I felt like we were playing truant as we swept onto the silver suspension bridge, driving in a gentle wave over the glittering waters. There was enough light to gild the mid-morning as we drove north-east, travelling along motorways, bypasses and B roads, and slowing down through the villages in the old kingdom – a small plain church with modern stain glass windows, a dark Victorian façade being held up with steel girders.
Then, from Sauchar Point, we could see it - a sharp grey landmass adrift from the mainland, capped with a smooth, slightly concaved top. I took fleeting glances of it as I drove – we were so much nearer and the sea was so still – waiting, anticipating.
The villages became more attractive, celebrating their classical simplicity, the streets narrower. Buildings filling up that coveted place next to the sea, next to the great fishing industry, next to open space and the freshest of climates.
Anstruther, a landscape now taken over by commuters, purveyors and consumers of fish suppers, is still an aesthetic seaside holiday destination. Gift shops display maritime goods including lighthouse and boat ornaments, seabirds in the washed out tones of the beachhouse-style driftwood, shells and benches.
There is a way to escape the strolling and shopping and snacking, across that shimmering swell, that jewel cut from the crown – the Isle of May. When the tide comes in the May Princess leaves for this island.
The Isle of May lies 8km south-east of Anstruther in the Firth of Forth. Measuring only 2km in length and less than a kilometre at its widest point, this small isle has many historical and mythical associations. Owned by Scottish Natural Heritage, it is now best known for its colonies of breeding seabirds.
From central Scottish Borders it takes about two hours to drive to Anstruther and the boat journey lasts for just under an hour. The Taoists claim that the journey is the reward then it is remarkably true of this trip. To visit this basalt bastion is a pilgrimage. Whether you are interested in lighthouses, ornithology, geology, photography or Christian history, it does not matter, the experience will be spiritual regardless.
As the boat moved out into the swollen rise and fall of the firth, the orange-tiled roofs of the village were reduced to a narrow strip amid a huge expanse of gentle late summer sky and glinting swells of deep water. The island started to reveal the vertical bands of its granular cliff faces – architectural.
The chugging slowed, then stopped, as the passengers shifted positions to look at porpoises, puffins, pictured top of page, and a juvenile gannet. I moved away from the mass looking at the mammals and held up my binoculars to quietly watch the young gannet. He was exquisite; a dark charcoal with small flecks of white like jewels through his plumage.
I kept my glasses on him, he had the same sleek head and beak as his parents, but still looked like he was made of jet. Then he tried to take off from the wobbly surface of the rocking sea and he could not – so vulnerable in that heaving mass. We swung round North Ness to the east side of the island where the topography changed to green slopes that went down to meet low craggy shores. Through a narrow channel between jagged and stepped rock platforms the boat moved in to dock.
Stepping out onto the concrete jetty was strange, part of me wanted to be swaying on the deck, the child in me wanted to run, but I kept her calm. I looked at the seaweed in the shallows around the coastal fringes as the warden spoke to the group about toilets, safety, history and puffin burrows.
Then everyone dispersed in all directions. Why people choose particular routes I am not sure. We, Susan, Liz and I, headed to the highest ground first where we could look onto the huge guano splattered cliffs – monolithic.