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Islands Of The Firth

They look empty except for the seabirds, but step ashore and you will
see the fingerprint of man everywhere.

BY KEITH AITKEN

The great thing about the Bass Rock, sailors will tell you, is that there's very little danger of running aground on it in a fog. Why? Because you smell it from far off even when you can't see it. I'm glad to report that, when Scottish Life sailed there recently, it was a splendid late summer afternoon and the Rock shone in the sun like a zircon cluster. You could still smell it from several hundred yards away.

It smells for the same reason that it shines. The mighty Rock, dramatic core of an ancient volcano in the Firth of Forth off the town of North Berwick, is more than 300 feet high and three-quarters of a mile in circumference. It hosts the biggest colony on the planet of one of the world’s most dynamic seabirds, the North Atlantic gannet, or sula bassana (note the incorporation of "Bass" into the scientific name). At breeding season, which is when Scottish Life visited, the Rock is home to more than 150,000 gannets. These are very big birds, they eat a lot of fish (the colony is said to get through 200 tons a day), and what comes out the back of them bears a consequent pungency.

That being said, I had always thought that it was the guano that gave the Rock its distinctive creamy white appearance from the shore. It isn’t. It’s the gannets themselves, nesting to a density of three nests per square metre -- just far enough apart to be out of pecking range in the event of territorial disagreement. As recently as the 1970s, the sloping flat top of the rock was covered with grass. At one time, it was home to a small flock of distinctive and, reputedly, delicious sheep. Not now. The gannets have taken over. Their nests occupy every wrinkle of ledge. Their tapered muscular wings turn the sky black as they wheel above the cliffs, and their discarded feathers turn the waves white.

For a hard-working and populous waterway that penetrates the heart of industrial Scotland, the Firth of Forth is remarkably well stocked with romantic and interesting islands, several of which are accessible throughout the visitor season in pleasure boat trips from South Queensferry and North Berwick.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2016 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo © Jason Baxter / Scottish Viewpoint