- 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. 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.
- Hermaness Nature Reserve — Unst's most famous attraction, located on the north-western tip of the island where many thousands of pairs of seabirds nest (see below for details).
- Out Stack — The most northerly point of the United Kingdom (see below for details).
- 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.
- Norwick — Superb sandy beach with good birdwatching.
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. Attempt to replace the economic benefit of the RAF base by converting it to a resort with a hostel, self-catering accommodation and restaurant seem ambitious for such a remote location with highly seasonal tourism.
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 where his uncle 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.
Unst is reached from Mainland by ferry via the island of Yell. 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 (see timetables).
The first ferry you need to take runs between Toft (on Mainland) and Ulsta (on Yell). Toft is 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. This ferry 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).
From Ulsta (on Yell), you drive on the main road (A968) to Gutcher, which takes about 25min. The Mainland-Yell and Yell-Fetlar/Unst ferries are coordinated so that you have time to drive at reasonable speed and have enough time to catch the next ferry (if you don't want to catch the next ferry, and are touring, then let all the other cars go first to stop them riding your tail). The second ferry you need to take, the Bluemull Sound ferry, runs between Gutcher (on Yell) and Belmont (on Unst). Note that the Bluemull Sound ferry between Yell and Unst operates on a triangular service and also goes to Hamars Ness (on 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 Bluemull Sound to Belmont (on 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.
The fare you pay for the ferry (£10.30 for car and driver, and £5.30 for additional passengers) is for a return trip and you will not be charged on your way back to Yell or the Mainland. Furthermore if you go from the Mainland to Unst in one day (or take the ferry from Mainland to Yell the day before after 18:00) the trip from Yell to Unst will be free. Be sure to hold on to the receipt you got on the first ferry as you will be asked for it as proof.
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.
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.
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 (see Shetland Bus Timetables for North Isles). Some services (marked with DAR or Dial-a-Ride) require to make a booking up to 16:00 the day before the ride by calling +44 1595 745745.
As elsewhere in Shetland, cycling can be wonderful in good weather but less than enjoyable with the typical high winds (and rain).
- 1 Unst Cycle Hire, North Base Visitor Centre, Saxa Vord, Haroldswick, ZE2 9TJ, ☎ , (after 17:00). Bicycles can be hired here, but should definitely be booked in advance.
- 1 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.
- 2 Halligarth Woodland, Baltasound. A walled small area of trees. This would be nothing special elsewhere, but on this barren island without trees, this is quite a surprising place. Free.
- 3 Keen of Hamar Nature Reserve (Just after Baltasound on the main road). A barren expanse of land on the coast near Baltasound which supports a unique variety of plants. The site is very exposed to the wind towards the top and it can get very chilly.
- 4 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 is not locked. Torchlights are located behind the information board.
- 5 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.
- 6 Unst Boat Haven, Haroldswick (Located beside the Heritage Centre), ☎ . May-Sep: Mon-Sat 11:00-16:00, Sun 14:00-16:00; Oct-Apr: open only by request (call Robert on +44 1957 755282 or Rhoda on +44 1957 755244). This is an exhibit of traditional small boats as well as other items connected with the fishing trade. £3 adults, £2 concessions, children under 16 free.
- 7 Unst Heritage Centre, Haroldswick, ☎ . May-Sep: Mon-Sat 11:00-16:00, Sun 14:00-16:00; Oct-Apr: open only by request (call Rhoda on +44 1957 755244, Irene on +44 1957 711579 or Ewan on +44 1957 711452). The Centre contains displays on island life, flora, fauna and local crafts. £3 adults, £2 concessions, children under 16 free.
- Seabirds, whales and otters
- Fine beaches
- Spectacular cliff scenery
Hermaness Nature Reserve
The 8 Hermaness Nature Reserve is Unst's most famous attraction, located on the north-western tip of the island. 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. Most of the seabirds come in late April and will be gone by autumn.
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.
To get to the Hermaness Nature Reserve by car from the ferry in Belmont follow the A968 north through Baltasound for about 16km. Just before Haroldswick turn left onto the B9086 (follow the signs to Burrafirth and Hermaness) and continue for about 5km until you reach the Visitor centre.
9 Out Stack is the most northerly point of the United Kingdom, lying north of the Shetland Islands. Out Stack (or The full stop at the end of Britain, as it is called by VisitShetland) is just what its name states: a stack, a rock. Referring to it as an island within this context is simply due to the fact that it is the northernmost spot of land in the British Isles. Out Stack is not and never was inhabited. It is lying some 600m to the north east of Muckle Flugga and about 1.6km true north of The Gord the most northern point of the island of Unst. Out Stack lies within the boundaries of the Hermaness National Nature Reserve.
It is said that Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin landed on the Out Stack, after Dr John Rae's reports of the fate of the Franklin expedition had reached Stromness, Orkney, in 1853/54 where she lived in those days. Although she noted that she wanted to get as close as possible to her missing husband it must be doubted whether or not she landed on Out Stack. The fact that there was no safe landing was one reason - amongst other - why Thomas and David Stevenson decided later in the 1850s to build the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga and not on Out Stack.
From Out Stack you get a remarkable view of Muckle Flugga lighthouse, and the main Shetland isles in the background. A great variety of seabirds nest on Out Stack as it lies within the boundaries of the nature reserve, so birdwatching is good to pass the time.
Out Stack can be seen from the Smyril Line ferry, when it takes the northerly route past Shetland, traveling between Denmark, the Faroe Islands and Iceland.
- 1 Valhalla Brewery, Haroldswick, ZE2 9TJ, ☎ . Produces a variety of beers with a Shetland theme such as 'Simmer Dim', 'White Wife' and 'Auld Rock' and is presently closed (Aug 2017).
- 2 Foords Chocolates, ZE2 9TJ (Based at the Saxa Vord Resort), ☎ . Home-made chocolates and tours available.
- 3 Shetland Distillery Company, Haroldswick, ZE2 9EF, ☎ . Produces Shetland Reel Gin. Also, they released their first single malt Scotch whiskey in 2015.
- 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.
- 4 Unst Leisure Centre, Baltasound, ZE2 9DY, ☎ . Has a 12.5m x 5m pool and other leisure facilities.
- Go hiking on one of the routes recommended by Unst Walkers are Welcome.
It can sometimes get a bit challenging to find cooked food on Unst especially for lunch, so if you want to eat out make sure to plan ahead. There are a few cafes and pub/hotels in Unst and also shops where it is possible to put together a picnic. Victoria's Vintage Tea Rooms, North Base Cafe and the Final Checkout Shop offer warm food over lunch time and snacks the rest of the time.
- 1 Baltasound Hotel. Rather ordinary pub food.
- 2 North Base Cafe, North Base Visitor Centre, Saxa Vord, Haroldswick, ☎ . M-Sa 11:30-17:00, Su 13:00-16:00. Hot and cold food, and drinks available, and the Foords Chocolate Cake.
- 3 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 resort is not actually at the distinctive 'Ball' of the former radar station, but at the bottom of the hill next to it.
- 4 The Final Checkout Shop, Baltasound (After the village in direction of Haroldswick.), ☎ . M-F 08:00-18:00, Sa 08:00-17:00, Su 11:00-17:00. This shop/garage/petrol station also has a small café serving simple meals over lunch time. This might be your only choice for a hot meal in south of Haroldswick.
- 5 Victoria's Vintage Tea Rooms, Haroldswick, ☎ . Tu-Sa 11:00-16:00, Su-M closed. Serves a delicious afternoon tea set for £22 and other cold and hot food items.
There is a public bar at the Baltasound Hotel and at Saxa Vord. Although as with much in this part of the world, whether you'll find a them open is seasonal and depends on their anticipated passing trade.
- 1 Baltasound Hotel, Baltasound, ZE2 9DS, ☎ . Rooms and cabins available. From £52.50/single, £90/double (including breakfast).
- 2 Buness House, Baltasound. Four-star B&B. Self-catering cottage also available. £61.
- 3 Gardiesfauld Youth Hostel, Ueyeasound, ☎ . Free Wi-Fi. £15 per night (adults).
- 4 Saxa Vord Resort. Self-catering holiday houses or hostel in the former Sergeant's Mess (shared facilities). Seasonal April to October.
- Various self-catering cottages and B&Bs also available.
Internet can be very slow in Unst. Victoria's Vintage Tea Rooms in Haroldswick has free Wi-Fi for customers at a decent speed.
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. The great skuas (also called bonxies) are known for dive-bombing if you get too close to their nests.