Pink flowers with the sea cliffs of Handa in the background Alternative North Coast 500 Route

WIT: A Guide to Handa Island

We’d never heard of Handa Island – not until our pal Neil told us about it this summer. We’re local and we love exploring the Scottish islands. After all, we’ve been to Skye, Rúm, Mull, Arran, Bute and more, but we’d never been to Handa Island. How can you visit somewhere when you’ve never even heard of it?

It’s incredible that we hadn’t – Handa Island is a fascinating place and has a lot to offer every type of visitor. So. Now that you’ve heard of it, you’re already one step ahead of us. In this post, you’re also going to learn how to get there and why even non-birdwatchers should have a visit to Handa on their priority list. Driving our North Coast 500 Alternative Route? Then it’s one of the many worthwhile detours.

Why Visit Handa Island?

The Birds

Handa Island is a hugely important island for the thousands of seabirds that breed and nest there every summer. Over 100,000 pairs of seabirds, in fact. It’s so important that it’s a National Wildlife Reserve and even a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

An arctic skua flies with green marsh in the background
An arctic skua away to cause trouble

Stuart wanted to see one of Western Europe’s largest seabird breeding grounds. We grudgingly agreed to go along. Now, camping in heavy rain in Scourie did make us think again, but we’re very delighted we decided to visit.

Birdwatchers cannot miss Handa Island – it’s as good as it gets in Scotland. The super-sized lenses we saw on the boat confirmed that. Puffins, guillemots, arctic skuas and great skuas are pretty much guaranteed. Fulmars, gulls, shags, razorbills and even kittiewakes are on the island too. You’ll see fluffy chicks being fed, countless birds in flight and you can learn all about the migratory habits of the birds in the useful information centre.

The best time to see the majority of the birds is from mid-April until August.

The Rest of It

That aside, Handa Island is also an incredibly beautiful place for a walk. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in birds, the views make for a lovely and inspiring circuit.

The huge cliffs provide all sorts of character and atmosphere around the island. The dramatic and crumbling rock faces are a cacophony of cries and sounds as birds of all shapes, sizes and colours keep busy. Not only that, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to see whales and dolphins in the Atlantic beyond. Look even further and you’ll see Lewis. Behind, there are phenomenal views of the Assynt landscape and Scotland’s hills in all their glory.

Why wouldn’t you want to enjoy a 2-3 hour walk with all of that? It’s Scottish islands at their very best. We were blown away with the views and they certainly weren’t something we were expecting to find on our ‘birdwatching trip’. There are even a few nice beaches on the island for a dip as well.

WEE TIP: you’ll notice the superbly clear waters on the way to and from Handa. Turns out there’s great scuba diving and snorkelling in the water too. There are no ‘scuba schools’ as such, but if you have your own equipment and the experience, there’s a lot to see underwater, just off Tarbet.

How to Get to Handa Island

Handa Island is an island, so ehm…you’ll be getting a boat. That very boat departs from Tarbet pier, beginning at 9am every day except Sunday, when there’s no service. Make sure to arrive around 08:30 in the peak of summer if you want to get on the first boat across. The (free) parking also becomes a bit difficult, so afternoon visits will require a bit of a walk to the pier.

A couple of cars are parked at Tarbet Pier with Handa Island in the background
There’s a lot underwater at Tarbet Pier too

There are only 12 spaces, and the return fare is £15. Cash only. Don’t worry if you miss the first boat – it’s a pretty casual operation and once the boat’s full, it goes. It takes around 10 minutes to cross the water to Handa Island.

You can return from the island when you’re ready. You would have to really, really, like birds to spend more than 3-4 hours on the island. The last boat leaves around 4pm, returning to Tarbet.

A razorbill sits among the rocks on a sea cliff
If you’re lucky you’ll spot razorbills too

WEE TIP: the only two things in Tarbet are the pier and Shorehouse Restaurant. It doesn’t open until 12pm, but thankfully there are some pretty decent public toilets in the car park in case you need them.

There no facilities (apart from a compost toilet with a view) whatsoever on Handa Island, so take all the water, snacks and food you’ll need.

On Handa Island

Arrival

Once you arrive, you’ll exit the boat to the beach via a mobile pier. The volunteers will take a (strangely slow) body count and you’ll be whisked off to the Information Centre. There, you’ll have a 10-minute chat about safety on the island, recommended routes and recent sightings.

A painted board shows Handa Island and walking trails
The volunteers explain your way around the island

The Scottish Wildlife Trust volunteers will also give (again, strangely) specific details about the compost toilet next door. There are leaflets in a few different languages and even gifts, available to purchase with an honesty box. There are also binoculars available for rental, at just £3, and we would highly recommend grabbing a pair.

If you’re interested in becoming one of the volunteers on the island, then get in touch with the Scottish Wildlife Trust. They look for volunteers of every background most summers, and offer a range of 2 to 12 week programmes.

The Walk

After that, you’re set loose to do your own thing. From what we saw, everybody does the same walk. Aim north for Puffin Bay, then follow the coast west until you return to the Information Centre. The volunteers recommend that you walk anti-clockwise, and we agree. This way you’ll take the steepest parts downhill.

WEE TIP: it is possible to wild camp on Handa Island. However, it’s not exactly recommended. The Scottish Wildlife Trust recognise the ‘right to roam’, but would much rather you didn’t pitch your tent. There are hundreds of thousands of birds, and many of them nest with their chicks inland. You have the right to camp there, but everybody would rather you didn’t. None more so than the birds.

We made plenty of stops on our walk, taking way more pictures of the Assynt hills than was necessary. It took time trying to spot as many razorbills and puffins as possible. We definitely, 100%, absolutely did not spend time trying to take some Instagram pictures either. 100%. No chance.

Thousands of birds on one of Britain's tallest sea stacks
You’ll hear them and smell them before you see them

Our walk took a little over 3 hours. It’s around 4 miles total. Puffin Bay, as the volunteers told us, was more about stunning scenery than puffins. They’re around the corner, but you’ll really need to be patient to see them – in July anyway. Take care with some of the ground on the cliff edges – much of the ground is loose and unsafe.

Otherwise it’s a brilliant, straightforward and striking walk.

Our Recommendation

We’d recommend trying to visit Handa Island first thing in the morning. Once you’re back (close to 1pm), jump in to The Shorehouse for some top-class seafood. Not your thing? There’s a great selection of cakes and coffees too.

Then, you can continue with Part 4: Lochinver and Assynt, for a day of unbelievable views and scenery. Check out our North Coast 500 Alternative Route if you’re heading in the opposite direction. And of course, if you’ve been to Handa Island recently, Leave a Comment below to let us know how you got on!

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