Sanda can be seen from the southern tip of the Kintyre peninsula and from the Isle of Arran on clear days. It is known locally on Arran as "spoon Island because of its resemblance to an upturned spoon when viewed from the South coast of the island.
The island is currently treeless, however, Wood Hill in the north west provides a tantalising clue that this was not always the case.
Sanda lies in the Straits of Moyle (Sruth na Maoile) between Scotland and Ireland. It is part of a mini-archipelago to the south east of the Mull of Kintyre, at the far end of the Firth of Clyde. The other islands are Glunimore and Sheep Island, to the north east. Between them, in the shallower water is Oitir Buidhe, meaning the "yellow strand", which probably lends the island its name. To the east there is also the notorious "ship catcher", Paterson's Reef.
The island has cliffs on most sides. There are caves on the west coast, and also a couple of natural arches, particularly near "the Ship" as the lighthouse is nicknamed. There are two main hills, in the north west and south east. In between them is a valley which has the double advantage of being sheltered from the prevailing winds and catching the heat of the sun.
The island is known for the ruins of a chapel built by Saint Ninian, for its Celtic crosses and its reputed holy well. It is said that Ninian was buried here, and indeed, the island was in possession of the Priory of Whithorn in Galloway until the Reformation. It is said that Ninian's grave was marked by an alder tree, and that whoever stepped on it would die.
It was known as "Sandey" (sandy island) by the Norse. This probably refers to the Oitir Buidhe which lies between Sanda and Glunimore and Sheep Island. Another name that appears to have attached itself to the island is "Havin" (and numerous variants such as "Aven", "Avona"), which was recorded amongst the "Danish" by Dean Monro - this is cognate with the English "haven", and probably refers to the anchorage on the north coast, alternatively, but much less likely, as Haswell-Smith suggests, this could also be a reference to the Scottish Gaelic "abhainn" which means a river.
In the Middle Ages, there was some association with the Bruce family, notably, Robert the Bruce and his brother Edward. Edward lends his name to "Prince Edward's Rock", which is just south of Sanda Lighthouse, and which is nothing to do with Bonnie Prince Charlie, as sometimes thought. Robert was once forced to flee there, en route to Ireland after being pursued by the English navy. He has been sheltering with sympathisers at nearby Dunaverty Castle, on Kintyre in 1306, but was forced to leave. He later sheltered at Rathlin Island, which is less than fifteen miles away, and which is where he was said to have seen the legendary spider in the cave. In the south are "Wallace's Rocks" which may be linked in legend to William Wallace.
In the later 16th and 17th centuries, the island was connected with the MacDonalds of Kintyre, who sided with Montrose ("Bonnie Dundee"/"Bluidy Clavers") Colkitto married a MacDonald of Sanda; those MacDonalds were also caught up in related fighting from the 1630s onwards, and lost their position as a result of the Dunaverty Massacre.