There is an old saying in the East Neuk in Scotland: ‘girls come from the May Isle and boys come from Bass Rock’. It is no surprise that the Isle of May features in the folklore of this area. Though invisible from St. Andrews, the Isle of May is a daily sight to anyone who lives in the string of fishing villages along the southeastern Fife coast. Riding out of St Andrews on the 95 Bus, you know you’re in the East Neuk once you see the whale-shaped island on the horizon. Depending on the weather, it may be an indistinct shadow emerging from the mist, or it could be cast into sharp relief by the strong northern sunlight, giving even the distant observer a vision of its craggy cliffs and friendly lighthouse.
But you can do more than admire the island from afar. The island is open from April 1st to September 30th, so you can actually go visit it. While the famous puffins have gone for the summer, there is still plenty to see on the Isle of May in September.
The origin of the island’s name has been lost to history, but the skipper of the May Princess boat favours the theory that it is Old Norse for ‘island of seagulls.’ As soon as you start making your way across the Firth, you can see why. Birds flock to the island from all over the world. While most of the breeding birds leave in August, they are replaced by thousands of migratory birds who stop on the island for respite on their long journeys. And if you’re lucky, you may a see bottlenose dolphin or a minke whale from the boat as well.
September, however, belongs to the seals. They love to sunbathe on the rocks around the island but as the boat approaches slide shyly into the water. Some of the more adventurous seals follow the Princess into Kirkhaven, the island’s humble harbour, and may swim right up to the edge of the boat. At this time of year, the very first seal pups are being born, and you can see a few in all their fuzzy white glory.
Aside from all the natural wonders on offer, the Isle of May is a great place for any history lover or pilgrim. The monks of St Adrian’s Priory were wiped out by Vikings in the 7th century, but in the later Middle Ages another monastery was built here. The memory of St Adrian’s martyrdom drew over 50,000 pilgrims a year to this little rock in the North Sea. From the St Andrews pilgrimage site to the Isle of May pilgrimage site, you can experience a very different sort of pilgrimage. You can meditate on those who have come before as you walk the wild paths along the priory ruins.
Once on the island, you’ll have a few hours to explore its beautiful landscape. Stick to the path so as to avoid trampling on any nests. And if you’re interested in more modern history, check out the site of Scotland’s first lighthouse or wander down to Fluke Street, a little Victorian village that once housed the several families who maintained the Main Light.
Pack a lunch and have a picnic, as no food is sold on the island. Open throughout September, the visiting season culminates with the Homecoming Weekend on the 27th and 28th where experts will teach about the seals, birds and people who pass through the island. Whether you love nature, history, or just a great day out, the Isle of May is not to be missed!
How to Get There:
Boats sail to the island almost daily from Anstruther, taking breaks only on Tuesdays and in poor sailing weather. You can choose either the leisurely May Princess, which takes an hour to get to Kirkhaven Harbour, or the faster RIB Osprey. The sailing times depend on the tides, so check the website before you go. The 95 and the X58/X60 buses will take you to Anstruther harbor, where you can queue outside the Lifeboat station and peek over the pier wall at your destination while you wait.
Photo Credit: Ellie Hyland