The zodiac boat to Handa Island runs from Tarbet, which is about a 10 minute drive north of Scourie – which we determined is properly pronounced Scowree and not Scoorie. In season the boat runs frequently, but off-season it runs on the hour, every hour, and naturally we missed one by about 5 minutes. The night before we had spoken to someone who told us that a few puffins had already arrived on Handa. This was excellent news because normally they do not arrive until May and we hadn’t expected to see them. Puffin on Handa island.
While we waited for the boat, we chatted to one of the boatmen who confirmed that some puffins had already arrived, adding that around 200 pairs of puffins briefly summer on Handa Island from May to July. The water was cold but crystal clear as we pulled away from the jetty, ten minutes later we jumped ashore on Handa, helped by volunteers who work for the Scottish Wildlife Trust that manages the island. They took us to the shelter where there are maps and information about the island. From there the walk to Puffin Bay and back takes approximately 3 hours, most of which is on a well-maintained boardwalk.
Puffins are quite small and despite their distinctive scarlet bills and bright orange feet, it was almost impossible to get a good look at them without binoculars, which fortunately John had brought with him. We probably saw about 20 of them and as I did not have a tripod, I am amazed the photos came out as well as they did with the zoom lens, especially as it was grey and windy. Puffin Bay is on the north side of the island that faces the Atlantic.
Occasionally among swooping gulls and fulmars, a flash of scarlet streaked by close to the clifftop where we were all perched scanning the cliffs. Landing on the ledge of a cliff the puffin was hard to distinguish among the thousands of nesting guillemots and razorbills. We stayed for about half an hour then got back on to the path where, in addition to more of the seabirds mentioned, we saw a small flotilla of Eider ducks in Boulder Bay and a gulp of cormorants on the west side of the island. On land we saw bonxies, otherwise known as great skuas, that nest on the moorland and have a tendency to dive bomb you if they think you’re getting too close to their nest. I didn’t much like the sound of that, but fortunately for us the ‘bullying bonxies’ had had the good sense to nest far from the boardwalk that tourists must keep on and they ignored us. The only other bird we saw was a solitary wheatear. The only animals we came across were a trace of rabbits frolicking madly over heathery tufts of grass, two seals in Boulder Bay and an imaginary whale. Whales are not uncommon off the north-west coast, but although J and I both thought we saw a shiny black mass break the surface of the Atlantic a few hundred yards offshore, we didn’t see it again and we later agreed that we couldn’t swear to it. I do hope the two people we told about it – see photo below – are not still standing atop the 400ft headland staring out to sea in search of it……
While we waited for the boat back to the mainland, I read the information panels at the shelter which offered the following intelligence; “this north west coast of Scotland has experienced more climactic instability in the last 20,000 yrs than anywhere else on earth – it has changed from polar continental to an equable maritime climate.” Handa sits at 58 degrees and 22 minutes north, as far north as Sitka in Alaska, slightly further south than Stockholm, and Churchill on Hudson Bay and way further north than Moscow. It’s true that even in primary school we learned that it is only due to the warming effect of the North Atlantic Drift that the west of Scotland is not icebound for half the year.
Until 1847, Handa was inhabited by 64 people. The remains of their crofts can be seen on your left as you walk towards Puffin Bay, while close to the shore is an old graveyard. According to the information on the island, ‘the evacuation of the families came about because of the failure of the staple food crop potatoes in 1847 and they approached MacIver asking to be sent to Canada at the Duke’s expense.’ The Duke in question is the Duke of Sutherland and MacIver was his factor. It goes on to say, “between June 7th and 17th over £200 was spent on biscuits for the emigrants who were to sail from Laxford to Canada on the brigs Sirius and Panama. The main destinations for Islanders and Highlanders were Cape Breton Island and Nova Scotia in the Maritime Provinces. Ironically this area was also hit by potato blight then by two bad harvests in a row. To crown the settlers’ misfortune, they were at the receiving end of a large influx of Highlanders and Irish also felled by the potato blight. The Governor of Nova Scotia speaking of this influx said ‘this province is in no respect prepared for the reception of poor people….and the landing under the present circumstances of even a small number in the colony, suffering as it is under the scarcity of the failure of the potato and grain crops in the last two seasons, would be seriously injurious to the province.” Strangely the Duke of Sutherland’s factors do not seem to have received such reports for they claimed that many families who were sent to Canada were much happier.”
Given that in 1850 Handa became a sheep farm and salmon station of the second Duke of Sutherland, I remain a bit skeptical about the unvarnished veracity of this account. The lives of Highlanders were certainly harsh, but in this instance the people of Handa lived on more than just potatoes, they grew some oats and barley and being on a small island, they had fish. So did they really voluntarily leave? I want to know more about this lamentable chapter of Highland history, so I bought a recent book about the clearances which may confirm that the second Duke was acting in absolute good faith and was merely carrying out the islanders’ wishes.
Back on the mainland we drove south on the A894 back towards Ardvreck. Just before we got there we took the A837 towards Lochinver where we were headed for The Lochinver Larder for a spot of lunch. More precisely, we were on a mission to eat pie, because the Lochinver Larder is famous for them and we were not disappointed. We each had a savory pie; J had steak and ale, I had savory lamb, John had haggis, neeps (turnips), and tatties, and Diana had cauliflower, broccoli and cheese. For pudding we split two fruit pies, because how can you not when peach and apricot pie and strawberry and rhubarb pie are on the menu? Sated with pie we drove back towards Scourie, but this time we took the single track coastal road, the B869 which was the most challenging road of the trip. It is also one of the most scenic in the country. Also the sun had, at least temporarily, burned off the fog.
By the time we got round the peninsula towards the Old Man of Stoer, it was bright and sunny and holiday makers were out having a beer on the patio of their holiday homes. This was a good thing for us because we were looking for the way to the lighthouse and when we stopped to ask one group, they cheerily told us we were on the wrong road. In our defense, I must say that the signposting in these lonely parts is really quite excellent until you come to a fork in the road, at which point I think the locals deliberately remove signposts to keep out annoying foreigners. Given the narrowness of the roads I can’t say I blame them, if I lived there I might do the same thing. Incidentally, the locals in Bolinas in Marin County, California, were famous for this unorthodox pastime which they absolutely did to keep outsiders away. I don’t know if they still do, but when I lived in Marin it was well known that every time the authorities put a sign up, the locals took it down. I think the authorities indulged them because it was such a pretty drive that they quite liked the jaunt out there every so often to put up another sign. But I digress. In the end we didn’t get to the Old Man of Stoer because it was getting late and we’d still have had a bit of a walk, so that too will have to wait until J and I move to Gairloch.
By the time we left the peninsula and crossed the Kylesku Bridge the mist fell again. These empty lands are so desolate under leaden skies that it’s not hard to understand why Dr. Samuel Johnson, who traversed the Highlands in 1773, found it all to be a ‘wide extent of hopeless sterility’. Since then the Highlands have been romanticized and these days they are positively fashionable. After kicking the people off the land in favor of sheep, some aristocratic landowners looked around a bit and decided it made more sense to stock up on herds of deer instead. When the well-heeled ‘hunting and fishing’ lot began popping up for a spot of deer stalking, there needed somewhere to stay, which prompted a surge in the construction of Victorian hunting lodges. These days many such lodges have become destination hotels with famous chefs, whisky bars and spa facilities, in addition to hunting and fishing, sea kayaking and bird watching…..!
And talking of accommodation, we stayed at The Scourie Hotel. Built as a coaching inn, it has been a well-known fishing hotel for almost two centuries and is much appreciated by enthusiasts who come in search of trout and salmon on the hotel’s 46 controlled beats. None of us fish, but we also liked the hotel a lot. The first night we had a sumptuous multi-course dinner, featuring local produce, in the hotel’s dining room and the following night we ate in the bar – the result of a late lunch of many pies……. The people at the Scourie hotel are friendly, the place is welcoming, the rooms are comfortable and the sunsets are magnificent.