Island Man Magazine
The following are reports of my visits to those Scottish islands that are below 40 hectares in size which I have slept on since completing the Strangeways. More islands will be added when time permits.
A series of three books will feature the account of my visits to the 162 Strangeways, which are 40 hectares and above. The first, “Island Man Naive Beginnings”, covers the first 42 islands and is available fromBook Sales on this website. The remaining 120 islands will be covered in two additional books which I hope to release in the foreseeable future.
Island Number – 166
Date Slept on - Wednesday 3rd September 2008
Location – Firth of Forth
Hectares - 6
As my boat arrived at its landing point I was more than surprised to see about ten people on the island walking down the small hill towards me. Because Craigleith is uninhabited with no dwellings of any kind, I was also amazed to see a rope ahead of me attached to the side of the rock, acting as a hand rail. The relevance of all this was soon to become apparent. In the meantime, having landed on Craigleith I watched the Braveheart depart and a RIB arrive to pick up and take the group off the island. Within a few minutes the sound of engines had disappeared and I was left alone.
Erecting a tent when it is starting to rain is not my idea of fun as the tent inner becomes wet before the outer can be put over it. Finally once inside, with all my kit set out, I crashed on top of my sleeping bag and watched the damp turn to steam and rise off my body. Not having slept well the night before, quickly I nodded off for half an hour, awakening before long to hear gulls calling out, a sure sign that the rain is easing and it is time to explore.
The chain of four islands near to North Berwick, Fidra, Lamb, Craigleith and Bass Rock are collectively known as the East Lothian Emeralds. Craigleith itself is only six hectares in size and so was not going to take a great deal of time to walk around. But spending a night on an island is not just about walking, it is about experiencing it and becoming aware of its soul. As I started my trek I became aware that this island was like no other. Craigleith is being attacked by the invasive tree mallow plant, which is also threatening the nesting puffin and other birds. Although the work party I had seen earlier today had managed to clear some areas, the vast majority of the island was still under assault from it.
Tree mallow itself can form a dense jungle growing to nearly three metres in height. It is almost impossible for humans, let alone nesting seabirds, to penetrate and is best described as shocking. Not native to north and east Britain, it was first introduced over 300 years ago to Bass Rock where its leaves were used as a poultice by the garrison for wounds and burns.
The plant did not reach Craigleith until 1960 but now it has smothered the puffin burrows and prevents nesting. By 2006 the herb almost completely covered the island and as a result the puffin population dropped dramatically from 30,000 nesting pairs to less than 5,000. Other species were also affected.
As the rain was now no more than a mist, slowly I made my way through the tree mallow infested island to its eastern tip. Here a remote controlled camera relays images back to the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick. But today instead of capturing feathered visitors it bagged a strange looking Yorkshireman in a green woolly hat! There are two such cameras on Craigleith and both are powered by solar panels.
The first person to become aware of the enormity of the tree mallow situation on Craigleith and do something about it was a lady called Maggie Sheddan. I have met many individuals across the Scottish islands who have managed to turn an island around almost single handedly; the one thing they all have in common is that they are extremely focused on the job in hand. When faced with a brick wall they don’t stop or walk around it, instead they take the most direct route and continue to walk straight through it. Scottish islands can be rugged, tough places and for change to come about people like Maggie are vital.
First recognising the immensity of the problem around 2003-04 whilst visiting Craigleith to carry out bird counts, on first seeing the tree mallow Maggie was as shocked as I was. It was quite obvious to her why puffin numbers were declining and also that this invasive plant was affecting fulmars, cormorants and seals.
Now, as we all know, judgment and perception are fine, but they don’t necessarily get things done. Turning knowledge into a practical solution is a very different matter. Although by 2005 scientific studies were starting to agree with Maggie’s first-hand experience, she recognized that resolving it didn’t actually need a degree. To her “When something is being studied, it means just that.” Using her strength of character Maggie took matters into her own hands. She started to tell her story, whilst acting as a guide accompanying trips from the Seabird Centre, in fact she was quite vocal about the problem. Slowly, the drip feed approach worked and eventually the story was picked up by the press and Channel 4. Thanks to Maggie even the Director of the programme assisted in organising a team to help clear part of the island. It was all a start in the right direction.
Next Maggie lobbied and convinced conservation organisations and Craigleith island owner, Sir Hew, that urgent action was required. This was when SOS Puffin was established in 2006. It was launched under the auspices of the Scottish Seabird Centre, which itself had opened in 2000.
To date SOS Puffin volunteers, who have offered their help whenever the weather permits outside the May to July breeding season, have cleared about three hectares (7.5 acres) of tree mallow. This follows thirty visits over the last eighteen months, spending up to five hours a day cutting the giant plant with loppers and shears.
Encouragingly, in 2007 they discovered that most of the old puffin burrows which had been cleared of mallow were being re-used by puffins, although it was too early to establish whether this represented a recovery of the population.
A detailed management plan has been put in place for Craigleith which suggests that it will take at least three more years work to bring the tree mallow under control. Evidentially, there is no likelihood of eradicating the plant completely but once it is reduced to a low level it should be possible to keep it as such with minimum effort. Ongoing, the main issue is the germination of dormant seeds which sprout once the growth has being cut away. This means that, once growth is removed, return visits will be required each year to keep on top of the situation.
One positive benefit of tree mallow is that eiders, who in 2008 had one of their highest counts on the island, are able to utilise the huge piles of decaying mallow cuttings for their nests. At least 120 plus breeding pairs were counted on Craigleith during 2008 and 40 breeding grey seals spotted on the island between the end of October 2007 and late December.
Having been dropped off around 4.00pm, by the time I had put my tent up, snoozed and walked around the island, night was closing in. As I walked past the second camera I could still see the piles of freshly cut tree mallow which the volunteers had cut that day on the slopes. Berwick was illuminated just a few minutes across the water, whilst beacons of light from the lighthouses on Bass Rock, Fidra and the Isle of May shone across an ever darkening sea.
Awakening next morning to glorious sunshine gave me one last opportunity to again savour an island which has lost so much yet still has such potential. The only island I can compare it with is Gruinard, where anthrax was tested in 1942. As I walked around Gruinard I felt that here was an island which had survived inspite of almost being killed and Craigleith with the right support can do the same. Already, thanks to a lot of hard work by its volunteers an encouraging start has been made in eradicating the tree mallow. However finally bringing it under control will require much more volunteer support for many years to come. Without doubt here is an island where collectively everyone can make a difference.
As I took down my tent and walked back down the slope to the landing place I acknowledged the part that the rope had played for the volunteers yesterday. Alas, as they had departed, they had taken it with them and so today I had to resort to the undignified yet tried and trusted Island Man technique, on my backside!
It was with mixed emotions that I said my goodbyes to Craigleith, when Braveheart arrived at 8.00am. Although currently the island does not possess a stereotypical wow factor it has so much potential.
Trips around the island
Braveheart – http://www.northberwickuk.com/info.php?id=34480&catid=401&f=NorthBerwick
Seafari – http://www.seafari.co.uk/forth/index.php
As a volunteer http://www.seabird.org/volunteering.asp
Scottish Seabird Centre – http://www.seabird.org/home.asp
SOS Puffin – http://www.seabird.org/sospuffin.asp
Photos – http://www.islandmanphotos.co.uk
Island Number - 163
Date Slept on - Saturday 19th July 2008
Location - Firth of Forth
Hectares - 9
After completing my journey to all the 162 Scottish islands that are 40 hectares and above, my eyes started to be drawn to the smaller ones. I had intended Rockall would be the first of such visits, but unfortunately it didn’t work out as planned.
With the exception of the Isle of May I hadn’t slept on any islands on the East coast, so this is where I decided to commence my journey. After first approaching Historic Scotland I was informed that Inchcolm, due to its archaeological remains, was classed as a scheduled monument. Fortunately, because of my previous experiences, we managed to reach a compromise which resulted in my being able to spend a night on the island, not in a tent as pegs could damage the remains, but instead in a bivvy bag.
My journey to the island started at Hawes pier, South Queensferry, which is located between the Forth Road and Rail Bridges; the most surreal departure point for any of my island visits yet. After boarding the Maid of Forth ferry, the Forth started to come to life, thanks to a superb onboard commentary and upon reaching the island, the collective professionalism of the crew and Ian, the caretaker on Inchcolm, made for an extremely smooth landing.
Being one of the last to disembark, I made my introductions to Ian and then walked across to the shop where I was able to meet his wife Christine and leave my 25 litre day pack. When you arrive on the island you become immediately aware how well maintained it is; all the grass around the Abbey is beautifully manicured.
In 1123 Alexander I, during a storm, was given shelter on the island by a hermit and in thanks for his hospitality he resolved to build a monastery. Unfortunately his untimely death the following year did not allow him to carry out his promise, which was left to his successor David I, his younger brother.
Firstly established as a priory for the Augustinian canons, the monastery was elevated to full abbey status in 1235. But in 1296 the peace of the island was disturbed by the wars with England and in 1560 the abbey’s existence as a religious institution ended with the Reformation.
Historic Scotland has decided not to renovate the buildings on Inchcolm and recreate a perfect replica but instead consolidate them in their existing state. They have also done this to great effect on islands like Eynhallow, Orkney and Inchkenneth, Mull. In all these locations they have managed to achieve a balance between making the buildings safe for visitors whilst at the same time preserving the soul of the structures and in this they should be commended.
As soon as I arrived on Inchcolm I was aware of its energy, the very essence of the island. This I feel is extremely rare for an island which is so regularly frequented by visitors and is generally something I only experience on those more difficult to access islands.
Walking towards the western end of the island across well managed paths I couldn’t fail to become aware of the island’s Lesser Black Back Gulls, which number around 8,000, and whose call I was to later learn is constant at night. On such a small island it is amazing that so many birds exist considering that amongst its other residents there are also Black Rats. The Shiants are the only other Scottish island with Black Rats and there too the ground nesting birds don’t seem to be too adversely affected by them.
Inchcolm does not possess mains electric this, as with so many other islands, is supplied by generator. Once the last visitors for the day had departed, my wife Ruth included, just the three of us remained on the island and, after discussing where I was to sleep, we didn’t see each other again that night. As I started my exploration of Inchcolm alone in the glorious sunshine I realised how fortunate I was.
Some call Inchcolm the Iona of the East and although it is less visited, with fewer than 20,000 visits each year, and smaller than Iona, the comparison is truest amongst its delightful cloisters which are the most atmospheric part of the whole island. From them, taking the exceedingly steep steps to the top of the Bell Tower is not for the faint hearted but once there you are rewarded with breathtaking views of the island, from which you can also see to the west the Forth Bridges, to the east Bass Rock and southwards the big city of Edinburgh.
The Refectory where the abbots used to dine is now used for weddings; this must be a delightful setting to be married. Sitting alone on the floor in such a room and watching light shine through the windows gives you a dramatic feel for the past religious life here on Inchcolm.
To the rear of the Abbey are further well maintained grounds which adjoin the caretakers’ house and gardens and to the side lies what is thought to be the Hermit’s Cell. As I sat quietly inside it, looking at the beautiful flowers around the doorway, listening to the call of gulls in the distance, the aesthetic within me started to contemplate the idea of a winter retreat in such a location; something for another day perhaps on another island.
The Chapter House, which occasionally hosts musical performances, dates from the 13th century and was the meeting place and business room for the whole community. It is a small room hexagonal in design with fantastic architectural features throughout.
Interestingly, the island served as a quarantine station for the Forth in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and played a major role during the First World War. Evidence of this can be seen to the east of the island. In 1914 the Forth became one of the most heavily defended estuaries in the U.K. In the early stages of the war, Inchcolm was armed with eight quick firing 12-pounder Navel guns, which were later replaced by two 6-inch breech loaders four 4-inch quick firers and four 4.7-inch quick firers. A brick tunnel on the island, constructed by the 576 Cornwall Works Company, Royal Engineers in 1916-17, meant that the troops were able to get from their quarters to the guns safely without fear of being attacked. During the Second World War the island was refortified and searchlights and further weaponry added. A garrison of 500 initially had to be billeted in the Abbey, with their officers in the Chapter House, until more permanent buildings could be built.
I finally rolled my sleeping bag out inside my bivvy bag around 10.30pm and fell asleep for a few hours. It was interesting to observe that darkness never truly descends on the small island. However, at 1.45am I couldn’t resist the urge to experience it at night time, going back to my bed for only 30 minutes before finally arising at 3.00am to watch the day break.
As I was sitting enjoying this wonderful picture postcard scene, the hospitality of Historic Scotland and its caretakers went beyond the call of duty as Ian appeared with a mug of black coffee and the best toast I’ve ever eaten. This I devoured whilst watching the numerous birds amongst the rock pools at low tide. Eventually, feeling so relaxed in the early morning sun, I lay down on the grass and fell asleep for a while after which it was time to pack my small daypack and await the arrival of some more visitors, including Ruth, on the first ferry of the day.
Of the 163 islands I have now slept on, Inchcolm is definitely in my top ten. I was fortunate because of my previous experience to be given such rare permission to spend the night there and I am aware that for others their visit will only be for a few precious hours. However, with Inchcolm being so accessible and so close to Edinburgh it is a must see island for 2009. Try and get there before the crowds.
Maid of the Forth - http://www.maidoftheforth.co.uk/
Photos – http://www.islandmanphotos.co.uk/inchcolm.html
Island Number - 167
Date Slept on – Tuesday 17th February 2009
Location - Firth of Forth
Hectares – 1.2
Having previously slept on Fidra, Craigleith and Inchcolm in 2008, as well as Isle of May in 2007, I received the news that Uri Geller had bought Lamb with great interest.
For a detailed explanation of the collective relevance of these islands please read the following article by Jeff Nisbet http://www.mythomorph.com/mm/content/2004/0215the_pyramids_of_scotland.php
It was on Sunday 15th February that I first heard of Uri’s purchase and from that point things moved quickly. Contact was made with Uri and Jeff and the weather situation discussed with Dougie the boatman. I was fortunate for the time of year to have ideal landings conditions. My car was packed and instructions in how to operate the video aspect of my camera received. With Uri’s blessing to spend a night on his island, I departed Yorkshire at 2.00am on the Tuesday morning after only three hours sleep, although arriving in North Berwick 220 miles further north just before day break did allow me an extra hour of sleep in the car.
Before leaving home I had been contacted by the Scottish Seabird Centre (S.S.C.) asking if I would cut back the Tree Mallow on the island during my stay. With Uri’s agreement I readily agreed.
At 9.00am I meet with Dougie and together with John from the S.S.C. we leave the harbour on an idyllic February morning. As we draw near to the island its’ beauty quickly unfolds; the only word capable of coming out of my lips “wow” is repeated many times! As you approach from the East you are greeted by sheer cliffs, in front of which stand the North and South Dogs, two almost adjoining skerries on the west of Lamb. I am surprised to see the island is of basalt column, the same rock which forms Fingal’s Cave on Staffa. On the top of the cliff I can make out a small patch of tree mallow, to the north end of the island a small amount of grass whilst across the sea, towards the west, the lighthouse of Fidra is still casting its beam across the Firth of Forth.
My landing is achieved on the south-west tip from where the ascent to the top is relatively easy. Here the basalt column creates a natural staircase to the grass covered plateau. As Lamb is only 1.2 hectares in size it doesn’t take too long to work out the most suitable camp site; I can’t resist setting up on the exposed summit. Although the wind is strong, the Gulls compete with great success to be heard above it.
Similar to the tops of other Firth of Forth islands, the summit of Lamb has an unevenness to it. The grass is long and folded over, in between which the land drops away. This creates tufts and with it holes underneath your tent floor. Erecting my tent onto ground fully covered by bird guano and taking a direct overhead hit in the process, means that by the time camp is fully set my freshly laundered clothes have become a distant memory. Fortunately the first of three separate incidents on the island, a broken tent pole, is at least quickly repaired.
Although not in the same numbers as those on Inchcolm, the sound of the Gulls remains constant for most of the morning. As I sit on a rock outside my tent with the tree mallow that requires cutting to my rear, the view is spectacular. The rich blue sea is calm and flat and beyond it, to my east lies Craigleith and Bass Rock, to the north-east on the horizon Isle of May and over to the north-west I can see Fidra.
Lamb commands a fantastic panoramic view of the Eastern Forth; after being on the other four islands, I would say the best. Overhead the grey sky is starting to dissolve to make way for blue up above, whilst on the horizon different shades of orange and pink drizzle into the sea below. Despite the constant wind this morning, all around me on the island lie numerous birds’ feathers.
Any point on the island can be strolled to in minutes and so a quick overview is easily grasped. As I look over the eastern cliffs to the two Dogs below, although comparisons can be made with the basalt on the Shiants I realise that Lamb is most certainly not overshadowed by other better known islands. Definitely the view of the basalt from above the Dogs is more impressive than that which I saw on the Shiants. In many ways Lamb is a representation of many Scottish islands in miniature with similarities to Shiants, Inchcolm, Ailsa Craig, Borerary (St Kilda) and the Calf of Eday.
Whilst setting up camp, I have left just above the landing place, a pair of loppers, shears, an ice pick and my spare water. Now many may find it hard to believe on such a small island, but upon going back to pick them up I can’t find them. I know my sense of direction is none existent, but all I can think of are the warnings given to me of UFO activity in the area. So, the only answer is to call Dougie and ask him where I’ve been dropped off. Yes, you’ve guessed it. I am looking in the wrong place. Incident number two! Is it the result of UFO activity? All I can say is that only on one other island have I had difficulty in finding my equipment and that was in high heather.
Looking back up to the summit from the lower ground, the sun, now sitting above the grey clouds, is projecting vertical purple columns upon this most perfect of islands and patches of chickweed are growing on the fertile ground in between the rocks. On the south of the island lies a small natural harbor, only suitable for small craft in perfect conditions. After cutting a little tree mallow I can quickly see that it is a job best done with two people but within a short period of time a modest inroad is made until, owing to the overnight journey, a couple of hours sleep are required.
Lying down on my sleeping bag I feel my head being tapped from behind the inner door of my tent and yet nothing is there. Incident number three on Lamb! Before I departed Yorkshire I had become aware of the number three and its particular relevance to Lamb. For me this is becoming an ever extending list.
Walking over to the south-west of the island above the harbour I can see the remains of a cormorant colony; at the last count there were 73 nests on this island. Going from the natural basalt staircase above the harbour I notice a small path. It reminds me of the rail track on Ailsa Craig and even on such a narrow ledge the tree mallow is able to grow. On Craigleith and Fidra the volume of the plant when cut requires it to be piled up, but here on Lamb the problem is not so great so it is left where it falls to die away. It will need cutting every six months until no seeds are successful in germinating. On this occasion, as requested by Uri, I leave a small amount of the plant. It is indeed a sad sight to see, an inaccessible puffin burrow, whilst cutting away the thickest part of the mallow. Without cutting it back the puffins won’t be able to access the burrows; quite a sobering thought on this beautiful February afternoon. Currently there are 51 puffins on Lamb in the season.
As the afternoon starts to turn into evening, walking down the small valley on the north-west I become aware that the island is cooling. At the foot of the valley lie two small puddles, to call them lochs would be an overstatement. From these puddles a minor stream runs into the sea.
Lamb is the first island where I have taken video footage; it helps to show the true awe-inspiring rugged beauty of such an island. Whenever I spend time on Scottish islands it is nearly always the smaller more rugged islands which draw me. I think it is the fact that others never visit them and by this very nature they are unaffected by humans. Here I find myself on the smallest island that I have ever slept on and the energy, the soul of the island is of a pureness that I have never previously experienced.
Before I crack open the traditional bottle of whisky I feel it fitting to raise my Yorkshire flag atop of my tent. I am only half an hour away from the Scottish capital and raising possibly the first ever flag over this Scottish island. But at the heart of the Yorkshire flag is the white rose, the flower of peace, so is there any better symbol to appear above such a pure island as Lamb?
The sea is still baring the slightest of ripples as my whisky finds a welcome home, I watch in awe whilst the grey clouds lift and a breath taking sunset appears beyond Fidra. As the darkness falls the Fidra lighthouse shines across the water and North Berwick is fully lit, although here on Lamb all is in pure darkness. Contented by the warmth of the whisky inside me, I lie down upon the grass and inhale the darkness of the night on this oasis of the Forth. Upon this still and bitingly cold night on Lamb I find myself at one with nature, the island and perhaps that which is greater.
By 22.00 my eyes are red with the cold and it is time to sleep.
I awaken to the sound of two to three hundred cooing Guillemots on the cliff just feet away from my tent. Although it is too early for them to nest they have come onto the island during the night to roost. I am so fortunate to be able to observe them at relatively close quarters for around an hour until the day finally fully breaks, just after eight, and the last one flies back out to sea. In the season it is estimated that there are 2,900 Guillemots on Lamb.
The Guillemots are not my only surprise this morning. Arriving with the high tide a two-foot swell has appeared from nowhere, bringing with it crashing waves which pound onto the North and the South Dogs. To see the island in beautiful sunshine is wonderful but for me the wilder an island becomes the more its’ soul engulfs me. My dream is to one day spend time in winter on one or two of the more exposed islands and to feel the awe-inspiring power of the island’s soul in such extreme conditions.
Overnight the tree mallow that I cut yesterday is starting to die off; I’d be interested to see how quickly it grows back again. Once my tent is taken down, the cut tree mallow is all that remains of my visit to Lamb and that is how it should be.
Owing to the swell, I have ten minutes to get my kit from the south-west to the north side of the island in an attempt to get a little shelter so the boat can get in near enough to take me off. In these situations the boat gets within a couple of feet, I leap across and then we are away.
As I am greeted back onto the boat by Dougie and Maggie it is sad to say goodbye to Lamb. When I arrived here it was all wows but as I leave it I know my soul had been touched by a fantastic island, a pure land. I may have been the first person ever to spend a night on the island but I am sure I will not be the last.
Without doubt Lamb is in my top 20 islands and per inch it is the best. Uri has spent well. On leaving it I know Lamb has changed me.
What do I think of Jeff’s theory? I am afraid that much of what he discusses is beyond me. I am an expert in my own experience only, although I do think we should consider the number three and Lamb.
- There are 3 Pyramids
- There are 3 Islands – Lamb, Craigleith and Lamb
- Orion - has 3 stars
- Three lighthouses could be seen from Lamb – Isle of May, Bass Rock and Fidra
- The date I slept on 17th February 2009 if you add the numbers together you get 3. 1+7 + 2 +2+009 = 21 = 2+1 =3
- It was the third of the three islands, Fidra, Craigleith and Lamb that I have slept on
- On the outward boat there were three people on board
- On the inward boat there were three people on board
- I had three incidents on the island – Lost kit, broken pole and a bang on the head
- There were three possible firsts for Lamb – to sleep on the island, to raise a flag on the island and to get drunk on the island
I would like to thank Uri for giving me his blessing to spend a night on his island and to Jeff for sharing his knowledge of the spiritual importance of the island. I feel Lamb has being a turning point in my island journey as it has brought home to me how much I have underestimated the spiritual importance islands have for me and yet this is something I have so far relatively ignored.
Uri is blessed to own the island. Unlike the previous owner I hope he manages to visit Lamb. When he does I recommend he spends at least a night on it; I am most certainly available to carry his bags.
What a fantastic island.
A pure land.
Trips around the island - landing is only possible to avoid disturbing nesting seabirds from mid August to mid March.
Braveheart – http://www.northberwickuk.com/info.php?id=34480&catid=401&f=NorthBerwick
Photos – www.islandmanphotos.co.uk
Uri Geller - http://site.uri-geller.com/why_i_bought_lamb_island
Jeff Nisbit - http://www.mythomorph.com/mm/content/2004/0215the_pyramids_of_scotland.php