Nationally important nature reserves, golden beaches and stunning voes, walks and wildlife, Viking heritage, Muckle Flugga, loads of community events – including the award-winning UnstFest – and around 700 folk who are passionate about their island... just some of the many reasons for making a visit to Unst.
Photo: Kim Rendall Britain’s most northerly island has a landscape more varied than most in Shetland due to the unusual geology, and visitors are welcome to enjoy the spectacular natural attractions of this ‘island above all others’ which featured in the TV series Island Parish.
Large colonies of breeding seabirds – gannets, skuas and puffins among them – inhabit the impressive cliffs at the Hermaness national nature reserve, and there are many breeding moorland birds on the interesting geological terrain. The reserve is part of the Buness Estate and managed by NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage).
The Keen of Hamar Nature Reserve is also managed by SNH. Part of the Shetland ophiolite, and the largest area of serpentine debris in Europe, it is home to several arctic-alpine plants that have adapted to these unusual conditions. Edmondston’s chickweed, which grows nowhere in the world except Unst, was discovered by botanist Thomas Edmondston from Buness. He published A Flora of Shetland in 1845, but 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.
There are fine sandy beaches at Lund (Westing), Sandwick (Easting), Skeotaing (Baltasound), Burrafirth, Norwick and Skaw. A number of lochs are good for angling, the largest being Loch of Cliff and Watlee. Unst Angling Club can provide more information, and fishing permits are available at Baltasound Hotel.
Photo: Kim Rendall Unst was the first ‘Walkers are Welcome’ island in the UK and offers a range of walks of interest. Maps are available at Saxa Vord Resort.
Island amenities include shops, bakery, cafes, leisure centre, hotel and bars, as well as a range of craft, music and small business enterprises.
Up-Helly-A’ celebrations are held at Uyeasound and Norwick, and events in community halls provide opportunities to enjoy local music, dance, crafts and produce. UnstFest is a week-long celebration with a diverse range of activities and events to enjoy in July, while the annual Unst Show at the end of August is also a popular day out.
Unst’s archaeological sites range from Neolithic/Bronze Age to the Iron Age/Pictish era, with at least 11 broch sites and two standing stones (Bordastubble being the largest in Shetland). There is much evidence of the Viking/Norse age with many longhouse sites, several having been excavated to tie in with the development of ‘Viking Unst’, a visitor attraction comprising a longship, longhouse and living history.
White sands drift over the Norse settlements at Sandwick on the east coast. There are ancient boat-shaped walls of the church at Framgord which has Celtic crosses in its graveyard, and seals and otters may be spotted along the shore. The deserted township of Colvadale is a few miles to the north.
Photo: Yolanda Bruce On the west coast is the ruined 18th-century house at Lund. The devil is said to have visited one winter’s night leaving his hoof-print on a flagstone. St Olaf’s Chapel down by the beach contains a leper’s window, Hanseatic gravestones of two 16th-century Bremen merchants, and an early Christian fish symbol carved on a lintel. Across the bay is the Iron Age settlement and broch at Underhoull, and a 9th-century Viking longhouse. Artefacts are in Shetland Museum.
The stones on Westing beach are polished round by the sea. On the holm just offshore stand the eroded remains of another broch with its ditch. A causeway, now submerged, once linked it to the shore. Farther inland, a small water mill has been rebuilt.
The impressive Belmont House, near the ferry terminal, was built around 1775, a classic example of 18th-century architecture. The almost derelict house was restored by the Belmont Trust and now provides self-catering accommodation and a popular venue for events.
Greenwell’s Böd, a Hanseatic trading booth, is next to the caravan park and hostel at Uyeasound. The now uninhabited island of Uyea, off Uyeasound, was the home of Sir Basil Neven-Spence, the county’s MP from 1935-50. St Olaf’s chapel (12th century) shows that the island was once well populated.
Photo: Agnieska Gardner Muness Castle, built in 1598 for the ruthless Lawrence Bruce, is one of only two castles in Shetland, the other being in Scalloway. The castle is open to visitors.
Haroldswick Methodist Church (1993), the most northerly church in Britain, was designed by Shetland architect Frank Robertson and built largely by voluntary local labour. The 1887 bell is housed in a new bell turret.
Crofting/farming, fishing, knitting and quarrying were the traditional industries in Unst. The mainstay of the community is still crofting/farming. Shetland ponies and sheep are seen grazing along the roadside. The related self-guided walk booklet ‘Burral and Sandwick’ is available at Unst Heritage Centre in Haroldswick, where there’s a 1930s’ crofthouse but and ben, crofting implements etc, related to this way of life
Knitwear, particularly handspun fine lace knitting, can also be seen at the heritage centre. There are ‘have a go’ spinning and knitting sessions and also day courses in lace knitting and spinning. The centre also displays a wealth of interesting exhibits relating to Unst’s history.
Photo: Agnieska Gardner Also at Haroldswick (from the man’s name Haraldr), Unst Boat Haven portrays the history of Shetland’s small wooden boats and related artefacts and information, as well as the herring industry of over 100 years ago when Baltasound was the biggest herring port in Europe. ‘The Gutter Lasses Walk’ self-guided walk booklet is available at the Boat Haven.
Baltasound, the main village in Unst, once vied with Lerwick as the top 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, supporting some 600 boats. Present-day ‘fishing’ is salmon and mussel farming.
Near the pier, a stone from Sweden stands in memory of the Swedish fishermen who sheltered in Baltasound harbour and erected the first Swedish fisher church in a foreign country in 1910. During the last war, Walrus seaplanes, anti-submarine patrol boats and a detachment of commandos were based in Baltasound.
The harbour is home to otters living along its north shoreline. Buness House on the north shore was known to be standing in the 1460s. Many famous and interesting characters have visited Buness over the centuries.
In the 19th century there was a lucrative export of chromate, some was crushed at the horse mill at Hagdale. Soapstone is still being exported from a quarry at Clibberswick.
The RAF station on the summit of Saxa Vord, which was a major part of the life of Unst for over 50 years, closed in 2006, but in 2018 a new air defence radar head was installed to once again help protect the UK. The original domestic site is in private hands with the Saxa Vord Resort now providing accommodation plus seasonal bar, restaurant and leisure facilities. Other buildings have been adapted for business use, such as the distillery producing Shetland Reel gin and whisky.
Photo: Kim Rendall Proposals to establish the Shetland Space Centre – a satellite launch site and ground station – are progressing well and could be the next interesting chapter in Unst’s history. The suggested site for the centre is between Norwick and Skaw, where the defunct wartime radar site – RAF Skaw – is also well placed for watching bird activity. The tidal waters attract feeding birds and cetaceans can often be seen at Lambaness and around the northern coastline.
Eastern Unst formed as crust, and Earth’s mantle beneath the floor of the Iapetus Ocean was thrust onto the edge of an ancient North American continent about 400 million years ago, as tectonic plates collided. Geologists call this sequence of rocks an ophiolite. The Shetland ophiolite is one of the best exposed anywhere and you can discover more with ‘The Shetland Ophiolite’ self-guide trail, and also the geowall and exhibits at Unst Heritage Centre. At Norwick you can see rocks from the ancient continent in contact with ophiolite rocks from beneath the Iapetus Ocean.
Britain’s most northerly house is at Skaw. The lifeboat from a ship torpedoed off the coast forms the shed roof. A former resident, Walter Sutherland, was reputedly the last man to speak Norn, the archaic Scandinavian language.
Burra Firth is a spectacular ‘fjord’, flanked by the cliffs of Saxa Vord (935ft) and Hermaness, and ending 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 – one becoming Saxa’s Baa and a larger one the Out Stack, the most northerly rock in the British Isles.
Photo: Kim Rendall The lighthouse on Muckle Flugga was built by David Stevenson in 1858. Robert Louis Stevenson (David’s nephew) is said to have based the map in Treasure Island on Unst. Displays and information on the lighthouse are at Unst Heritage Centre.
Britain ends beyond Flugga, at the lonely Out Stack. Lady Franklin came to Unst in 1849 (when the Franklin Expedition of 1845 failed to return from its quest for a northwest passage to the Pacific) to question whalers returning from the Arctic and to visit the rock to pray for her husband. Ten years later she learned that he had perished in 1847.
The ro-ro ferry crossing takes you to Belmont from Gutcher in Yell. Book on 01595 745804; ferry information 01595 743971; www.shetland.gov.uk/ferries.
For local yachting information (Baltasound and Uyeasound) see www.shetland.org/visit/do/outdoors/sail.
For accommodation providers check our listings or contact Visit Scotland… and you can even download the ‘Unst Travel Guide & Map’ app.