Firth of Forth Islands: The wild and mysterious story of Scotland's forgotten isles

The islands of the Firth of Forth are packed with wildlife and have a rich and bloody history.

Tuesday, 20th July 2021, 7:47 pm
The Isle of May
The Isle of May

Scotland’s western islands get a deserved amount of attention. But if you want to do something different, why not explore the eastern isles scattered along the Firth of Forth estuary? Mostly uninhabited and reclaimed by nature, they are home to countless wild seabirds and ancient castle ruins, and hold stories of smugglers, military battles, fleeing monks and political treachery.

Here is our guide to these extraordinary islands.

Before it was incorporated into the Forth Bridge in 1882, battleship-shaped Inchgarvie was the main route between South Queensferry in Lothian and North Queensferry in Fife. There are a number of 'inchs' in the Firth of Forth, as it derives from the Gaelic word for island, innis. Innis garbh translates to 'rough island'. Built in 1513, its fortress was used during Cromwell's campaign, through the Napoleonic wars, up until the Second World War.

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A familiar site from Leith, Inchkeith sits close to Edinburgh and has historic significance defending the Forth from invasion, as an early syphilis quarantine zone, and as the site of a disturbing linguistic experiment. In the 15th century James IV ordered a mute woman and her young children to live there to find out what language they would speak. The island is now owned by Tom Farmer, founder of Kwikfit.
When the tide is low, the sea retreats to reveal a causeway over to Cramond Island. Found off the coast of Edinburgh, it has an extensive military history all the way up to the Second World War - with the concrete pylons lining the walkway designed to block boats. Incredibly peaceful despite its proximity to a capital city, Cramond Island has striking views of the Forth Bridges over to Queensferry, Fife, and Edinburgh. But be careful you don't get caught by the tide when it comes back in.
The tiny isle of Inchmickery sits squarely in the middle of the Firth of Forth, between Edinburgh and Fife. Its cluster of concrete, abandoned wartime buildings give it the look of a battleship from sea level, but it is now a peaceful haven for birdlife. It is the setting for the climax of Iain Banks' novel Complicity, and also features in the film adaptation.
Inchcolm is considered to be the most aesthetically pleasing of the Firth of Forth isles. Found just a mile south of Braefoot Bay in Fife, it is best known for its 12th Century abbey founded by King David I. It is open to the public - with spectacular views from the tower - and thought to be one of the best preserved monastic buildings in Scotland. Old wartime fortifications can also be found on the island, including a First World War ammunition tunnel, and there are two beautiful beaches here to enjoy.
Rising out of the sea millions of years ago, Bass Rock is a volcanic plug which has been named "one of the wildlife wonders of the world" by David Attenborough. Found to the north east of North Berwick, its huge colony of 150,000 gannets makes it a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Besides the wildlife there is a lighthouse, old monastery, and ruins of a castle which was once a notorious gaol for religious and political prisoners. This remarkable isle has inspired writers including Robert Louis Stevenson.
To the south of Bass Rock and off Yellowcraig beach is Fidra, Old Norse for 'feather island'. As its name suggests, this isle has a significant population of seabirds, and is an RSPB nature reserve. Robert Louis Stevenson - whose father helped build the lighthouse here - is believed to have based the map in Treasure Island on Fidra.
Directly North of North Berwick is Craigleith, a lava dome which was once used for breeding rabbits before the population was wiped out by myxomatosis. Wildlife boat trips travel here to see the seabird colonies including cormorants, shags, guillemots and puffins. The latter sparked an SOS Puffin project after their numbers plunged from 10,000 to just a thousand due to invasive plants strangling the birds' nesting burrows.
Named after the common Norse word for "small island", Lamb is just 100m long and 50m wide. The illusionist Uri Gellar bought the island in 2009 as he believed Lamb, with Craigleith and Fidra, mirror the layout of the Pyramids at Giza and are the key to an ancient Egyptian mystery.
Take a boat from Anstruther and head across the waves to the otherworldly Isle of May. With a name thought to mean 'gull island', it is populated by more than 200,000 sea birds in the summer - including 90,000 puffins. The eastern most of the Forth Isles, this is a place completely taken over by birds, cramming on the cliff ledges and swooping overhead with tiny fish poking from their beaks. A nature reserve also home to seals, May has a history of smuggling and scientific research is conducted on neighbouring isle Rona.