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Guide to the East Neuk of Fife
The Isle of May

“Prolific May, whose everburning lamp
Through dang’rous seas, between approaching coasts,
‘Mid hidden scares, unseen, and broken rocks,
In pitch of night, directs the doubtful path
Of fearless mariner.’

Extent.—This Guide would be incomplete if it did not contain a chapter on the Isle of May—although its nearest point is five miles from the Harbour of Crail—since it is historically and otherwise so intimately associated with the East of Fife. The extreme length of the island is only a mile and a sixth, its greatest breadth is a quarter of a mile, and it contains little more than 140 acres, of which a tenth is fore-shore; yet many memories of no common kind cluster around it.

Name.—In the first part of his History of Fife, Sibbald says that the May “in the ancient Gothic signifieth a green island;“ but, in the second part, he says that “the word Maia seemeth to have some affinity with Moeotoe, the name of some tribes of the Picts, who at the Romans their first coming to the north parts of Britain, lived besouth the Scots wall, which ran betwixt the Firths of Forth and Clyde, as Dion, in the life of Severus telleth us; and it is very probable that a colony of these people first took possession of it, and gave it the name Maia.”

The Earliest Reference to the Isle of May is found in a fragment of the Life of Kentigern. It is there stated that the saint’s mother, Thaney, was, by the order of her father, King Leudonus, placed into a boat made of hides, carried out into deep water beyond the Isle of May, and there abandoned. She was put in the coracle at “the mouth of a river which is called Aberlessic [now Aberlady], that is, the Mouth of Stench, for at that time there was such a quantity of fish caught there that it was a fatigue to men to carry off the multitude of fish cast from the boats upon the sand, and so great putre­faction arose from the fish which were left on the shore, where the sand was bound together with blood, that a smell of detestable nature used to drive away quickly those who approached the place.” But the fish all followed Thaney and her boat to the place where she was abandoned, and there they remained—so, at least, Kentigern’s unknown biographer says. He adds that “from that time until now the fish are found there in such great abundance, that from every shore of the sea, from England, Scotland, and even from Belgium and France, very many fishermen come for the sake of fishing, all of whom the Isle of May conveniently accomodateth in her ports.”

Adrian.—The next notice of the May is by Wyntoun, who, in his Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, says that :—

“Saynt Adriane wyth hys cumpany
Come off the land of Hyrkany,
And arrywyd in to Fyffe,
Quhare that thai chesyd to led thar lyff.
At the king than askyd thai
Leve to preche the Crystyn fay.
That he grantyd wyth gud will,
And thaire lykyng to fuiflule,
And (leif) to duehl in to his land,
Quhare thai couth chea it mayst plesand.
Than Adriane wyth hys cumpany
Togydder come tyl Caplawchy.
Thare sum in to the lie off May
Chesyd to byde to thare enday.
And sum off thame chesyd be northe
In steddis sere the Wattyr off Forth.”

Alas ! poor Adrian and his company were not allowed to preach the Christian faith in peace. The heathen Danes quickly slew the leader and many of his followers. Wyntoun thus describes the tragedy

“Hwb, Haldane, and Hyngare
Off Denmark this tyme cummyn ware
In Scotland wyth gret multitude,
And wyth thare powere it oure-ghude.
In hethynnes all lyvyd thai;
And in dispyte off Crystyn fay
In to the land thai siwe mony,
And put to dede by martyry.
And apon Haly Thurysday
Saynt Adriane thai siwe in May,
Wyth mony off hys cumpany:
In to that haly Isle thai ly.”

In some of the lists of the Bishops of St Andrews, Adrian is put as the first. His martyrdom is said to have taken place in 875; and Thaney’s adventure fully three centuries and a-half earlier.

Monastery Founded.—It was probably because of its association with Adrian, that King David the First founded a monastery on the Isle of May, “before the middle of the twelfth century, which he forthwith granted to the Benedictine Abbey of Reading in Berkshire, recently founded by his brother-in-law, Henry Beauclerc.” The monks of Reading were bound by the charter of donation to maintain nine priests on the May to pray for David’s soul, and the souls of his predecessors and successors, the Kings of Scotland. Not long afterwards, Swein Asleif wasted the island and plundered the monastery; but it was greatly enriched by David, Malcolm the Maiden, William the Lion, and Alexander the Second. Among other gifts, David granted to the Abbey of Reading the viii of Rindaigros, occupy­ing the angle where the Tay is joined by the Earn, and there a religious house was also established. Malcolm the Fourth commanded all good men who fished round the May, to pay their tithes to the monks as in the time of his grandfather. William the Lion prohibited all from fishing in their waters without their leave; and “granted them fourpence from all ships having four hawsers coming to the ports of Pittenweem and Anstru­ther for the sake of fishing or selling fish, and in like manner .of boats with fixed helms.”

Recovered from the English. —For fully a cen­tury, the monks of Reading retained possession of the Priory of May. But it is said that Alexander the Third was anxious to recover the island from the hands of the English aliens, as they could use it for spying out the weak parts of the country. And so, Bishop Wishart of St Andrews bought it, in or about 1269, from one of the Abbots of Reading, and paid to him 1100 merks of the price. One of the Abbot’s suc­cessors, however, being dissatisfied with the bargain, tried to overturn it. He sent two representatives to Baliol’s Parliament at Scone, in 1292, to claim possession of the Priory, or to get the rest of the price. The Bishop of St Andrews appealed the case to Rome, and the two attornies appealed to King Edward as Lord Superior of Scotland. That King, ever on the watch in his designs on the independence of Scotland, cited Baliol four diffe­rent times to appear before him. The dispute, with others of more importance, was finally settled at Bannock­burn. All the rights to the Priory of May were trans­ferred to the Canons of St Andrews in 1318. “In this deed,” says Dr John Stuart, in his Preface to the Records of the Priory of the Isle of May, “we find the Priory styled as that of ‘May and Pittenweem;’ and in later documents it is frequently designated as that of ‘Pitten­weem, otherwise Isle of May,’ or ‘Isle of St Adrian of May,’ and at times as that of Pittenweem alone. This has led several writers to suppose that originally there were two distinct priories, one of May and another of Pittenweem, and that the latter was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The explanation seems to be, that the monks of May had, from the first, erected an establishment of some sort on their manor of Pittenweem, on the mainland of Fife, which, after the Priory was des-severed from the house of Reading and annexed to that of St Andrews, became their chief seat, and that there­after the monastery on the island was deserted in favour of Pittenweem, which was less exposed to the incursions of the English, nearer to their superior house at St Andrews, and could he reached without the necessity of a precarious passage by sea.” Mr David Cook, in Fifiana, contests Dr Stuart’s opinion; but, it seems to me, that he has done so unsuccessfully. The outline of the later history of the Priory is continued under Pittenweem.

Alienation.—In 1549, the Prior of Pittenweem feued the Isle of May to Patrick Learmonth of Dairsie, Provost of St Andrews; and the deed of conveyance, containing an epitome of the history of the Priory, has been printed by Dr Stuart. “The Prior alleges as motives for the alienation of the island, its insular situation, at a distance from himself, yielding little or no revenue, and that on the outbreak of hostilities the place was wont to be seized by the enemy, and was thus rendered a sterile and useless possession of the monastery. He therefore granted the island—which he describes as now waste, and spoiled by rabbits from which the principal revenue used to accrue, but of which the warrens were now completely destroyed, and the place ruined by the English—together with the right of patronage of the church on the island, and of presenting a chaplain to continue divine service therein, out of reverence for the relics and sepulchres of the saints resting in the island, and for the reception of pilgrims and their oblations, according to the use of old times, and even within memory of man.”

Ruins.—The “stately monastery of stone” had been de­stroyed by the barbarous English; but a church remained which was resorted to by the faithful on account of the frequent miracles there wrought. There is still a fragment of this church. It has been a plain parallelogram measur­ing inside barely 32 feet by 15k. The two windows in the west wall show that it dates from the thirteenth century. Their external tops are each cut out of one stone, and internally they are arched and enormously splayed. The most remarkable thing about this chapel is that it stands almost due north and south. There can be little doubt that it was long preserved “out of reverence for St Adrian and the other saints there interred.” The foundations of some of the other buildings can still be traced. The portion of a stone coffin which still remains may have been Adrian’s, although that is unlikely enough; but there need be no hesitation, at any rate, in rejecting the tradition which seeks to prove that a somewhat similar fragment, preserved at West Anstruther Church, is a portion of this one, by asserting that it floated over. The chapel has suffered from alteration as well as from dilapidation. The oven in the bottom of the south window is modern; but the large press in the west wall, and the circular tower pierced with shot-holes are pretty old. The latter has evidently been built at some time for defence.

No trace seems to be left of the chapel of the “Blessed Virgin,” which is known to have been on the island. There appears also to have been a chapel, or perhaps more probably an altar, of St Ethernan. Many curious details of the pilgrimages of James the Fourth to the May are given by Dr Stuart, but want of space compels me to omit them.

Old Lighthouse.—The island only remained two years in Learmonth’s possession, for it was conferred on Balfour of Manquhany in 1551, and seven years later it was granted to Forret of Fyngask. It after­wards became the property of Allan Lamont, who sold it to Cunningham of Barns. Alexander Cunningham is commonly said to have been the first to erect a light­house upon it. “He built there,” says Sibbald, “a tower fourty foot high, vaulted to the top, and covered with flag-stones, whereon all the year over, there burns in the night-time a fire of coals, for a light; for which the masters of ships are obliged to pay for each tun two shillings—that is, twopence sterling. Sibbald is certainly wrong about the builder of the Lighthouse, and he is also inaccurate in regard to the dues. In 1641, Parliament ratified the letters-patent which had been granted, in 1636, to James Maxwell of Innerweeke, one of His Majesty’s “bed chalmer,” and to John Cunynghame, of Barnes, for erecting and maintaining a light on the Isle of May. According to the letters-patent, they had been granted an impost of 2s Scots on the ton of all native ships and vessels coming within “Dunnoter and St tobe’s heid,” and 4s Scots on strangers, for “ilko veadge” —i.e., each voyage. But, in 1639, the “patenteres” being willing to give all reasonable satisfaction to the Convention of Burghs, the dues were restricted to 1s 6d Scots per ton for natives, and 3s for strangers; while all “barkes, creires, and others weschelles,” during the months of May, June, and July, and 15 days of August, and “Northland victuellers,” were to be free of all duty. The “patenteres” would not suffer by this restriction, as the members of Con­vention obliged themselves to cause their neighbours to “make thankful! payment,” as also to assist in collecting the dues, and to furnish a list of the “haill shippes” pertaining to their burghs, with the number of “the tunes of ilke shipe.” The Act of the Convention was also ratified by Parliament in 1641. And a new charter, which had been granted by the King to John Cunynghame, of the lands and barony of West Barns, comprehending “the Tie landes and Isle of Maij,” was ratified by Parliament in 1645, for his good, true, and thankful service in “bigging and erecting . . . . ane Light hotis,” and maintaining the light continually. Two years later, Parliament ordained that the restricted duty should be peaceably uplifted and enjoyed by John Cuuynghame, who now had the full right of the gift and patent. In 1651, Sir Patrick Myrtoun of Cambo complained that, owing to the loss of trade, the lights of the May were no benefit to him, although a great part of his estate was engaged for the same. Ten years afterwards, Parliament enacted that the restricted duty should be paid to Sir James Halket of Pitfirren, and Sir David Carmichaell of Balmadie. The island is included in a charter granted to the Earl of Kellie in 1671 and ratified in 1672. Before 1790 the duty was let at £280 sterling per annum, but in that year it rose to £960, and in 1800 it was let at £1500. About 380 tons of coal were consumed every year; but the light, even then, was not satisfactory, as in a gale it hardly showed except on the leeward side, where it was of least use. As the event proved, it was also dangerous. In January 1791, the keeper, his wife, and five children, were suffocated. One child, who was found sucking the breast of her dead mother, was saved; and the two assis­tant keepers, though senseless, were got out alive. The ashes, which had been allowed to accumulate for more than ten years, reached up to the window of the keeper’s room; and having been set on fire by live coals falling from the lighthouse, and the wind blowing the smoke into the windows, and the door below being shut, the result was inevitable. The two men who escaped declared that a sulphureous steam was observed to issue from the heap of cinders for several weeks before the fatal night on which it burst into flames, and therefore it was supposed by some that there had been a fermentation among the ashes. Formerly, the families who resided there lived in houses detached from the tower, and it was now resolved to re-adopt the old plan. In Sibbald’s time there was “a convenient house with accomodations for a family,” which may have become ruinous before 1791. Probably this house and the old tower were built with the stones of the monastery. The architect who planned and built the tower was drowned in returning to his house, which led to the burning of several witches who were supposed to have raised that storm. In a bombastically written book, entitled The Key of the Forth, or Historical Sketches of the Island of May, the story of the architect and the witches is spun out to a great length, being made the ground-work of something like a tragic romance of love. The old tower, which is now used as a look-out by pilots, still bears over the door the date 1636. As it is supposed to have been the first lighthouse erected in Scot­land, a special interest attaches to it. Mr Merson states that an earlier light-house existed on the island, but he gives no authority. The accompanying illustration shows how the coals were raised.

New Lighthouse.—The old lighthouse was the only private one in Scotland, and the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses deemed it wise to buy the island from the Duke of Portland, who had acquired it by marrying the heiress of Scott of Balcomie. Accord­ingly, a bill was introduced into Parliament authorising its purchase for £60,000. Whenever it became the property of the Commissioners, they began to erect the new lighthouse, which is massive and elegant. There is plenty of accommodation for the three keepers and their families, and an excellent room for the Commis­sioners. On the 1st of September 1816, the coal fire was discontinued, and the oil light exhibited instead. The catoptric or reflecting light was afterwards converted into a dioptric or refracting one, by Mr Alan Stevenson, who, in doing so, introduced several important and in­genious improvements. Operations have this year (1885) been begun to still further improve the beacon by intro­ducing the electric light, to work which a large engine-house has been erected. The light-room, which crowns the building at a height of 240 feet above sea-level, is one of the sights of the island, and is well worth inspecting. In order to point out the position of the Carr, and to make the entrance of the Firth safer, another lighthouse was built on the island in 1843-4. Some interesting notices of the May will he found in two papers on “Our Lighthouses,” which appeared in Good Words in 1864. There is also a small farm-steading, but the relative fields are few and small. The latter, when enclosed, have been laid out in the form of a cross, and are divided among the keepers. One horse, several cows, and a number of sheep are kept, and poultry besides. The place was lately over-run with ants; but determined efforts have been made to exterminate them.

Pasture.—Mr Forrester wrote in 1791 that:— “A very intelligent farmer, who has dealt in sheep above thirty years, and has had them from all the different corners of Scotland, says, that he knows no place so well adapted for meliorating wool as the Island of May; he adds, that the fleeces of the coarsest woolled sheep, that ever came from the worst pasture in Scotland, when put on the Island of May, in the course of one season, become as fine as sattin; their flesh also has a superior flavour; and that rabbits bred on this island have a finer fur than those which are reared on the mainland.” May mutton is still in some repute, but there seems to be little faith now in the extra quality of the fleece, and yet the nature of the pasture may have au effect on the wool. An Australian paper recently contained an article on the “Change in structure of scrub-fed sheep,” in which it was stated that these animals having to feed on herbage above, instead of below, them, were growing longer in the neck and legs and smaller in the body, and that in course of time there might be produced “a kind of giraffe sheep—all neck and legs, with small body, little wool, and less mutton.”

Water.—-Sibbald says that, “the isle is well provided with fountains of sweet water, and a pool or small lake.” Although there are several springs and also a small lake, the water is not considered to be either good or safe. Even the water of the romantically-situated Ladies’ Well is slightly brackish. And so the keepers are regularly supplied with that beverage from Crail. Nevertheless, Sibbald’s statement, or a similar one, has been frequently repeated, in the same way as his erroneously-stated dimensions of the island, by those who ought to have known better.

Fishermen.—In 1792, Mr Bell said that there were no inhabitants except the keepers and their wives, but that “there were formerly 10 or 15 fishermen’s families, with a proportionable number of boats.” And Sibbald’s editor adds, in 1803, that “the want of these families is a considerable loss to the general interests of the fishery in the Frith; for, placed as centinels at its entrance, they were enabled to descry and follow every shoal of herrings or other fish that came in from the ocean.” In the Burying-ground, which is still pointed out, there is only one grave-stone, and it is in memory of John Wishart, who died in 1730, aged 45, and “who lived on the Island of May.” Pro­bably he had been one of the fishermen.

Birds.—There are also inhabitants and visitors of another kind, bipeds likewise, and very numerous. “Many fowls,” says Sibbald, “frequent the rocks of it, the names the people gave to them are skarts, dun turs, gulls, scouts (and) kittiewakes.” Standing on the top of the precipitous cliffs, it is delightful to watch the fowls circling high o’er head, nestling on narrow ledges of the rock, or diving in the water 100 feet below. An interesting paper on the “Isle of May and its Birds” by Mr Agnew, the head-keeper, appeared in Chamber’s Journal for Sep­tember 1883.

Caves and Havens.—There are several large caves into which access can be had at low water, and which are said to have been utilised in former times by the smugglers. There are two places where passengers can be landed in good weather, but which are respectively unapproachable when the wind is in the east or west. At a third point the mails are sometimes landed, and this leads me to say that no visitor should go without taking newspapers for the keepers.                They are so shut out from the rest of the world that these are highly acceptable. On the 1st of July 1837, a boat from Cellardyke, containing 58 passen­gers, besides a crew of seven, was swamped at the land­ing, and thirteen persons, chiefly young women, were drowned.

Boatman. —A better place for a picnic than the May cannot be imagined. Mr Alexander Watson, the official “Isle of May Boatman,” sails from Crail every Tuesday in summer, and every alternate Tuesday in winter. He is also ready to go on any day with a party, but of course he should get notice. A more cautious or oblig­ing skipper, or a better guide over the island, could not be desired.

Records of the Priory of the Isle of May
Edited by John Stuart, LL.D. (1868) (pdf)

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