Monday, 23 April 2012

Beautifully ugly

We went out to the Isle of May again last weekend to visit my other half. It's an unusual place. Not beautiful in the traditional sense. I'm sure I've read a Greek myth (or was it Roman?) somewhere about a bunch of sailors who land on a strange, uncharted  island looking for shelter, only to find it's actually an enormous, sleeping sea monster that wakes and rears up, throwing them back into the ocean. Sometimes being on the Isle of May feels like that .

For a start there's the grass. Thousands of ravenous rabbits graze the stuff down to the roots over the winter. Icy squalls strip the colour out of it, leaving it bleached and lifeless. In a few weeks time, of course, the sea campion and thrift will transform it into carpets of delicate pink and white, but at this time of year much of it ends up looking like the lichen-infested, grey-green fur of a gargantuan three-toed sloth.

Then there are the birds. Land birds sing. The dawn chorus has been compared to pieces by Beethoven and Mozart. The Isle of May's dawn chorus is very different - more like a town waking up maybe. I took a walk around the island in the early morning and these are the sounds that I noticed. The eider ducks - 'engines trying to start on a frosty morning'; oystercatchers on the rocks 'like the referee's whistle from a distant football match; migrants in the elder bushes by the Heliogoland trap 'di-di-dit-dit-dit-di...' birds communicating to each other in Morse code, maddeningly impossible to see; puffins grumbling inside their burrows 'like rumbling stomachs'.

And of course - the smell of the cliffs, where many tens of thousands of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and shags sit for days and weeks from March to September. The scent is an intoxicating mix of fish and guano, salt and weed, that wafts over the tops of the cliffs. It's not Chanel Number 5.

And yet...and yet. The Isle of May is not traditionally beautiful, but its richly different textures, sounds,and smells give it a character all its own - like strong, bitter coffee in the mornings, or a chunk of ripe Camembert after dinner. I love it - it's the taste of life.

If you'd like to find out more about the Isle of May, try reading the Isle of May blog at

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