Five Days On Ailsa Craig

Ailsa Craig is a small island 10 miles off the west coast of mainland Scotland. Lying halfway on the journey between Belfast and Glasgow, it also known as “Paddy’s Milestone”. The island is a volcanic plug, the remnant of an extinct volcano, that is known for the blue hone granite that is found on the island, granite that is quarried and used to make curling stones. Whilst it has a long history of human habitation, Ailsa Craig’s only permanent inhabitants are now its wildlife, including a large colony of Northern Gannets, and the island is currently managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) under a 50 year lease. Earlier this year during the summer, I was fortunate to spent five days on Ailsa Craig with the RSPB’s Galloways Reserves Manager, Crystal Maw, and four volunteers: Colin, Pauline, Julie and Steve.

One of the aims of our stay was to survey the seabirds that breed on Ailsa Craig. On both the outward and return boat journeys to the island, we were joined by additional staff from the RSPB and several other conservation organisations who had come to participate in this survey as we sailed around Ailsa Craig.

The Summit of Ailsa Craig rises to 338 meters above sea level. Roughly half way to the summit are the ruins of a small castle built in the late 1500s.

There are several colonies of Herring, Lesser Black-Backed and Greater Black-Backed Gulls on the island. Many of the gull nests that we surveyed contained man made waste including plastic, aluminium and baby wipes.

Historical records show that Atlantic Puffins nested on Ailsa Craig in “bewildering numbers…so great that they darkened the sky”. In 1889, the first Brown Rat, presumed to have come onshore from a boat delivering coal to the lighthouse to the island, was found on Ailsa Craig. The rats, possibly bolstered by numbers from shipwrecks that occurred in the following years, rapidly grew in numbers and spread over the island decimating the Atlantic Puffin colony and other burrow nesting seabirds. In 1936, Atlantic Puffins were described as being “practically extinct” on Ailsa Craig.

In 1991 and 1992, a pioneering team led by Dr Bernard Zonfrillo used large quantities of Warfarin rodenticide to eradicate all of the rats on Ailsa Craig. In the years since the rat baiting started, Atlantic Puffins have returned to Ailsa Craig and started the slow process of re-colonisation. Three other burrow-nesting species, Black Guillemot, Shelduck and Wheatear have also colonised the island. Manx Shearwaters are seen and heard flying over the island, but to date there has been no confirmation that any have nested on Ailsa Craig.

Save for the lighthouse and the old quarry manager’s house, all of the buildings on Ailsa Craig are sadly now derelict.

The lighthouse on Ailsa Craig was built between 1883 and 1886 by Thomas Stevenson. Originally oil powered, the light was converted to incandescent in 1911, automated in 1990 and converted to solar electric power in 2001. During our stay on the island, a team from the Northern Lighthouse Board ship NLV Pharos came ashore to service the lighthouse. The lighthouse itself is usually closed and off limits but the team very kindly gave us access to it.

Another unexpected visitor during our time on the island was the UK Border Force patrol ship HMC Seeker who were undertaking a routine patrol of the area.

As there is no accommodation on the island it is not possible to stay on Ailsa Craig. However, day boat trips sail to the island from Girvan. When it is possible to land, these trips give around three hours on the island. Care should be taken when landing not to disturb any nesting seabirds which can be found in some areas next to the paths. It should be borne in mind when planning a trip that there are no facilities on the island and no where to purchase any refreshments.

A full set of images from the five days I spent on Ailsa Caig can be found here.