Dirleton | Fidra

John Hunt

Fidra is a delightful seabird island in miniature the most westerly of the string of islands that so enhance the coastal landscape at North Berwick. The lighthouse is its most prominent feature but there are other much older interests such as the ruined mediaeval church of St Nicholas and the rocky Castle Tarbet the site of an ancient castle. The numerous small cliffs provide splendid close-up views of the seabirds during the spring and summer while gulls and eider ducks nest nearly everywhere.

Fidra was owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board for many years and the lighthouse was manned by three keepers and their families until it became automatic in the 1960s. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has managed the island as a nature reserve since that time, first of all under an agreement with the NLB, and then eventually purchasing the island (apart from the lighthouse buildings) in 1989 for £2500. This purchase generated some literary controversy in the national press as to whether Fidra had been the inspiration for R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, since the author spent many holidays at North Berwick as a boy. The experts, as so often, failed to agree!

Fidra has been an important seabird colony for many years and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Local naturalists and the RSPB have carried out many visits since the 1950s with a full count of all nesting birds made by the RSPB every year since the early 1970s. Significant changes have taken place in the species and numbers during that time.

For a number of years it was the nesting terns which attracted the most interest with sandwich, roseate and common/arctic terns all nesting (common and arctic terns are very hard to tell apart and are usually lumped together). Terns are comparatively uncommon (roseate terns are very rare) and have declined in most places since the last war because of disturbance at their breeding sites and competition and/or predation from gulls and other species. All three species of tern are recorded as nesting in the early 1950s and continued to do so in variable numbers and success over the next 20 years with maximum counts of 318 pairs of sandwich terns (1971), 100 pairs of roseate tern (1970) and over 300 pairs of common/arctic terns in several years. However during the early 1970s the numbers of herring and lesser black-backed gulls nesting on the island built up rapidly and this undoubtedly contributed to a marked decline in tern numbers. Gulls set up their nesting territories before the terns arrive back from the southern oceans and once they reach a certain density it is very difficult for tern colonies to get established. Since 1973 (when there were over 290 pairs of nesting gulls), only small numbers of common/arctic terns attempted to nest, usually with very poor success, the last occasion being in 1986.

This decline was despite attempts by the RSPB to create space for terns by limited killing of gulls under licence, which was done from 1972 to 1982. By then gull numbers had risen to nearly 1000 pairs and control measures were halted. Gulls have continued to increase with over 1,500 pairs nesting in the late 1990s. The increase in gulls on Fidra has been mirrored on many of the other islands in the Forth and is thought to have arisen mainly from the increased availability of food from rubbish dumps and other sources of waste food, which have allowed more gulls to survive the winter. Another factor may have been the reduced level of human persecution in recent years – for example on Fidra the lighthouse keepers are known to have controlled gulls as well as collecting their eggs for consumption.

Other seabird species have generally done well on the island in the last 40 years. The current status of the main breeding species is:


Over 300 apparently occupied sites in the late 1990s having built up from very few prior to 1960. First bred 1938.


Built up to 250 nests in the early 1990s after first nesting in 1971 but has declined since to less than 100 nests.


Started nesting in 1964 and then increased to over 700 nests in 1989 before declining to 300 nests in the late 1990s.


Built up from none in 1971 to about 200 birds in the late 1990s.


First recorded breeding in 1974 with nearly 100 birds in the late 1990s.


First recorded breeding in 1965 with a population of over 400 apparently occupied burrows by the late 1990s.

Eider Ducks

Increased from relatively small numbers prior to 1970 to over 200 nests in the 1990s.