Torridonian sandstone cliffs rise from the Atlantic. Each summer, nearly 100,000 seabirds breed here, including internationally important numbers of guillemots, razorbills and great skuas.
Handa (Scottish Gaelic: Eilean Shannda) is an island off the west coast of Sutherland north west Scotland. The island’s name is of mixed Gaelic and Norse origin and means “island at the sandy river”.
It is 309 hectares (1.19 sq. mi) and 123 metres (404 ft) at its highest point. Handa is made from layers of Torirdonian sandstone set aside from the mainland ancient gneiss by the Sound of Handa.
In early times Handa was used as a burial ground by people from the mainland so as to avoid the graves being dug up by wolves. Handa had a similar social governance approach as developed on St Kilda and Mingulay. The oldest widow being the Queen and the men holding parliament to allocate the daily work. Handa had a population of 65 in 1841 but like many locations the potato famine of 1848 forced an evacuation to Nova Scotia. Handa has remained uninhabited since then with the ruins and still discernible form of lazy beds as testament to the industry and labour of the past hardy folk.
Scottish Wildlife Trust nature reserve
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, one of 40 such areas in Scotland.
A small ferry sails to Handa from Tarbet on the mainland and boat trips operate to it from Fanagmore. The island receives around 5,000 visitors per annum.
Our visit by yacht
We had sailed from nearby Oldany Island to Handa, arriving to its south west facing sheer cliffs. The west coast of Scotland was at its ‘bluest best.’ Handa rose sheer out of the sea, layer after layer of ancient Torridonian sandstone stacked upwards to a verdant and vegetated top fringe. I nudged the boat to the foot of the cliffs as close as I dared, and we lay drifting in the slight swell that had come across the Minch.
Gordon, Ranald and I were almost speechless as we soaked up the grandeur of the surroundings. Handa is known for its geology and wildlife. Both were on show that day. Thousands of birds swooped and spiralled on the thermals from the cliffs and to our right seals sunbathed on sandstone slabs just proud of sea level. The place was alive with wildlife in a surrounding of pure unspoilt natural elements.
We motor sailed along the shoreline passing Traigh Scourie Bay and Port an Eilein rounding the headland into the Sound of Handa. Our aim was to anchor in Traigh an Tempull Bay. The bay is noted in pilot books as the only safe anchorage on the island but one to maintain a vigilance due to the tides and over falls that run within the Sound. To our disappointment two other yachts were anchored in the bay leaving us with limited choices in what is a shallow bay. We dropped our anchour and settled in the calm water. Only 30 meters of so behind us it was clear to see the tidal movement of the water rushing northwards on the incoming tide. After a short time spent to make sure we were secure the three of us set off for shore in the rubber dinghy.
Handa is visited by over 5,000 people a year
Handa is visited by over 5,000 people a year and that day was a busy day as we landed on the wonderful sandy beach sharing it with thirty-or-so others who were waiting for the ferry back to the mainland. We did not hang around for long and we set off through the dunes to explore the rest of the island in peace. My plan was to run around the island so left the others and set off along the south shore to do a clockwise circumnavigation of Handa. I passed the wardens bothy and followed what was a very well-maintained path out towards the tops of the cliffs we had passed below in Trade Winds.
On the way I passed several groups coming back in from their walk and making for the last ferry of the day. A ranger approached me asking if I was on the ferry and explained she was the sweeper making sure no-one would miss it and be left stranded on the island. Assuring her I was on a yacht she set off looking to herd up any errant. Visitors. I did have smile to myself as to her enquiry and everyone else I had encountered that day had binoculars, small back packs and looked every part the ‘twitcher’ in their perfect paradise.
The path gave way to a ribbon of board walk that stretched and snaked its way across the grassland and on out of sight. I had never run on such a sound and long board walk!
I stopped at the window rock and took some images from inside the window, a sight that had intrigued us so much from the seaward side.
The following 30 minutes of running were quite inspiring. Passing precipitous cliffs that teemed with birdlife. In places creeping flat on my belly inching as close as I dared to the sheer drop. The island of Handa presents a mass of bare stone to the prevailing westerly weather. Blocks of sandstone had succumbed to the incessant weathering and lay proud of their surroundings while other lay awash in the surf. Perhaps fallen from the cliff face or the remnants of a great sea stack of the past. Handa, in places stood sound and un-bowing sheer and flat to some 100m above the sea. In others a shambles of massive sandstone cubes and slabs lay tumbled down into the water.
Handa is home to the UK’s largest population of guillemot, enormous numbers of razorbill and kittiwake with a supporting cast of four other gull species, , shag, puffin, black guillemot and Arctic and great skua.
The famous sea-stack; Stacc An T’Seabhaig stood tall, whitened by guano of the Razorbills that occupied every ledge and nook. I sat on the dry grassy tops watching the Puffins and Razorbills swoop and soar.
I could have lain there for some time, but I had committed to a return time and did not want to cause any concern by being late. I set off on a grass path lined with builders’ bags, soon, no doubt to be hard graft laboured into a grit path.
The return leg across the middle of the island was a delight. Slightly downhill most of the way on a boardwalk on a bright late afternoon sun in surroundings that could only inspire. Over to the left was one of Hand’s six freshwater lochans, each devoid of any fish.
My only disappointment was that the Rangers had said they would prefer me not to head up to the summit of the island as there was not designated path to the top. I did have a momentary defiant thought but then concluded that would it not be the end of the world not to summit Handa. Handa had after all provided such a spectacular day from sea-level, path, board walk running, arresting cliffs and a quite inspiring array of birdlife. I was happy. I made my way back to join the others on the beach that was now deserted with only he three of us along the with footprints of the multitudes that came before us.
We paddled back out to Trade Winds and made our way on a following wind to Loch Laxford for the evening.
I cannot praise highly enough the condition of Handa and the level of meticulous and passionate care that is self-evident on the island. More information about the island, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and their work is available on the website here.