If you’re ever lucky enough to be up at Edinburgh Castle on a clear day, you’ll be able to see out to the Firth of Forth. Even though the two are only about three miles apart, you can’t always see the one from the other – in fact, most days you can’t see the one from the other. That’s Scottish weather for you.
‘Firth’ is a Scots word that means ‘estuary.’ For those of you that need to brush up on your 7th-grade geography terms, an estuary is a fancy word for the mouth of a river that flows into an ocean. Ergo, the Firth of Forth is where the Forth River meets the North Sea.
There are several islands in the Firth of Forth, including one that’s particularly interesting: Inchcolm.
Now, Inchcolm isn’t only interesting because Shakespeare used its name to add a bit of spooky to his Scottish Play (Macbeth, I.ii.71). The tiny island has a long and proud tradition that dates back well before the Bard spun his masterful sonnets.
In 1123, legend has it that the great king of Scotland, Alexander I, found himself stuck on the island while trying to cross the Firth into Fife. He would have had a hard time of it, but a hermit living on the island took care of him. When he left the island, he was so grateful for the help of the hermit that he vowed to build a church on the island. Unfortunately, he was thrown from his horse on another ill-fated trip to Fife the following year, and never got around to building the church. Enter his brother, David I, who built the church and staffed it with some monks, most likely to the great distress of the poor hermit living there.
Since the building of the church and the establishment of a monastery there, poor little Inchcolm has been hotly contended. During the Scottish Wars of Independence, the English attacked the island several times for both its buildings and its proximity to Edinburgh. When Napoleon was doing his thing in Europe, a gun battery was installed on the island in order to make it abundantly clear to the Corsican that he was not welcome anywhere in Britain. Later, during the World Wars, all the islands in the Firth of Forth were militarized in order to protect Edinburgh and the Forth Bridges from U-boat attacks.
The abbey is no longer home to any monks, as time, wars, and neglect have left it in ruins. However, you can still visit the island and poke around the old walls a bit. My parents and I did a boat cruise of the Firth of Forth, with the option to stop on Inchcolm. Even if you do a tour, there is still an extra fee to alight on the island, as it’s a protected site (much like a state park or monument in the US). It’s well worth the extra cost of the ticket in order to be able to get off the boat and look around, though.
You can even meet some of the wildlife that lives on and around the island! Just make a note that you should not, under any circumstances, open a bag of Scottish shortbread purchased in the gift shop whilst outside on the island. That one seagull you see has about 40,000 friends he’d like to introduce you to. Also, while a colony of puffins does call the island home, they’re only there during the spring mating season (so, if you go in August, there are exactly zero puffins on the island). The seals are cute, though!
And don’t worry – there aren’t any hermits on the island to disturb anymore.