Isle of May

I set off today from my friends Simon and Jo’s house (here pictured with Nathalie). I have been friends with Simon since the 1990s. Simon and his team work on cetacean bycatch and we have very similar attitudes to such issues. We only discovered a couple of years ago that we had both been to Marlborough and overlapped by a year. It was very good to see them as Simon has just finished successful radio and chemo treatment for throat cancer and although feeling tired is on the road to full recovery

I had been looking forward to today for much of my trip – the Isle of May is a superb seabird colony in the entrance to the Firth of Forth and I had the privilege of being warden there in summer 1979 – just a mere 40 years ago! My main role was to greet visitors to the island and guide them in what to do, and what not to do. I also supported the research being carried out on the seabirds and generally make sure the National Nature Reserve was well looked after. There was a large gull colony that covered most of the island and important numbers of cliff nesting birds and puffins. I cannot remember how many visitors came, but I do not think it was much more than 1000 (I did count, and somewhere at home I will have the report). We (myself and whichever researchers were about) lived in a small research hut called the Mouse House after the project on mice that had allowed the hut to be built. There were three lighthouse keepers manning the island and occupying both the lighthouse itself and other accommodation. A bird observatory occupied a disused lighthouse building and was home to around 4-6 birders/ringers who changed over on an approximately weekly basis. Travel to the island was on shellfish creel boats, one in particular run from Crail by Jimmy Smith.

The Mouse House – could sleep up to around 6 researchers at a push
The Mouse House has been removed and its base covered in gravel and shelters for tern chicks 9the bamboos are to deter gulls from swooping to take the chicks also
Desirable tern residence
A pair of Arctic terns at their residence – I was attacked shortly afterwards by the male (on the right). All visitors to the island have to pass through a mob of angry terns at the moment

Travel nowadays to the island is on a boat carrying around 100 people that goes nearly every day of the week for a 5 month season. Last year there were around 13,500 visitors to the island.

The Hilda Rose at the Isle of May in 1979 (at a high spring tide too). The oil tanks in the background (used to supply the lighthouse generators) are gone and have been replaced by a visitor centre with a vegetated roof and nesting terns.

The main attraction of the island is undoubtedly the puffins. More than 40,000 pairs nest on the island. Visitors are guided to stay on well marked paths in order to avoid collapsing the puffin burrows that are more or less everywhere where the soil is suitable. These paths were all there in 1979, but the sign-posting and roping was not.

Atlantic puffin
Probably the most photographed puffin on the island yesterday – a group of around 15 Japanese photographers were all around this bird with some very large lenses – undoubtedly their pictures will have been better than my little point and shoot camera
The Isle of May’s west cliffs have very large colonies of guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes
Common Guillemots
Shags on the Isle of may are scattered around in caves and lower cliffs
Rings for shags

The number of researchers on the island has risen to around 14 now – sadly my friend Mike who was I think instrumental in getting me the job as warden in 1979 was coming onto the island a day after my visit, so I did not see him, but I did get a cup of tea with some of the research team. He has maintained studies there since 1973, an extraordinary record. At present the main focal species appears to be the shag (a type of cormorant) and most of the population is marked with uniquely lettered colour rings. These can be read with a telescope in all seasons and thus the detailed life histories of some birds can be followed.

Yesterday was also another day for co-incidences. In 2016, late in my time with JNCC, I took part in a six week research trip counting whales and dolphins in the Atlantic off Scotland, Ireland and France. The poor sea-handling and lack of mirrors on the ship caused me to grow my beard. On that ship we worked in groups of two, and my co-researcher was Becci. I was thus amazed to see Becci step on board the boat to the Isle of May as we were boarding in Anstruther. We did a lot of catching up on the way out and it turns out that she is planning a long bike ride herself, following the grey whale migration southwards off western North America to Mexico this coming autumn ( That is a truly impressive trip (and makes me rather envious!). Good luck Becci!


In 1979, one of the island’s visitors was a young artist called Keith Brockie. He later produced a beautiful book: One Man’s Island of paintings done on the Isle of May. One of my memories was of drinking rather too much of my home-brewed beer in one session with him (turns out no-one is producing home-brew on the island just now – surely a gap?). Anyway, I was delighted to here that by yet another co-incidence he was on the island and I tracked him down to find him sketching a razorbill and its chick – not much change there – but then why change something so good already?

Keith at work

2 thoughts on “Isle of May

  1. Great pictures Mark and good to see that the fine weather has re-joined you. We’re very much enjoying the daily blog, the last couple of days are making me miss Scotland !


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