Friday 2 November 2012

Inchcolm Island, in the Firth of Forth

Last weekend Jennifer and I went to Inchcolm Island for the first time since either of us were children. Jennifer was last there on a holiday club trip from school and my last visit was the birthday party of a friend - we played pirates on the boat across and on the small swing of beach below the Abbey. This time we were with her parents, making the trip thanks to vouchers I'd been gifted.

Inchcolm Island and Abbey are owned by Historic Scotland. The island sits in the waters of the Forth, four miles from the Forth Rail Bridge in the seaward direction. We were booked on the 12.15pm sailing of the Maid of the Forth, a 225-seater blue and white ferry boat that departs from Hawes Pier, South Queensferry, right beside the railway bridge. It's quite awesome, to set sail and get closer and closer, and eventually pass right alongside those massive red iron legs. Legs that support the weight of up to 200 trains a day. Think of the thousands of men who constructed it, 130 years ago! ... 57 lost their lives in the process.

Directly after passing under the bridge we're alongside Inchgarvie Island which is made as much of concrete bunkers and gun emplacements as it is of rock. Memories of war. Cormorants and shags were perched all over and eight or more herons stood solitary but together on one small area of island wall.

Inchgarvie & Forth bridges

herons on Inchgarvie

looking to Inchkeith, from the Maid of the Forth upper deck, pencil in sketchbook, 41x13.5cm

The weather was perfect - a clear and crisp autumn day with no more than a ripple of waves. From the open-top upper deck I saw guillemots and gulls and more cormorants and shags. A pair of eiders floated close beside us and a few times gannets in threes and fours flapped past in their dark juvenile plumage. I did only one quick sketch, showing Inchkeith island with a white and red lighthouse in front, a boat behind that, and another further off to the side. The Forth is always busy with boats. It's a working river. Conical Berwick Law peaked its head above the outline of the island. 

After 45 minutes we were arriving at Inchcolm where the beautiful 12th Century abbey offered itself up for our explorations. It's a peacefully impressive ruin, quite small. I imagined monks strolling the cloister and tending to their gardens of herbs and medicinals. You can walk up the narrowest spiral staircase I've ever seen until you reach the top of the abbey's square squat tower and have views all around. East, south, west and north: East Lothian; Edinburgh; the bridges; the Fife coast; and out to sea beyond Inchkeith.

Inchcolm Abbey cloister, photo by Jennifer Alexander

Inchcolm Abbey, photo by Jennifer Alexander

We only had an hour and three quarters until the ferry returned so we didn't spend too long at any one spot. We wanted to see as much of the island as we could. It took about an hour of fairly brisk walking to get along all the paths and not-paths, to see each of the many leftover war emplacements. We walked on top of some of these bunker buildings and I noticed on one of the roofs a colony of unknown (to me) small succulent-leafed alpine plant. Thriving among the pitted concrete. It's amazing how nature always finds a way to fight back at man's creations.

Most exciting is the brick-lined tunnel running about 100 metres through the hillside that makes up the east of the island. There's a kink in the middle so when you enter you think you're going to be walking into complete darkness. It was built around 1916 by the Royal Engineers, used probably to take ammunition to the far east of the island.

Inchcolm ammunition tunnel, photo by Jennifer Alexander

deserted building on Inchcolm, more wartime ruins beyond

Jennifer on Inchcolm, the Forth bridges beyond

The buildings are mostly open to the elements, there's no glass in any of the windows and possibly never was. All that we went into had signs of having been used by nesting birds - droppings decorating the floors, nest piles in corners. In a couple of the buildings were the remains of gulls: one long-dead juvenile lay on its front, wings half spread, beak half open. I turned it over with my foot and was surprised to feel how light it was. A collection of feathers but not much more. Despite the weight, the skeleton must have still been inside because bodyshape and skin were unbroken. It was just completely dried out. A desiccated gull. 

It's not only birds - grey seals come to Inchcolm too, to have their pups. October and November is the right time of year but we didn't see any young, just a few dark adults enjoying the waves. With visitors around most days of the week I'd have thought they wouldn't want to birth there.

Our explorations used most of the time available to us so I didn't have long to sketch, only 20 minutes before our ferry came back. Jennifer looked round the visitor centre and I got two quick pencil studies done. This sort of sketch can still prove very useful. I often write colour notes and sometimes add watercolour at a later date.

Inchcolm sketch, pencil in sketchbook, 41x13.5cm

Inchcolm sketch and bird list, pencil in sketchbook, 41x13.5cm

I kept a list of all the birds I saw on and from the island:

pigeon - by far the most numerous bird here. There were hundreds on the less-walked rocky areas.
pipit - meadow pipit I think, down on the seaweeds and rocks at the water's edge.
lesser black backed gull
black headed gull
gannett - juveniles - out at sea
guillemots - out at sea
razorbill - just one, out on the water. Looking so similar to a guillemots at this time of year, only the stub-end beak and white wing line distinguish between these two chunky auks.

15 species seen.

How to get to Inchcolm:
From Edinburgh you can get to the ferry easily by rail - take the train to Dalmeny station. It's only a ten minute walk from there down to Hawes Pier.

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