Interview: Illustrator Keith Brockie on on why the Isle of May is ‘an absolute paradise’

Artist Keith Brockie in his studio near Kenmore. Picture: Dan Phillips
Artist Keith Brockie in his studio near Kenmore. Picture: Dan Phillips
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Twenty eight years ago Keith Brockie produced a magnificently illustrated book of the Isle of May’s wildlife. It cemented his reputation as a great illustrator and started a love affair with the Scottish island. Now the artist has returned to produce a new book of stunning work from his favourite place

‘THE ISLE is full of noises,” Caliban remarks in The Tempest. He might well have been talking about the Isle of May, that riven outrider of the East Neuk of Fife that guards the entrance to the Firth of Forth. Make the 8km trip from Anstruther in early summer and watch your head while disembarking as irate nesting terns divebomb you at the jetty, and every inlet, stack and rock arch echoes with the multitudinous yelling of seabirds.

One of Keith Brockie's works

One of Keith Brockie's works

The Isle of May has been many things to many people – anchorite’s fastness, monastic settlement, wild­fowling ground for King James IV and the site of Scotland’s earliest lighthouse. For wildlife artist Keith Brockie, however, the island, now managed by Scottish Natural Heritage as a National Nature Reserve, is quite simply “an absolute paradise”.

He should know. Twenty-eight years ago, he published his magnificently illustrated book on “the May”, One Man’s Island. He was just four years out of art school, and had already attracted much interest with Keith Brockie’s Wildlife Sketchbook. One Man’s Island became a bestseller, aided by a BBC television documentary, and cemented his reputation as a leading wildlife illustrator. Since then he has continued to visit the island, ringing birds and monitoring seabird populations when not sketching.

On one such visit in 2009 he and his wife, Hazel, found a White’s thrush – a very rare visitor from east of the Urals – in one of the island’s bird traps, prompting him to revisit the place in book form. He spent much of 2010 there, staying in former keeper’s accommodation at the long de-manned Low Light. The result, published this week, is Return to One Man’s Island, which, once again, showcases his almost uncanny ability to render intricate detail and sheer living presence.

He writes in his introduction: “Since I first stayed on the Isle of May, in September 1973, the island has held a special place in my soul.”

One of Keith Brockie's works

One of Keith Brockie's works

He says: “I’ve been visiting most years since. It’s a wonderful place. You stay in the old lighthouse and you just go out the door and it’s all there, from migrating birds in spring and autumn, breeding birds in the summer time, wintering birds, then seals in October-November. There’s always a huge variety and the shape of the island means you can always get a sheltered spot to work in if the weather’s bad.”

We’re talking in the upstairs sitting room of the converted cottage and gallery he and Hazel share with their three dogs at Fearnan in Highland Perthshire. It’s a magnificent location in anyone’s book – and rich in wildlife, if a bit far from the sea, he remarks, as light streams in from the gilded autumnal braes above Loch Tay. From the house, using his telescope, he can view an osprey’s nest on the far slopes – one the many he knows from 20 years spent monitoring Perthshire’s osprey population.

Light, and its understanding, play an essential part in his craft, sometimes in its less obvious manifestations – the back-lighting of a kestrel amid the ancient masonry of the island chapel at Kirkhaven, the feathers of a nesting shag erupting into iridescent green, the wobbly glimmer of sunlight on a swimming seal pup’s back.

Getting the light in his subjects’ eyes right is also important in bringing them to life, he says. “It’s just sort of deep observation of the subject,” he adds, matter-of-factly.

Puffins on the Isle of May. Picture: Greg Macvean

Puffins on the Isle of May. Picture: Greg Macvean

It is that “deep observation”, honed by decades of experience, that informs his precise and vivid pencil and watercolour renderings of the island’s inhabitants – the clown-billed puffins whose burrows riddle the place, the shags sporting the extravagant crests they develop while nesting, the guillemots, razorbills, eider ducks and shrieking kittiwakes. A velvet scoter’s back is stippled with glinting water droplets, while a robin glares off the page at you in a direct, who-the-Hell-are-you? stare. It is a robin that graces no Christmas card.

Each has a personality, though not in any anthropomorphic sense. The Scotsman’s art critic, Duncan Macmillan, once described a Brockie study of a hare as “a record of something seen, certainly, but also of otherness understood and wondered at, of empathy, of seeing informed by feeling”.

Brockie, now 57, was born in Haddington, East Lothian, later moving to Strathmiglo, Fife, with his parents. He was still at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee when he went on a wildlife expedition to Norway, at the same time landing a job as an illustrator with Dundee Museums and Art Galleries. In the event, however, he hated having to draw to order and left to go freelance. While the Isle of May continues to exert its spell, he has travelled widely on conservation and educational trips to such diverse places as Svalbard, Greenland, Poland, India and Yemen. The three decades since One Man’s Island have seen changes to the May which, after its lighthouse was de-manned in 1989, passed from ownership of the Northern Lighthouse Board to SNH. Climate change impacting on sand eels and other elements in the food chain has caused fluctuations in the seabird population.

“The puffin population in 1983 was probably about 20,000 or so,” says Brockie. “It peaked at around 70,000 then in the last few years has gone down a bit. I’m glad I wasn’t on the island this year: the puffin chicks were lost, flooded out by the huge amounts of rain.

“The shags have had various [population] crashes but are building up again And sadly when I was there in 2010 the terns all deserted the island and there were no chicks fledged at all – due, I think, to predation by certain gulls.”

A more positive development, however, is that in recent years, Peregrine falcons have returned to breed on the island. None of these creatures, of course, make particularly biddable subjects for the artist – humans are far easier to draw, he agrees (his vivid illustrations for Polly Pullar’s Rural Portraits, include farming folk as well as their animal charges).

To the layman, the idea of sketching with one eye to a powerful telescope may seem a sure-fire recipe for astigmatism; for Brockie, however, it is second nature. An inflatable cushion, he adds, is a necessity, for long periods sitting on damp rocks and vegetation, but so is “a childlike enquiring wonder at the natural world”, whether capturing iconic species such as Peregrines or sea eagles, or a lobster he kept in bucket of seawater. “I could actually work on some species for a full year and keep on finding new things about them. You have to keep an open mind about everything … no preconceptions.”

Some encounters, however, come by happy chance, rather than through patience – the occasion in October 2010, for instance, when he was walking round the island’s South Horn and a minke whale breached, almost vertically, nearby before crashing back into the water. “It must have been about ten metres long,” recalls Brockie, who drew it in retrospect for the new book.

Reaching for a sketch book is second nature for him. He opens a few to show me deft, rapidly executed pencil drawings: thrushes at his house end, peewit chicks, swallows on a wire beaded with raindrops. He unearths one of the books from his expedition to Yemen’s Tihama area: ghostly baboons prowl its pages, lizards skitter about the margins.

He points to one of the original finished artworks for the new book, glowing on his wall. “People ask me how long a picture like this takes,” he smiles. “I tell them 40 years.”


The Isle of May was a focus of pilgrimage from early times, when a monk, St Ethernan, settled there. After his death in AD669, his shrine attracted pilgrims and a monastery was founded there by King David in 1145. In 1500 the monks are thought to have received half a million pilgrims, including King James IV, who also used to shoot wildfowl on the island.

In 1715, the Earl of Strathmore and 300 of his Jacobite soldiers were marooned there for eight days without food. The island also supported a small fishing, crofting and smuggling community – John Wishart, the last villager, was buried on the island in 1730.

Scotland’s first lighthouse was built there in 1636. It was a coal-fired beacon, and in 1791 tragedy struck when the lighthouse keeper and his family were overcome during the night by fumes from the ash heap outside their house. All were found to be dead, except for their baby girl, who grew up to marry one of her rescuers. They emigrated to America, and in 2006, the island was visited by Susan Ciccatelli, a descendent of that infant who survived.

The beacon was replaced in 1816 by a lighthouse designed by Robert Stevenson.

“The May” can be visited from March to October by regular boat trips from Anstruther in Fife, while the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick (which has webcams installed on the island) also organises trips. Online visitors can enjoy a virtual tour of the island on