The darling puffins of May! Exploring one of the largest UK seabird colonies in the Scottish Isles
- In the summer the Isle of May is home to ore than 46,000 pairs of puffins
- Janey Swanson visited the Seabird Centre to take part in their conservation
- She learned about the creatures and the small island’s maritime history
A puffling sits in the palm of my hand, preparing to jump into the sea. I feel like a parent on the first day of school.
We are on the return leg of a Scottish Seabird Centre boat trip to the Isle of May (population four), reached by a 30-minute boat ride from the village of North Berwick, 25 miles from Edinburgh, on the east coast of Scotland.
Pufflings – baby puffins – leave their family’s cosy underground burrow when they’re six weeks old and go it alone. Their first journey involves dodging gulls, and avoiding falling over cliffs or getting trapped in ditches.
Long journey ahead: A puffling will emerge from its families’ burrow at six weeks old
The island is home to more than a quarter of a million seabirds during the summer months, including 46,000 pairs of puffins.
It’s a National Nature Reserve and one of the UK’s largest puffin colonies.
There are puffins everywhere. The birds are chatting to each other on grassy tussocks, waddling across hillsides, flying in and out of burrows and swooping low overhead with beaks full of sandeels.
Visitors must stay on the network of paths to avoid stepping on an arctic tern’s nest, trampling a puffin’s underground burrow or – as I do – wandering into a greater black backed gull’s territory and being divebombed by a protective mum.
The Isle of May is a National Nature Reserve and one of the UK’s largest puffin colonies
Our guide James’s tour of the island – just over a mile long and 500 yards wide – includes Scotland’s oldest lighthouse, The Beacon: the scene of a tragedy.
On a stormy night in 1791, poisonous fumes from the ash pile produced by the burning coals which provided the lighthouse with its light seeped into the bedroom where lighthouse keeper George Anderson, his wife and their six children were sleeping.
The only survivor was Lucy Anderson, barely a year old. Baby Lucy was taken back to the mainland where, 20 years later, she married one of her rescuers.
Scotland’s oldest lightest lighthouse, the Beacon, still stands on the cliffs of May
As we return to the harbour, James spots a puffling stuck in a ditch and announces that we are to launch a rescue mission of our own, which involves taking him out to sea where he’ll learn to swim, fish and fly.
‘He’s a feisty one,’ says James as the puffling leaps into the water and dives under the waves.
Will he make it? Along with the 11 others on the tour, I hold my breath until the puffling resurfaces and paddles off, without giving his rescuers a second glance.
The Scottish Seabird Centre’s boat trips to the Isle of May run from April to autumn, subject to the weather, and cost £48 (adult), £41 (child, age 7+ only).