Most people head out to the Isle of May in spring and summer to see the masses of nesting puffins, terns, guillemots and other seabirds the island is famous for. Right now, it’s not a busy time for the May – most of the seabirds have abandoned the island, and just a few of the 4000 or so seals that will winter here are beginning to circle the island. So why did I feel so lucky recently to escape my usual office job and join some colleagues for Doors Open Day at the Isle of May?
It wasn’t just the spectacular lighthouses open to the public for the weekend. No, the big draw was that there was nothing to distract from the island’s stark beauty. I love the sight of a puffin as much as the next person, but it’s easy to become quite fixated on the birds when you dash over to the Isle of May, determined to see all the seabirds you can in your allotted hours before heading back to the mainland.
But with two days to explore, it became a weekend to savour.
Exploring the island at our leisure, we had time – and breath – to take in the well-named Palpitation Brae, the steep hill up taking you up to the main lighthouse. The main lighthouse itself is stunning: the winding stair made many a visitor gasp as they stepped in – before heading up the 68 steps to make it to the top! The low light is also worth a visit – a quirky building with yet another wonderful view.
We tried to explore every bit of the island over the weekend. It’s only 1.5 km long by 0.5 km wide, but there seemed to be unique and stunning views everywhere we looked. We startled the May’s many resident rabbits quite a few times, as we tromped about excitedly. (The rabbits, although not native to the island, play an important role in conservation on the island. They constantly nibble the grass, keeping it short and springy – just the way puffins like it for their burrows.)
One of the most special times of the weekend was a guided tour for SNH staff of the island’s ruined monastery by archaeologist, Peter Yeoman. Peter was popular with visitors over the weekend as well, putting on tour after tour for those coming off the boats for Doors Open days.
We travelled over on a RIB on Saturday with Peter and his wife, Sarah, and within a few minutes on the May, Peter had found a medieval shard of pottery. During our tour, he mentioned that they had found piles and piles of ancient pottery, as well as roof tiles during the excavation in the 1990s. He found yet another relic – a sturdy, shiny piece of tile while he toured us around the site.
I had no idea that the monastery on the May was such an important early Christian site, or that they had found 50 skeletons with four different styles of burial, giving us important insights into the medieval lifestyle and diet. In fact, the monks were the ones who brought rabbits to the May in the 1300s, as a source of fresh meat.
Peter told us that the May is one of the three most important priory sites in Scotland, even though it had only 12 or 13 monks at its height. It was established by King David, who apparently had special boat on hand to transport him to the May anytime he wanted to visit the chapel. Peter also told us that the Firth of Forth would have been a busy transport thoroughfare back then – a complete contrast to the scene before us, with just miles of blue sea and not a boat in sight.
This year’s Doors Open day is passed but keep an eye out for future events on the Doors Open website.
There’s still time to visit the Isle of May before the end of the season, find out how to get there and what you’ll discover once you ‘re there on the Isle of May website.
Vicki Mowat is one of SNH’s Media Relations and PR Officers.
All images by Vicki Mowat/SNH other than introductory image by Lorne Gill/SNH.