North Rona, Sula Sgeir, Handa Island & the Summer Isles


North Rona lies about 44 miles north from the Butt of Lewis. It is incredibly isolated and landing there is only possible in excellent conditions. Remains of ancient dwellings exist on the island (it was inhabited by a small number of people, on and off, until 1885) and you won’t fail to be impressed by its remoteness, windswept beauty and array of seabirds.

North Rona along with Sula Sgeir, ten miles to the west, was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1956 because of its importance as a breeding ground for birds such as guillemot, puffin, kittiwake and fulmar. North Rona is also a Special Area of Conservation with the third largest grey seal breeding colony in the UK, that’s 5% of the British annual pup production. Our North Hebridean Explorer cruise visits North Rona.

Sula Sgeir (right) has recently attracted the attention of birdwatchers due to a black-browed albatross deciding to make its summer home there amongst hundreds of gannets. Sula Sgeir also made an interesting tea-break stop on our Faroes and Iceland expeditions!

Handa Island is a dedicated bird reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest managed by The Scottish Wildlife Trust. Before the 1848 potato famine struck seven families lived on Handa with their own “queen” and “parliament”, a society similar to that on St Kilda in fact.

Over 170 bird species have been recorded here and the island hosts the largest guillemot colony in Britain – about 100,000 birds. Probably the most unusual bird – an albino oystercatcher with a twisted bill – now resides, stuffed, in an Edinburgh museum having died on Handa in 1967. 216 species of plant have been recorded and over 100 types of moss. Thousands of rabbits reside here and whales are seen fairly frequently.

The Summer Isles consist of four small islands – Priest Island, Horse Island, Tanera Beg and Tanera Mor, the latter being the largest – and more tiny land formations. There are three prehistoric stone circles on Priest Island, the most westerly of the Summer Isles. As with all the islands in the group many species of bird and plants can be found. Treasure from the Spanish Armada is supposed to be buried on Horse Island but no-one has ever found evidence to either prove or refute this theory! Wild goats live here but it’s unclear from where they originate. Tanera Beg boasts an unusual fine coral sand bank, seen at low tide. Merganser ducks breed along the waters edge and other bird species are seen. Two hundred years ago a fishing station enabled 21 families on live on Tanera Mor. It is now uninhabited. The climate is mild and many different wildflowers flourish. The Summer Isles are formed from Torridonian sandstone with just a couple of tiny islets of Hebridean gneiss.