Isle Of May
Isle Of May ~ ANR O NO6549931 364
fratr<es> de Mai 1140 x 1153 David I Chrs. no. 117 [king frees ships belonging to ‘the brothers of May’ from cain, toll and all custom]
Sancto Yðernino de Mai 1140 x 1159 Duncan 1957, 74 [Earl Gospatrick of Dunbar grants ‘to St Ethernan of May’ a full toft beside his port of Beil (Bele) (i.e. Belhaven ELO), by Dunbar); first charter to mention Ethernan by name]
ecclesia de Mai 1141 x 1150 David I Chrs. no. 133 [king grants to church of May and the monks, Pittenweem (Petneweme) and Inverie (Inverrin) SMS, q.v.]
(Prior Archardus and the brothers) de Mai 1141 x 1150 David I Chrs. no. 135 [king notifies Gilleserf et al. that he permits Prior Archardus and the brothers of May to take wood from Clackmannan; royal confirmation RRS ii no. 7]
fratr<es> de Mai 1145 x 1153 David I Chrs. no. 132 [king grants a full toft of land in burgh of Haddington (Hadintune) ELO to the brothers of May]
ecclesi<a> omnium sanctorum de Mai 1145 x 1153 David I Chrs. no. 132 [to God and the church of All Saints of May]
ecclesi<a> omnium sanctorum de Mai 1145 x 1153 David I Chrs. no. 165 [grants to God and to the church of All Saints of May, including half of *Balgally (Balegallin) CBE (q.v.) ‘as Gillecolm Mac chinbethin’ and Macbet Mac Torfin and Malmure thane of Kellie (Chellin) perambulated it’]
ultra insulam May 1147 x 1164 Forbes Lives, 250 [Vita Kentegerni imperfecta; Kentigern’s mother sails beyond the Isle of May in a boat made of hides]
insula May 1147 x 1164 Forbes Lives, 250 [from Vita Kentegerni imperfecta, fishermen come there from England, Scotland and ‘even from the shores of Belgium and France, all of whom the Isle of May customarily receives in its ports’ (etiam a Belgie et Gallie littoribus, quos omnes insula May in suis rite suscipit portibus)]
ecclesia de insula de Maie 1147 x 1180 Duncan 1957, 75 [Edward son of earl Gospatrick grants to the church of the Isle of May a chalder of flour every year from his mill at Belton (Beletoun) ELO, near Dunbar]
insul<a> de Maio 1153 x 1162 RRS i no. 162 [12th c.; men fishing round the Isle of May must pay teinds without delay to the monks of May]
insul<a> de Mai 1153 x 1162 RRS i no. 162 [copy temp. Edward I]
monachis de Mai 1153 x 1162 RRS i no. 162 [copy temp. Edward I]
prior de Mai 1153 x 1204 Duncan 1957, 74 [Earl Duncan of Fife frees the prior of May and his men ‘from army and hosting’ (de exercitu et expeditione) as King Malcolm (IV) confirmed in his charter]
insulam Maii 1154 x 1158 Papsturkunden iii no. 126 [Adrian IV’s bull, containing no mention of a monastery]
Mai 1157 x 1160 RRS i no. 158 [grants to the monks of May ‘who are from Reading’ (qui sunt de Rading), in exchange for chapel and teinds in Perth which they had from David I, five merks per annum from the first cain of ships coming to Perth, which Dunfermline used to receive]
insulam de Mai 1159 x 1181 Duncan 1957, 76 [Pope Alexander III, to the abbot and monks of Reading, ‘island of May and other possessions which you have in Scotland’ (insulam de Mai et alias possessiones quas habetis in Scocia)]
prior de Mai 1165 x 1171 RRS ii no. 6 [the freedom of the prior and his brothers and dependants from cain or toll, and the right to sell their goods and buy for their needs]
monachi de Mai 1165 x 1171 RRS ii no. 92 [the monks of May in Scotland (Scotia) shall hold their lands free of all services, and especially will be free of all aids and labour service while William has charge of the house of May]
de domo de Mai 1165 x 1171 RRS ii no. 92 [‘house of May’, see preceding]
priori de Mai 1165 x 1171 RRS ii no. 7 [to the prior of May and his brothers common rights in the wood of Clackmannan]
monachos de Mai 1165 x 1178 Duncan 1957, 73 [Countess Ada protects the rights of the monks of May ‘in my fief of Crail’ (in feudo meo de Carel)]
ecclesi<a> omnium sanctorum de Mai 1166 x 1171 RRS ii no. 8 [confirms to the church of All (the) Saints of May, prior William and the brothers, all the grants made by David I and Malcolm IV, listing lands and privileges]
ecclesi<a> omnium sanctorum de Mai 1166 x 1171 RRS ii no. 109 [grants *Balgally CBE to the church of All (the) Saints of May]
prior ... de Mai 1166 x 1171 RRS ii no. 109 [the prior of May is not to be removed except for manifest wrongdoing]
(to St Mary and the saints of) May 1178 x 1205 St A. Lib. 382 [see Airdrie CRA]
monachi de May 1178 x 1205 St A. Lib. 382
apud Insulam de May 1189 x 1195 RRS ii no. 303 [no one in Scotland or on the Isle of May may take poinds  from Holyrood Abbey’s men when they come to fish there]
ecclesi<a> Sanctorum de Mai 1195 x 1199 RRS ii no. 376 [Pitottar (Petother) ANR granted ‘to the church of the Saints of May’]
(Hugh Mortimer) priore de Maij 1198 x 1200 Scone Liber no. 30 [witness]
í Máeyjar c.1200 Orkneyinga saga ch. 83 [chapter 83: ‘till they came to May Islands’ (til er þeir koma í Máeyjar); note pl. form)]
í Máeyjum c.1200 Orkneyinga saga ch. 83 [variant: ‘Svein and his men were stranded for four days on May Islands because of the weather’ (þeir Sveinn váru fjóra daga veðrfastir í Máeyjum); note pl. form)]
Prioratus de Mai c.1207 Mappa Mundi 442 [‘black monks (i.e. Benedictines) of Reading’ (monachi nigri de Radinge)]
Deo et sanctis de May 1215 x 1230 Fraser Wemyss ii, p. xlii [John, son of Michael, confirms ‘to God and the saints of May’ land in Haddingtonshire]
ad luminarium sancti Ethirnini de insula de May 1252 x 1289 St A. Lib. 383 [Alexander earl of Buchan and justiciar of Scotia’s grant to God and St Mary, for the light of St Ethernan of the Isle of May, and to the monks serving God and St Ethernan (‘sancto Ethirnino’) there]
prioratum de May x 1286 Duncan 1957, 76 [which is known to belong to the monastery of Reading, the authors insist]
la Priourete de May 1292 APS i, 446
la meson de May 1292 APS i, 446
lisle de Maij 1296 x 1297 Duncan 1957, 77 [the prior of Reading seeks the return of his monastery’s rights over its erstwhile daughter-house, on the isle of May and its lands in Pittenweem PIT]
insula vocata Maij 1306 Duncan 1957, 78 [Edward I complains that May and Pittenweem, long peacefully held by Reading, have been invaded and robbed by William bishop of St Andrews and the Prior of St Andrews, etc., and the men there were beaten and wounded]
ad insulam de May 1329 ER i, 160 [four men going there to catch rabbits]
Maia prioratus 1440s Scotichron. Bk. 1, ch. 6 (vol. 1, 14) [the priory of May, which is a cell (cella) of the canons of Saint Andrews (Sancti Andree de Reymonth), where Saint Adrian with a hundred holy companions suffered martyrdom]
the heremyt of Maij 1508 TA iv, 105 [payment of 13 shillings made ‘to the hermit of (the) May who brought a seal to the king’ (To the heremyt of Maij that brocht ane selch to the king. xiij s.); dated March 1508]
the heremite of May 1512 TA iv, 183 [payment of 14 shillings made ‘to the hermit of (the) May in alms because he brought rabbits to the king’ (To the heremite of May in elimose because he brocht cwningis to the King. xiiij s.)]
Insul<a> de Maii 1526 RMS iii no. 388 [John Roule, prior of the monastery of Pittenweem (Pettinweme) alias the Isle of May (alias Insule de Maii)]
prioratus de Maii 1541 RMS iii no. 2292
ad insulam de Maii 1541 RMS iii no. 2515 [Andrew Wood, for North Falfield (Northir-Fawfeild) KCQ and Frostleys # (Frostleyis) KCQ; the service for these lands is to go on pilgrimage with the king to the Isle of May when required]
insula de Maii 1542 RMS iii no. 2691 [Andrew Wood, for Falfields (Fawfeildis) KCQ, to go on pilgrimage with the king and the king’s wife and their successors to the Isle of May, when required]
The May 1595 Mercator Scotia Regnum
Ilam de May 1634 Retours (Fife) no. 504 [in the lordship of Pittenweem, granted to Thomas Fenton]
insula de May 1636 RMS ix no. 500 [James Maxwell of Innerwick (Innerweik) ELO, Alexander Cunningham (Cunynghame) of Barns (Barnes) CRA, and John Cunningham ‘feuar of that ilk (i.e. of Barns), his son’ (feoditarii ejusdem ejus filii) all involved in the construction of the lighthouse (lie lichthous) on its highest point; one reason given for this is because of the dangers posed to shipping ‘by reason of the rocks and the (rock)-shelves’ (ratione saxorum et lie schelfis)]
in terris insularibus de May 1644 Retours (Fife) no. 676 [John Cunningham (Cunynghame) of Barns (Barnes) CRA, ‘in the island lands of May’; these must be lands on the Isle of May, as distinct from lands on the mainland which belonged to the priory]
insul<a> de May 1648 Retours (Fife) no. 757 [Lawrence Cunningham of Barns (Barnes) CRA, ‘the island lands and the isle of May, with the lighthouse in the Firth of the River Forth’ (terras insulares et insulam de May, cum domo luminaria lie Lichthous, in ostio maris fluvii de Forthe)]
May Isle 1654 Blaeu (Gordon) Fife
ile of May 1657 Retours (Fife) no. 870 [Andrew Sword, West Barns (West-Barnes) CRA and ‘the iland lands and ile of May, with the licht-hous, and priviledges usit and wont, lying in the mouth of the river of Forth ... with fischings’]
May Island 1775 Ainslie/Fife
Isle of May 1790s OSA 36
Island of May 1790s OSA 36
Isle of May 1828 SGF
? G magh or ? ON má + ON ey
If the name derives from G magh ‘plain, open stretch of land, field’, it must refer to the long relatively level aspect of the island when seen from a distance. Alternatively it may be ON ‘gull island’, and this is certainly how it has been interpreted by the thirteenth-century author of the Orkneyinga saga. This, too, would be an appropriate enough name, given the abundance of marine bird-life on the island (it is now a noted bird reserve). The fact that there is at least one island in the Forth of indisputably Norse origin, that is Fidra ELO (Futheray 1449 ER v, 347), as well as others of possible Norse origin, such as Bass and Lamb, also ELO, and (Inch)mickery MLO, a Norse origin for May has to be taken seriously. There is also one other possible Norse name on the May, namely Swiney ANR, which see.
It was probably in the early 1140s that David I granted May to the Benedictine abbey of Reading in Berkshire, southern England, who established a dependent priory on the island (Duncan 1957, 53–4). However, as was often the case with new settlements of the continental orders in Scotland, the island had already been an ecclesiastical (and probably monastic) centre for centuries before that. Excavation conducted in the 1990s revealed beneath the later medieval priory church the remains of a series of churches dating back probably to the ninth century, possibly earlier, and certainly no later than the tenth, with various extensions to the east, the last one being in the late eleventh. It is clear, therefore, that the incoming Benedictines found a church already in place, which they did not replace until the early thirteenth century, and around which they built their priory (Yeoman 1998, 85, 88). The excavations also uncovered a very large early Christian cemetery to the north of the church, including a group of long-cist inhumations, indicating that the island was an important Christian focus from the seventh century or even earlier (ibid. 82–3, 88).
In twelfth- and early thirteenth-century charters May is usually referred to as the church of All Saints (sometimes simply ‘of (the) Saints’), with one exception, which mentions a grant to St Ethernan (1140 × 1158 Duncan 1957, 74). The All Saints dedication may have been bestowed by Reading to replace a local, and from a Reading perspective, uncouth cult. However, the Ethernan cult persisted, and in the mid-thirteenth century, charters refer to ‘a light’ (luminarium) of St Ethernan and to monks serving St Ethernan on the island, and Ethernan/Adrian is mentioned more often thereafter. It may be that this refers to the light of an altar dedicated to St Ethernan within the Benedictine’s church of All Saints; on the other hand the fact that the monks are said to be serving Saint Ethernan on the island suggests that the whole community was so dedicated, and that this was therefore the original dedication of the island church, one which had been temporarily overshadowed by the cult of All Saints imported by the Reading monks but which was now being acknowledged once again by the resident Benedictines. For detailed discussion of St Ethernan, his cult in the East Neuk of Fife, and his transformation into Adrian, see PNF 3, 51, 56–7, 323–6.
In fact the ‘light of St Ethernan’ (luminarium sancti Ethirnini) mentioned in 1252 × 1289 was probably not an altar light at all. In 1648, the Retours entry cited above speaks of dom<us> luminaria, and defines this as ‘the Lighthouse’ (lie Lichthous). It seems likely that one of the charitable works of the monks of May, as early as the mid-thirteenth century, was the maintenance of a warning light to guide shipping along this stretch of coast. The dangerous nature of the rocks here is made clear by the number of wrecks recorded as having taken place on the island in NMRS. References to the light-house continue on old maps: The Becon, Blaeu (Gordon) Fife (1654) and Lighthouse, Ainslie/Fife (1775).
By 1206 the prior, Hugh de Mortimer, was styled prior of Pittenweem (Barrow 1974 no. 3), which reflects the growing importance of Pittenweem, granted them by David I 1141 × 1150, as the land-base of the community on the May (David I Chrs. no. 133).
By the early fourteenth century the church of May had abandoned its Benedictine rule and its dependency on Reading Abbey, as a result of political and military tensions between Scotland and England, and had become an Augustinian priory under the jurisdiction of St Andrews priory.
By the sixteenth century the church on the Isle of May seems to have been in a state of collapse. Robert Forman, the Dean of Glasgow (1514–46) had to ask for collections to be held to support the church on ‘our island called the Isle of May, where the bodies of Saint Adrian and his companion martyrs are buried ... and where many and various Christians come on account of the merits of the holy martyrs, out of devotion and on pilgrimage. But the church which is dedicated there and the buildings which were built there are thoroughly destroyed and collapsed; and since there are no resources at hand for the building and repair of the said church and buildings, nor for the support of the chaplain currently serving in them, whom we have placed there for the increase of divine worship, unless Christians by their loving alms should give their support, we exhort you all in the Lord, and in the bowels of Jesus Christ, and we beseech you ...’ etc. (St A. Formulare i no. 61).
The Lighthouse of the May: As mentioned above, the thirteenth-century ‘light of St Ethernan’ may have referred not to an altar light in the priory church, but to the predecessor of the famous May Lighthouse. It seems likely that one of the charitable works of the monks of the May was the maintenance of a warning light to guide shipping into and past the wide mouth of the First of Forth. Just how great the danger posed by the May was (and still is) is made clear by the number of wrecks recorded around the island in NMRS.
In 1636 various local lairds, including Alexander Cunningham of Barns CRA, obtained permission to erect a tower on the May to serve as a lighthouse (1636 RMS ix no. 500). The lower storey of this building, with its commemorative plaque, still stands. For full details, see Eggeling 1985, Chapter IV ‘The Lighthouses’ (pp. 33–46, and the accompanying plates). It is called The Becon on Blaeu (Gordon) Fife (1654), i.e. ‘The Beacon’, and Lighthouse on Ainslie/Fife (1775). On the OS 6 inch 1st edn this seventeenth-century tower is referred to as Pilots’ House, while Lighthouse refers to the one which started operation in January 1817 (Eggeling 1985, 40). The Low Light, named as such on OS 6 inch 1st edn (1855), came into operation in 1844 on the island’s east coast, as part of a warning system to shipping leaving the Tay, its role superseded by the North Carr lightship towards the end of the century (Eggeling 1985, 43). The Low Light was used thereafter as a dwelling for one of the lighthouse keepers, best known of whom was a Macleod, who re-named it Dunvegan, after the ancestral home of the Macleods of Skye (Eggeling 1985, 247; PNF 3, 74). He also gave his name to Macleod’s Garden and Macleod’s Path (Eggeling 1985, 249). All three names carry Eggeling code L.
The following is taken from PNF 5, Appendix 5: The Isle of May is the most remote of the islands in the Firth of Forth, lying as it does in the wide mouth of the estuary, some six miles south of Fife Ness and some eleven miles north-west of North Berwick ELO (Eggeling 1985, 5). It forms part of the parish of Anstruther Wester (ANR), about five and a half miles away. It presents what is for Fife a unique named environment, its toponymy often clearly reflecting the different user-groups which have visited it and lived and worked on and around it over the centuries: churchmen, pilgrims, fishermen, lighthouse keepers, soldiers and, most recently, naturalists and rock-climbers, above all ornithologists. What makes the May (as it is referred to locally) unique is not only this multiplicity of naming-groups, but also the fact that its names have been so carefully recorded and sifted. This is due to the research and dedication of one man, W. J. Eggeling, who published a detailed and authoritative book on the island in 1960.
As part of Anstruther Wester ANR, the May was included in PNF 3 under that parish. Unfortunately a serious oversight occurred in the handling of its place-names. The speculation expressed in PNF 3, 73, that several of its names may be twentieth century, is in fact confirmed by Eggeling in an important note which was overlooked in the preparation of that volume. This note forms part of the Introduction to Eggeling’s Appendix I ‘Place Names’, and is as follows:
The six inch Ordnance map provides a fair number of place-names, including the North and South Ness, East and West Tarbet, the Black Heugh, the Pillow, Norman Rock and so on. Muir’s informant Joseph Agnew, who was a lighthouse keeper on the May for many years, lists (in the former’s Ecclesiological Notes [Muir 1885]) a number of names employed in the middle of the nineteenth century and still current, whilst one or two more can be found in Dickson’s Emeralds Chased in Gold [Dickson 1899]. Besides these there are a good many other place names used by lighthouse staff, some dating perhaps several centuries back; good examples are the Buss, Colm’s Hole, McLeod’s Path and Burnett’s Leap, the first two of which are almost certainly old. But even with this fairly considerable selection to choose from, ornithologists and other naturalists working on the island have still found it necessary to devise from time to time additional names to enable them to indicate an exact position on the ground where some bird, nest or plant has been seen. These recent names are, generally speaking, of one of two kinds, the purely descriptive, e.g. Nettle Hollow, Pat’s Puddle and South Plateau, and names which have a specific topographic meaning, e.g. Ardcarran, “a rocky height”, or which possess a particular association, for instance Rona (a haunt of seals). ... /p. 244/ In the gazetteer or place name glossary which follows [pp. 244–52], an attempt has been made to indicate which of the names are of long-standing, and which are recent, as under:
S = names used in Sibbald’s History (1710), the oldest important reference available.
O = names not mentioned by Sibbald but to be found on the original six-inch Ordnance map (1854).
A = additional names for which we are indebted to Agnew in Muir (1885).
D = names not by any of the above but appearing in Dickson (1899).
L = Lighthouse Service names in use in the 1920’s, some clearly of considerable antiquity, included on the authority of Lachlan McInnes, principal keeper on the May for fourteen years prior to the Second World War.
R = recent names, introduced since the establishment of the Observatory in 1934.
In the light of this, many of the May entries in PNF 3 require re-adjustment. Following a suggestion made by the publisher, Shaun Tyas, it was decided to create an Appendix which would keep all the May names together, both those discussed in PNF 3 and at least a representative sample of those listed in Eggeling’s Appendix I, all of which are shown on the map inside the front cover of his book. What follows is thus the most comprehensive survey of May place-names to date, superseding the May material in PNF 3, except where specifically stated.
There are too many names in Eggeling’s Appendix I even to be listed here, let alone discussed. The survey, below, contains all those definitely recorded before c.1900 (codes S, O, A, D), with a representative sample of L (names used by the lighthouse keepers in the 1920s) and R (names coined after 1934).
The island is referred to as the Isle of May, less frequently May Island, and colloquially The May, pronounced locally /ðəˈmai/, to rhyme with Sc and SSE aye.
This place-name appeared in printed volume 3