The island of Handa, Eilean Shannda, sits just off the coast of western Sutherland. It’s name is derived from both Norse and Gaelic and is said to mean, island at the sandy river. Handa had been inhabited for many centuries. Some archaeological evidence suggests evidence of settlements on Handa from as early as the Iron Age. A few scattered finds of early pottery have been found within or near the bounds of the township proving occupation of the island for the last two thousand years. A small building, next to the tiny burial ground, which has also been identified as a potential medieval chapel.
Legend states that people from the mainland, such as the nearby settlements of Tarbet, Foindle and Fanagmore, used to bring their dead to be buried on Handa. In a bid to avoid their remains being dug up and devoured by wolves.
On Eddrachillis’ shore
The grey wolf lies in wait,
Woe to the broken door,
Woe to the loosened gate,
And the groping wretch whom sleety fogs
On the trackless moor belate.
Thus every grave we dug
The hungry wolf uptore,
And every morn the sod
Was strewn with bones and gore:
Our mother-earth had denied us rest
On Ederchaillis’ shore
The Book of Highland Minstrelsy, 1846
The Old Statistical Account (OSA) from 1793, states that the annual rent for the island at the time amounted to £12. The OSA doesn’t record how many people lived on Handa towards the end of the 18th century, but the then-landlord Lord Reay removed most, or all, of the tenants from the island around 1829 (according to a local source interviewed by an oral historian). Handa then became part of Badnabay sheep farm for a short period. However, either some tenants were allowed to reoccupy the island or the clearance had been a partial one, as the first census in 1841 records 65 souls living on the island, in 10 different houses.
However, the 1841 census preceded the Highland potato famine by a few years, and this led to some hardship on the island. It is at this point, we start to see a divergence of testimonies given to the Napier Commission in 1886, as to what happened in Handa during the wake of potato famine.
The long-serving factor for Sutherland Estate, based in nearby Scourie and tenant of a large sheep farm on the mainland opposite the island, claimed that the remaining crofters on the island begged for his help and sought assistance with emigrating, seeing their outlook as hopeless. The factor said that he was happy to help and persuaded the Duke to assist them with their passage.
Alexander Ross of Foindle, another witness at the Napier Commission, told a different story, saying that the factor persuaded one of the crofters to write down that they were in need of help, and once he had procured the ‘evidence’, he used bribes and promises to get the others to reluctantly abandon the island.
Clearly his view was that the factor saw an opportunity to both rid himself of indigent crofting tenants and at the same time expand his sheep farm, as Handa was then immediately incorporated into the holding as soon as the inhabitants had departed. Either way, the entire population, or very close to it, soon took a ship and ultimately ended up on Lot 21 on Prince Edward Island in Canada.
Read The Archaeological Reports
Handa Island Field Report: Highland Historic Environment Record, https://her.highland.gov.uk/Monument/MHG12273
Handa Island Archaeology Report: Highland Historic Environment Record, https://her.highland.gov.uk/Monument/MHG12273
Archaeology Images 1-5: Highland Historic Environment Record, Copyright: G Robbins & Highland Council Archaeology Unit.
Handa Island: Highland Libraries, Highland Libraries Postcard Collection, Am Baile: 31653, Copyright: Highland Libraries
Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Milan Sommer, Getty Images Copyright: Public Domain
Shore of Handa Island, Alasdair James, Getty Images Copyright: Public Domain
OS Map Sutherland, Sheet XXX, 1878, National Library of Scotland, https://maps.nls.uk/view/228781111 ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’.