Top 5 marine musts

The Bass Rock

A boat trip is one of life’s great pleasures. Here are five destinations well worth taking to the waves for

Photograph: Scottish Seabird Centre

1 The Bass Rock, Firth of Forth

An astonishing, wild place just two miles from the ice creams and deckchairs of North Berwick, this sheer lump of volcanic rock is home to more than 150,000 gannets between late January and October – making it the world’s most populous rock gannetry.

Individually, they are among Scotland’s most impressive birds, with their brilliant white plumage, strong beaks and long, blacktipped wings. Collectively, as they wheel overhead, then fold in their wings to dive vertically at 60mph into the waves on sight of a fish, they are unforgettable.

The birds and their droppings turn the black rock white – yet they don’t have the place to themselves. You can also see puffins, guillemots, razorbills, eider duck and other birds in these waters.

Most visitors are content to chug round the rock and return to North Berwick, though it is also possible to land and take in some of this tiny island’s human history, too – its lighthouse, well, chapel and castle, the latter used as a particularly uncomfortable jail in which to house leading Covenanters in the late 17th century.

Boat trips to this and other Firth of Forth islands, including the Isle of May and Craigleith, can be booked via the Scottish Seabird Centre, where you can also watch nesting birds remotely via camera links.

2 Staffa, West of Mull

This small, cliff-fringed island owes its renown to its outstanding natural feature – Fingal’s Cave, a deep, spectacular opening lined with hexagonal columns of basalt. It can be explored by anyone steady and bold enough to pick their way in along the path.

The columns are similar to those at the Giant’s Causeway – but the sites are very different. The Antrim landform is a low headland, inviting and open to the elements; Fingal’s Cave is dark, noisy and unsettling as the waves surge in and out. It manages to be both vast and claustrophobic – Sir Walter Scott called it “one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld” and Felix Mendelssohn was inspired by his visit in 1829 to write his Hebrides Overture.,,

3 Ailsa Craig, Firth of Clyde

This near-circular granite outcrop off the Ayrshire coast, nicknamed Paddy’s Milestone because of its position half way between Belfast and Glasgow, is a familiar sight to many, yet known thoroughly by very few. Curlers, though, will probably have held a piece of it in their hands, since countless curling stones have been made from rock quarried here.

It’s an important seabird habitat, but as a destination it’s not awe-inspiring so much as alluring, standing gloriously alone, steep-sided yet rounded on top, rather like its best-known product.

If you go there and like it, you’re in luck – it’s up for sale at the reduced price of

£1.5 million, though the lack of a water supply makes it unpromising as a potential home. Boat trips leave from Girvan.

4 Corryvreckan Whirlpool, Off Jura

More than the other sea sights in our list, the Corryvreckan, between the islands of Jura and Scarba, can change dramatically between one visit and the next, depending on weather and tides. It’s Europe’s biggest whirlpool and when photographed from above generally has the classic spiral shape. When you’re sitting in a boat sailing through it, though, the feature is less clear-cut, and can present as a peculiar area of extreme roughness in an otherwise calm sea.

You may not be spun around like a fairground ride, but you will feel uneasy at the wildness and power of the water around you. There’s something alarming, too, about the thought of the huge rock pinnacle lurking beneath the surface that is the cause of the turbulence. Several operators run boat trips to the whirlpool.

5 Old Man of Hoy, Orkney

If you’ve never seen the Old Man of Hoy, don’t put it off too long. This 137-metre sandstone stack is a youngster as landforms go, probably just a few centuries old, and it will doubtless collapse eventually – though with luck it will last a while yet.

It was first climbed in 1966, by Chris Bonington, Rusty Baillie and Tom Patey, and hundreds have followed in their handholds, with most then abseiling on the descent. There’s a logbook buried in a cairn on the summit in which visits are recorded.

The Old Man is a familiar sight to passengers on ferries from Scrabster in Caithness to Stromness, but for those wanting a closer look, Orkney Ferries run a frequent service to Hoy and there are a number of Orkney tour operators who will take you there.

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