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A Magical Day Trip to the Isle of May in Scotland

A Magical Day Trip to the Isle of May in Scotland

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The Isle of May in Scotland is one of the easiest islands to visit off the East Coast. The Isle of May is a national nature reserve, and in the spring and summer months, it’s thriving with sea birds who return to breed. A visit to this island can also be easily achieved in a day, either 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 into their nests in the pockets of the islands’ 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 regardless.

In this 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.

Did you know that we provide private driving tours in Scotland? We can organise a day trip from Edinburgh to the Isle of May for you! Visit our website Kiwi and Haggis Tours for more information.

Approaching the Isle of May

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 Anstruther in Fife, on the edge of the Firth of Forth. The island is just 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 NatureScot, and is a national nature reserve. It’s one of the most accessible islands to reach from Edinburgh.

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 July. 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 off the West Coast of Scotland. They make their nests on the island from late April to early August.

staffa puffins scotland

The comical puffin!

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 porpoises, dolphins or 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 to 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 Isle of May Boat Trips

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’s also the best option for kids; under 3’s are free, and it’s £18 for children 3-15 to sail.

It costs £38 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 girl’s 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 £60 for a return adult ticket, and you spend 3 hours on the island. This is another good option for kids (age restriction 7+).

The third option is the Isle of May Boat Trips. 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. Children over 5 can do this tour.

The May Princess ferry that departs Anstruther

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 catch the train to North Berwick to catch the ferry. Each of the ferry companies will usually give you 2-3 hours to explore the island. I also recommend having fish and chips 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 sunblock.

For more information on how to dress for Scotland, check out my handy packing guide.

lighthouses seen through a haar on the isle of may

A haar descends over the Isle of May

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.  

The church ruin on the Isle of May, surrounded by gorse

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. 

a haar descends over the isle of may

The jagged rocks on the south side of the island

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 were 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.

robert stevenson lighthouse on the isle of may scotland

The Robert Stevenson Lighthouse

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 walk up to the North Horn, however, the view of the North Horn as you’re walking down the pathway is spectacular; the island unfurls in front of you, and it truly feels like you’re at the end of the world. There are also side paths you can wander down and explore. 

The North Horn in the distance

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.

The Low Lighthouse

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: 20 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 1 pm, so I arrived at 12.15 pm.

Anstruther was buzzing with people, even though it was a Wednesday!

I parked in the car park opposite the Scottish Fisheries Museum. It costs just £1.20 to park there for the whole day (prices may have changed since my visit). 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.

After checking in, I quickly wandered down the main street of Anstruther to use the public toilet before boarding the ferry.

>> 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.

Watch my Isle of May vlog

I 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. I was wearing a face mask because this was filmed in 2021.

More tips for visiting the Isle of May

  • Book your tickets for the ferry in advance! Tickets can sell out months in advance- so you 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!

Helpful links

Here are some helpful links that will help you learn more about the Isle of May:

Did my guide to visiting the Isle of Skye help you? Leave me a comment below and say hi!

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Emilie

Saturday 7th of May 2022

Hi! I'm planning a trip to Scotland this summer and this was really helpful for me. I'm gonna be staying two nights in Fife, probably St Andrews and now I'm thinking of going to Isle of May. :)