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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Shags (Cormorants)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
If you enjoyed this article, you may like these FREE RESOURCES:
- FREE 23-page Travel Planner, including menu planner, journal pages and budgeting)
- FREE Travel Guides (many countries)
- FREE Phone Wallpapers
- FREE Photo Ebooks
- Monthly Travel News
This post may contain affiliate links. This means that we may earn a small commission from purchases you make through our links, at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting us. For more info, read our Disclosure Policy.
Pin and Save for Later
- Scotland Destination Travel Guide
- Wildlife Encounters Around the World
- Gannets Galore at Troup Head, Scotland
- Tollie Red Kites, Northern Scotland
- Skomer Island Puffins, Wales
- Outer Hebrides Road Trip
PLANNING YOUR TRAVELS?
These are some of the travel resources we use when planning our trip and can recommend:
- Travel Insurance: World Nomads
- Book Accommodation: We use Booking.com and Tripadvisor to find accommodation that suits our budget
- Travel Gear and Accessories: Check out our top picks here — Lifejourney4two page on Amazon
- Car Hire: We use Rentalcars.com
- Motorhome/Campervan Rental: We highly recommend the Motorhome Republic
- Activity Tickets: Get Your Guide
- Free Accommodation: Get 25% off Trusted House Sitters
- Wall Art: Shop our ETSY store
For a more thorough list visit our Travel Resources page here.