Unst

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View from Hermaness

Unst is the most northerly inhabited island of the Shetland Islands.

Villages[edit]

  • Baltasound — The capital of the island was formerly a major fishing port in the herring industry. There is a local shop with fuel pump. Public toilets. The Post Office and Leisure centre both lay claim to 'most northerly' in United Kingdom. The Valhalla Brewery produces a variety of beers with a Shetland theme such as 'Simmer Dim', 'White Wife' and 'Auld Rock' and is open to tours by prior arrangement. Buness House, dating from 15th century is said to have been visited by grave-robbers Burke and Hare. There is a small airstrip.
  • Haroldswick — Viking centre of Unst. Excavations of longhouses have taken place here, and a replica Viking longship can be seen on the foreshore. The village is home to the Unst Heritage Centre and the Unst Boat Haven. There is a shop with fuel north of the village. Until recently Haroldswick possessed the most northerly Post Office in United Kingdom, but since this closed the honour now goes to Baltasound.
  • Muness — Home of United Kingdom's most northerly castle.
  • Uyeasound — Shop and public toilets.
  • Belmont - Where the ferry arrives (public toilets next to the waiting room). Belmont house, an 18th Century mansion is currently undergoing renovation.

Other destinations[edit]

  • Hermaness Nature Reserve — Unst's most famous attraction. Many people visit the island primarily to see the bird cliffs where many thousands of pairs of seabirds nest, both on the landside cliffs and on the spectacular sea stacks. There are more than 10,000 pairs of gannets and 25,000 pairs of puffins, together with guillemots, shags and fulmars. Puffins nest in burrows rather than on the cliffs themselves and can be viewed up close. The smell and the noise from the colonies of seabirds can be quite startling. From the car park at the visitor's centre follow the main path into the nature reserve (which is gravel at this point). After a few hundred yards you will see a turning on your right down a steep peat bank — do not take this as this is your return route. Carrying straight on, the path turns to duckboards (note that not the entire path is covered and it can be very wet under foot). Do not leave the path as Hermaness is a prime breeding ground for the Great Skua or 'Bonxie' and they can be aggressive. Reaching the end of the path you can make a brief detour to your left to see the gannet colonies on the Neap, or right for a view of the lighthouse of Muckle Flugga and the desolate rock of the Out Stack (Britain's most northerly point). Behind the Out Stack, Hermaness Hill rises steeply to a cairn with a final view due northwards, uninterrupted by further landmasses until the North Pole. The path downwards to rejoin the original track is rough going (few duckboards here) and extremely marshy. Eventually you will descend to the gravel track and back to the car park. There is a visitor's book sealed inside a plastic bag within a box with a rock on top here which can probably give you some indication of the extreme weather conditions that can be experienced in this area; reputedly the highest wind speed ever recorded in United Kingdom of 177 mph was recorded at Saxa Vord just across the voe, but was never verified because the anemometer blew away.
  • Burra Firth - This is the voe (sea-inlet) between the cliffs of Hermaness at one side, and Saxa Vord at the other. There is a small sandy beach at the far end. Legend has it that two giants 'Herma' and 'Saxa' were always quarrelling over their fishing catch, and that some of the huge stones they threw at each other can still be seen at the base of the cliffs.
  • Skaw - This crofthouse is unremarkable save for being the most northerly dwelling place in United Kingdom. There is a small beach and a pleasant walk by the shore.
  • Unst Heritage Centre - Located in Haroldswick, the Centre contains displays on island life, flora, fauna and local crafts.
  • Unst Boat Haven - Located beside the Heritage Centre, this is an exhibit of traditional small boats as well as other items connected with the fishing trade.
  • Norwick - Superb sandy beach with good birdwatching.
  • Muness Castle - It will come as no surprise that this is the most northerly castle in United Kingdom. It was constructed at the end of the 16th century by Laurence Bruce and partially destroyed when it came under attack 30 years later. There is an inscription in Shetland dialect above the doorway praying for no one to harm the castle, which obviously proved ineffectual. The castle is under the control of Historic Scotland and the key is available from a nearby house.
  • Valahalla Brewery - In Baltasound, tours available by prior arrangement.
  • Foords Chocolates - Based at the Saxa Vord Resort; home-made chocolates and tours available.
Bobby's Bus Shelter
  • Bobby's Bus Shelter - Most northerly bus shelter. It was saved from closure at the plea of local boy Bobby. Since then it has been decorated in a variety of styles and has chairs, plants, soft toys and even a computer.

Understand[edit]

Unst is the most northerly inhabited island in United Kingdom and the third largest in the group with an area of 46 square miles. Unst is famous for its unspoiled landscape, its Viking heritage, and particularly for its wildlife, including some of the largest colonies of seabirds in Europe and a sizeable otter population. The name 'Unst' is believed to come from the old Norse for 'Eagle's Nest', although unfortunately there are no longer any sea eagles in Shetland. Although parts of the island are fairly uninspiring peat bogs, there is some truly spectacular coastal scenery and some excellent beaches. Its population is around 700 people and has been on the decrease since the closing of the RAF base at Saxa Vord (which has now been converted into a resort with a hostel, self-catering accommodation and restaurant). Significant efforts are proceeding to diversify the local economy into ventures such as alternative energy (the PURE Hydrogen project), tourism, and even the country's most northerly brewery. Unst is the home of Shetland's only unique plant, the "Shetland Mouse Ear". The majority of the roads on Unst are single track and unfenced, and it is important to watch out for sheep and for the many Shetland ponies, which, unlike elsewhere in Shetland, roam freely. The author Robert Louis Stevenson visited Unst to visit his uncle who was responsible for the construction of the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse (and many others in Shetland), and it is said that the map of Treasure Island closely resembles that of Unst.

Talk[edit]

Get in[edit]

Unst can be reached from Mainland by ferry via the island of Yell. It is possible to see at least the highlights of the island in one day, but requires an early start if leaving from Lerwick as it is a fairly long drive and includes two ferry trips each way. Luckily the ferries run regularly from early in the morning until late at night, though note that certain less frequented trips will only run if there are prior bookings. The first ferry (to Yell) leaves from Toft, 25 miles north of Lerwick. Boards on the A970 just out of Lerwick give information on whether the ferries are running (which in the case of extreme weather they may not be). Follow the signs to 'The North Isles' (one of the more endearing features on this road is at least one signpost marked 'The South - Lerwick'). The ferry terminals on this route are extremely basic, no more than a small waiting room with toilets and a timetable. Allocation of space on the ferry for cars is by lane, with one being for pre-booked traffic which takes priority over other vehicles. In spite of the instructions on the timetable it is seldom necessary to book except at peak periods or if you are especially paranoid. The ferry to Yell (Ulsta) takes around 20 minutes and you are able to leave your vehicle and go up to the observation deck where there are refreshment machines and a good view over the sound (with the possibility of whale spotting). The ferries between Mainland/Yell and Yell/Fetlar/Unst are coordinated so that you have time to drive at reasonable speed down the main road (A968) between Ulsta and Gutcher and have good time to catch the next ferry. Note that the Bluemill Sound ferry between Yell and Unst also goes to Fetlar, so be sure to follow the signs and get into the correct lane. The published timetable can be more than a little confusing but the staff are friendly and helpful, and it is actually more an issue if you are going to Fetlar as all the ferries call at Unst. The journey across the Bluemill Sound to Unst only takes ten minutes, and the ferry is a smaller affair with no lounge, but it is still possible to leave your car for a little wildlife watching. Both ferries take foot passengers and it is possible to travel by integrated bus/ferry Service 24) all the way from Lerwick, but note that there is only one bus a day (none on Sundays), so if you want to see anything of the island, this method would necessitate an overnight stay.

Get around[edit]

Map of Unst

The main road on the island is the A968 which is two lane and well maintained. Once off this road, the majority are single track with passing places, though typically for Shetland, also in good condition. The exception to this is the road to Hermaness which is extremely narrow and steep. It is essential to keep a keen eye out for sheep (particularly during the lambing season) and ponies because many of the roads are not fenced. There is a basic bus service on the island with Service 28 buses running between Baltasound and Belmont six times a day (Monday to Saturday - no Sunday service). A couple of these buses call at intermediary stops such as Haroldswick and Saxa Vord Shetland Bus Timetables. As elsewhere in Shetland, cycling can be wonderful in good weather but less than enjoyable with the typical high winds (and rain).

See[edit]

  • Seabirds, Whales and Otters
  • Fine beaches
  • Spectacular cliff scenery

Itineraries[edit]

Do[edit]

  • Wildlife spotting trips - Available from various local operators who will take you to some of the best places to see local wildlife, including the elusive otter.
  • Boat trips - Summer boat trips from Lerwick around the North Isles to see the bird cliffs at Hermaness, Muckle Flugga Lighthouse and the Out Stack are available. These are eight hours plus and include a packed lunch. Make sure you have a strong stomach as it can be very rough. Ask at the tourist information office in Lerwick.

Eat[edit]

There are various cafes and pub/hotels in Unst and shops where it is possible to put together a picnic. This is not an exhaustive list.

  • Baltasound Hotel - Rather ordinary pub food.
  • Saxa Vord Resort - Signposted on the right (not very clearly) on the road to Hermaness. Reasonable selection of hot food and sandwiches in former Sergeant's mess of RAF base. Note that the restort is not actually at the distinctive 'Ball' of the former radar station, but at the bottom of the hill next to it.
  • Northern Lights - Fairly new and nicely decorated cafe/restaurant next to Unst Boat Haven. The bar is constructed to look like one of the local fishing boats and there is a small art gallery inside. The food is perhaps a little elaborate for hungry walkers returning from Hermaness, but the deserts are very good.

Drink[edit]

There is a public bar at the Baltasound Hotel and at Saxa Vord.

Sleep[edit]

  • Baltasound Hotel +44 1957-711334. In Baltasound. Rooms and Cabins available. From £52.50/single, £85/double.
  • Buness House - Four star B&B in Baltasound. Self-catering cottage also available.
  • Saxa Vord Resort - Self-catering holiday houses or hostel in the former Sergeant's Mess (shared facilities). Seasonal April to October.
  • Gardiesfauld Youth Hostel - In Ueyeasound.
  • Various self-catering cottages and B&Bs also available.

Connect[edit]

Stay safe[edit]

Unst is about as safe as it gets. The worst risk is probably hitting a pony or sheep on the unfenced roads or falling off a cliff at Hermaness.

Go next[edit]

Many other attractions and things to do in Mainland and the other outer Isles.

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This region travel guide to Unst has the status usable. It gives a good overview of the region, its sights, and how to get in, as well as links to the main destinations, whose articles are similarly well developed. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page