Hills: Sithean Mor (Handa Island)
Date: Saturday 6th July 2019
Company: Myself and Becky
Distance: 6km
Time: 3Hrs

On Friday evening, we arrived at Tarbet to check out logistics for a Saturday morning boat trip across to Handa Island. A sign at the boat hut advised that due to inclement weather the boat had not run that day or on the day previous. Fingers were therefore crossed that the boat would be running the following morning. Given this was to be a trip to a wildlife reserve, it was saddening to find a vast amount of plastic littering the shore at Tarbet. Later in the evening, we made our way back to Scourie where we spent the night along with other members of the Moray Mountaineering Club.

Early on Saturday morning, we drove back to Tarbet. As the first boat was meant to depart at 09:00, and no-one had appeared by 09:00, we were unsure if the boat would be running. However, by 09:30 someone eventually arrived confirming the trip was on .

Click here to see a map of the route undertaken

After purchasing tickets (Adult: £15, Child: £5), we donned life-jackets and waited for the RIB to come to the pier. Once aboard, it took around ten minutes to reach Handa Island.

On the RIB to Handa Island:

On arriving on Handa Island, we were greeted by the warden who provided a brief overview of the island including instructions to stick to the path. As the island summit is not on the path, I asked if we could briefly venture off the path to go to the island summit. The warden confirmed, "Yes" .

The warden advised all present of potential attacks by the Skuas, informing individuals to put their hand in the air as the birds will usually attack the highest point. Having encountered Great Skuas (a.k.a. Bonxies) previously on St. Kilda, Foula, Fair Isle and Hoy, I had previous experience of their attacks and therefore knew to carry walking poles which can be put in the air instead of ones arm.

From the small visitor centre, we set off walking along the very obvious track.

Prior to setting off we were each provided with a map of the island. We first passed some old ruins and beyond the ruins ventured into Skua territory.

The first Skuas we encoutered were all Arctic ones, a species I have only encountered once previously, on Foula. Despite getting sufficiently close to get reasonable photos, none of the Arctic Skuas attacked.

Arctic Skua:

Arctic Skua:

During the ascent we could see a sea stack in the distance. I initally thought it was Am Buachaille, near Sandwood Bay, but then realised I was looking south and Am Buachaille was to the north. What we could see was the Old Man of Stoer.

Old Man of Stoer:

As we gained more height, we moved out of Arctic Skua territory and into Great Skua territory. We were entering the domain of the Bonxie! Again, none of the birds attacked. We could see a small lochan in the distance with seven Great Skua sitting on the water.

Great Skua:

On eventually reaching the cliff-edge at Puffin Bay, we were rewarded with great views. Despite being called Puffin Bay, this is not the best place to spot puffins.

Puffin Bay:

After taking in the views at Puffin Bay, we continued round the track towards the Great Stack. During the ascent we met a man carrying out path repair work. Great quality work! We got talking for around ten minutes about paths on various mountains.

On arriving at the Great Stack, I approached the cliff-edge taking care not to go over the edge. The stack and nearby cliffs are covered in seabirds. We could see thousands of Guillemot, hundreds of Razorbill and Kittiwakes and perhaps around twenty Puffins.

Allegedly, more men have stood on the moon than on top of the Great Stack which is apparently very difficult to climb.

The Great Stack:

Thousands of Guillemot on the Great Stack:

The Great Stack:

While it was nice to see some Puffins in the distance, Handa Island is definitely not the best Scottish island to visit to see them. Fair Isle would be difficult to beat in this regard.

Distant Puffins:

Distant Puffins:

We spent around ten to fifteen minutes at the Great Stack before continuing on round the island. On reaching the track high-point, we left the track heading across featureless ground to reach the summit. During this very short section of walk, we experienced our first attack of the day as a couple of Bonxies decided to make their presence known. Thanks to holding our poles up high, no contact was made.

At the summit of Sithean Mor:

We then returned back to the track and continued to follow it round the island. As we made our way round the track, we encountered many more Bonxies.

Great Skua:

On passing a section of cliff-edge, we saw a Fulmar hovering in an updraft.


Great Skua:

We then began to lose height as we next made our way down towards Boulder Bay.

Following the clifftop path:

During the final walk back to the small visitor centre, we passed a lovely beach which unfortuanetly there was no access to from the path. We then passed several Arctic Skua one of which was full-on attacking everyone walking past.

Arctic Skua:

On passing one of the Arctic Skua, I could see a ring on its foot. On mentioning the ring to one of the wardens on our return, he wanted to know what it said. It was difficult to make out, possibly Elvish, "Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul" .

Arctic Skua:

Arctic Skua:

After stopping for a quick sandwich and drink back at the Visitor Hut, we caught the next boat back to Tarbet.

Handa Island is definitely worth a visit. It is a good walk with great birdlife. If going I would recommend taking a walking pole and also a bag to help clean-up some of the plastic from the shore at Tarbet.