The Firth of Forth is a steely, grey estuary that 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 beside it. One of my earliest memories is of paddling in it, wearing a wee woollen kilt. I can still remember shrieking when I spotted crabs in the water. What I didn’t know back then, was that the Firth of Forth was a wildlife hotspot and one of the best places in Scotland for puffin spotting. The Isle of May where they arrived in droves each spring was a familiar sight to me, but only from a distance.
And we’re off to the Isle of May on a puffin spotting adventure
That changed recently when Mr G and I took a boat trip from Anstruther – a pretty harbour town in Fife to the Scottish National Nature Reserve on the Isle of May. We were on a puffin spotting mission.
It was dreich (Scots for yucky) as we boarded the May Princess with 94 other puffin spotters decked out in rainwear.
The one hour crossing to the Isle of May was choppy and it turned a few gills green. I kept my eyes fixed on the horizon and my stomach and sea legs held fast. I’ve become quite the seafarer since becoming a Scottish travel blogger.
Arriving on the Isle of May
As we approached the island I could see 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.
Reserve Manager David welcomed us to the Isle of May. He 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 set off, keeping our eyes peeled for clown-like faces.
Let the puffin spotting commence
We didn’t have to wait long, our puffin spotting trip was an immediate success – 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 gawking 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.
Lots of Puffins and history too
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 this die hard history geek would one day opt for twitching over a pile of old stones.
The Isle of May 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 at least one would be a Stevenson lighthouse, and I was right. Robert Stevenson, the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson had built rather grand castle like lighthouse on the island. Wherever we travel in Scotland, there’s always a Stevenson lighthouse just around the corner.
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 again, on a dark, foggy night.
Puffin spotting is tremendous fun, so our three hours on the Isle of May 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 identify 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.
Our return crossing was calm and as the island became a tiny speck on the horizon, the light caught it and a pretty rainbow appeared.
A boat trip to the Bass Rock
Our weekend of seafaring adventures didn’t end quite there. 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 became dog friendly. Never one to overlook a dog friendly visitor attraction, the boy was keen to visit. Being greedy, he has an affinity with gannets.
The Scottish Seabird Centre
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. We spotted our adorable, Isle of May puffin friends again.
The boy pottered around happily and didn’t bat an eyelid at the sea of screens projecting birds into the room. At home he barks the house down if he sees a creature of any description on TV.
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 a wee white dug.
Bass Rock catamaran cruise
We grabbed lunch at the Seabird Centre, before heading off to enjoy a one hour catamaran cruise around Craigleith and the Bass Rock.
As we approached the small island of Craigleith we spotted puffins bobbing in the sea. And there were those penguin-like seagulls again. I’d seen 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 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, 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 prison. Many religious and political prisoners ended up there and were left to languish in cold, damp cells.
There’s a lighthouse too – I’ll let you guess which family built it.
Gannets, gannets everywhere
What’s most fascinating about the Bass Rock isn’t its history though, it’s the staggering number of seabirds that live on it.
150,000 gannets call it home, making it the world’s largest colony of northern gannets. It’s a 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 knew a big, poopy lump of rock could smell so good.
All too soon our seafari was over – we’d had a wonderful time. I disembarked, delighted to have 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. I’m a dab hand when it comes to seabird spotting these days.
Although our Bass Rock catamaran cruise was provided on a complimentary basis, all opinions are my own.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in dolphin spotting on the Moray Firth.
Until next time …