Isle of May welcomes Syrian day trip

The Isle of May visitor season wrapped up at the end of September. Here, SNH’s Jenny Johnson looks back at one of the highlights of the summer – a wonderful visit by a group of Syrian refugees.

Isle of May - Sherwan

The grey skies of a typical Scottish summer ran flush with the water and almost enveloped that familiar Isle as soon as we left Anstruther harbour pier. Setting out on the May Princess into the millpond-calm waters of the Forth and, to the south, the coastline of East Lothian, we were embarking on a ‘first’ for some excited Syrian visitors and myself: a boat trip to the Isle of May.

My companions, who had arrived in Fife in March 2017 as refugees from the War in Syria, had enthusiastically taken up Scottish Natural Heritage’s generous offer to host them on a day’s trip to the island. SNH manages the island and there is a continual flow of staff and volunteers providing support and research and undertaking bird surveys over the course of the year.

Isle of May landscape 3

Occupying a commanding position on the edge of the Forth, this windblown igneous rock – a National Nature Reserve and of national and international importance – is home to some 285 species on its 57 hectares. I am not sure that I had prepared my visitors any more than I had prepared myself for the full range of island experience as we approached the white, guano-covered cliffs.  We weren’t arriving at the height of the breeding season, when the May can host up to 200,000 seabirds, but it did still feel a little crowded on our arrival, with seabirds on the ledges and puffins in the grassland on the tops inspecting this new boat-full of visitors.

After the smooth 50-minute journey, we pulled into a narrow harbour and disembarked onto the pathway leading up to the main thoroughfares of the island’s path network. We were welcomed by Bex Outram, SNH’s Assistant Reserve Manager. She introduced the nearly 100 strong crowd to the island, giving a brief outline of SNH’s role and what we might want to explore during our two-hour turnaround. We were warned not to walk too close to the edge of the cliff tops in case we accidentally found ourselves diving off them, just like the birds.

With that sobering thought firmly anchored in my mind and feeling the responsibility of hosting parents with young children from a foreign country, who had known little but uncertainty and change during the course of their short lives, we headed off on our explorations.

The old Monastery, Isle of May NNR. Forth and Borders Area.

As well as its birds, the Isle of May has a rich cultural heritage, including St Adrian’s Chapel. There are also the keepers’ houses, stable blocks, North and South Horns, coal block etc.  Indeed, as a result of its position the island forms a distinct danger to navigation in these waters and, for this reason, was one of the first in Scotland to possess a permanent lighthouse, the original one taking the form of a large coal brazier established in 1635 and the first permanently manned one in Scotland.

A light rain was threatening and we were steered towards the staff house for a welcome cup of tea. Basking in the privilege of tables, chairs and mugs of tea, my Syrian friends began to pull out wraps, rolls and a wide range of food that they had brought with them. I was, as always with these people, humbled by their generosity and reciprocal hospitality.

A proper lighthouse was built on the island in 1816 by Robert Stevenson – an ornate gothic tower on a castellated stone building designed to resemble a castle, with accommodation for three light keepers and their families, along with additional space for visiting officials. The new lighthouse, now a listed building, started operating on 1816. After lunch, we made our way up its wonderful spiral staircase, transforming into a slightly precarious staircase ladder right at the top, and emerged as kings and queens of the island realm – staring across the colourful palette of the May to the grey channels of the Forth beyond.

Isle of May lighthouse interior - 5

The two or so hours on the island were up all too soon and we headed back to the boat, leaving the birds and grey seals to their relative peace and quiet and away from the chattering of human voices. The Isle of May crew provided an excellent and entertaining trip alongside the island as we pulled away, even picking up a young puffin which, seeking refuge in the hands of one of the crew, travelled with us for at least half the ride. Eventually the bird was released, much to the consternation of some of the tourists, into the now rather more billowing waves of the estuary where it rocked back and forth for several minutes before, like the island from which it had fledged a few weeks earlier, slipping from view.

Isle of May - boat

See the long lines flowing
Hear the puffins calling
Deep in Forth they’re going
Off the Isle of May

(‘Off the Isle of May’, as sung by Cilla Fisher)

Grateful thanks to SNH for hosting the trip, to Bex Outram for hospitality and to Sherwan for the photos.

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