An oystercatcher keeps a watchful eye out for humans
As winter sets in and the nights get longer, it can be pleasant to sit and think about places to visit when spring comes round again and the days start to lengthen once more. Somewhere that’s well worth a visit is Handa Island, which I’ve mentioned in two previous posts: Handa Island – Puffins Galore and Island Going – Robert Atkinson.
Access to Handa Island today is still seasonal (April to September) and weather dependent, but visitors get there in far greater numbers than when we first visited over thirty years ago. To get on and off Handa back then, you reached the small ferry by scrambling along a rather shoogly pontoon of upturned plastic milk crates. Getting onto the ferry today is definitely a rather more staid affair! And facilities on Handa have moved forward with the installation in 2012 of one of the best public eco-toilets in the world!
I recently came across this lovely little ‘Scotland on Screen’ film about Handa’s past history and present status as a bird and wildlife sanctuary. Filmed in the 1970s, it captures the island as it was when I first saw it. But don’t believe everything you read in the ‘Scotland on Screen’ preamble!! It may say that the film highlights birds like “… puffins, guillemots, herring gulls, cormorants and ‘dive-bombing’ skewers”, and while it’s certainly true you could well be dive-bombed by protective nesting birds, it will be by skuas – not skewers!! Enjoy the film!
My first visit to Handa Island was in 1977, more than thirty years ago now. Two things in particular fascinated me about Handa’s history. One was that long ago families from the mainland brought their dead to be buried on Handa to keep the graves safe from scavenging wolves. The other that the island had had its own ‘parliament’ presided over by the eldest widow, the ‘Queen of Handa’, and that the islanders held daily consultations to decide the work to be done that day. It seemed wholly appropriate that the people who lived there were the ones who took the decisions that most closely effected their lives. And took those decisions as a community. Sadly, like so many Scottish islands and so much of the Scottish Highlands, Handa ‘lost’ its people in the mid-19th century and has been uninhabited since.
But its wildlife still flourishes! I remember vividly that sense of amazement on experiencing at first-hand the sight – and sounds – of the soaring sea-cliffs with their thousand upon thousand of nesting birds: the reality exceeding anything we’d imagined. In particular the unforgettable puffins, who seemed far more sedate than many of their more raucous neighbours! Handa is well-managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, with more than 5,000 visitors a year. And there was good news for all those visitors: to help cope with such an annual influx a new eco-toilet has been built on the island, aptly named “The loo with a view”
I recently came across Robert Atkinson’s wonderful book “Island Going”. First published in 1949, it charts Atkinson and his friend John Ainslie’s journey from the south of England to the north of Scotland in search of the rare sea-bird, Leach’s Petrel. Setting out in July 1935 in Ainslie’s mother’s car, they motored all the way to Kinlochbervie in a day and a night – going ever onwards until the road runs out: “Fifty miles beyond Lairg the road reached a little township called Kinloch Bervie … The ribbon that unwound from London in July sun petered out into rain-swept moorland two or three miles beyond Kinloch Bervie. Another fifteen or so miles of uninhabited, trackless moor and the cliffs turned the north-west corner of Scotland at Cape Wrath.”
As ornithologists they were looking for a remote island as a base for their study and had set their hearts on getting to North Rona. But then, as now, reaching North Rona, was not easy. And so they had to change plans, put Rona on hold and make Handa Island their first port of call. Handa lies off the North West Sutherland coast at Tarbet, near to Scourie. Though not their first choice of island, it was there that their adventures began. Writing of their first view of a sea-cliff colony, Atkinson said: “The birds were sounding long before we reached the cliff edge; then, peering over, the void below was a snow-storm of flying sea-fowl. The noise struck us like a blast. It was new, all new…”
It’s a book well-worth reading, not only for their enthusiasm and insights as ornithologists, but also for the descriptions of the islands they visited and the often very primitive conditions they were prepared to camp in to carry out their studies. They were brave and hardy young men! And they did make it to North Rona.
It’s a book that makes you want to be ‘Island Going’ yourself.