I eventually move away from the edge of the cliff where the eyes wander from the flat top down the huge wall of basalt. Then that sick feeling of what it would be like to plunge into the sea makes the head giddy and the feet wish to be on less exposed ground.
I was sitting on rocks covered with yellow ochre lichen, carpets of sea campion cushioning my fall back to earth.
The most popular interpretation of Isle of May is the island of seagulls, from the Old Norse for seagull, Ma. Another theory looks to the Old English (also used in Lowland Scots) word for maiden, Maege. The rock formation on the southern end is called The Maidens or Maiden’s Hair. Therefore the name could be purely descriptive in terms of the geology.
However, some believe that it could have been called the maiden’s isle after Thenaw, St Kentigern’s mother. She is said to have floated to the island in an oarless coracle and was one of nine priestesses who lived here.
While the above etymology is generally resigned to folklore, the island was the site of one of the earliest Christian churches; founded in the 9th century it was built into an unusual mass-burial mound. Remains of Bronze Age funeral urns suggest the burial to be older than the 7th century bones found there.
During the later Middles Ages the island was already a focus for pilgrims as the relics of St Ethernan (d.669) were said to remain there. During the 12th century the church was expanded under David I of Scotland’s version of Reading Abbey which his brother-in-law, Henry I, had created specifically to pray for the ruling royals of the country, both past and present.
The remains of the priory have blended into the slope above Kettle Ness and The Pillow as if faded in time like the prayers for a king of Scotland who will never come. Although the priory moved to Pittenweem the island was sold to a lay person in 1549 and changed hands many times before the Northern Lighthouse Board took ownership.
The first coal-fired beacon was built in 1635 as part of the management of shipping, the owners charged a fee to enter the firth, which was equivalent to two pence sterling per ton and double for non-Scottish shipping.
Three men and 400 tons of coal were needed to keep the beacon alight each year. In January 1791, one of the lightkeepers, along with his wife and five of his six children were overcome by fumes and died. A three year-old girl was found alive three days after the tragedy.
The beacon was not always clear to those navigating at sea and, in 1814, when the lighthouse board purchased the island, one of Robert Stevenson’s proper lighthouses was sending out strong light onto the dark waters. I was surprised when I wandered up to this desolate and drab castellated building – a mixture of Gothic, Georgian and Victorian architectural styles, an unlikely combination compared to the classic yellow and white edifices.
Downhill from the fortified belvedere a more humble edifice is built lovingly into the eastern slopes of the island. From where whitewashed pillars begin, a small metal plaque is headed with the words Ghostly Footsteps. I read on, standing beside a mother and her son. The boy was most excited to tell me about how the path down to the little building is haunted by lighthouse keepers of the past still going through their routine.
The last section of path down to the Low Light is bound on both sides by a whitewashed stone wall. The pillars and the wall were kept white so that they were easier to see in the dark. The sun came out as I approached the small building nestled into the hill – irradiant, a ghostly remnant of light.
We sailed out that evening by the western cliffs. The silhouettes of Angel Rock and The Bishop were colossal against the cloud layer that was ripped open above the island – spiritual.