Meeting Ailsa

by Gill Sherry

After 20 years of admiring her from afar, I finally set foot on the iconic Ailsa Craig.

Sitting 16 kilometres from the mainland in the outer Firth of Clyde, the dome-shaped rock is as synonymous with Ayrshire as Rabbie Burns himself. Instantly recognisable, the uninhabited island adds drama to an already breath-taking vista, its craggy cliffs and grassy cap a permanent yet ever-changing feature on the horizon.

I was joined by 11 other intrepid travellers all keen to get up close and personal with the mysterious Ailsa Craig, and all equally keen to add to their bird spotting tally. They formed a mass of beige and khaki GORE-TEX, accessorised with binoculars and professional-looking cameras.

The crossing took just over an hour from Girvan harbour on what was a mercifully calm sea. My fellow passengers, however, were far from calm. Clearly excited at the prospect of spotting a rare or elusive bird, they scanned both water and sky, desperate to be the first to catch sight of a two-tone Manx shearwater or an orange-billed puffin.

Shouts of “Tern!” and “Shag!” came from both sides of the boat, but I kept my eyes on Ailsa herself, her features gradually revealing themselves in all their weathered glory.

After following the overhead progress of a flock of migratory geese, we finally arrived at our destination. Heading off in different directions, some followed the old railway line over to the lighthouse, others marched uphill to the tower house, while the final trio choose to peer inside derelict industrial buildings.

My attention was caught by an abandoned cottage. The roof had long since collapsed but curtains still hung at the windows and an old wooden picnic bench stood forlornly outside. I couldn’t help but wonder who had once tended the raised beds either side of the front door, and who had washed the sea salt from the windows.

Beside the cluster of dilapidated buildings, the lighthouse looked pristine. Whitewashed to perfection and decorated with solar panels, it wore its endurance well, as though proud to continue its duty. Contrarily, the lighthouse keepers’ cottages had succumbed to the elements: the windows broken, the doors rotten, and the once-white walls blackened. I was surprised to discover that furniture remained inside and again, tried to imagine who had slept in that single bed and lay their head on that striped pillow.

Lighthouse aside, Ailsa Craig appeared to be the land that time had forgotten. Rusted machinery lay discarded among rubble, walls crumbled, railway lines sank dejectedly beneath the earth. And yet, at the same time, the island buzzed with life.

Ailsa Craig is a nature reserve, recognised for its importance for breeding seabirds. The cliffs were alive with birds, much to the delight of my fellow explorers who punctuated the birds’ cries with calls of their own: “Sand martin!” “Guillemot!” “Kittiwake!” “Rock Pipit!” Their arms all pointed arrow-like towards the cliffs. But rather than trying to focus on one particular bird, I enjoyed the panoramic spectacle of the colony of gannets. There were thousands of them. Some watched suspiciously from their sentry, some circled overhead, but all objected noisily to the presence of human beings.

I felt a little like a trespasser, guilty for encroaching on their land, so leaving the cliffs behind, I walked the short distance to the shore. I watched a shag as it dived for its dinner, disappearing beneath the surface for what felt like an age. I spotted a raft of eider ducks paddling on the water. And then I heard breathing. Following the sound, I saw two seals eyeing me curiously with their big, round eyes. They remained in the water but I was close enough to see their whiskers and the flare of their nostrils as they exhaled.

What a privilege it was to witness these creatures in their natural environment; to share their habitat for two blissful hours. It was a perfect day. So warm, in fact, that a heat haze rose from the stones and rocks that covered the ground. The water-proof layers deemed necessary for the crossing were soon shed, my bare arms exposed to the sun for the first time this year.

Continuing my exploration, I followed a narrow path around the very edge of the island. Suddenly aware of the faint sound of running water, I looked up to see the tiniest waterfall, at the foot of which, patches of bluebells flourised. The path revealed rabbit holes, a scattering of bones, a perfectly formed scallop shell and eventually, a warning sign: DO NOT PROCEED BEYOND THIS POINT. I had reached the old railway bridges that due to neglect and exposure to the elements, were no longer safe to cross.

Returning to the old winch house, I was reunited with the binocular-bearing bird watchers, still scanning the cliffs for puffins. “Sparrowhalk!” came the cry. I was reminded of the bones I’d seen earlier and instantly felt sorry for this predator’s prey.

Drawn once more to the derelict cottage, I wondered anew what stories it could tell. Part of an isolated but close-knit community, it would have basked in balmy summers yet endured fierce and endless winters. Once the home of human beings, it was now a sanctuary for countless other species continuing to breathe life into this charming relic.

Back on the boat, I felt sad to be leaving this magical place, but with a cruise around the island still to come, my sorrow was short-lived. Setting off towards the south, the southern fog horn soon came into view, along with hidden caves and Ailsa’s rugged, vertical cliffs.

Shortly after came the cry we’d all been waiting for: “Puffin!” In fact, not just one puffin, but a circus of puffins. They were smaller than I’d imagined and incredibly fast. My Canon PowerShot was no match for these cute but speedy seabirds so I gave up trying to catch them on camera and sat back to appreciate their aerial display first-hand.

Further round, a bazaar of guillemots stood upright on a rock. With their black backs and white underparts, they resembled miniature penguins. I was conscious of a zoom lens, almost as long as our boat, being pointed in their direction.

Grey seals lounged on rocks as we skirted the island. The northern fog horn, silent since 1966, provided another reminder of Ailsa Craig’s significant past.

Circumference complete, we headed back towards Girvan. I’d had the best time exploring Ayrshire’s very own wild isle. But discoveries, it seemed, were not yet complete.

“Porpoise!”

The apparent leader of the bird-watchers was, I realised, not just interested in birds but in every living creature that happened to share our planet. His knowledge went way beyond our feathered friends and he was more than happy to share this knowledge with anyone prepared to listen. I must admit, he knew his stuff, so I paid attention when he explained how to tell the difference between a dolphin and a porpoise.

“The porpoise has a slower roll-over and they usually come in pairs. They’re smaller than dolphins, about a meter and half long.”

Right on cue, a pair performed a flawless, lazy arc. It was the perfect end to what had been a thoroughly enjoyable day.

“Sandwich tern!” came the final cry from the huddle of bird watchers, their binoculars still pointing skyward as I disembarked. I left them to it, content with my memories of finally meeting Ailsa.