Handa Island: Puffins, Serenity and Picturesque Scenery

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Handa Island

A visit to Handa Island is a rush of nature at its best.

Fresh sea air invigorates your lungs, oodles of seabirds clamour for space on precarious sandstone ledges, great skuas soar above the open moorland and arresting views await you around each corner.

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

John Muir

About Handa Island

Handa Island is owned by the Scourie Estate but the Nature Reserve is managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. It is a Scottish Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) and also a Special Protected Area, (SPA).

An SPA is a special site designated under the EU Birds Directive to protect rare, vulnerable and migratory birds.

Over 200,000 seabirds arrive at Handa Island to set up home for the summer. They immediately busy themselves with building burrows, nests or just simply laying claim to a few inches on the steep cliff ledges on the island.

Mating pairs bond and the ritual of producing the next generation of seabirds begins.

Puffins and razorbills on the edge  of the cliff top with a foreground of a grassy top
Puffins and guillemots admiring the scenic view on the Great Stack, Handa Island

The Torridon sandstone, forming the island, is 1000 million years old, and Handa Island is part of the North West Highlands Geopark.

Handa Island Video

This video gives you a short two-minute snapshot of what it’s like to visit Handa Island.

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Handa Island Map

Handa Island is in Sutherland, in the northwest of Scotland and just a10 minute ferry ride from the mainland.

Handa Island Ferry

The Tarbet to Handa passenger ferry runs from Tarbet pier to Handa Island from early April to late August. Depending on weather conditions it normally operates from 9 am to 2 pm for outgoing journeys to the island. However, we would recommend arriving early in the morning for the first trip out to Handa, so that you can make the most of your day.

The round trip costs £20, payable by cash only when you buy your ticket at the ticket booth beside the Tarbet pier. The Handa Ferry only takes around 12 people at a time so arrive early ( about half an hour) if it is nice weather, because it’s likely to be busy.

The car park, marked on the map, is free but does fill up quickly on a sunny day. It is also the car park for the Shorehouse Seafood Restaurant and Cafe, where you can book a seafood meal or stop by for a cream tea or a quick pint.

Ticket-office-Tarbet-harbour
Handa Ferry Ticket Office at Tarbet Pier
Tarbet jetty with people puttin gon lifejackets and getting ready to board the passenger ferry
Getting ready to board Handa Ferry

Lifejackets are supplied and must be worn on the short 10-minute boat ride. Make sure you are wrapped up warmly and wearing a waterproof jacket as the sea spray can whip up on the journey.

The ferry lands at either of two sandy beaches, on Handa Island, depending on the wind direction. There, you’ll be met by a Scottish Wildlife Trust ranger.

The final ferry back to Tarbet is around 4.45 pm. Therefore, make sure you leave plenty of time to arrive back at the landing beach for your departure.

No dogs are allowed on the ferry. Makes sense really, because dogs aren’t allowed on Handa Island due to the protected wildlife.

Passengers disembarking from the Handa Ferry on to the beach
Disembarking the Handa Ferry onto Handa Island

Arriving on Handa Island

Once you step off the Handa Ferry, you walk up to the Information hut. There, the ranger or Wildlife Trust volunteers inform you about the island. They also advise of recent sightings and what to expect along the trail.

You will be given a leaflet with a map of the island. You can download a copy of the Handa Island leaflet here.

The rangers will also reinforce the island’s rules, such as sticking to the paths and leaving no trace as you enjoy the landscape and wildlife.

There is a composting toilet beside the information hut.

Handa-Island info centre, a small stone hut
The Scottish Wildlife Trust info centre on Handa Island
Selection of broken eggs, bones etc of various birds found on the island
Some of the display items in Handa Island’s information centre

Handa Island Walk

The circular path on Handa Island takes you over moorland, where Skuas rule the roost, along steep sandstone cliffs where tens of thousands of nesting seabirds gather each year, and close to the shore where you might spot any number of marine animals.

The wardens recommend an anti-clockwise route which first takes you across Skua patrolled moorland and the historical ruins of what was once a village on the Island.

The last inhabitants of Handa Island left in 1847, with life no longer being sustainable on Handa. It is thought that many emigrated to Nova Scotia in Canada, a popular destination for Scots looking for a better life.

Stone wall ruins of village on Handa Island
Remnants of a Handa Village, which was last inhabited in 1847
flying great skua over Handa Island moorland
Flying great skua (or Bonxie)

As you reach the cliffs on the northern side of the island, at Puffin Bay, you will hear and see some of the thousands of seabirds that arrive on Handa for the breeding season. If the wind direction is right, you’ll no doubt smell the birds before you see them, with a waft of rotting fish laying out the red carpet for you.

Although its name, Puffin Bay, suggests you may spot the colourful ‘clowns of the sea‘ here, this isn’t the ideal place to find them. The next promontory, where you’ll find the Great Stack, is where you are most likely to see puffins.

Here, every available ledge space seemed to be taken. As we watched, the arguments on who was crossing whose boundary seemed quite intense in some cases, with noisy squabbles and pecking being the order of the day.

guillemots crowded on a ledge
Guillemots on the side of the Great Stack, Handa Island
Sea pinks growing on Handa Island
Sea thrift brightening up Handa Island cliffs
Shelley sat with camera on tripod opposite one of the cliffs
Lots of photography opportunities near the Great Stack
Razorbill landing on the sandstone cliff
Razorbill coming in to land on Handa Island

We spent a good part of our time on the island perched opposite the Great Stack. We wiled the hours away curiously watching the comings and goings of the birds. All the while, looking out for puffins who were zipping in and out of their burrows and popping up every now and again amongst the grass clumps on top of the stack.

Puffins knocking their bills together
Puffins bonding by knocking bills together

Once we’d had our fill of the birds, we headed back towards the landing beach. The next part of the trail took us along wooden board paths.

Be careful here, because the boards change level every now and again. So, if you are admiring the scenery instead of watching your footing, you could easily trip.

Pathway on Handa island leading towards the sea shore
Wooden boardwalk trail on Handa Island

Yes, that was me.

Luckily, I didn’t do any damage to myself, but my camera lens hood took a battering … but rather that than my lens itself!

This part of the Handa Island trail takes you down past a collapsed sea cave and closer to the shore at sea level, where interesting block-like shaped rock formations take pride of place.

At Boulder Bay, keep an eye out for otters as they are often spotted in this area, though normally more towards dawn and dusk.

Back at the beach, we waited about 10 mins for the next boat back to the mainland. All in all, we were on the island for about six hours.

Handa Island Wildlife

So what wildlife might you expect to see on Handa Island?

The Handa Island cliffs teem with seabirds which include:

  • Guillemots
  • Razorbills
  • Kittiwakes
  • Puffins
  • Fulmars
  • Shags (Cormorants)
Razorbills on Handa Island
Razorbills on Handa Island

You’ll also see plenty of great skuas, (known as Bonxies in Scotland) flying around and nesting in the moorland heath. They are known to be very defensive of their territory — especially when they have eggs and chicks. Wave your arms around above you if they decide to attack, or even better, a walking pole if you have one.

Around the shore, you might also spot oystercatchers and eider ducks.

Handa Island hosts one of the largest guillemot colonies (called loomeries ) in Britain. The guillemots, sometimes packed together with 70 birds per square metre, don’t make nests but lay a special conical-shaped egg to prevent it from rolling off the ledge.

Guillemots-on-cliff-ledge-
Guillemots on a cliff ledge, Handa Island
Puffin flying at Handa Island
Puffin taking off at Handa Island
Great skua stood on a rock at Handa Island
Great skua at Handa Island
Kittiwakes and guillemots on a cliff face at Handa Island
Kittiwakes and guillemots on the layered sandstone ledges of Handa Island

From the excellent vantage point of the cliffs, which are more than 100metres high in some places, you might spot whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, basking sharks, minke whales or orcas.

Down by the shore, watch out for otters and seals cruising the coastline.

You may also spot small black devices dotted around the island. These are in place to deal with the rat problem. You might wonder how rats are on the island in the first place.

Surprisingly they swim in open water from the mainland. The rats are a threat to the ground-nesting birds on the island because they destroy their nests, and feed on their eggs and chicks.

Puffins on Handa Island

We enjoy watching all birdlife, but there is something about these cute little things that has everyone clamouring for a glimpse of them.

Although Handa Island puffin viewing isn’t quite like the Skomer Island puffin experience, they are there, and with a little patience and a keen eye, you’ll likely find more and more as you study the top earthy and grassy areas of the cliffs.

The first place we spotted them was on the Great Stack and then gradually spied more on the nearby cliffs.

They aren’t close though, so you will need binoculars or a zoom camera. We were using a Sony 100-400 mm lens and a Sony 200-600 lens.

We visited in May and they were still busy collecting clumps of grass for their burrows. From mid-June, you’re likely to see them arrive with mouthfuls of sand eels for their chicks. They then start leaving at the end of July.

three Puffins by sea thrift  and sandy top cliff
Puffins whispering sweet nothings on Handa Island
Puffin flying off the cliff at Handa Island
Puffin launching off the cliff
Puffin collecting burrow nesting
Puffin collecting nesting material for its burrow

Clothing for Handa Island

The weather in Scotland can change in a moment, so to ensure your Handa Island trip is enjoyable I would suggest dressing for all weathers. Layers are the way to go, so you can strip off or layer up depending on the temperature.

The trip across to the island can also see you getting splashed by waves so waterproofs are handy to wear on the boat trip. You will also need waterproofs for the island so you won’t get drenched in an unexpected downpour. This can happen even if you set off with clear blue skies and the weather forecast says ‘no rain’.

Trust us we know;)

Also, make sure to wear sturdy walking boots or shoes as although you follow paths on the island you have about a three to four-hour walk around the island.

Remember to pack water to drink and snacks and lunch as there aren’t any facilities on the island.

Bird silhouette at Handa Island
It’s not just the big birds that enjoy Handa Island

Where to Stay Near Handa Island

We stayed at the Old School Room BnB, locally owned and run, with a great restaurant. It was absolutely fabulous and great value for money with a superb full Scottish breakfast included in the price.

Just 13 miles and a 23-minute drive to Handa Ferry.

Address: Inshegra, Kinlochbervie, Sutherland IV27 4RJ

Website: https://www.oldschoolhotel.co.uk/

Handa Island… That’s a Wrap

For bird lovers, nature lovers and photographers alike, a trip to Handa Island is the perfect place to immerse yourself in a serene and pristine environment.

A time to be in the moment and to appreciate this Scottish wilderness and the all-important seasonal affair of nesting on Handa Island.

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