Day Tripper to the May

Karen Thorburn

The summer of 2018 was long, hot and record-breaking, yet I spent most of it stuck indoors catching up on a huge backlog of work. I can’t help but feel that I’m entitled to a heat wave again this year, now that I’m in a position to enjoy it. So far, however, the season isn’t living up to expectations. The solstice is almost upon us, yet I find myself waiting for summer to begin. The winter months are long and arduous here in the north east Highlands. Consequently, there is a certain amount of pressure to make the most of the warmer temperatures and longer hours of daylight at the current time of year.

Each morning, as I open the curtains to reveal another wet, windy or overcast scene, I find my energy levels and motivation seeping away. My rain-splattered picnic table looks somewhat forlorn on my patio and my new caravan, my latest whim, parked in the driveway, begs to be towed away somewhere a little more exotic. The central heating and wood burner are still in occasional use, and I’ve yet to replace the winter jackets on the coat pegs with summer attire. Nostalgic as ever, I’m looking into the past to find some inspiration in the hope of making a few special memories this summer, even with a golf umbrella welded to my hand and welly boots on my feet.

Crail Harbour, Fife, 1995

Holidays were a huge part of my upbringing. My parents, brother and I enjoyed long caravan trips throughout Scotland; not to mention numerous weekend jaunts closer to home, around Perthshire, Angus and Fife. I loved being able to detach myself from school and, in a world without mobile phones and social media, there were no intrusions into family life. As I continue with a personal project to digitise all of my childhood photographs while the rain hammers on the roof of my study, I look back on those days through rose-tinted spectacles, dismissing the swarms of midges, dodgy toilet blocks and occasional arguments; remembering only the comfort of belonging to a close family; the sense of adventure on long walks and bike rides on summer days; and the fun of playing cards around the caravan table in the evenings, or hitting the games room after dark.

In reality, as an adult, holidays can be a significant source of stress: packing everything from sunscreen to thermal base layers for a Scottish sojourn; arranging care for furry friends; preparing to shut down the laptop for a week; haemorrhaging hard-earned cash; and returning home to a mountain of laundry and emails. Changing circumstances over the past few years have led to my husband and I taking infrequent holidays. Perhaps I have less stress to contend with as a result, but I certainly have fewer milestones to look forward to. Day trips have become more important than ever, but as I wait for a break in the weather on my days off, I find myself grounded, week after week.

I catch myself thinking back to another summer four years ago that had a disappointing start, characterised by winter woollies, an empty calendar and the same sense of longing. After weeks of feeling sorry for myself, I finally planned a day trip, struck lucky with the weather and made some memories to last a lifetime.

The Isle of May

Despite living within a 40-mile radius of the East Neuk of Fife before re-locating to the Highlands, the Isle of May eluded me until 2015. When I think of Fife, I picture large expanses of rolling fertile farmland; the enticing summits of the Lomond Hills and Largo Law; the post-industrial townscapes of Leven and Methil; the commanding road and rail bridges at Wormit and North Queensferry, linking the peninsula to Dundee in one direction, and Edinburgh in the other; and quaint fishing villages with red pantile roofs in the East Neuk. I tend not to conjure up images of an island that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Outer Hebrides. Perhaps that’s why I overlooked the Isle of May for so long; it simply didn’t fit with my associations with Fife.

Sea cliffs

Desperate for an adventure, I booked myself a seat on the passenger ferry, and embarked on the hour-long crossing from the fishing town of Anstruther to ‘the May’, as it’s known locally. As the ferry cruised out of the harbour, I sat on deck with my camera and binoculars, lapping up some much-needed Vitamin D and salt air. Ahead, the Isle of May seemed to emerge from the Forth estuary like a whale breaching the water surface. As we drew nearer, basalt cliffs rose vertically from the sea; every conceivable space occupied by squawking seabirds on their nests; razorbills, kittiwakes, guillemots, fulmars and shags. I was momentarily reminded of urban living, surrounded by strangers going about their daily business.

Razorbill, Isle of May

Once ashore, I explored the island’s extensive lighthouse infrastructure. The oldest lighthouse in Scotland, the Beacon, was lit on the Isle of May in 1636. It comprised a coal fire contained in a metal basket, mounted on a stone tower. The remains survive to this day but are somewhat overshadowed by the grand and ornate Main Light, built by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of author Robert Louis, in 1816. Its installation was accompanied by two fog horns at either end of the island, which were operational until 1989, the year the Main Light was automated. A more modest lighthouse, the Low Light, was constructed in 1843 to help sailors navigate around the treacherous North Carr Rock near Fife Ness. It became redundant later in the nineteenth century before its conversion to a bird observatory – the first in Scotland – in the 1930s.

A puffin on the island

Despite the presence of the lighthouses and other buildings, a real sense of peace and remoteness can be found on the Isle of May. Outward views to the distinctive profiles of Edinburgh and the Pentland Hills beyond seem somehow ‘out of sync’ with the wild character of this island. Rabbits munch lazily on the grass while families of eider duck wander by, and clouds of puffins fill the air. The ‘nine to five’ slog is meaningless in a place like this, where time is measured by the sun, tide and the arrival and departure of the day boats. On the return crossing to the mainland, I felt as though I’d spent a week on the Hebrides – not just a few hours ashore on the Isle of May, a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of the Central Belt – without all the hassle and expense of a full-blown holiday.

The Main and Low Lighthouses

Time seems to slow down with a side-step from the daily routine and I’m always surprised by how much can be accomplished on a day off when I put my mind to it. With my ‘out of office’ reply switched on and my phone muted, I can relax, reap the rewards of physical exercise and free up my mind to be creative. Maybe I’ll stop waiting for a decent weather forecast to overlap with a convenient gap in my calendar this summer and, instead, just go for it; roll the dice, make some plans and create some memories, even if it is unseasonably cold and damp. It doesn’t even need to be a day trip; perhaps just a short walk or a picnic will help me to beat the blues before I get my new caravan up and running.

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