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Isle of May & Bass Rock

Well worth the hassle to finally get here!


View Scotland & Lake District 2021 on Grete Howard's travel map.

These is a long story behind my gannet workshop to Bass Rock off the Scottish east coast, starting with one of our very first  first motorhome trips; during which we got as far as Sheffield before the van broke down. Instead of going to Scotland, we travelled back home on a recovery trailer. 

On the second attempt we managed to get the motorhome as far as Seahouses, only to be told the workshop was cancelled because of bad weather. 

The following year (2020), a photographer friend from the USA, Freddy, was planning to come over to visit us with his wife, so I booked TWO places for the gannet diving workshop. Of course Freddy never did come over, and the workshop was called off because of the Covid 19 pandemic.

After rebooking the workshop (again) this year (2021) for myself and Freddy, it becomes clear that visitors from the US are still not allowed to enter the UK, so our friend Paul from Scotland agrees to take over Freddy's place on the boat trip. A couple of weeks before the trip, Paul had a stroke so sadly will not be coming with me out on the boat (post note: Paul is recovering well). I suggest David takes his place instead, even if he is not really interested in photography.

Unfortunately the fishing boat we are supposed to be going out on, does not manage to get its certificate allowing it to carry passengers in time, so the workshop is yet again cancelled. I am now beginning to think we are jinxed.

Spending some time on the internet looking for a replacement boat trip, I come across BlueWild and arrange for them to take me - and David - out on a privately chartered trip to Isle of May and Bass Rock. 

The day before we are due to go out, their boat breaks down, so our trip is yet again cancelled (are the gods trying to tell us something?). Thankfully, they are able to get the repairs done in a day, and re-schedule us for a couple of days later.

On the sixth attempt, we finally manage to get out on a boat! All I will say at this point, is that it is so worth the wait!

This is the boat that will take us out, with skipper Alan, and crew Philip. It really does make a huge difference to have the boat to ourselves - we have given up group tours some time ago, as we prefer the flexibility of being just the two of us, so this is perfect from that point of view. Alan does everything he can to make sure we see what we want to see, and that I get the shots I want.

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After a quick, but thorough safety briefing, we leave Dunbar Harbour and head straight across the Firth of Forth shipping channel to Isle of May.

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Dunbar Harbour

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BlueWild is one of the few companies that have a licence to land on Isle of May, and we are offered the opportunity to so so should we wish. As my main purpose of this trip is to see the gannets at Bass Rock, we decide to forego the landing on this occasion.

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Isle of May

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There seem to be plenty of people on the island on well defined paths

Until I spoke to Alan on the phone about this trip a few days ago, I had no idea that puffins make their home on the island. Alan explains that sometimes you see whole rafts of them on the surface of the water, but so far this year there have only be a few around.

The first birds we see, however, are kittiwakes - there is a colony of them roosting at the entrance to Dunbar harbour.

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I get very excited when I see a small flock of gannets flying low over the water. Alan assures me that I will see plenty more later on. That has to be the understatement of the year!

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I still get a bit carried away taking photos of them.

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Alan does warn us that we are likely to get 'blessed' at some stage during this trip - he is right!

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Being a great fan of puffins, I am delighted to just spot one single one.

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They are so comical the way they run across the water when they take off!

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We soon start seeing more and more of them floating in rafts too. Alan shuts the engine to an idle as we drift through them. Some take fright and fly off as soon as they spot us, others totally ignore us, and let us float right on by.

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The experience of just sliding past a whole raft of puffins, is truly magical!

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I get some really good close-up photos too!

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Photography is challenging to say the very least. The birds are bobbing up and down on the swell, and so is the boat, but seemingly to a different rhythm. I manage focus on the puffin, but the next minute all I can see in the viewfinder is sky, followed by the bird being being 'swallowed up' by the waves.

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My hit rate is appalling!

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The area also has a great number of guillemots, and they remind me so much of penguins when they take off, the way they skim across the surface on their bellies, much like the stones we threw as kids!

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Except, of course, penguins never do take off, unlike guillemots!

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Guillemots create rafts too!

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We continue to the craggy shores of Isle of May.

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Steep cliffs and basalt pillars greet us, with thousands of guillemots crowding into every available space.

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In many places, the rocks are white with guano.

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This would make an amazing jigsaw. For someone you don't like.

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As we make make our way around the island, the odd puffin appears on shore too.

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A couple of seals bask on the rocks, and a few heads pop out of the water to see what is going on.

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The Isle of May is home to an incredible array of wildlife, with up to 200,000 seabirds nesting here.

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Kittiwakes

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Razorbill

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Shag

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Cormorants and Herring Gulls

The steep cliffs hide beguiling grottos, with tales of smugglers and pirates.

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In a secluded bay stands the solitary rock pillar, known as 'The Bishop'.

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From Isle of May we make our way to Bass Rock, the home of 150,000 gannets. From a distance the flying gannets look like a swarm of mosquitoes around a light – they seem to be completely surrounding the rock.

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We can hear them long before we can make out each bird clearly: the racket is quite simply unbelievable! As we get nearer we can clearly see that the white dots on the top of the rock are in fact birds on nests. Wow!

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These large, striking-looking birds are everywhere: on the rocks, on the water and in the air.

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Launching themselves off the rock, they hang on the thermals before diving into the depths of the sea to gather seaweed for their nest building.

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The dots you see are not water droplets on my camera lens, they are in fact other flying birds!

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I spend the rest of my time at sea shooting anything that moves. Only with my camera, of course. Here are a few of my favourite shots:

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Can you believe that each one of those dots is in fact a gannet!

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One of my favourite moments of the trip is just sitting in the boat, gazing up at thousands of gannets effortlessly hovering overhead.

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One of my main photography aims of this excursion, is to capture a flying gannet with nesting materials in its beak. I take literally thousands of photographs to try and get a good one. As I said earlier, the extremely difficult conditions means my hit rate is dreadful! I do have some success, however.

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Another Surprise appearance – an Eider Duck

We finally have to say goodbye to Bass Rock and return to shore. I glance back and sigh with contentment, delighted that I finally managed to see and experience this wildlife extravaganza.

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The circling gannets appear to be following us for a while, although I am pretty sure they are more interested in what is under the water than they are in us.

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On our way back to Dunbar Harbour, Alan points out the ruins of the 14th century Tantallon Castle.

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By the time we get back to solid land, I am soaked to the skin, slightly sunburnt, very cold, and covered in white spots from bird dropping; but I feel like I am floating on air with blissful excitement at what I have just witnessed. In all our travels I have never seen or experienced anything like it!

Posted by Grete Howard 11:18 Archived in Scotland Tagged birds cliffs scotland boat wildlife wild pirates seal seaweed gannets puffins cormorant smugglers boat_trip birds_nest bird_watching guano shag wildlife_photography flying_birds isle_of_may firth_of_forth dunbar dunbar_harbour guillemots bass_rock bluewild blue_wild eider kittiwake razorbill herring_gull smuggler_cove tantallon tantallon_castle Comments (2)

Carlisle - Badluarach

We've finally arrived at The Wee Barn


View In search of the Hairy Coo - Scottish Highlands 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We decide to forego the full English breakfast at the Premier Inn this morning, and just make do with some fresh fruit from Tesco. Cheaper and better for the diet.

After yesterday's traffic jam, we have some very pleasurable motoring today, and we soon find ourselves entering Scotland. Damn, I forgot my passport!

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Look at these empty roads! What a change from yesterday!

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On the way I spot a couple of amusing road signs.

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Arria

The 10 metre high sculpture, nicknamed "Angel of the Nauld", overlooks the M80 just north of Auchenkilns. The female sculpture's large swooping arcs from her hands to her dress are based on the Gaelic name for Cumbernauld, “comar nan allt”, which translates as “the meeting of the waters”. Not quite sure how that follows, but so the story goes. The sculpture, created by Andy Scott of Kelpies fame, is part of the Cumbernauld Positive Image Project's aim “to create a distinctive image of Cumbernauld; increase residents’ pride in their town; raise awareness across Scotland of Cumbernauld’s attractiveness as a destination to live, work and play; create a sense of place and provide a positive statement about the town. Again I am not sure how this sculpture plays a role here, but she is pleasant enough to look at as we glide past on our way further north.

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Pitlochry Dam and Fish Ladder

We park in the centre of Pitlochry town and follow the signs to the dam and visitors centre on foot. The road leads through the town, down a hill, under a bridge, along a narrow lane, up another hill and down a slope before it gets to a dedicated car park for the visitors centre. Doh. At least we get a little bit of exercise rather than driving to the nearest car park. We have spent enough time in the car the last couple of days.

I am officially intrigued by the Fish Ladder, as although I do understand that it facilitates salmon to travel upstream during breeding season, I have never actually seen one.

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But first we stop for coffee and cake in the modern visitors centre overlooking the hydroelectric plant.

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We walk across specially constructed walkways from one bank of the river to the other (not the one shown in the photo below), and although the power plant is certainly impressive, it's the reflections in the loch that first and foremost grab my attention.

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Hydro-electricity is produced using the power of running water to turn the turbines in the power station.

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Once we reach the fish ladder on the opposite bank, I have a feeling we have seen something similar before, possibly in Madeira in 2003. Either way, it is a pretty cool idea.

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This is how it works: each of the 34 tiered pools has an opening below water level to allow fish to swim through to the next level. The ladder is even equipped with a fish counter (the sort that counts each fish, not sells fillets) so they can monitor the success of the ladder. Some 250,000 salmon have climbed those stairs since the ladder was first opened in 1952. That is very impressive.

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I continue taking photos of the dam and surroundings while David goes back into town to collect the car. He's a good man.

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Cairngorms

We head for the hills of the Cairngorms (a mountain range and national park in Scotland) to find somewhere to have our picnic.

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This will do for a picnic

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Not a bad view

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Cowboy Caviar (mixed bean salad) with chicken and Southwest Sauce

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We are fascinated to find, as we make our way even further north on smaller roads, that each layby is identified by a number. I have not seen that anywhere else. There are plenty of them too, something that we come to appreciate a lot as the week goes on.

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Hmm, but not today...

Highland cattle

As you may have noticed, I have called this blog “In search of the Hairy Coo”. 'Hairy coo' is of course the local slang for the adorable long-haired Highland Cattle. There are two reasons for this – I was tasked with getting some photos of me petting a highland cow by my friend Kay; and also because it reminds me very much of my first visit to Scotland in 1974 with my parents. My mum adored these cute bovine animals and used to call them 'hippy cows'.

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'Pretend' Hairy Coo at the Ralia Highland Gateway Centre where we stop for a pee break.

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Apparently, cuddling a metal coo doesn't count.

Sat Nav

Mid afternoon the Sat Nav dies, meaning we have to revert to the old fashioned way of finding our way using a map. Those of you who know me well, will realise that it is not a good idea to leave me to do the navigating while map reading. Not only do I get my lefts and rights mixed up, my sense of direction is so poor that I can get lost in my own back garden.

Let's hope we make it to the cabin this evening without too many detours and without having a major falling-out.

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Love the roads and the scenery!

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Loch Droma

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The further north we get (and nearer our cabin), the narrower the road gets.

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We find the turning off the main road without any major drama, despite me map reading, although I fear the credit has to go to David, who has a photographic memory when it comes to maps: once he has seen the route on a map, he can drive there.

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The Wee Barn

I booked this holiday on a whim a few weeks ago. We have been talking about visiting Scotland for a while now, but no actual plans, and certainly not this year. I thought I would just do an internet search to give me some idea of costs, and then I saw The Wee Barn and fell in love. Ten minutes later I had booked it.

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The Wee Barn is in what you could safely call a remote location. Some two miles down a single track road with a handful of other houses, a post box and telephone kiosk, It is situated down the lane leading to the landing where ferries take passengers across Little Loch Broom to the smattering of houses the other side. Surrounded by countryside on three side and water on the fourth, the setting is idyllic.

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The cabin itself is small, of course (there is a huge hint in the name), but more than adequate for us, with a living room / dining room and a very well equipped kitchen.

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As well as a bedroom and bathroom, the entrance hall has a comfy chair and a well stocked bookcase.

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Once we have unpacked, I whip up a quick dinner of cold Black Forest ham, scrambled eggs and roasted tomatoes.

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After dinner a settle down to relax, but David has other ideas, and suggests going out for a short drive. I shall make that the subject of the next blog entry however.

Posted by Grete Howard 04:16 Archived in Scotland Tagged scotland salmon road_trip sculpture seal deer motorway highland_cow pitlochry cairngorms road_signs premier_inn arria angel_of_the_nauld auchenkilns cumbernauld andy_scott power_station hydro_electric fish_ladder hary_coo sika_deer red_deer harbour_seal Comments (3)

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