Some Scottish islands are famous around the world, like the Isle of Skye or Islay, the land of peaty single malt whisky. Others are hidden gems that only the most adventurous get to visit. Handa Island is one such insider secret – a small, uninhabited island off the north-west coast that is home to over 100,000 seabirds during the summer. Follow me to paradise!
I drove the NC500 as part of a paid project with Hostelling Scotland. All opinions are my own and we visited Handa Island at our own expense. There was no obligation to write this blog post.
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Conveniently located near the North Coast 500 tourist route through the north-west Highlands, Handa Island offers a great opportunity to get out of the car and into the wild. Yvette and I had a packed day, driving from Achmelvich Beach to Tongue and a guaranteed in Durness to visit Smoo Cave, but we wanted to break up the drive and get moving a bit. I had read about Handa Island in advance and after previous trips to famous bird islands like St Kilda, Staffa and the Treshnish Isles, I wanted to add Handa to my collection of wildlife experiences.
Handa Island is owned by the Scourie Estate but due to its unique wildlife and habitat, it is a nature reserve managed in partnership with the Scottish Wildlife Trust. It is largely uninhabited although a number of rangers spend their summers here to conduct research and maintain the infrastructures on the island. During peak season there are also several volunteer rangers who stay for a week each and help welcoming visitors. Other than that though, the island is the kingdom of birds.
But birdwatchers will not be the only ones to enjoy a day trip to Handa Island. Handa is for you if you love walking, tropical-looking beaches, sea stacks and dramatic cliffs, ticking off remote Scottish islands or simply experiencing the closest thing to The Beach that Scotland has to offer.
Read on if you’d like to learn more about Handa Island:
- How to visit Handa Island during your NC500 road trip;
- How to get to Handa and other logistical advice;
- What to pack and wear;
- My top tips for being a responsible visitor;
- What to do and see on Handa Island; and
- How to spend even more time on the island.
Handa Island FAQ
Where is Handa Island?
Handa is a small island off the west coast of Sutherland, one of the regions that the North Coast 500 crosses through. It is very small – just 1.19 sq mi in size – and thus perfect for day visitors. The nearest village is Tarbet which has a few houses and a restaurant. A little further away is Scourie, which is along the main tourist route of the NC500 and has shops, more accommodation and eateries, a petrol station and a caravan park.
Scourie would make a great home base if you wanted to maximise your time on Handa. The drive to the ferry in Tarbet is about 15 minutes, mostly along a small single-track road.
We visited Handa on Day 6 of our North Coast 500 road trip, leaving Achmelvich Beach in the morning and continuing to Tongue later that day.
How to get to Handa Island?
About 3 miles after you have passed Scourie, keep an eye out for the turnoff to Tarbet on the left side of the road. You will already see a sign for Handa Ferry, so it’s hard to miss.
Follow this small single-track road until the very end for Tarbet. There is a pretty sharp left turn about half-way down, so keep your eyes peeled for that. There is a generous parking area near the harbour of Tarbet and a small cabin where you buy your tickets for the passenger ferry across to Handa.
The boat takes around 10-15 people and you get a small life-vest for the journey. It is only a 10-minute boat ride to Handa though, so all pretty low key.
On Handa, you are met by a team of volunteer rangers who help you to stay dry while getting off the boat and take you to the small visitor shelter above the beach.
The return ferry ticket costs £15 per person.
Why should you visit Handa Island?
The vast majority of people visiting Handa Island bring with them an interest in the local wildlife, but the island is also interesting for anyone who likes walking, archaeological sites, Scottish history, geology and of course also those who fancy a remote beach day.
- Birdwatching: Every summer, over 100,000 seabirds come to Handa Island to nest in the cliffs, on clifftops and on the moorland of the island. There are puffins, but at approximately 200 pairs it is one of the smaller colonies in Scotland. Guillemots, fulmars, razorbills and kittiwakes are much stronger in numbers. 50-60,000 guillemots along come to raise their young on the cliffs of the north side of Handa. It is mesmerising to watch them leap off the cliffs in search of food and mates and a true spectacle that is worth the trip alone.
- Archaeology & history: Much like the more remote St Kilda, Handa was once populated, but the tragic famines of the 19th century forced the remaining 65 or so people to emigrate to Nova Scotia in Canada. It has been uninhabited since 1847. The remains of the village can still be seen today and are a testament to the isolated life the island community must have lead in the past.
- Geology: The geology of the north-western Highlands is fascinating. The Torridonian sandstone that builds the foundation of Handa Island and much of the mainland beyond is over 1,000 million years old! Over millions of years, the rock has been formed into bizarre shapes such as the Great Stack which has been climbed by fewer people that stood on the moon.
- Beach time: The two beaches near the visitor centre look tropical when the sun is out. The water is so clear and shimmers in all shades of blue and turquoise, and the sand is soft between your toes. Even if you just brought a beach towel, picnic basked and god book across, Handa would be worth the trek for that. There are also beautiful beaches at Boulder Bay.
Wildlife on Handa Island
As mentioned above, birds are one of the main attractions of Handa Island. There are puffins, guillemots, fulmars, razorbills and kittiwakes near the cliffs, but also grouse, bonxies and Arctic skuas who nest on the ground in the interior of the island.
Skuas are fascinating to encounter in particular – although it can get quite uncomfortable for unassuming walkers. They nest on the ground and their eggs and chicks are so well camouflaged that it is basically impossible for you to see them. When an intruder comes to close to their precious brood, skuas will leap up into the air and dive down at an incredible speed. They aim for the highest point of the assumed predator and while they usually don’t actually hit your head, it’s best to hold up your hand to give them a higher aim. Luckily, most skuas nest away from the path and it is easy to avoid such unpleasant encounters by sticking to the path and boardwalks.
You can also see skuas at a safe distance bathing at Loch Swaabie near Puffin Bay, but note that it is not allowed to walk near the loch for a closer look.
During our walk, we also saw a large number of rabbits on the island, who have been brought across many centuries ago but don’t cause too much damage. There are also rats on Handa, but since they don’t cause many issues, their population is not controlled. In the past, there have been attempts to get rid of the island rats, but since they can swim over 1 km and Handa is only a few hundred metres from the mainland, new ones arrived very quickly.
Near Boulder Bay, you can often spot otters and if you watch the sea carefully, you might even see some seals, dolphins or basking sharks.
5 Things to Know Before you go
Handa Island is a beautiful place to visit, but there are a few things to know to get the most out of your adventure:
1) Facilities on Handa
Handa is a remote island. There is a basic shelter at the Visitor Centre, but the rest of the island is exposed to the weather – which can change rapidly in these parts of Scotland. There are compost toilet facilities for visitors, but there are no shops or any other buildings on the island.
Top Tip: Come prepared! Bring plenty of drinking water with you as well as a picnic.
2) Duration of Visits
Handa might only be a 10-minute boat ride away from the mainland, but you should plan at least 4 hours for your visit to Handa. Boats are on demand, but usually, they try to fill them up, so you might have to wait a while to get to Handa or back again.
You could easily spend an entire day on Handa to watch birds, spot other animals and enjoy the spectacular views.
3) Leave No Trace
The island is a paradise for local wildlife – help to keep it that way by not leaving a trace. Take your rubbish back off the island with you, don’t drop any litter and only use the toilet facilities provided by the Visitor Centre.
Equally, don’t take anything off the island – rocks, plants, sand, seashells etc. Photos are enough!
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code is a great resource to learn about responsible behaviour in the Scottish outdoors.
4) Respect Nature
Before you are let loose to explore the island, the volunteer rangers will explain the ground rules to you at the shelter. You are encouraged to stay on the paths and boardwalks at all times. Keep a safe distance from cliff edges – especially when there are cracks in the rocks. Respect signs that point out restricted areas on Handa – they are there for a reason, for example, to protect puffins as they dig their burrows.
5) What To Pack
To make the most of your visit to Handa Island, make sure you pack the following:
- Sturdy walking boots to enjoy the hike across the island and for good grip near the cliffs.
- A waterproof jacket to stay dry if the weather turns.
- Drinking water and packed lunch/snacks.
- Binoculars and a birding book, if you are interested in bird watching. Rangers can help with identifying birds, but they might not always be at hand.
- A camera with a zoom lens in order to take great photos of the wildlife without disturbing it.
- Cash, just in case you’d like to make a donation, buy postcards or a small stuffed puffin as a souvenir.
Handa Island Walking Trail
The only way to discover Handa Island is on foot – unless you manage to book a sea kayak holiday that allows you to paddle around the island; let me know if you find an operator who offers this!
A circular trail leads around the island. It is very easy to follow, but just to be sure you are given a small map of the island by the volunteer rangers at the beginning of your visit. The leaflet also points out some places of interest, such as the remains of the village, Puffin Bay, the Great Stack, Poll Ghlup, which is a collapsed sea cave, and several scenic beaches and bays.
The entire trail is about 4 miles (6 km) and you should allow around 3 hours for the walk. The path is never too steep, but there is some incline and particularly in the beginning. Sturdy boots are advisable especially since the grassy slopes might get muddy after rain.
Volunteering on Handa Island
If you’d like to spend more time on Handa Island, you can apply to become a volunteer ranger for the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Most volunteers stay on the island for one week at a time, but there are also a few longer placements.
You need a good level of health and fitness and to be comfortable with shared mixed-sex accommodation in a fairly basic bothy. The main task of volunteers is to welcome visitors to the island and provide the necessary information for a successful and safe walk around the island.
You can find out more here.
Funny story – one of the volunteer rangers that welcomed us to the island looked incredibly familiar to me. Turns out, we knew each other from a sea kayaking course we did together in Oban a few years ago!
Handa Island is one of the most beautiful Scottish islands I have ever visited. The stunning scenery, dramatic cliffs, fascinating wildlife and tropical-looking beaches exceeded all expectations I ever had of our visit. It might be a little off the beaten track, but I promise you won’t regret leaving the main tourist route of the NC500 behind for this hidden gem!
Have I convinced you to plan a trip to Handa Island soon?
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner