A fantastic day trip, when holidaying in Scotland, is a visit to the little-known former monastery on the Isle of May. Pack a picnic, wrap up warm and venture out to the East Neuk of Fife where the May Princess pleasure cruiser sails once a day from Anstruther to the historical island, which is not only home to the remains of the 12th century friary but to much of Scotland’s protected wildlife.
The island is no more than 1.5 by 0.5km – yet it’s paramount to Scottish history. It was first referred to in the Life of Kentigern, an early biography of the Celtic Saint who is now more commonly known as Mungo and is said to be, among other things, the founder of the city of Glasgow. The scripts were written in 1180 but the first signs of life date back to 2,000BC when the first human settlers descended on Fife. They used the island as a base for hunting seals and fish, leaving behind their flint arrowheads and pieces of pottery.
It was St Adrian, however, who set up the first monastic retreat on the Isle of May in the ninth century. Then, three centuries later, King David I found the monastery which he gifted to the Benedictine Abbey of Reading on the condition that there were also nine priests accommodated there to celebrate the Kings of Scotland. The settlement was disbanded in the 15th century when it was taken over by St Andrew and, gradually, it fell into disrepair. That said, today’s 12th century remains are still a sight to behold.
But the island holds more than just relics of the past. It’s now a Scottish Natural Heritage Nature Reserve and home to a large colony of puffins. Visitors can spend time in the bird hides, in which there is also a live web cam. They might even be lucky enough to see guillemots, cormorants and shags from their secret coastal vantage point, which is also the perfect location for spotting the seals, porpoises, dolphins and wales that swim off the island’s shores. .
Explorers are usually given a good couple of hours to explore and walk the cliffs, as well as visiting the working lighthouse, which is now operated by a photo electric sell since the island’s ‘de-manning’ in 1989. The light, which detects darkness, is monitored via Fife Ness Lighthouse and the National Lighthouse Board in Edinburgh. It’s perhaps just as well, since the island’s history of occupied lighthouses isn’t altogether pleasant. In 1790, an almost entire family was killed by fumes from the coal fire, which consumed nearly 400 tonnes a year. The only member to survive was the lightkeeper’s toddler child, who wasn’t rescued until three days later.
Visitors who’d like a faster-paced trip to the island can take a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) ride across and, after blowing the cobwebs away at 20 knots a time, can get even closer to the wildlife occupying its rocky shores. Some of the other seabirds known to frequent the Isle of May include eiderduck, razorbills, oystercatchers, kittiwakes, arctic terns and herring gulls, while purple sandpipers and curlews can be spotted around the coastline. The best time for seabird watching on the island is April to July, whereas whales and dolphins can be seen between July and August. Grey seals are in abundance all year round.