NorthCoast500 Day 3 – Handa Island

DSC_0561

My strategy for driving North Coast 500 was to have a beak from driving around the halfway point. My plan for my driving rest day was to walk to Sandwood Bay, one of Scotland’s most isolated and beautiful beaches.  It is a good two hour walk to get there from the nearest car park at Blairmore, a few miles North of Kinlochbervie. The weather however was still not cooperating, so I reverted to Plan B – a day trip to Handa Island, a nature reserve managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

Access to Handa Island is seasonal and weather dependent.  When I arrived, there was one other passenger waiting – beside a sign that read “Ferry closed today”.  My heart sank.  The other passenger was a young chap called Will who was on a research field trip for his PhD in geology – he had already contacted the boatman and apparently he was on his way.  We awaited in the rain for 10 minutes or so, and then the boatman arrived.  We were soon making the short crossing to Handa Island, although it was very wet and windy…

On arrival, we were met by two Scottish Wildlife Trust volunteers Peter and Cath.  After a short dry briefing in the shelter, I set out to see what Handa Island had to offer by walking the well-marked and maintained  five kilometre path …

DSC_0491

After another 20 minutes or so of walking and passing some to the grouse and other birds still around, I could see I was close to Handa Islands’ famous stacks and cliffs….

DSC_0303

Handa Island is one of the UK’s most significant seabird breeding colonies and every summer between June and July, around 100,000 birds make it home and breed.  The cliffs and stacks provides a summer home for all the birds.  Species include guillemots, razorbills and around 350 puffins.  It is also one of the places in the UK that you can see Arctic skuas – the North of Scotland is its most southerly breeding area. Not too many were left the day I visited, although the cliffs and stacks were still dramatic …

DSC_0307

DSC_0364 DSC_0328

DSC_0390

There were still some birds around – the common seagull …

DSC_0350 DSC_0323

And cormorants …

DSC_0407

Even on a damp day with variable visibility, the Westerly coastline of Handa Island is quite striking and very craggy …

DSC_0429

A little further on I met up with Martin – he was a contractor doing essential path maintenance.  At the peak of the summer, Handa Island has around 150 visitors a day.  Keeping them on a well maintained and clearly laid out path is essential as birds also nest in the moorland.  Martin and I chatted for a while – he seemed surprised the boat was running, then cheerfully informed me Edinburgh was bathing in sunshine …

DSC_0403

A little further on I bumped into Will sketching some of his study rocks.  He was also enjoying his own seal show.  Around six were bobbing around the inlet. Here is one eyeballing me …

DSC_0444

The last point of interest on the island before returning to the shelter was the former crofting village. Apart from wildlife conservation staff and volunteers during the summer, the island is uninhabited.   I tried to imaging the life the crofters must have led.  Very tough at times, but a view like this everyday must have helped …

DSC_0480

As I approached the visitors shelter, the weather had cleared up a bit to show more raw beauty on Handa Island …

DSC_0516

Back at the shelter, I had a light lunch of a banana and some water.  I admired the emerging scenery and enjoyed the tranquility.  I then noticed Peter, one of our welcome volunteers, fishing …

DSC_0526

Our pick up time was 3pm, so I had a bit of time just relaxing and chatting with Peter and Cath.  They told me a little more about volunteering on Handa Island.  Applicants offer availability for up to three separate weeks before being informed which one they are successful with.  Duties are mainly to meet and greet visitors and make sure they are fully briefed on arrival. Volunteers make their own way to Handa Island and accommodation is in a bothy with basic amenities, shared with the Handa Island Ranger.  Volunteers supply their own food  –  or in the case of Peter, you catch your own …

DSC_0531

I discovered Peter and I had quote a bit in common.  We are both ex Royal Navy Officers, we’ve done similar jobs about the same time and we’ve both lived in Oman.  Life is very strange at times.  We could not have met in a more remote or unlikely setting.  Soon it was time to head back to the beach for the ferry back to the mainland …

DSC_0535

We all waited for about half an hour and during the last 10 minutes the weather started to close in again.  It was diving rain and limited visibility once more by the time the boat arrived …

DSC_0545

As soon as we disembarked we headed for the Shorehouse Seafood restaurant, where I had a nice warming cup off hot chocolate.  A Dutch couple, who were also visiting Handa Island, had a very delicious looking seafood platter …

DSC_0546

This was a gem of a place to eat – and I’d recommend it as a lunch stop regardless of whether you are visiting Handa Island – its only five minutes off the North Coast 500 route.

All in all, Handa Island is well worth a visit – the topography and wildlife are wonderful, even in the twilight of summer.  It is a very tranquil yet wild place and I pretty much had it to myself for most of the time. Handa Island is definitely somewhere to “get away from it all” and enjoy nature.

Essential planning facts

Handa Island is accessed via a summer ferry from Tarbet, about three miles north of Scourie and about two miles off North Coast 500 on the A838. The cost to visit Handa Island is £12.50, which includes the return pedestrian ferry and a £2.50 donation to the Scottish Wildlife Trust. The ferry runs frequently or on demand between June and September and tickets are purchased on arrival at the pier hut …

DSC_0558

There are no catering facilities on Handa Island so take your own refreshments.  The visitor shelter sells a few souvenirs and there is a WC next door.

The Shorehouse Seafood Restaurant at Tarbet pier offers a good choice of hot and cold drinks, hot meals, cakes and other treats.  There is also a nice southern facing deck looking towards Handa Island …

DSC_0562

For more information on Handa Island, visit the Scottish Wildlife trust website.  It’s a good day out – even when it’s raining and the nesting birds have gone. Its wildness is simply beautiful.

Where to stay

Check North Coast 500’s interactive website to see what is in the area.  There are a couple of hotels plus B &B’s and campsites.  I stayed for two nights at the Eddrachilles Hotel and paid £99 for Dinner, Bed and Breakfast.  Tea and coffee after dinner extra. Staff are friendly and polite, the hotel was clean and well-appointed and dinner was great.  Breakfast was very average though.

2 thoughts on “NorthCoast500 Day 3 – Handa Island

  1. Hi Sheena! Good to have met you on wonderful Handa. Glad you made it back to the mainland and enjoyed your lunch at the Shorehouse.
    Cath

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s