Bedecked in blue and yellow waterproofs and with suitable instruction on inflating our lifejackets and the possible consequences of standing up when moving at speed we pulled out of the small and cluttered harbour at North Berwick: setting out towards a hazy blur on the horizon. Less than half an hour later we were tucked below the cliffs of the west coast of the Isle of May awaiting our agreed time for landing. Guillemots, puffins, razorbills bobbed on the sea nearby and kittiwake called on the nearby rock ledges.
Just as it was on the Inner Farne the arctic terns guarded the only path onto the island, a dive bombing welcome to a land more theirs than ours. We removed the cumbersome waterproofs and were free to explore – our main instruction to keep on the marked paths and so away from nests and burrows.
We stayed with James, our guide, for the north of the island with the agreement that he would try to get us into the lighthouse. In the meantime it was the spectacle of the island birds that was at the forefront of our tour. The east was relatively quiet as the wind favoured the west for the island birds. Sure enough as we crossed the island by the now redundant Low Light (lighthouse) the air filled with flocks of puffins, hundreds of puffins. The cliff top rocks too held patient crowds of them, waiting for a moment to join the airborne throng.
The main lighthouse on the island replaced an old coal fired beacon. It was one of many designed by Robert Stevenson (his third) and was first used in 1816. Rather strangely the castle like structure contains a boardroom, apparently a nice trip out from Edinburgh for board members of the Northern Lighthouse Board. Some of the other buildings on the island served the lighthouse with power from coal generators and with compressed air for the two foghorns. The lighthouse was built with little expense spared from the fine castellated exterior to the once carpeted spiral staircase and marble fireplaces.
The southern part of the island has paths leading past the old chapel to cliff top viewpoints where kittiwakes clung to small ledges with their fluffy youngsters. Razorbills perched on the cliff edges and the occasional rock pipit flitted past. Soon it was time to return from the southern foghorn back to our boat for the even smoother return crossing with a brief pause to marvel at Bass Rock with its thousands of gannets on every available space and in aerial flocks above this unfeasibly barren chunk of rock.