Want a fantastic day trip to explore the unique wildlife the Northern side of Scotland has to offer? The stunning Handa Island Nature Reserve frequently tops the list of many who travel to the beautiful sea cliffs on Scotland’s eastern and west coasts. Home to a wide variety of seabirds, seals, whales, and so much more, the Handa Island Nature Reserve is an attraction you want to take advantage of.
We’ll cover everything you need to know about Handa Island, from its history and origins to the top things you can do when you visit, as well as everything in between! Set a course for Handa Island, Scotland, to enjoy Scotland’s magnificent nature.
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About the Handa Island Nature Reserve
The Handa Island Nature Reserve plays an integral part as one of the largest seabird breeding colonies in North Western Europe! The region is owned by the Scourie Estate and operated independently and managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust as a nature reserve. Still, the island is open to visitors who want to see the dramatic cliffs and beautiful beaches for which Handa Island is known.
The nature reserve sits off the west coast of Scotland, near the town of Tarbet. If you plan to undertake the famous North Coast 500, the village of Tarbet and the Handa Island Nature Reserve is proper along your path!
As for how to reach the island, it’s relatively simple! From the town of Tarbet, visitors can take the Handa Island ferry to the island. The trip costs 20 pounds and is only available if you visit from early April to late August, usually taking about 3 hours. The last ferry leaves around 2 PM, so go to this attraction early enough in the day, or you’ll miss your chance to traverse the Handa ferry.
The best times to visit Handa Island is April through to July if you want to see the breeding season and Mid-May to July for the puffins that flock to the island! But breeding seabirds aren’t the only attraction that this destination has to offer for guests.
Things to Do at Handa Island Nature Reserve
Are you curious about what you should be doing while visiting the Handa Island Nature Reserve? We’ve researched and curated the top things to do at Handa Island the next time you visit this prestigious nature park on the North West coast of Scotland.
See the Seabirds
During the picturesque summer months, the cliff edge comes alive with the squawks and chirps of tens of thousands of seabirds. With numbers around the 100,000 mark, the breeding season is quite busy for the guillemots, razorbills, and other ground-nesting birds that flock to the cliff edges.
The spectacle of seeing tens of thousands of seabirds is unlike anything you’ve likely seen before and makes the trip one you’ll remember for ages to come. Birders can expect to see a wide variety of incredible species on the island during the breeding season, including Great Skuas, Kittiwakes, Puffins, Fulmars, Red Grouse, and Common Snipe. Plenty more are worth noting, so we’ll leave them as a surprise for those adding this beautiful place to their bucket list.
Puffin Bay is one of the island’s most notable attractions and, as the name suggests, is home to the adorable Handa Island puffin. There, birds arrive in mid-May until late August to breed and build nests, as well as scurry along the rocks and sands of the bay. There’s nothing quite like seeing these penguin-like birds while visiting the Highlands.
The ecological variety of species here is unbelievable and grants spectacular views to those who come during the summer months. If you are passing through or exploring Scotland’s Northern reaches, take advantage of Handa Island while visiting!
Explore the Fascinating History
Handa Island isn’t just home to a staggering amount of seabirds, there’s so much more to see! When you arrive on the island, you can explore the isle through a series of stunning walking trails. Along these trails, you can expect to see several scenic beaches and grassy slopes and the remains of a historical village.
Handa village was last inhabited in 1847, and the inhabitants left the island because it could no longer support life. You can still see the ruins of a town, as well as the graveyard that holds generations of families that once lived on the island. The residents are thought to have emigrated to Nova Scotia, a famous Canadian destination for Scots who wanted a better life.
This old village’s historical attraction and many others are available as you take the Handa Island walk, the scenic way to navigate the beautiful island!
Take a Scenic Stroll
As soon as you’re dropped off from the ferry crossing, the stunning Handa Island Nature Reserve is yours to explore by foot! There’s no automobile route, so you’re stuck using your feet, but that’s the best way to experience the island.
Once you’ve acquainted yourself with the leaflet handed to you by one of the island’s helpful volunteers (and a short introductory talk going over the rules), as well as the Handa Island Informational Centre, small visitor shelter, and composting toilet, you’re ready to head out and see what the island has to offer.
Handa Island presents a fantastic range of natural and dramatic features for you to see along your journey, and it’s recommended you put aside two hours to traverse the walk and make time for rest stops (and to appreciate the bountiful natural landscape).
You can expect to see long grassy plains where Great Skua maintains their nests, crystal clear beaches home to otters, basking sharks, a puffins nest or two, and sea stacks that rise from the ocean. There are also populations of rabbits and seals that can be seen, but you may have to keep an eye out to see these elusive creatures.
The island also prominently features dramatic cliffs, great sea stacks, and a boulder bay that provides a home to the birds and serves as an excellent viewing platform out to the Atlantic Ocean and the Mainland.
The untamed North West Coast of Scotland offers nature unlike anything you’ve seen before, and nowhere is this more evident than on Handa Island.
Visit the Handa Island Sea Stacks
Accompanying the magnificent sea cliffs are the mighty sea stacks, which rise above sea level and give the island a mysterious atmosphere. The most famous of these behemoths is the Great Stack, towering 155 metres tall and imposing a formidable presence to those who dare to the cliff’s edge to get a better look.
The Great Stacks, as well as the other sea stacks that Handa Island, are thanks to the unique stone that the northwest coast of Scotland – Torridonian. This sandstone is over 1,000 million years old and makes Handa Island and much of the Mainland surrounding it. As you trek along the nature path of the island, you’re walking on the stone that dinosaurs of bygone years travelled on too!
This monument was climbed and summited in 1969, a mind-blowing feat of strength and skill – something you should not try when visiting. We recommend keeping an eye out as you survey the area; there are no guide rails to hold onto.
Take a Boat Trip
In addition to the ferry crossing, visitors can enjoy a boat trip and see the islands and wildlife of North West Scotland from the sea. You can grab a guided boat tour of Handa Island and a few nearby attractions from Tarbet Pier or the neighbouring towns of Scourie and Fanagmore.
However, the boat trip to Handa Island is more than eventful for most people, and there’s a lot to see as you skim through the waters (don’t worry, most services provide a life jacket). Keep your eye out especially for Minke whales, basking sharks, and seals, as they can often be seen moving past the coast at certain times of the year (July until September for Minke Whales).
Remember that local guides run the ferry to Handa Island, so arriving early is best since the trip can get booked up quite fast. The boasts run from Monday to Saturday during the busy easy, usually from 9 AM until 2 PM, accounting for the return journey. Weather conditions may also affect the time the ferry operator leaves, so leave everything to chance and arrive before your scheduled trip!
There are few events at the Handa Island Nature Reserve throughout the year, but they have a volunteer program to aid in preserving and caring for Handa Island, Great Skua, and the tens of thousands of birds living here.
You can stay for anywhere from a single week volunteering to keep for 8 – 21 weeks as an Assistant Ranger.
After the day of sightseeing, the best way to end the day is to stop by a local tavern and enjoy a good night’s rest. There are no accommodation options on Handa Island (the birds would keep you up all night anyway), but there is an ample selection should you stay in the towns nearby.
If you’re looking for self-catering accommodation, there may be a few options in the small towns of Tarbet, Fanagmore, and Scourie. We recommend looking online on booking.com to see what’s available to you.
Otherwise, a day visit to the island from more populous and accommodation-heavy towns like Kinloch, Lochinver, or Lairg. These locations offer more comfort with hotels, bed and breakfasts, and more!Thinking Of Booking A Trip? Check Out Our Top Accommodation Options In Lochinver