Thursday, 24 July 2014

"Marooned" on the Isle of Handa

10:30pm on Handa, the sunset lights up the cliffs opposite The Great Stack.

"Whichever strange place you find yourself in, make that your home". I can't remember when and where I heard this, but it strikes me as appropriate on returning from a week on the remote island of Handa in the far NW of Scotland.

Life on Handa was basic. The tide was in charge of each day. Quiet often replaced the endless stuff which fills life to the brim back in the real world. Here reality was very different, yet for the week we were there Handa felt like home.

The view to The Old Man of Stoer

One of many common lizards on the island

The area of the island known as The Great Cliffs. A stupendous place.

I have been fortunate beyond measure to spend a lot of time on the Scottish islands, and there is something about them that gets under your skin. Maybe it is that for all the silence, there is so often drama on a huge scale happening close by. 

Handa is the best example of this that I know. The serene beauty and still turqoise waters of the East side of the island are replaced on the West by the incessant chaos and noise and smell of 100,000 seabirds occupying some magnificent sea cliffs. Tiny guillemot chicks leap from the cliffs as they fledge from their nests, often only to be torn apart by piratical Great Skuas when they reach the sea below. Viscious fights break out between neighbouring birds, the tight proximity between nests sometimes becoming too much. Squadrons of Arctic Terns surround and attack everything and anything that gets too close.

Atlantic Puffins


A tiny fraction of the 100,000 seabirds which occupy the island.

Every night we would return to the island bothy, occupied by only a handful of fellow Scottish Wildlife Trust volunteers. It seemed like not a single evening passed without tales of something exciting having happened during the day. We slept when we were tired, it rarely getting quite dark enough to bother lighting the candles that lit the bothy. Some days we were out from 7am to 11:30pm and couldn't get enough of the island, the 8 hours work during the day always passing in a flash.

Our office for the week.

A quiet night in the bothy

Nicole and Tim (and BBC filmcrew) watching out from fledging guillemot chicks leaping from The Great Stack, one of the greatest spectacles I've ever seen.

One hot afternoon the landing beach resembled something straight out of the tropics, the water gorgeous turqoise and the clearest I've ever seen. A mighty Great Skua landed close by carrying a rabbit it had just killed. As it started to eat its prey a wave washed in and took its meal, leaving it stood empty handed on the beach. It waited. I slowly crept forward and kicked the dead rabbit out of the sea back towards the Skua, and it started to eat only 10ft from where I was stood. It paused between mouthfuls, stretched it's huge wings into the air and screamed down at the dead rabbit. Seeing such raw behaviour at so close a distance is a privelege I won't forget for a while.

A Great Skua.

A murky evening.

An intense sunset towards the end of the week.

On the boat back to the mainland at the end of the week, the skipper told us of a plane crash in the Ukraine and an unfolding crisis in Gaza. We'd been totally oblivious. I'd joked to Nicole a few days earlier that a war could have broken out and we'd have known nothing of it on Handa. Such isolation from the rest of the world, if only for a week, has made me think hard about a few things. "It is a somewhat happier world over there" said the skipper, gazing back towards the island as we landed on the mainland.


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