“Be warned”, he added, in a thick, incongruous Geordie accent, “they will draw blood.”
We were standing on a small port on the Isle of May in the middle of nesting season, watching thousands upon thousands of sea birds flock and swarm around the island, enclosing it in a feathery vortex of unimaginable noise and proportions.
It may have been the hottest day of the year so far, but the gathered crowd — myself and Paul included — nevertheless donned jackets and hats as we were advised by our guide to safeguard ourselves from overprotective parents, but warned against any kind of preemptive attack that might injure the animals. One woman even unfurled her umbrella as we prepared to leave the relative safety of Kirkhaven. Our first adversary was to be the Arctic terns, which had inconveniently colonised the area of land separating the moored May Princess from the newly refurbished Visitor Centre and island proper. I had waited years to visit the Isle of May, however, and I wasn’t about to let some miniature seagulls get in the way of a long-awaited travel experience. I’d lived in Aberdeen, after all: home to the shoplifting, dinner-snatching seagulbatrosses of Union Street. Hood up, I joined the scrum of Scots and American tourists and pushed forward.
The guide hadn’t been exaggerating. As we charged collectively along the path we were soon driven apart and cunningly divided by a veritable onslaught of pecks and poop, the birds having perfected their campaign of terror over the countless tour groups that had run the gauntlet before. Thankfully, they lost interest as soon as we were out of perceived poaching distance, and finally able to regroup Paul and I set off on our two-and-a-half hour tour of the island. Now we just had the guillemots, razorbills, shags, cormorants and herring gulls to content with.
The Isle of May is not particularly large or exacting — less than kilometres long, and barely half a kilometre wide, it’s positively pedestrian — but we still found ourselves racing against the clock to meet the strict departure time of 3pm, dictated by tides and whatnot. First we headed along Fluke Street, past the old engine rooms and along a small fresh water loch in order to visit The Main Light. Designed by Robert Stevenson in 1816 to replace the oldest lighthouse in Scotland, The Main Light is a strikingly Gothic castle-like structure that once housed three keepers and their families. It’s not the only lighthouse on the island, however, with the lower section of its predecessor still standing a short distance away (sans the beacon itself, which proved obstructive to its replacement) and another, supplementary lighthouse known as The Lowlight positioned further to the east (which once warned passing vessels of North Carr Rock but today serves as a bird observatory). Other points of interest include The Bath House, which must have been a horrible place for a long soak, and two large horns located at the north and south ends of the island.
Mainly though, it was the wildlife that we were there to see. Anxious to stay away from the portentously titled Slipped Disk, particularly after Paul’s accident on the Isle of Skye, we made our way up to the guano-soaked cliffs of Bishop’s Cove to watch the resident puffins fish for their lunch. Curiously, none of the birds seemed in much of a hurry to eat or feed their young, instead posing from their white perches — their colourful beaks stocked to the tips with fish — for photographs, or, weirder still, choosing to fly their prey in circles for apparently no reason at all.
I’m no ornithologist, or even much of an amateur bird-watcher, but even I couldn’t pry my eyes away from them. Puffins, like penguins, transcend their evolutionary grade, taking on the interest level of a small mammal or reptile rather than that usually afforded a boring old bird — surely an ignoble retirement for the once mighty dinosaur. They’re adorable, for one, but they’re also brilliantly bizarre, both in their barrel-like shape and their tendency to fly so low over the surface of the water that it appears as though they are bouncing from one wave to the next. I honestly could have watched them all day. We also saw seals, both on the approach as they parted to let the May Princess dock and from the south plateau where they bobbed silently from the waters of Lady’s Bed and Maiden Rocks — watching, waiting. Paul remarked on the unsettling spectacle of their disembodied heads lolling in the surf and I couldn’t help but agree; it’s really no wonder that fishermen conjured up myths of sea monsters and mermaids when such behaviours are as common as they are uncanny. There was something disquietingly human about their vertical standing in the water.
Two and a half hours is not quite enough to see the island — we missed out on the delightfully naughty sounding Willy’s Hole due to time constraints — but we still saw most of what it had to offer. The entire north peninsula — named Rona, but technically still part of the same outcrop — was off limits anyway, as a research centre vulnerable to disturbance, while visitors were required to stick to official walkways in order to avoid trampling on underground burrows or inviting any more unnecessary trouble with the locals. Still, it would be nice to go back at a different time of year — or even time of day — to see how the island changes. And perhaps to reassure myself that the seal-heads have matching seal-bodies, too.
The terns may not have drawn blood, but their island certainly made an impression.