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The Islands Of The Forth feature article from the pages of Scottish Life Magazine

The Islands Of The Forth

Sparkling like a string of jewels beyond Edinburgh's shore, these islands may be off
the usual tourist routes but are well worth exploring.


It was Steve the stonemason who was repairing my garden wall who led me to the islands of the Forth. "Did you know you can see the Isle of May?" Well, despite having tilled that patch of soil for half a century, I didn't. But Steve was only partly right. The Isle of May was visible only when the air was clear, the tide low and there was no swell on the sea. And on the east coast of Scotland that is rare as mermaids' toes. Even on those infrequent occasions, the island was no more than a blip on the horizon, indistinguishable from a North Sea ripple. I could have dismissed it as a mirage but on nights of low tide, a lighthouse winked smugly at me, always from the same spot.

I recalled a nonsense rhyme that my children had brought home from school that purported to list the islands of the Firth of Forth in order, but the need to make it rhyme meant that it didn't:

"Inchgarvie, Inchmickery, Inchcolm, Inchkeith
Cramond, Fidra, Lamb, Craigleith
Around the Bass Rock to the Isle of May
Then past Car Craig to Dalgety Bay."

Follow that and you'd be going hither and thither all over the place and then ending up in a commuter development. Time, I thought, to sort this out and get to know the islands of the Forth, or at least as many of them as can be comfortably (or as the sea often determines, uncomfortably) reached, beginning with that winking temptress, the Isle of May.

Trouble was that until very recently the only way to get to May was from Anstruther and that would have meant a two-hour drive plus a five-hour boat trip -- and that at the mercy of wind and tide. However, idling one day in North Berwick I dropped into the award-winning Scottish Seabird Centre and discovered that they now offer trips to or around the islands at this wide end of the firth and, en route, spell out while at sea the lesser bits of rock. These include the Lamb, a barren stump that was bought by psychic Uri Geller who, according to our Seabird Centre guide, believed its pyramidal shape had magical connotations. In fact, its shape is far from pyramidal. Hedgehog, more like.

Sea.fari, who operate the trips for the Seabird Centre, provide waterproofs and lifejackets, so I took a trial run immediately on the relatively short trip that coasts by Craigleith en route to the Bass Rock. When I'm in my garden, I can see bits of Craigleith far more reliably than I can see the Isle of May. The curling stones that hold local garage doors secure against the north wind are hewn from its tough volcanic rock.

The Sea.fari inflatable bounced across the waves to the extraordinary basalt dome of the Bass that sheers shiny white 350 feet out of the sea. Fifteen hundred years ago, St. Baldred led a solitary existence here, alone amid the seabirds. Subsequently, the Bass became a religious retreat, a fortress and then a prison, on the ruins of which a lighthouse was built in 1902. The island features in Catriona, Robert Louis Stevenson's sequel to Kidnapped.

I had assumed the bright white sheen of the Bass was bird droppings, but it was the birds themselves, 100,000 of them, bright white gannets that kamikaze down to spear their fishy prey.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2010 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos: © Darren Miller/Scottish Viewpoint