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May, Isle of

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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May, Isle of, an extra-parochial island of Fife, in the mouth of the Firth of Forth, 51/8 miles SSE of Crail and 10¾ NE by N of North Berwick. Its utmost length, from NW to SE, is 1 mile; its utmost breadth is 2½ furlongs; and its area is 146¼ acres, of which 14¼ are foreshore. The prevailing rock is greenstone; and the shores are precipitous and rocky, the highest point in the island attaining 150 feet above sea-level. On the NW the coast presents some semi-columnar cliffs over 100 feet high; and at the SE it sinks into a low ridge or reef. There are a spring of excellent water and a small lake; and there is good pasturage for sheep. Several kinds of sea-fowl build on the island. The May contains the ruins of a 13th century chapel, nearly 32 feet long, which was cleared of rubbish and repointed in 1868. It was dedicated to St Adrian, who, with 6006 other Hungarians, is said to have been killed by the Danes about 870 and buried here. St Monan, one of his alleged followers, by Skene is identified with Moinenn, Bishop of Clonfert in the 6th century, whose relics were probably brought from Ireland to Fife by a body of clerics and laymen expelled by the Danes (Celtic Scotland, ii. 311-317, 1877). St Adrian's shrine was formerly resorted to in cases of barrenness. David I. founded a monastery here before the middle of the 12th century, and granted it to the Benedictine abbey of Reading in Berkshire on condition that they should place and maintain twelve priests therein, to say mass for himself and his predecessors and successors. In 1318 all the rights to the Priory of May were transferred to the canons of St Andrews, when a priory at Pittenweem appears to have been substituted for that on the island. After the Reformation the island came into the possession of the Balfours of Montquhandie, and afterwards of Allan Lamond, who sold it to Cunningham of Barns. Alexander Cunningham obtained from Charles I. a charter of the island, with liberty to build a lighthouse, for which a tax was imposed on all ships passing up the Firth. In 1635 he erected a tower 40 feet high, on the top of which a fire of coals was constantly kept burning. With the estate of Barns, the Isle of May passed to Scot of Scotstarvet by purchase, and came to General Scott of Balcomie, by whose daughter, the Duchess of Portland, it was sold for £60,000 to the Commissioners of Northern Lights. In 1815-16 they rebuilt the tower. The present lighthouse, 240 feet high, shows two fixed lights, visible respectively at distances of 22 and 16 nautical miles; the leading light being 130 feet below the other. Formerly about 15 fishermen with their families lived on the island; and at the end of the fishing season the fishermen of the Fifeshire coast used annually to hold a merry-making on the May. But the wreck and total loss of a boat full of women, on its passage to the island for this purpose, threw a cloud over this custom, and it has now become obsolete. There are three houses on the island; one used as a pilot station, the others connected with the lighthouse. Pop. (1861) 17, (1871) 17, (1881) 22, of whom 4 were females.—Ord. Sur., sh. 41, 1857. See John Jack's Key of the Forth (1858); an article in Good Words (1864); Dr Jn. Stuart's Records of the Priory of the Isle of May (1868); and an article in vol. vii. of Procs. Soc. Ants. Scotl. (1870).

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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