The Isle of May in Scotland is one of the most accessible islands off the east coast of Scotland. This island is a national nature reserve, and in the summer months it’s thriving with sea birds who return to breed. Visiting the island is a fantastic day trip from Edinburgh or Anstruther, in Fife. Read on to discover this bonnie wee island, and my wonderful adventure exploring its nooks and crannies.
On a bright sunny day in August, I spent a magical day on the Isle of May. Each year the island is home to thousands of seabirds cramming their nests in the pockets of the island’s towering cliffs.
Visiting this Scottish island has been on my Scotland bucket list ever since I found out that comical-looking puffins make their nests here each spring/summer!
Unfortunately, the puffins had left by the time of my visit, but I still had a wonderful day and hopefully, my experience will inspire you to visit!
In my guide on visiting the Isle of May, I’ve created an itinerary for you [complete with a map] and I’m giving you plenty of handy tips so you can make the most of your time on the island.
Want to know the most recent rules and travel restrictions in Scotland? Read my Covid-19 guide that is updated every week with the current information.
Isle of May, Scotland: Planning Your Trip
Where is the Isle of May?
The Isle of May is located 5 miles off the coast of Fife, in the Firth of Forth. The island is 1.1 miles [1.8 kilometres] long and less than 0.3 of a mile wide- so it’s a small island, and can easily be explored in a couple of hours. The island is owned by Scottish Natural Heritage, and it is a national nature reserve. It’s one of the most accessible islands to reach from Edinburgh.
Watch my Isle of May vlog
I also created a vlog when I visited the Isle of May. Watch it until the end to see this travel guide visually, and to learn more about the island.
History of the Isle of May
The Isle of May has a fascinating history; vikings, monks and smugglers, as well as an abundance of wildlife, have all made use of this island.
The earliest evidence of human activity on the island was from 2,000 BC when a piece of pottery from that time was discovered. It is thought that the island’s name comes from the Norsemen who called the island Maa Oy, which is Norse for ‘gull island’. Makes sense!
A religious man called Ethernan is thought to have established the first religious community on the island in the 7th century. In the 9th century, the Isle of May was raided by Vikings who killed all the monks. In 1145, David l founded a priory for nine Benedictine monks but by 1300 it had been demolished. Despite this, the island remained an important destination for pilgrimage.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a village on the island. The last villager, John Wishart, died in 1730 and is buried on the island.
During the 18th century, the caves and bays on the island provided ample cover for smuggling.
The Isle of May is Scotland’s oldest Bird Observatory, which was founded in 1934. Today it is manned by volunteers between March and November.
The island is also home to Scotland’s oldest lighthouse- the Beacon. It stands on the highest point of the island and was constructed in 1636!
The west side of the island is dominated by rugged cliffs, lined with ledges and crevices that make ideal nesting sites for thousands of seabirds. On the east coast, the island consists of grassy banks and fields of wildflowers that bloom in the summer.
>> Read more: Cramond Island: The island in Edinburgh you can walk to
Wildlife you can see on the Isle of May
The Isle of May is one of the best birdwatching sites in Scotland. During summer, the Isle of May is home to up to 200,000 nesting seabirds! The island is also home to a variety of other wildlife. Here is what you can expect to see on the island:
Puffins – Up to 90,000 puffins nest on the Isle of May from April to August. I visited the island in mid-August, and they had already departed the island, so if your primary reason to visit the Isle of May is to see puffins, I recommend visiting in May or June. Look out for flocks of puffins carrying a beak-full of fish to their burrows to feed their pufflings!
Another great island to see Puffins is Staffa. They make their nests on the island from late-April to early-August.
Kittiwakes – I saw hundreds of Kittiwakes on the south side of the island. They are a medium-sized gull, with black legs that look like they’ve been dipped in ink. Kittiwakes are known for crying out their name- ‘kitti-waak!’. Close your eyes, and listen out for their sharp cry.
Shags – I was lucky enough to spot a couple of these birds on my visit. Shags are black with long, goose-like necks that are distinguishable from the bright yellow splash of colour on their cheeks, and a dark quiff of feathers on their forehead. They live on the Isle of May all-year-round. They make grunting/croaking sounds during the breeding season- make sure you listen out for them!
Guillemots – Guillemots spend most of their time at sea, nesting only during the breeding season. These black and white seabirds lay cone-shaped eggs so they don’t roll out of their nests on the sea cliffs! You can see them on the Isle of May from April to July.
Rabbits – The Isle of May is also home to lots of different coloured rabbits! Basically what happened was domesticated rabbits were let loose on the island, they bred, and now there are lots of pet-coloured rabbits bouncing around the island! A fun game to play [especially with kids] is to see how many different colours of rabbits you can spot. They’re best seen on the north side of the island, near the Low Lighthouse.
Grey Seals – Around 300 grey seals live on the Isle of May– the largest colony on the east coast of Scotland. They usually hang about the south end of the island. You’ll see them swimming around or bathing on the Maiden Rocks. These seals are super cute and full of personality- I had a lot of fun watching their antics!
Other birds you can see on the Isle of May include Oystercatcher, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Great Skua, Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone, Redshank, Curlew, eider duck, Arctic tern, fulmar, razorbill, cormorant, and gannet.
If you’re very lucky you may even spot porpoise, dolphins and the odd whale.
>> Read more: 25 tips for sustainable travel in Scotland
When is the best time to visit the Isle of May
The best time to visit the Isle of May in Scotland really depends on what you want to see! The most popular months to visit are from May to August, however, ferries run to the island from April-September. If you’d like to see puffins on the Isle of May, May and June are the best months to visit.
How do you get to the Isle of May?
There are three companies that operate ferries to the Isle of May: Anstruther Pleasure Cruises, the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick, and the Osprey Anstruther ferry.
I sailed with Anstruther Pleasure Cruises because they are the most affordable option and their boat is the most well-equipped, seating up to 100 people, with a snack bar and toilets. There is also shelter on the boat so you can take cover should it rain on your trip to the island [it is Scotland after all!].
It costs £28 for a return adult ticket, and you spend 2-3 hours on the island. Overall, I had a fantastic experience with Anstruther Pleasure Cruises, and I highly recommend them.
You can also catch the ferry from the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick. This is a great option if you want to explore the Seabird Centre before or after your trip. This boat tour also takes you past Bass Rock, a steep volcanic rock island home to a colony of gannets.
>> Read more: A girls hiking weekend in the Scottish Highlands
I recommend this ferry if you’re staying in Edinburgh and would prefer not to drive to Anstruther- and if you’d also like to spend some time at the Seabird Centre. It costs £50 for a return adult ticket, and you spend 3 hours on the island.
The third option is the Osprey Anstruther ferry. It’s more of a speed boat rather than a ferry, and I imagine you’d get wet if the water was a bit rough. There isn’t any shelter on this boat- so I’d recommend booking with either of the two other options above, however, if the other two ferries are sold out- try this ferry.
How long should you spend on the island?
Allow 4-5 hours for a roundtrip to the Isle of May, plus the time it takes you drive to Anstruther or North Berwick to catch the ferry. Each of the ferry companies will usually give you 2-3 hours time to explore the island. I also recommend having a chippy for dinner after your trip, so factor time in for that too!
I love the Alandas chippy van in Longniddry and the famous Anstruther Fish Bar in Fife. Celebrities and royals have eaten at the latter.
What should you wear?
The Isle of May is one of the driest areas in Scotland, however, I still recommend you bring a waterproof shell as the weather is changeable. During my visit in August, I experienced a haar, rain and bright sunshine!
Take a warm jacket for the boat too. Even though I sat inside the boat where it was sheltered, as soon as the ferry started moving the wind was very cold. Wear sturdy shoes or, even better, hiking boots, and remember to wear sun block.
For more information on how to dress for Scotland, check out my handy packing guide.
My Isle of May itinerary
I’ve outlined the route I took on the map which you will see below. There is a lot to see on the Isle of May, however, I’ve highlighted the most interesting things to see on the island. There is a visitor centre with toilets near the ferry dock, and I recommend using the toilet before you start exploring the island. You should also be given a paper map of the island with your ferry ticket.
1] The Priory and Chapel
When you arrive on the island one of the first attractions you’ll see is the Priory. The 12th-century monastery, now a beautiful ruin, was built in memory of St. Adrian who was martyred on the Isle of May by Norsemen in 875. Recent archaeological excavation of the chapel discovered pottery, flint arrowheads and a piece of stone axe which might have been made around 2000BC during the Bronze Age. Close your eyes, and imagine the daily rituals of the monks that once lived here.
2] South Horn
After exploring the Priory, I recommend following the path to the south side of the island. If visiting in the summer you’ll walk through a sea of wildflowers to reach the South Horn. The horn would make a sound to alert incoming boats of the island’s whereabouts.
3] Angels Stack
If you continue following the path, you’ll see the impressive Angels Stack, which stands at just over 30 metres. I recommend finding a spot to have a picnic around here- it’s a fantastic location to do some bird watching.
4] The Beacon
The Beacon is Scotland’s oldest lighthouse. It now serves a historical purpose; the boxed white structure doesn’t look anything like a traditional lighthouse anymore, as it was reduced to the ground floor when it was replaced by the Robert Stevenson Lighthouse.
5] Main Lighthouse [Robert Stevenson Lighthouse]
I mentioned before that the Robert Stevenson Lighthouse was built to replace the Beacon. It was built after the Beacon failed to direct two Royal Navy boats that ended up being shipwrecked in 1810. The view from the Robert Stevenson Lighthouse stretches out across the Firth of Forth; just imagine being up there and watching the storm-tossed ships sailing by.
6] North Horn
The North Horn is located on Rona, the northern end of the Isle of May. This is a protected area used for research.
This means you cannot actually walk up to the North Horn, however, the view of the North Horn as you’re walking down the pathway is spectacular; the island unfolds in front of you, and it truly feels like you’re almost at the end of the world. There are also side paths you can wander down and explore.
7] Low Lighthouse
As you walk back to the ferry dock, you’ll pass the Low Lighthouse; a more traditional looking lighthouse than the Beacon and the Robert Stevenson Lighthouse.
Look out for rabbits darting across the trail on your way back to the ferry!
Before departing the island, be sure to spend some time at the visitor centre near the dock. There are some interesting information boards and views across the island and back towards the Lothians.
8] Mill Door
Located on the west coast is the Mill Door, a large natural arch. When you depart the island you may catch a glimpse of this impressive spectacle from the ferry.
>> Read more: 11 Hidden Gems in Scotland
My experience visiting the Isle of May
Overall, I had a fantastic experience with Anstruther Pleasure Cruises. There was only one dramatic incident [more on that shortly].
Anstruther Pleasure Cruises recommends that you arrive 45 minutes before your cruise time. This gives you plenty of time to find a parking space, pick up your tickets from the ticket office and find your seat onboard. My sailing time was 1pm, so I arrived at 12.15pm.
Anstruther was buzzing with people, even though it was a Wednesday!
I parked in the car park opposite the Scottish Fisheries Museum. It cost just £1.20 to park there for the whole day. The machine doesn’t give change, so make sure you bring the right amount!
The May Princess is moored next to the car park and the boat is pretty hard to miss. The ticket office is located on the pier just in front of the boat too. You are required to wear a mask into the ticket office; they currently aren’t handing out tickets due to Covid19- but you still need to check in so they know you’re there.
After checking in, I had a quick wander down the main street of Anstruther to use the public toilet before boarding the ferry. We were also required to wear a facemask onboard, however, once we had sailed for about 5 minutes we were allowed to take them off. I asked one of the crew members why that was- and he didn’t seem to know! Oh well.
>> Read more: My 2-Day Isle of Skye Itinerary
The ferry departs Anstruther and approaches the north side of the island first, and continues around the island clockwise to pull into the ferry port on the south-east side of the island. It takes around 45 minutes in total. You have the opportunity to spot birds swimming in the ocean and nesting in the cliffs; you’ll also sail past two of the lighthouses.
When I arrived there were a family of seals playing in the water- it was so funny to see, and it truly reinforced the stereotype that they’re the labradors of the sea!
After exploring the island, I made my way back to the ferry. The ferry continues around the island in a clockwise direction, and my jaw almost hit the ground looking up at the enormous and dramatic cliff-faces. They were spectacular- and it was incredible to see them from this angle; just a few hours before I had been walking above them.
Now- onto the drama. Shortly after we departed the island, the engine responsible for controlling the steering broke down! A crew member calmly explained the situation to us, and said they would have to steer us manually back to shore. He also said it was the second time in 8 years this had happened! Eventually, the engine started working again, and we made it safely back to shore.
More tips for visiting the Isle of May
- Book your tickets for the ferry in advance! Tickets can sell out one month in advance- so you definitely need to plan and book your adventure to the Isle of May at least 1-2 months before you plan to visit.
- Bring a pair of binoculars [I didn’t bring any, however the zoom lens on my camera came in super handy for spotting wildlife!]
- Bring some lunch [you cannot buy food on the island] and a blanket with you so you can have a nice wee picnic while looking out over the cliffs.
- Stick to the paths on the island. You wouldn’t want to step on a bird’s burrow with a chick or a tiny egg inside!
- Keep an eye on the time and set an alarm on your phone to remind you to get back to your boat before it leaves. It’s easy to get caught up in exploring the island, and you don’t want to swim back to shore!
Anstruther Pleasure Cruises: https://www.isleofmayferry.com/
North Berwick ferry: https://www.seabird.org/visit/boats/isle-of-may-landings/10/22/159
Osprey Anstruther: https://www.isleofmayboattrips.co.uk/
Isle of May blog: https://isleofmaynnr.wordpress.com/
Wildlife calendar: https://www.seabird.org/wildlife/wildlife-calendar/12/29
Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code: https://www.nature.scot/professional-advice/land-and-sea-management/managing-coasts-and-seas/scottish-marine-wildlife-watching-code
Scottish Outdoor Access Code: https://www.outdooraccess-scotland.scot/
Did my guide to visiting the Isle of Skye help you? Leave me a comment below and say hi!