Welcome to Handa Island
I’m going to let you into a secret. Just off the remote north-west coast of Scotland lies Handa, one of Scotland’s most beautiful islands and a nationally important wildlife reserve. Home to Puffins, rare Bonxies, stunning views of the Assynt mountains and one of Scotland’s best beaches, here’s how to visit the paradise of Handa.
Handa Island, paradise, and not just for the puffins!
Once home to a crofting village with its own parliament and ‘island queen’, a famine and an exodus to Canada left Handa Island to just the birds in the 19th century. Now owned by the Scourie Estate and managed in partnership with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Handa is a breeding ground for over 200 pairs of Puffins, Skuas, Kittiwakes and Guillemots – and just a few lucky rangers and volunteers housed in a bothy to protect their island home.
Despite being protected by all manner of wildlife acronyms (Handa is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area) you can visit the island by crossing the Sound of Handa by boat from the tiny hamlet of Tarbet. You will be met off the little ferry for an island introduction by a Scottish Wildlife Trust volunteer before you wander off on your own Handa Island tour. Stroll along the island’s boardwalks, spot the different varieties in the 100,000 seabirds on the sea stacks, or just sit and watch the changing light over Suilven and Cul Mor.
It will take you around 2 hours to fully walk around the island’s 4-mile circular boardwalk path, longer if you stop every few seconds to scan the cliffs for puffins. Don’t just rush to the aptly named ‘Puffin Bay’ as the whole northern edge of the island is made up of towering sea cliffs and stacks, where in May, June and July over 200 pairs of puffins pop by to breed – remember your binoculars, its kinda rude (and dangerous) to get too up close and personal.
In summer, the island’s machair (meadow) is filled with wildflowers. Hidden amongst the grass nest rare Skuas, watch out for the famously bossy Bonxies (step off the path and be prepared to be aerially pestered, just hold up your hands, or a walking pole in the air and move on very quickly) and the giant pirates of the sea, the Arctic Skua, who can be seen battling Golden Eagles (and the much smaller ‘tourist eagle’ varieties) for any available air bound prey.
It will be hard to drag yourself away from coo-ing over the puffins, but it’s first come first served for your trip back to the mainland, although you won’t be concerned if you miss a boat, for a few extra minutes on the stunning white sand of Handa’s Traigh an Teampaill beach really is no hardship – it is a strong contender for Scotland’s best. Kick off your shoes and close your eyes, the boat will come back to get you when it is good and ready. You really won’t mind the wait…
How to visit Handa Island
- Where is Handa Island? Handa Island sits off the far north west coast of Scotland in the Sutherland region, 45 minutes north of Lochinver and 50 minutes south of Durness. The closest village is Scourie. The Island sits just off the North Coast 500 route.
- How do you get to Handa Island? The Handa Island ferry departs from the tiny settlement of Tarbet, 10 minutes north of Scourie down a single track road. The ferry is a modern passenger RIB which takes up to 12 people at a time.
- What are the Handa Island Ferry times? The ferry sails April to September, Monday to Saturday from 9am. The last ferry to the island leaves at 2pm. There are no pre-bookings (unless for very large groups) and no fixed schedule. The boat leaves when it is full, and takes around 30 minutes to take a full boat to the island and back. After 2pm the boat only makes return trips, the last return is 5pm. Returns are first come, first served. You will be given a ticket for the next crossing when you arrive back at the beach.
- How much does the Handa Island ferry cost? The price of the Handa Island ferry is £15 for adults, £5 for children and children under 5 are free. CASH ONLY. The price of the ferry includes a donation to the Handa Island Wildlife Reserve and is well worth the cost.
Tip – Remember to bring food and water as there is no shop, just a shelter and a loo, on Handa Island.
Handa Island FAQs
- Are dogs allowed? Handa Island is a nature reserve so no dogs are allowed on the island or on the ferry.
- Can you camp on Handa Island? Despite Scotland’s open access laws it is not really the done thing to camp in a Nature Reserve. If you do fancy staying on the island sign up for the Handa Island volunteering programme, or if you have the skills, a Handa Island ranger.
- When is the best time to visit Handa Island? The seabirds, including the puffins nest May to July. We visited at the beginning of June. The Scottish school holidays start the last Friday of June if you want to go before the schools finish.
- How long do you need on the island? The circular route is 4 miles. I would suggest you need a minimum 2 hours on the island to walk up to the stacks and back if you just want to see the puffins!