Handa Island: Puffins, Serenity and Picturesque Scenery

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Experience the Wild Heart of Scotland: Our Journey to Handa Island

Ever wondered what it’s like to be in a place where nature takes centre stage? We discovered just that on our visit to Handa Island, a breathtaking wildlife sanctuary in Scotland.

Managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, this Nature Reserve is a site of scientific interest and a refuge for rare and migratory birds.

Join us as we share our firsthand experiences of Handa’s fresh sea air, the chorus of seabirds, and stunning landscapes that captivated us at every turn.

Let us guide you through the natural splendour of Handa Island, a jewel in Scotland’s majestic wilderness.

Puffin collecting burrow nesting
Puffin collecting nesting material for its burrow

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

John Muir
Razorbill landing on the sandstone cliff
Razorbill coming in to land on Handa Island

Quick Overview: How to Visit Handa Island and Why It’s Worth the Trip

  • Getting There: The journey to Handa Island begins with a Tarbet Pier ferry from April to August. It’s advisable to arrive early for the first trip to maximize your day. The round trip costs £20, and the ferry has a limited capacity, making early arrival essential on sunny days​​.
  • First Steps on the Island: Upon arrival, rangers or Wildlife Trust volunteers welcome visitors at the information hut. They provide valuable insights about the island, including recent sightings, trail expectations, and essential guidelines to preserve the natural beauty while enjoying the landscape and wildlife​​.
  • The Handa Experience: The island offers a circular path leading through moorland patrolled by Skuas, along steep sandstone cliffs, and close to shores where marine animals can be spotted. The path takes you past historical ruins, offering glimpses into the island’s past​​.
  • Wildlife Wonders: Handa’s cliffs are bustling with seabirds like guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, puffins, and shags. The Great Stack is an ideal spot for observing puffins, offering a spectacle of seabirds vying for space on cliffs​​​​.
  • Marine Sightings: The island’s high cliffs provide vantage points to spot whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and even orcas, while otters and seals are often seen cruising the coastline​​.
  • Preparation is Key: Dressing in layers with waterproof gear is recommended due to unpredictable Scottish weather. Sturdy walking shoes are essential for the three to four-hour walk around the island. Don’t forget to pack water and snacks, as there are no facilities on Handa Island​
flying great skua over Handa Island moorland
Flying great skua (or Bonxie) that you need to watch out for – they may dive bomb you if you get too close

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 and 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.

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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

Handa Island Map

Handa Island is in Sutherland, in the northwest of Scotland and just a 10-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.

It normally operates from 9 am to 2 pm, depending on weather conditions for outgoing journeys to the island. However, we recommend arriving early in the morning for the first trip out to Handa to 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.

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.

Depending on the wind direction, the ferry lands at either of two sandy beaches on Handa Island. 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

You walk up to the Information hut once you step off the Handa Ferry. There, the ranger or Wildlife Trust volunteers inform you about the island. They tell you about recent sightings and what to expect along the trail and also give you a leaflet with a map of the island.

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 the 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

As you reach the cliffs on the island’s northern side, 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

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 bond 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, you could easily trip if you are admiring the scenery instead of watching your footing.

Yes, that was me.

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

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 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 Britain’s largest guillemot colonies (called loomeries ). 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 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 100 metres 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’ll likely 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

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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Shelley, a former primary school teacher with a law degree, and her husband Lars co-own Lifejourney4two. Their adventure began in Perth, Australia, and has since taken them through Europe and Africa in motorhomes and bush campers. Shelley's travel guides combine practical advice with engaging stories, mirroring their shift from 'One Day' to 'Day One'. Together, they aim to inspire others to embark on their own travel dreams.

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