The Scottish Seabird Centre occupies a beautiful building overlooking North Berwick harbour. Neither the design nor the location are a coincidence. From many angles the roofline is very reminiscent of a bird's wing, and the whole feel is of a building in harmony with its surroundings. Meanwhile the location affords direct views out to the islands of Fidra, Craigleith, Bass Rock and, on a clear day, the Isle of May, whose avian residents are a large part of the reason why the centre is here.
The Scottish Seabird Centre, which is open all year, can be a number of different things to different people. For some, perhaps simply out for a stroll along North Berwick's two fine beaches or visiting the harbour created from the rocky promontory where they meet, the Seabird Centre is somewhere to drop into for a good value, excellent lunch, or simply enjoy a cup of coffee and a fine home made cake in pleasant surroundings. If the weather is good enough you can enjoy the outdoor tables offering what must be one of the best locations in East Lothian. In the same way, many will call in to browse the gift shop offering a wide range of goods with, as you would expect, a particular emphasis on the natural world and on birds. The bookshop which forms part of this can be highly recommended.
To appreciate the best of what the Seabird Centre has to offer, you need to pay the admission charge to descend (via steps or lift: the centre is fully accessible) to the Discovery Centre in its lower level. We have to admit to having visited the Seabird Centre on a number of occasions as casual diners before taking the trouble to find out what the Discovery Centre had to offer. And we have to admit to being totally amazed by the range of things to see and do: and by the scale of the Discovery Centre, which projects out beyond the footprint of the building you can see at above-ground level. We cover the Discovery Centre in more detail below.
For those who want to go beyond the confines of the building itself, the Scottish Seabird Centre also offers a range of boat trips. Some trips take you around Bass Rock and Craigleith, while others allow you to land on the Isle of May or on Bass Rock. Full details are set out on the centre's website: advance booking is highly recommended, and all trips are subject to weather conditions.
But you don't need to actually visit one of these islands to see, enjoy and appreciate what is going on there: and that is where the Discovery Centre really comes into its own. Visitors arrive at the foot of the stairs or in the lift to find themselves in a space which, Tardis-like, appears much larger than you feel it can possibly be when compared to the building above.
What's on offer in the Discovery Centre can be broken down into a number of different types of activity. On the one hand there are a range of interactive exhibits which allow you to explore different aspects of the natural history of birds, and in particular of the seabirds found in and around the Firth of Forth. Some exhibits and activities are aimed specifically at younger visitors, and it is clear from the rubbings of pictures of birds on display that these are engaged with enthusiastically by their target audience. Other exhibits, like the interactive game in which you try to save the marine environment by managing various factors such as pollution levels and the amount of fishing, appeal to everyone.
But the real heart of the visitor experience in the Discovery Centre is provided by the series of discrete areas given over to the individual islands in the estuary. Each is home to a number of informative exhibits: some, like the recreated cliff colony, on a spectacular scale. But each is also home to a series of very large screens, each showing the output of a camera on the island in question. Each screen has an accompanying control unit, and visitors can pan and zoom the cameras to their hearts' content. With a large number of these around the centre, it is possible for many visitors to get hands on experience during their tour of the Discovery Zone. Meanwhile the cameras, all solar powered and each with its own windscreen wiper, are powerful enough to read the ID numbers on the rings around birds' legs.
And there is more. A cinema large enough to seat about 50 shows a series of short wildlife films throughout the day. These are informative and interesting, while being brief enough to appeal to even those of us with very short attention spans: and the cinema also affords the chance to take the weight off your feet for the time the film takes to run.
A door in the Discovery Centre gives access to "The Migration Flyway". This is a sloping tunnel which extends out under the grassy area in front of the Seabird Centre and is themed, as the name implies, on migration. It is something of a surprise when the flyway brings you out in the lower storey of the buildings overlooking North Berwick harbour, in an exhibition known as the Eco Zone. Having made your way back to the Discovery Centre you ascend to the observation deck, on the main floor of the centre. Here you can view more screens, some showing the output of cameras placed directly outside the large windows, or you can go out onto a balcony equipped with telescopes directed towards the various islands in the estuary.
The Scottish Seabird Centre was built on the site of what had previously been the Harbour Pavilion, a building which, by the late 1990s, stood unused and forlorn. The Centre was opened on 21 May 2000 by HRH Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay and has since gone from strength to strength. It is an independent charity which sets out to inspire people to appreciate and care for wildlife and the natural environment. In 2005 this included leading a community initiative to conserve the remains of its near neighbour, the partial remains of St Andrew's Old Kirk.