Bounce off the waves in a high speed boat on the way to Bass Rock, see gannets, seals and puffins, and enjoy a great pub lunch in North Berwick - all within an hour of the Scottish capital
When thinking about amazing wildlife encounters, places like the Serengeti or the Great Barrier Reef usually come to mind. Less obvious would be the east coast of Scotland but, within little more than half an hour from the country’s capital, you can find yourself plunged into a world every bit as raw and primal.
Every spring over 300,000 seabirds return to nest on the shores and islands of the Firth of Forth. The island of Bass Rock alone supports 80,000 nest sites for the Atlantic gannet. It’s the planet’s largest single rock gannet colony and according to Sir David Attenborough “one of the wildlife wonders of the world.”
Sitting on the southern shore of the Firth is the town of North Berwick. Infamous for the 16th century witch trials that inspired Rabbie Burns’s Tam o’ Shanter, it became a popular holiday resort in the early 19th century thanks to its two sandy bays. Author Robert Louis Stevenson spent many childhood holidays here, but today it’s better known as the home of the Scottish Seabird Centre (The Harbour, North Berwick; 01620 890202; www.seabird.org/home.asp). A First ScotRail (www.scotrail.co.uk/home/VIEWnewsff45.html) return ticket from Edinburgh is £6.10.
The main attractions here are live video feeds from the islands of Bass Rock, Craigleith and Fidra. Remotely controlled solar powered cameras stream live video footage of gannet, gull and puffin nests direct to the Seabird Centre’s screens, providing something a bit more intimate than a bird’s eye view. There are also informative displays about seabirds, the local environment and its history, a gift shop, café and a viewing platform with telescopes aimed at the islands. Admission is £7.15 (£4.05 kids).
All at sea
However, even the closest nose to beak experience on screen can’t compare to getting out amongst the birds on the open sea. The Bass Rock Seabird Seafari operates, weather permitting, from March through to October and I really can not recommend this trip too much. Once you have struggled into the very essential waterproofs it takes a matter of minutes for the rigid inflatable boat (RIB) to bounce three exhilarating miles over waves before coming to rest at the island of Fidra.
According to our pilot and guide, Stevenson based Treasure Island upon Fidra. Fortunately there weren’t any scurvy pirates when we visited, but plenty of puffins, cormorants, shags, guillemots and eider ducks at nest, and seals basking on the rocks. Both the air and sea were full of hungry birds and, at one point, puffins were diving for sand eel within ten foot of my perch in the RIB. My camera went into overdrive, but the crafty critters were too nimble for me to get a photo of anything other than an upended puffin bum!
From Fidra it was a couple of minutes to Bass Rock. In the distance the island appears to glow white. As you draw closer you realise that the white is the sheer mass of birds on the island obscuring the grey of the volcanic rock. Every surface is crammed solid, with guillemots occupying any gannet free space. The noise is just incredible. As you near the island you enter a maelstrom of “chumming” gannets - plummeting beak first, into the sea at up to 100kph. With a wingspan of nearly two metres, they are the UK’s largest seabird, so it’s a truly awe inspiring experience.
Although now solely inhabited by birds, Bass Rock has been a religious hermitage, a military garrison and a prison. As a military outpost it was the last part of Scotland to hold out for King James II against William III, while the prison held Jacobite rebels. Stevenson mentions the prison in Catriona, while his cousin the engineer, David Alan Stevenson used the very same prison as the foundation for Bass Rock’s Lighthouse, completed in 1902.
The Seabird Safari takes an hour, costs £22 (£17 kids) and booking via the Scottish Seabird Centre (01620 890202) is advisable. You can also hire binoculars for £3, but we got close enough to the birds not to really need them.
Time for lunch
Back on dry land it was time for lunch, so we headed for The Ship Inn (7-9 Quality Street, North Berwick; 08721 077077) where the specials board immediately caught my eye. Despite a morning surrounded by magnificent birdlife, the pan fried pigeon breasts on a potato rosti with a red currant and port jus was impossible to resist. The pigeon melted in my mouth and the sharpness of the jus perfectly counterpointed the meat’s gamey flavour. I was in food heaven. My partner enjoyed a massive 8oz burger with bacon, salad and chips and together with our paté and French onion soup starters the bill only came to £25. Real ale fans will enjoy the selection of Belhaven ales at the bar.
In Edinburgh we stayed at the Travelodge Edinburgh Central which, although basic, is very conveniently sited just off the Royal Mile. Other well located budget hotels are the Ibis Edinburgh Centre and the Premier Inn Lauriston Place.