It has been a hot spot for pirates and smugglers, used as a base camp for Spanish soldiers trying to invade Scotland and was even used as a prison in the late 18th century. Nowadays, it’s famous for two things – seabirds and curling stones.
With its steep cliff side edges and iconic silhouette, Ailsa Craig is one of the most photogenic islands in the whole of Scotland.
I caught up with the Ayrshire-based photographer and video creator @ItsTommysWorld to ask him 10 Questions about his day trips to Ailsa Craig and all the wonders which can be found on the island.
Tommy specialises in lifestyle and travel photography and has taken some stunning photos of Ailsa Craig over the years. You can check out his website here.
Firstly, what is Ailsa Craig?
Well, Ailsa Craig is a dome shaped island which can be found sitting dramatically in waters of the River Clyde. The geological formation is essentially a dense block of granite which was leftover from a long-extinct volcano.
Ailsa Craig translates to “Fairy Rock” in Gaelic and it has also been given the nickname “Paddy’s Milestone” as it marks pretty much the exact halfway point between Glasgow and Belfast in Northern Ireland.
Early History of Ailsa Craig
Despite its small size, the island itself has an extensive and interesting history.
The Romans were known to have previously inhabited the island. It was also used as a base camp for Spanish soldiers in the late 16th century, as they planned an invasion of Scotland. During this time a castle was built, and the ruins remain on the east side of the island.
It was a hot spot for pirates and smugglers over the years, and it was even used as a prison sometime in the late 18th century. I like to picture Ailsa Craig during this time as Scotland’s version of Alcatraz prison. Given its steep cliff edges and the fact that its 16km off the coast, I wouldn’t fancy my chances as a prisoner planning an escape.
In the 1880’s a lighthouse was built, and it remains on the island to this day. In 1990, the lighthouse was automated meaning there was no longer a need for manpower on the island. Since then, Ailsa Craig has been largely uninhabited.
Recent History of Ailsa Craig
There’s no doubt the island has had a flavourful past, but nowadays it’s famous for two things – birds and curling stones. What a combo.
Currently, Ailsa Craig is leased out to the RSPB and is considered a haven for seabirds. The island boasts more than 70,000 birds including Gannets, Razorbill’s, Kittiwakes and Puffins.
As mentioned, the island is essentially a large hunk of granite. Most of this granite rock is of the highest quality and has made Ailsa Craig an incredibly popular place for mining, dating back to the 1800s.
This is one of the islands big claims to fame as the mined granite is used to make curling stones. In fact, Ailsa granite is the origin of 2/3rds of the worlds curling stones including all the stones which were used in the last five Winter Olympic games. Quite amazing for such a wee island!
An organisation called Kays of Scotland have exclusive rights to quarry for granite on the island. They are only permitted to do so once in every ten years to disturb the nesting birds as little as possible.
Ailsa Craig Spotlight: 10 Questions with @ItsTommysWorld
So, let’s see what Tommy had to say when I caught up with him to talk about his day trips over to Aisla Craig.
1. How did you get over to Ailsa Craig?
“Ive been on Ailsa Craig twice now, the first time was with my friend Howard on his rib, we set off from Maidens.”
“The Second time I was lucky enough to be invited along with geologist Derek Leung from Edinburgh University who I collaborated with on his curling stone project. We set off from Girvan this time on a charter boat that left from Girvan Harbour.”
2. How long did it take you to get there?
“When I left from Maidens it took us roughly about 40+ minutes, and the journey from Girvan Harbour was just over an hour.”
3. What sort of wildlife did you see?
“On Ailsa Craig there is thousands of Gannets, and I also saw hundreds of rabbits on my climb to the top. While walking around the coast there was 3 or 4 large seals being nosey and following us along the coast. I also saw some black seabirds, I think it could be Guilemot but I’m not sure.”
4. What did you get up to whilst on the island?
“On my first trip, we tied the boat up to the pier and our mission was to climb to the top, I have created a Youtube video where you can see drone shots of the island and boat trip, go pro footage of me climbing to the top and reaching the cairn”
“The second time was when I went along with Derek. For me, the purpose of this was to see the origin of curling stones and, most importantly, as a pilgrimage. Derek’s goal was to inspect the granite rock formations and the layout of the granite plugs.”
“It was really fascinating listening to him explain the geology of the island and how the granite is formed. We also explored around the coast of the island this time and this was when the seals followed us.”
5. Tell me about the hike to the top, was it worth it?
“The hike up to the top and back down took roughly about 4 hours. Going up was a bit tricky for me with a fully loaded camera bag, but the view and feeling you get from the top was well worth it.”
“It’s an achievement that not many people have done just because of the difficulty in getting there and also the climb itself, so i’m pleased that I have managed to do it.”
6. What makes Ailsa Craig so photogenic?
“Ailsa Craig is really photogenic from the mainland or even Arran because of its peculiar shape, and its in an ideal location for the sun setting behind it.”
“Also the beautiful surrounding scenery helps to make photos of Ailsa Craig really stand out, of which there are lots of different angles to be found for unique photo opportunities.”
7. Where’s the best location to take a photo of Ailsa Craig on the mainland?
“My favourite location on the mainland so far for shooting Ailsa Craig has to be from the Trump Turnberry Resort. You can get an interesting foreground subject with the lighthouse and have the sunsetting behind Ailsa Craig in the background. I have challenged myself to find a few more unique locations on the mainland to shoot Ailsa Craig.”
8. What’s your favourite photo you’ve taken of Ailsa Craig?
“My favourite photo I’ve taken of Ailsa Craig is my Drone shot I took while standing on the rocky shore. Ailsa Craig has no sand, only rock everywhere. I’m just a tiny spec on the rocky shore so that just shows you the scale.”
“I always thought it would be smaller than it actually is just because it looks tiny from the mainland where I live in Stevenson.”
You can check this shot below:
9. How long have you been a photographer for?
“Its been 4 years since i first got a camera – it was a Nikon d3200 I started out with – and I dedicated a lot of time to teaching myself photography and videography from Youtube.”
“After a year of constant learning and practicing, I quickly outgrew my Nikon and switched to Sony and decided to start my media business.”
10. What’s your photography gear set-up?
What’s in my camera bag:
Lowepro Bag | Sony A7iii | Sony Zeiss 16-35mm f4 | Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8 | Sony G 70 200mm f4 | Viltrox 85mm f1.8 | Panasonic GH5 (I use this for Video Only) | Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 (gh5, video only) | Viltrox SpeedBooster | Zoom H1n (audio recorder) | Rode Video Micro (mic) | RavPower FileHub (portable sd card backup device) | 1tb Hard Drive | SD Card Holder | 2 x PowerBanks | Zhiyun Weebil-S Gimbal | DJI Mavic Pro 2
So, there you have it…
That’s Ailsa Craig in a nutshell. Hopefully this has given you an insight into what life on this mysterious island is like.
For those who fancy visiting, there’s actually boat trips to Ailsa Craig which leave from Girvan Harbor to the island. For those who don’t, you can always take in those incredible views from the mainland.
Thanks to @ItsTommysWorld for helping us bring this Ailsa Craig Spotlight together. Be sure to check out Tommy’s website for his photography tips, business inquiries and online store. You can do that here.
Looking for more?
Why not check out Daniels blog where he goes on a boat trip to another completely uninhabited island called ‘Wee Cumbrae’: