UNST is Britain’s most northerly island and is reached after a 10-minute ferry crossing from Gutcher, on the neighbouring island of Yell . The landscape is very different from Yell, and more varied than most in Shetland, due to the island’s unusual geology – its rocks were forced to the surface from beneath the earth’s crust – and offers a wide diversity of walks, long or short, through differing terrains abundant in wildlife and history.
The small ports of Uyeasound and Baltasound will be stops on the cruise in company leg of the Tall Ships Races 2011 in July and a host of events and special attractions have been laid on for the tall ships’ crews and visitors to the island at the time.
Unst is home to about a third of Shetland’s pony population – on leaving the ferry terminal at Belmont watch out for them as, like sheep, they do not respect the Highway Code!
Belmont House, on the left, was built around 1775. It is a classic example of 18th century architecture and shows how Shetland, for all that it was remote, was always fully linked to the outside world. The Belmont Trust was formed in 1996 with the aim of saving and restoring the almost derelict house. The work is now complete and Belmont House is ready for use – for holidays (it can sleep up to 12), weddings, business or arts events. Further details can be found on the website where you can also read about the ambitious restoration project, the history of the house and the families who have lived there.
Unst has the highest concentration of rural longhouse sites anywhere in the world, making it the ideal place to interpret Shetland’s Viking past. Shetland Amenity Trust set up the Viking Unst project in 2006, which now consists of a series of sites throughout the isle. These include three excavated Viking longhouse sites, a full size replica Viking longship, and a reconstruction of one of the excavated longhouses. The excavated sites are open throughout the year, however the main Viking Unst activities take place throughout the summer. For further information check local press, call 01595 694688 or log on to the website.
The main road branches right for Uyeasound which is sheltered by the island of Uyea, now uninhabited. The hall there was the home of Sir Basil Neven-Spence, the county’s MP from 1935-50. St Olaf’s chapel (12th century), south-east of the hall, shows that the island was once well populated.
The booth by the Uyeasound pier was a Hanseatic trading post in the 1400s. The shores of the sound are witness to two skirmishes; one in the 1500s when the Earl of Bothwell narrowly escaped his Scottish pursuers only to end in a Danish dungeon; more recently the Earl of Zetland (inter island steamer) narrowly survived a German bombing attack.
Gardiesfauld Hostel which offers quality self catering accommodation as well as caravan bays with hook-ups can be booked by phone/fax 01957 755279.
Muness Castle was built in 1598 for the ruthless Lawrence Bruce and is by the same architect as Scalloway Castle. A classic baronial building, it was comfortable in its day but was sacked by Danish pirates after about fifty years and never re-roofed.
Uyeasound hosts its own Up-Helly-A’ celebrations in February each year.
A little further north, white sands drift over the Norse settlements at Sandwick, excavated in 1977 and again in 1995. On the far point stand the ancient boat-shaped walls of the church at Framgord, with Celtic crosses in its graveyard, which is still in use. The low coastline beyond is a good place to find seals and otters and you will come across the deserted township of Colvadale in a few miles.
Back to the main road and on the way to Lund is Bordastubble, Shetland’s largest standing stone at 12ft x 8ft 2in.
The prominent 18th century house at Lund is a dangerous ruin and its original doorway has been moved to Muness. The Devil is said to have visited one winter’s night leaving his hoof-print on a flagstone.
The roofless St Olaf’s Chapel down by the beach contains a leper’s window, Hanseatic gravestones of two 16th century Bremen merchants inscribed in low German, and an early Christian fish symbol carved on a lintel. On the opposite side of the bay is the Iron Age settlement and broch at Underhoull. There is also a 9th century Viking longhouse that has been excavated; its artefacts are in the Shetland Museum.
The stones on the beach at Westing are polished round by the sea and on the holm just offshore stands the eroded remains of another broch with its ditch. A causeway, now submerged by a rise in sea level, once linked it to the shore. Further inland a small water mill has been rebuilt.
Heading towards Baltasound, look for the Loch of Watlee on the left, good for trout fishing, and the wishing well at Yellabrun near the turn-off.
The harbour at Baltasound once vied with Lerwick as the main herring port in the boom years 1880-1925. During the ‘season’ the population of 500 rose to 10,000 with the influx of gutters and coopers housed in timber huts to support some 600 boats. Today only the breastworks of the associated piers remain and the harbour is home to otters living along its north shoreline. One otter is not too shy to come out looking for offerings from local fishermen unloading their boats.
During the last war Walrus seaplanes and anti-submarine patrol boats were based in the voe, their operations helping to protect Arctic convoys. There was also a detachment of Commandos for raids on Norway, one of whom was the naturalist Peter Scott.
Buness House on the north shore was known to be standing in the 1460s. Many famous and interesting characters have been welcomed at Buness over the centuries. They include French philosopher Biot and English scientist Kater, who measured gravity at Buness to establish the earth’s radius; naturalist Joseph Banks, who founded Kew Gardens; William Bullock who founded the museum in London; and Lady Jane Franklin in search of her husband, lost while searching for the Northwest Passage to the Pacific. Two of the house’s occupants corresponded with the Duke of Wellington and with Darwin, and today’s occupants now also welcome guests to their historic home (see accommodation listings).
The Baltasound Hotel offers comfortable accommodation in the main hotel or in chalets in the garden, delicious food and stunning views, all year round. All the local attractions are within easy reach so this is the ideal base on a trip to Unst. Or, if you’re just passing through, pop in to Springers Bar in the hotel where you can enjoy a beer from Britain’s most northerly brewery in Britain’s most northerly pub! Bar meals and takeaways are available every night. Contact the hotel or bar on 01957 711334; email email@example.com, or find Springers Bar on Facebook.
If you’re self catering on Unst, or just visiting for the day, you can get all your supplies from the well-stocked Skibhoul Stores in Baltasound (01957 711304). The licensed grocer and baker also supplies fuel and has a snack bar, soup of the day, and a range of Unst souvenirs. Open six days a week from 9am (9.30am on Mondays).
Also make sure to visit The Final Checkout (01957 711666) at P & T Coaches’ premises. The general store has a great range of groceries, fresh meat and fish, hot and cold snacks, cash machine, top-ups and also offers car hire, taxi hire and many other services.
A farmers’ market is usually held in Unst on the last Saturday each month. Here you can purchase the local produce including salmon, oysters, mussels and chocolates.
A group of local people have established a community market gardening venture – Unst Regeneration Growers Enterprise (URGE) – which won a Shetland Environmental Award in 2008 and is going from strength to strength with their tasty, organic produce, and the ‘green’ methods used in producing it. An increasing range of vegetables and soft fruits is available from the market or in local outlets.
Chromate of iron (used to harden steel) was quarried on the hills north of Baltasound between 1820 and 1944. At Hagdale fifty men were employed grinding low-grade ore in the Horse Mill (partially restored) and the material was used in the production of yellow paint.
An innovative development is the PURE Energy Centre based at Hagdale, which develops hydrogen-based products, among other energy, renewable and storage strategies; an initiative which is attracting much interest.
The Nature Reserve at the Keen of Hamar is the largest example of serpentine debris in Britain. The surface conformation keeps the peak of the hill devoid of pasture and the area resembles what much of Britain must have looked like as the last Ice Age retreated. Here, while still a boy at Buness, the botanist Thomas Edmondston discovered Arctic Sandwort (in Britain found only on North Ronaldsay) and the Mousear Chickweed, named after him, which grows nowhere else in the world. He also discovered Mountain Sandwort, which now seems to be extinct, no specimen having been seen there since 1901. He published A Flora of Shetland in 1845, and was killed the same year, aged 20, on a scientific expedition to South America which was planned to link up with the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Arctic. Details of guided walks around the reserve, in conjunction with the Ranger Service of Shetland Amenity Trust, are available from Scottish Natural Heritage (01595 693345) or the Ranger Service on 01595 694688.
North again to Haroldswick and two venues well worth visiting: the Unst Boat Haven with its replica beach and traditional boats and artefacts, and the Unst Heritage Centre which has a wide range of exhibits and extensive demographic records. Various crafts are demonstrated through the week, with ‘Have-a-Go’ knitting and spinning sessions every Friday afternoon. Both attractions are open daily from 11am to 5pm, from 1st May to 30th September.
The RAF station on the summit of Saxa Vord kept watch over Britain’s Northern Approaches since the earliest days of radar, tracking the inbound Russian aircraft that constantly probed the air defences. It played a prominent part in the lives of Unst people for over 50 years, providing civilian employment for local adults, children for the local schools and a healthy input into the local economy. However, the station was deemed surplus to requirements and closed in March 2006. Although not unexpected, the RAF departure was a huge blow for the island with far reaching implications both for its economy and its social structure.
However, an exciting and innovative tourist centre, based in the former RAF domestic site at the foot of the hill, has given new life to Saxa Vord, a finalist in the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards ‘Dining Out Experience 2010’ category. Guests can stay in one of 13 warm, comfortable and well-appointed 3-star holiday houses (sleeping five), or in the Sergeants’ Mess Hostel (all rooms singles or doubles/twins). The lounge bar and restaurant serves tasty meals and local beer from the Valhalla brewery. Unst is special and guests at Saxa Vord have easy access to all the outstanding scenery, wildlife, archaeology, history and culture of this special island. For more information call 01957 711711; restaurant 01957 711839 or visit the website.
Foords Chocolates is based at the Saxa Vord Complex. A visit to the factory, cafe and gift shop is an interesting (and tasty) way of spending a few hours.
Haroldswick Methodist Church is the most northerly church in Britain. Designed by a Shetland architect, Frank Robertson, and built in 1993, largely by voluntary local labour, the building is based on a simplified form of a Norwegian stave kirk. The interior beams and panelling are Scandinavian pine and the lightness, warmth and proportion of the worship area are striking. The 1887 bell is housed in a new bell turret. The church is open all the time and is featured in the Churches to Visit in Scotland guide (published by National Museum of Scotland Publishing Ltd). Sunday services are at 11.15am or 6pm (alternate Sundays).
Talc – a form of serpentine – is quarried at Clibberswick to be shipped from the pier at Baltasound for use in fertilisers and ceramics.
There is a beautiful sandy beach at Norwick and also one at Skaw by Britain’s most northerly house. The lifeboat from a ship torpedoed off the coast forms the roof of the shed. A former resident, Walter Sutherland, was reputedly the last man to speak Norn, the archaic Scandinavian language.
Between Norwick and Skaw lie the remnants of the wartime radar site. The bunkers are remarkably well preserved and there are plans to restore one of them. The one at the end of the track is well placed for watching bird activity where the tidal waters attract feeding birds.
The Norwick Up-Helly-A’ is the most northerly of Shetland’s fire festivals and is held around the end of February each year.
Burrafirth in the north-west is a spectacular fjord, flanked by the cliffs of Saxa Vord (935ft) and Hermaness, and ends lazily in a long sandy beach. One story from local folklore suggests Herma and Saxa were giants who quarrelled as they fell in love with a mermaid singing on the Flugga rock. They threw stones at each other which landed in the sea to become Saxa’s Baa. A large one thrown by Saxa became the Out Stack. To be rid of them she agreed to marry whichever would go with her to the North Pole. Both followed and were drowned as they could not swim. In another version a passing witch settled the dispute by shrouding Saxa in turf to form the hill and turning Herma into a wreath of mist over the ness.
Today the moors and cliffs of Hermaness are a Nature Reserve for 100,000 breeding birds, notably gannets, skuas and puffins. The latter nest in burrows along the spectacular cliff tops. You need to walk there to observe their antics. A longer trek will take you as far north as you can walk in Britain to overlook the Muckle Flugga rock on which David Stevenson built the lighthouse in 1858. His nephew Robert Louis visited and is said to have based the map in his novel Treasure Island on Unst. Despite the light’s height above sea, keepers would occasionally find stranded fish in the courtyard after a severe gale. The light is now automated like all Scotland’s lighthouses. Hermaness is part of the Buness estate.
Scottish Natural Heritage (01595 693345) is responsible for the reserve and arranges guided walks in conjunction with the Ranger Service of Shetland Amenity Trust (01595 694688). There is also an innovative interpretive Visitor Centre in the old Lighthouse Shore Station near the entrance to the nature reserve.
Boat trips around Muckle Flugga, Hermaness and the surrounding areas are offered by Muckle Flugga Charters from the slipway at the shore station. Sea angling and diving trips are also arranged and private charters are available. The 4-star trips are available by contacting 01806 522447; 07747 630340 or see the website.
Trips from Lerwick to Muckle Flugga are offered by Thule Charters in the catamaran Ruby May. The 4-star ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ wildlife experience takes you right up the east coast of Shetland with its abundant wildlife and scenic coastline. Booking and fare details from Thule Charters on 07796 912237 or 07876 522292.
Britain ends beyond Flugga at the lonely Out Stack. When the Franklin Expedition of 1845 failed to return from its quest for a nort-west passage to the Pacific, Lady Franklin came up to Unst in 1849 to question whalers returning from the Arctic and visited the rock to pray for her husband. Ten years later she learned that he had perished in 1847.
You’ll need more than just a single day to explore Unst’s treasures and you will not be disappointed if you stay a few to do it at leisure. However, you can also explore Unst on the Internet where the Unst Tourism Group has a site at www.unst.org which is updated regularly with events and items of interest. The site includes pages on Bobby’s Bus Shelter and the Valhalla Brewery among others and has a wealth of information for visitors. Also check the What’s On Diary for details of events happening through the summer months.
Suggested further reading: Walking the Coastline of Shetland No 2 – Unst, Peter Guy, £9.99; Unst Fiddle Tunes, Sam Polson, £6.50; More Hamar Nights (Poetry), £5.99; Shetland Ponies from Shetland, Margaret Hunter, £17.99; The Saga of The Earls, Adam Robson, £30.00; Orkney and Shetland Steamers, Alistair Deayton, £12.99; One for Unst, (poetry and prose), £4.99; The Sixareen and Her Racing Descendants, Sandison, £7.99; Victorians 60 Degrees North, J. Laughton Johnston, £32.00; Muckle Flugga: The Impossible Lighthouse, Unst Heritage Trust, £6.00; Pony Tales (children’s stories), Jane Watson & Gary Cleaver, £5.00; Harp of Twilight, Jack Renwick, illustrated Liam O’Neill, £20.00.