Unst is the most northerly inhabited island of the Shetland Islands, north of mainland Scotland. Life here was traditionally based on herring fishing: the herring now are sparse but small-scale fishing continues, along with farming. The oil boom on Mainland Shetland passed by Unst. There's a straggle of small settlements along the main road, notably Baltasound with probably the world's most sumptuous bus shelter, and Haroldswick with a museum and display of old boats. The star attraction is Hermaness, the nature reserve on the north-western tip of the island, where thousands of pairs of seabirds nest and wheel and screech above the sea cliffs.
By boat is the only way, there's no air service. From Mainland Shetland you first take the ferry from Toft to Ulsta on Yell, then cross that island to Gutcher, as described for Yell#Get_in. A day trip is simple by car but barely possible by bus - join an organised tour from Lerwick if you lack your own transport.
At 1 Gutcher queue in Lanes 1 / 2 for Unst. May-Sept the Bluemull ferry usually takes 5 min to cross from Gutcher to 2 Belmont on Unst, M-Sa sailing every 45 mins or so, Su every 90 min to 2 hours, from 06:15 to 22:15. However five or six ferries per day follow a triangle: from Gutcher to Hamar's Ness on the island of Fetlar (20 min) then onward to Belmont, or the reverse pattern. Assuming you started from Mainland Shetland that day, your ticket is already paid; if you started from Yell it's £14 return for a car and driver plus £5.70 per passenger. Timetables to Unst from Oct 2019 are not yet posted.
The ferry terminals at Gutcher and Belmont are basic, just small waiting rooms with toilets and a timetable.
By bus you can get here from Mainland M-Sat. Leave Lerwick on Bus 23 no later than 14:00, to reach Toft for the ferry to Unst. Connecting Bus 24 crosses Unst for the ferry from Gutcher, landing at Belmont around 16:30. Bus 28 then takes you up Unst as far as Baltasound, Haroldswick and Saxa Vord.
This timetable is designed for day trips from Unst to Lerwick, so that residents can do what they need to in town and dash round the supermarket in time for the afternoon return north. It is mathematically possible but a fraught expedition to day trip by bus from Lerwick to Unst. You have to set off at 07:50, and if all the buses and ferries work out you can reach Belmont by 10:20 and the north end of the island by 11:00. You'd still be 3 miles short of Hermaness, and you need to head back at 15:30, with luck returning to Lerwick around 19:00. You'd be glancing at your watch the whole time and stressing about making your next connection, which is no way to experience Shetland.
The main road A968 is two-lane and well-maintained. The other roads are single track with passing places, also in good condition, but the last stretch of lane from Burrafirth to Hermaness is very narrow and steep. Watch out for stray sheep and ponies.
Bus 28 runs four times M-Sat up the main road from Belmont via Uyeasound, Baltasound and Haroldswick to Saxa Vord, with the late afternoon run being the best connection from Lerwick and therefore the busiest. A few more buses run part route. Those timetabled as DAR are Dial-a-Ride and have to be booked before 16:00 the previous day by calling +44 1595 745745. No buses reach Burrafirth or Hermaness: Haroldwick 3 miles away is their closest approach.
By bike as elsewhere in Shetland can be wonderful in good weather. It's utter misery in the winds and slashing rain, and with the clock ticking down to your vital ferry.
Bike hire is available from Saxa Vord Resort, see "Sleep".
- Belmont House near the ferry pier is a Georgian mansion that is closed for restoration as of July 2019. It may one day re-open as self-catering accommodation.
- 1 Muness Castle. Always open. Fortified mansion or "fortalice" built in 1598 for Laurence Bruce of Cultmalindie (1547-1617), a terrible despot who had reason to fear his half-brother, the even more murderous and tyrannical Earl of Orkney. The castle survived attack by the Earl but burned down some years later. An inscription in Shetland dialect above the doorway prays for no one to harm the castle, in answer to which, it's now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland. It's not locked; there are torches behind the information board. Free.
- 2 Halligarth Woodland, Baltasound. A walled small area of trees, managed by the National Trust for Scotland. This would be nothing special elsewhere, but on this barren treeless island, this is a surprising place. Free.
- 3 Bobby's Bus Shelter. What the Baroque Age did for the gilded palaces of Europe, Bobby Macaulay (born 1989) did for this bus shelter. When he began school, he'd cycle here and take the bus, leaving the bike in the shelter. In 1995 the Council intended to remove the shelter but he wrote to them explaining how essential it was. They changed their mind and refurbished it, adding a few comforts, and the improvement took on a life of its own. Volunteers and passers-by added a sofa, curtains, magazines, plants, soft toys and so on, even a phone and laptop computer. It's been styled in different annual themes: 2018 commemorated 100 years of women's suffrage in the UK, and 2019 is themed on "Fake Gnus". The sporadic arrival of the Number 28 is a bit of an anti-climax.
- 4 Keen of Hamar is at first glance a barren rocky scree just north of Baltasound, 200 yards from the main road. But look closer, especially mid-May to early June, for the unique assembly of wild flowers, which can tolerate the cold windswept conditions and Serpentinite underlying minerals, toxic to many other species.
- The Viking ship & longhouse are reconstructions at Haroldswick, next to the turn-off for Unst Boat Haven. Free, always open.
- 5 Unst Heritage Centre, Haroldswick ZE2 9ED, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. May-Sept M-Sa 11:00-16:00, Su 14:00-16:00, Oct-Apr only by request. Volunteer-run centre with displays on island life, flora, fauna and local crafts. Adult £3, conc £2, combi with Boat Haven £5.
- 6 Unst Boat Haven, Haroldswick ZE2 9EE (below Heritage Centre), ☏ , , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. May-Sept M-Sa 11:00-16:00, Su 14:00-16:00, Oct-Apr only by request. Display of traditional small boats and other items of the fishing trade. Adult £3, conc £2, combi with Heritage Centre £5.
- 7 Skaw croft-house is the most northerly dwelling place in United Kingdom. (Buildings to the north, eg the radar station and Muckle Flugga lighthouse, are automated and unstaffed.) There is a small beach and a pleasant walk by the shore. Skaw was one of the last communities to speak Norn, though it persisted on remote Foula until the 20th century.
- Burrafirth is where the B9086 ends, becoming the narrow lane up to Hermaness. It has a good beach at the head of the inlet between Hermaness and Saxa Voe peninsulas.
- 8 Hermaness, on the north-western tip of Unst, is a nature reserve with thousands of seabirds nesting and wheeling over the spectacular cliffs and sea stacks. There are more than 10,000 pairs of gannets and 25,000 pairs of puffins, together with guillemots, shags and fulmars. You'll hear and smell them before you see them. Most of the birds arrive to nest in late April and are gone by autumn; the reserve is open all year.
- Park by the visitor's centre, which was formerly the shore station for Muckle Flugga lighthouse. Follow the good main path straight on into the reserve, ignoring the right turn down a steep peat bank. Never leave the path as you may disturb the birds, and the "Bonxies" are likely to retaliate. At the end of the path take the short spurs left to see the gannet colonies on the Neap, and right for views of Muckle Flugga, the Out Stack, and the cairn of Hermaness Hill. In wet weather turn around and retrace your steps; the loop path downwards is rough and often very boggy. Wear stout boots and hang onto your hat: it's believed that the UK's top wind speed of 177 mph was encountered hereabouts, but this couldn't be confirmed because the anemometer blew away.
- 9 Muckle Flugga is the small island which ceased to be the UK's most northerly habitation in 1995 when the lighthouse was automated. This is a Stevenson creation, first lit in 1858, after winter storms made short work of its 1854 predecessor.
- 10 Out Stack, another half mile out, is finally, definitely the most northerly point of the United Kingdom. "Stack" implies a tall stand of rock, but it's a round crag, never inhabited, that's been dubbed "the full stop at the end of Britain." Legend says that Lady Jane Franklin came here in 1854 after the loss of her husband Sir John Franklin's "Erebus & Terror" expedition to find the North-West Passage. This legend casts her as a Victorian widow grieving in bombazine over the tumultuous northern ocean, but she was a tough explorer in her own right, entirely capable of clambering ashore up the steep rocks.
- Muckle Flugga and Out Stack are both part of Hermaness nature reserve, with similar bird life. Boat trips have in the past toured these islands, but they would involve hours of heaving seas on the way from Lerwick, when they could have reached Noss in 15 minutes, and none are advertised in 2019.
- Shetland Reel Distillery, Haroldswick, Unst ZE2 9EF (by Saxa Vord Resort), ☏ . Tours April-Sept Tu, Th, Sa 12:00. Produces "Shetland Reel Gin" in five styles. They also produce Scotch whisky, by blending Islay, Speyside and other Highland malt whiskies (all dark and peaty), they don't distil their own. The adjacent Valhalla Brewery closed in 2017.
- Wildlife spotting trips are available from various operators, mostly based in Lerwick to pick up trade from the cruise liners. The trips are all land based, since a minibus doesn't heave as much as a small boat whenever the wind gets up.
- 1 Unst Leisure Centre, Baltasound, ZE2 9DY, ☏ . M-F 09:00-21:00, Sa Su 11:00-16:30. Has a 12.5m x 5m pool, games hall, squash courts, gym and other leisure facilities.
- Hikes recommended by Walk Highlands are Belmont to Lund, Uyeasound to Muness, Sandwick Beach, Keen of Hamar, and Hermaness.
- Baltasound Hotel does pub food, see "Sleep".
- Saxa Vord Resort: restaurant & café are open May-Oct, see "Sleep".
- 1 Final Checkout Cafe, Baltasound ZE2 9TW (north of village), ☏ . M-Sa 08:00-18:00, Su 11:00-17:00. This shop, garage & filling station has a small café serving simple meals at lunch time.
- Victoria's Vintage Tea Rooms, Haroldswick ZE2 9DU (next to Boat Haven), ☏ . Tu-Sa 11:00-17:00, Su 12:00-16:00. Serves lunches, afternoon tea and other cold and hot food items.
There are public bars at the Baltasound Hotel and Saxa Vord Resort, see "Sleep". Out of season they may close up early.
- 1 Gardiesfauld Youth Hostel, Belmont, Uyeasound, Unst ZE2 9DW (follow B9084), ☏ . Open April-Oct, winter if pre-booked. Has dorms, camping and caravan hook-ups. Coin-operated showers and laundry. Adult dorm £16, camping £8 ppn.
- 2 Mailersta (tel +44 1957 755344) has B&B.
- 3 Baltasound Hotel, Baltasound, Unst ZE2 9DS, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Standard rooms within the hotel, and family log-cabins nearby. Restaurant open 18:00-20:00 plus lounge bar. B&B double £125.
- 4 Saxa Vord Resort, Haroldswick, Unst ZE2 9TJ (follow Beach Rd from head of sea loch), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Open April-Oct, may be available in winter. "The Sergeants' Mess" is more like a student residence than a hostel, with 26 single & double rooms sharing facilities, it's not a dorm / bunkhouse. "Shackleton Lodge" (sleeps 12) likewise has small individual rooms and is available for group bookings eg school trips. They also have self-catering, the 13 Nordabrake cottages (sleeping five), usually let by the week. Restaurant is open 18:00-21:00 plus Sunday carvery 12:00-15:00, café 10:00-16:00. The sergeants were attached to the RAF radar station, but don't head for the radar "golf ball", the resort is at the foot of the hill. "Mess" adult £45 ppn.
- Several self-catering cottages are also available.
You'll always have a mobile signal along the main road, but internet here can be very slow. Victoria's Vintage Tea Rooms in Haroldswick has free Wi-Fi for customers.
Natural hazards are the main risk, especially bad weather close to cliff edges. The bonxies (great skuas) will viciously dive-bomb anyone who approaches their nests.
The only way is back south by ferry to Yell, perhaps with a side-trip to Fetlar, then to Mainland Shetland.