A trip far north to a place of splendid isolation, dramatic views and startlingly friendly birds
With a profile like that who wouldn’t want to visit Unst, the last outpost of Scotland’s Shetland Islands? It was certainly inducement enough for us. And one spring morning in May this year, my husband and I landed in Lerwick, the capital of the Shetlands located on its largest island, Mainland.
Legend has it that the Hermaness Nature Reserve is named after a giant called Herman. Apparently he and another giant, Saxa, fell in love with the same mermaid who promised to marry whichever one followed her to the North Pole. They both followed her and drowned, since neither could swim. The rock outcrops of Muckle Flugga (from Old Norse, Mikla Flugey, meaning large steep-sided island) and Out Stack are some of the ‘stones’ thrown at each other during their fight for the mermaid.
Today the reserve is famous for its variety of bird life, mostly seabirds—guillemots, kittiwakes, gannets, great skuas and puffins. The reserve is on Unst, which is a mere 12 miles in length and five across. Its population is all of 600 people. A shocker to us Indians, who have attended weddings in India featuring twice the number of guests!
Getting to Unst was something of an adventure. We left our cottage in Lerwick at 8am and reached the Toft ferry station an hour later. From there we were able to drive into the next ferry boat to the island of Yell, and then in another ferry boat from Gutcher, across the Yell Sound to Belmont, in Unst. Here we stopped for a quick lunch at a café cum shop—The Final Checkout. Everything in Unst is the ‘northern-most’: brewery, bus stop, castle, post office.
Like most of the Shetlands, the winding drive to the reserve was through stretches of stark, windswept, grassy hillocks. Except for an occasional Shetland pony or a few sheep along the road (single track, but well maintained), Unst seemed empty. It was still early in the season for visitors which perhaps explained why there was only one other car parked at the reserve.
The day was disappointingly grey but the Shetland weather is notoriously changeable. So as we began our walk north to the end of the land I hoped for clear skies and bright weather. The trek was across a hilly, treeless expanse over a coarse tufty grass that was bog in many places. For some time we walked along marked paths, but after a while these disappeared and there were only wooden planks (‘duck planks’) that covered the marshy land. The guidebook had warned us to tread carefully and stick to the marked areas. The whole place was empty of both people and birdlife. Adding to our concern was the still overcast sky. When finally we spotted another couple, we realised just how inadequate our clothing was. True birdwatchers, they wore rainproof overcoats and walking shoes and carried sticks. They assured us that the next hillock was the final one before land’s end and the bird colonies. Cheered, we began to walk more briskly, or as much as was possible in the uneven, peaty marshland. Our spirits were further lifted when we spotted a pair of nesting great skuas, also known as bonxies for their sudden ‘dive bombing’. An untidy clump of grass was their nest—quite safe since they have few predators. We also gave them a wide berth since these large birds are known for their aggressiveness. They seemed unconcerned by our presence though and ignored us. Just ahead we saw two more skuas.
We had walked more than a mile, gently uphill all the way, and looked at the next hillock with hope and exhaustion. Our anticipation grew as the clouds cleared and large patches of sunshine lit up the moors. Finally we were at the top of a cliff that gradually sloped down to the edge. Most of Unst is fringed by a rough, serrated coastline, massive sea cliffs and rocky headlands, and below us we could see the foaming, churning waters of the ocean. Ahead lay the rock, Muckle Flugga, with the lighthouse built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather, set in a brilliantly sunlit sea that challenged a painter’s palette. Shades of blue from royal to aquamarine, constantly changing colour with the play of light and shadow and the heavy swell of the sea. A few clouds added contrast and drama to the hues of sea and sky. It was nothing short of spectacular.
We sat in silence catching our breath— both from the exertions of our walk and the stunning views. The warmth of the sun was welcome against the strong breeze blowing in from the sea. It is said that the highest wind speed ever recorded in the United Kingdom was here at Unst—177 miles an hour; this could never be verified because the anemometer blew away.
Suddenly there was a polite, guttural ‘urrrgh’ sound, rather like a cow’s moo cut short, and I turned to see a puffin staring at us only a few feet away. He had his head to one side, with tufts of grass in his beak, almost as if asking if we would help him build his burrow! His beak was brilliant against the black and white of his plumage and explained why puffins are also called sea parrots.
After a moment we got up and, looking slightly affronted, Mr Puffin moved away. We walked to the cliff edge where startlingly loud bird sounds rose to greet us. What a screeching, squawking squabbling din it was! Thousands of birds pushed and jostled for space on the rock face below us. I could spot fulmars and kittiwakes carried on the wind current, constantly blown off course as they tried desperately to land.
The sea birds build their nests in rock crevices of steep sea cliffs to keep them safe from predators. Puffins also build on land, in burrows as deep as two metres. Though most of their time is spent on the ocean—they live on a diet of fish and salt water—they come on land to nest in the summer months. They line their nests with soft grass and feathers and prepare to welcome a single chick, or puffling. Puffins mate for life and have a life span of about 20 years.
The weather was encouraging so we sat on the grass for another hour or so. We had carried some cereal bars, trail mix and water and somehow it seemed rightly ‘adventurous’, here at the edge of a landmass that stopped short of the North Pole. Although it was barely spring the daylight hours were already long. In midsummer the islands have daylight for nearly 24 hours—what the locals call ‘simmer dim’, the Scottish take on ‘summer twilight’.
The walk back to the car park was easier and seemed shorter. The light had changed again; or perhaps the brown and grey-green marshland did not quite catch and reflect the brilliance of the sky or the glint and sparkle of the ocean. And yet, there was a beauty in the stark emptiness of these islands, even in the dull stretches of peat and bog. They were a part of the vast vistas of sea, sky and earth. Here nature was at its most elemental and untamed, compelling respect. There was a sense of space, and breathing free, a feeling of being the first humans here. And that perhaps was our ultimate takeaway from the trip.
We took a flight to London and from there to Aberdeen. There are flights from both Aberdeen and Inverness to the Shetlands. Sumburgh Airport on Mainland, is 25 miles from the capital, Lerwick. We took the overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick for the convenience (and novelty); a great experience but the seas can be rough (pack Avomine tablets).
> BY CAR: Yell and Unst are connected to Lerwick on the Mainland by several car ferries. The distance from Lerwick to Toft is about 25 miles and the drive takes roughly an hour. The ferry from Toft to Ulsta on the island of Yell takes 20 minutes. A 17-mile drive north brings you to Gutcher and the next ferry (10 minutes) to Belmont on the island of Unst. Hermaness is a short drive away. Car rentals and taxis are available.
> BY BUS: There is a bus service from Lerwick to Unst (Mondays to Fridays). Check timetables in advance. Coaches and minibuses are also available.
Where to stay
You could stay in Lerwick on Mainland and make a day trip to Unst. A budget option is Lerwick Youth Hostel (£27 dorm bed; syha. org.uk). Fort Charlotte Guesthouse (£80 doubles; fortcharlotte.co.uk) and Glen Orchy House (from £95 doubles; guesthouselerwick.com) are characterful B&Bs. For top-end accommodation try Kveldsro House Hotel (from £140; shetlandhotels. com). Self-catering flats are also available (see shetlandvisitor.com).
The best options in Unst are Gardiesfauld hostel (gardiesfauld. shetland.co.uk) and Saxa Vord Resort (saxavord.com).
What to see & do
> Explore the historical and archaeological heritage of Unst.
> Walk along the pristine beaches. Watch out for seals and otters.
> Rent a bicycle to explore the island; enjoy watching Shetland ponies roam free.
What to pack
Warm clothing, walking shoes, raincoat, dry snacks, binoculars.