the island – the muffled blast of the foghorn, which I loved hearing as a child. I couldn’t resist a peep inside the South Horn building which was open. I’d love to hear the horn, just once more on a dark, foggy night.
Our three hours on the island flew by, and before we knew it, it was time to leave.
I left none the wiser about the majority of the ‘seagulls’ I’d seen, but I was now able to recognise an Eider Duck, a Shag and a Razorbill. I considered the Razorbill a small victory as a few hours earlier it’d have fallen firmly into my seagull category!
Back in Anstruther, any hopes of enjoying dinner from Scotland’s best fish and chip shop, The Anstruther Fish Bar were dashed when we saw the queue snaking out of the door and down the street!
Our weekend seafaring adventures weren’t over quite yet. The next morning we were North Berwick bound for more fun on the Firth of Forth, this time with the Wee White Dug in tow.
Earlier this year the Scottish Seabird Centre began allowing dogs into the attraction on a trial basis. Never one to overlook a dog friendly visitor attraction the boy was keen as mustard to visit. Being greedy, he has an afinity with gannets too.
We began our visit in the Discovery Centre which beams in live webcam images of seabirds from the islands of Craigleith, Fidra, May, the Bass Rock and Dunbar harbour. There were our adorable, little Isle of May puffin friends again.
I found some seabird glove puppets and put on a puppet show for the boy, but he quickly lost interest when he realised I wasn’t going to let him tear them to shreds.
After exploring the Discovery Centre we had a browse in the gift shop. It was stocked with lots of lovely, locally made goodies. Some even featured the Wee White Dug.
I resisted the temptation to buy a colourful puffin print by a local artist, knowing it’d end up in my growing collection of Scottish travel prints which I keep acquiring, but never get round to framing.
As we approach the small island of Craigleith we spotted puffins bobbing around in the sea, and there were those penguin like seagulls again – I’d spotted them on the Isle of May too. Thankfully, our guide John was an expert when it came to seabirds. I learned that the penguin like seagulls were guillemots. Every day’s a school day in the World of blogging.
After looping round Craigleith we whizzed towards the Bass Rock. Salty, seawater sprayed up soaking my face and hair, but I didn’t care as it was exhilarating cutting through the water at speed. The boy sat calmly by my feet, not the slightest bit excited by his high speed adventure.
The Bass Rock is an impressive sight from the shore, but close up it’s jaw-dropping – like something from King Kong’s lost World. It’s a huge, inhospitable looking lump of rock.
Like the Isle of May, the Bass Rock has a rich and fascinating history. It was once home to the 7th century hermit Saint Baldred, who lived in a chapel there. Saint Baldred had a real knack for finding solitude in uncomfortable, impractical places.
The rock is often referred to as Scotland’s Alcatraz, as it once housed a notorious prison. Many religious and political prisoners ended up there, left to languish in cold, damp cells.
There’s a lighthouse too – I’ll let you guess which family built it!
150,000 gannets call it home, making it the World’s largest colony of Northern gannets. It’s a very surreal experience to find yourself bobbing about in a glass roofed boat underneath them all.
150,000 tightly packed birds have given the rock a distinctive colour and aroma. As soon as we got within sniffing distance of it the boy got excited. He threw his head back, breathing in the pungent sea air. He sniffed furiously, savouring the scent like it was an expensive perfume. Who ever thought that a big, poopy lump of rock could smell so good!
All too soon our seafari was over. We’d all had a wonderful time, and I disembarked happy with two new seagulls under my belt – the penguin like guillemot and the gannet, the one with the pointy, yellow head.
This morning on my way to work I passed a Herring Gull eating chips foraged from a bin. Not a seagull, a Herring gull – you see I’m a bit of a dab hand when it comes to seabird spotting these days!
A huge thank you to the Scottish Seabird Centre for inviting us to enjoy one of their fabulous Bass Rock cruises. Although it was provided on a complimentary basis, all opinions, musings and comments contained within this blog are accurate and entirely my own.
Until next time …….