Handa is a true island gem off the North Coast 500 route, with breath-taking cliffs and some of the largest bird colonies in Britain that are best admired from above on this spectacular walk just off the west coast of Sutherland.
After the warden’s welcome and update on the latest wildlife sightings start the walk by leaving the beach and walk inland on the marked path. Pass a graveyard and the ruins of a village once inhabited by families who lived on a diet of oats, potatoes, fish and sea birds. With their own queen – the oldest widow – and the men allocating chores through a daily parliament they survived here until the 1848 potato famine which led to their emigration to America.
The path climbs gently uphill across a moorland full of surprisingly fearless grouse and snipe, and a sky buzzing with the Top Gun-style manoeuvres of skuas. At Puffin Bay find spectacular cliffs that are a layer cake of Torridonian sandstone striated with black and white bird colonies, topped by a grass and heather plateau. Here the Bernoulli effect of the wind increases the sense of exposure from these unforgiving cliffs.
Continue west along the cliff top to the unmistakable Great Stack where, it is often quoted, more humans have been to the moon than have climbed its plumb-straight sides. It makes a dizzying spectacle to look down upon this huge block of rock as it soars from its bedding plane to the heavens – the cries of the thousands of guillemots, razorbills, and puffins that swirl around it heralding what a special place this is.
The collapsed cave of Poll Ghlup on the west coast is a fabulous vantage point to look out for whales and dolphins as its waters surge dramatically beneath. Continue south descending towards Boulder Bay with views of Ben Stack, Quinag and Suilven ahead; you may then see otters the south shore. Most of the route back is now on a wooden boardwalk. Don’t miss the Visitor Hut and its ‘Findings Shelf’ of nurdles, coconuts and dolphin teeth amongst the egg and skull collections. Once back on the landing beach the antics of the arctic terns are a wonderful way to while away time until the next boat departs for the mainland. Photo Credit “Handa Island” by Frederic Olivera is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Handa’s special Blue Space
The island is of national importance for its birdlife and maritime vegetation, and is a Scottish Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and a Special Protection Area (SPA). Handa also forms part of the North-West Sutherland National Scenic Area. It is home to internationally important bird colonies which include puffins, and the breeding colonies of razorbills and guillemots here are the largest in the UK. It is also important for fulmar, great skua, guillemot and kittiwake. Dolphins, basking sharks and several species of whale regularly visit the ocean around Handa.
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Need to know
Full route map
Map: OS Explorer 445 Foinaven, Arkle, Kylesku and Scourie
Terrain: Good paths and boardwalks across wild terrain and above steep cliffs with basic facilities on the island.
Start: Handa Ferry, Tarbet, Lairg IV27 4SS. Grid ref. NC 16421 48860
Getting there: Turn off A894 (Ullapool-Durness Road) 3 miles north of Scourie, take Tarbet road 3 miles to jetty (parking). 10 minute journey on Handa Ferry (Mon – Sat; departs from 9:30am – 2.00pm; last return 4.45pm; Adult £15.00/child £5.00. Call 07780 967800 to confirm sailing)
Pitstops Great seafood at The Shorehouse Scourie
Other info Scottish Wildlife Trust