Are you waiting for “Shetland” Season 5? Will it ever come to Netflix? Need a Shetland fix in the mean time? Here it is, the next installment in my own Shetland saga! This one covers the island of Unst, and the adventure of getting there from Lerwick.
Unst is the UK’s northernmost inhabited island. How far north is that, you ask? Well, Unst lies at the same latitude as Bergen, Norway, or for my American friends: Anchorage, Alaska. They do get snow here but not much, as the climate is North Atlantic maritime, meaning lots of rain and very fierce winds. Very!
The Unst adventure is brewing
So, why go to this remote spot? Same reason all explorers do what they do: curiosity about what’s around the next bend, what’s at the end of the path, never mind what happened to that cat! These treks are about adventure, and man’s innate desire for knowledge about the world around them. Oh: and Unst has a Distillery and a Brewery too, so there is that…
Fly the ferries
To get to Unst, you need 2 ferries: from Mainland to the island of Yell, drive across, and then Yell to Unst. The ferry service in all of Shetland is frequent and good, but can be quite busy in summer. Might be best to book in advance, especially if you bring a vehicle. My trip was in November, so chancing it worked just fine.
Today was going to be a long day, so I started out early, driving up north from my base in Lerwick to the Toft Ferry Terminal. My compliments to the Shetland Islands Council on keeping their awesome ferry system operational year-round!
Fun fact: the Shetland Crest and motto is displayed on the ferries. The text comes from old Icelandic and means as much as “By law shall the land be built up”.
Jimmy Perez helped me wait
Waiting in the car for the ferry, I read some more in “Cold Earth”, the 7th Ann Cleeves Shetland book about Detective Jimmy Perez, see my second Shetland blog. I had it on my Nook, a handy way to carry lots of reading materials on long trips, yet keep the backpack weight down.
The ferry takes maybe 20 minutes to get to Ulsta on Yell. It’s a neat island, and I wish I’d had time to explore it further. Alas, my schedule rebelled, as it was already loaded up quite heavily, so perhaps on a next trip. I just drove across to the Gutcher Ferry Terminal on Yell’s northeast side: so small, it’s not even a hamlet!
What’s good for the goose
Arriving at the Gutcher Terminal, I had hoped for a cup of coffee at the Gutcher Goose Café but alas, the off-season does have consequences and it was closed.
The actual geese were not aware of the closure though, and happily entertained me while I walked around waiting for the ferry.
Lots of fun aquatic wildlife to entertain me too, from splashing seals to flying and diving loons.
The Unst ferry – and Bus Shelter
Gutcher to Belmont on Unst is another short ferry ride. I was one of only two cars on the ferry, drove off and started my Unst explorations.
The island measures only some 15 miles north to south, but feels much larger, perhaps due to the narrow, winding, often single-lane yet good quality roads. There’s a lot to see and do!
Fun fact: as you drive up north, check out the “Unst Bus Shelter”. Built to replace a dilapidated actual bus shelter, this quirky reincarnation is now properly maintained but gets expanded upon anonymously, presumably by local fans and friends. Unusual sightings and additions and even annual themes vary from Nelson Mandela to David Beckham to two Dutch hamsters.
After the Bus Shelter, approaching Haroldswick, I spotted a stunning sight on the right: a Viking ship, on land! It came up quickly and I zoomed right by it, driving on the left of course, and had to U-turn back, pulling into a small and wet parking lot.
The force of Viking history is strong in Unst! Research says this island was the first jumping-off point (literally!) for the Vikings exploring the North Atlantic. Unst archaeology has revealed over 60 Norse longhouses, the largest number of rural sites anywhere in the old Viking World.
Longing for a home
The Viking Unst Project features a faithfully reconstructed Viking longhouse and a replica of a Viking warrior ship, complete with scary bow, aimed to intimidate. The longhouse is open, and you can climb right onto the ship too. It’s an enjoyable and free visit, but please honor their Donations Box.
Fun fact: are you thinking of Vikings as big burly blond Scando dudes? Horned helmets, vicious swords and all that? Guess what: there were fierce and intimidating fighting Viking gals too! The Smithsonian has a great article on excavations in Birka, Sweden, where a confirmed female grave was filled with weapons – and a map likely showing military strategies. Would anyone be really surprised if further research shows that perhaps the female Vikings were the brawny brains behind those burly dudes?
The Reel deal
The Reel Distillery is located at Saxa Vord Distillery in Valsgarth, names that all sound very Scando! Reel has been producing gin for a number of years but recently decided to expand into whisky. Yes folks, in Scotland that’s “whisky” without the “e”. Only the Americans and Irish tend to spell it with an “e”, see my previous whisk(e)y blog.
After blending whisky for several years, Reel produced its first single malt in 2015 and has plans for more. They would be the UK’s northernmost whisky distillery for sure, a claim currently held by Highland Park and Scapa on Orkney – described in yet another whisky-related blog. Yes, I am a “man of the dram” and love visiting these places!
I had contacted Reel in advance, saying I was planning to stop by for a butcher’s. They told me they’d be closed of course but to just bang on the door and go see Mark the manager.
But, as these things go, the message hadn’t made it to Mark and he was rather surprised! There are no tours in the off-season but he recovered quickly, and graciously showed me around the facility. Can’t wait to try their single malt!
The intimate Tasting Room has informative posters, awards and bottle displays along the walls around a beautiful wooden table. Being partial to maps, I admired the UK map carved into wood, with the Reel logo.
Of course, no mention of anything Shetland is complete without mentioning Up Helly Aa, the winter festival in Lerwick celebrating all things Viking. In 2017, Shetland Reel produced a special and very limited edition gin, honoring this fiery and very popular event. If you want to go: book early!
Next to Reel’s building is the Valhalla Brewery, alas also closed today but yeah, there are no tourists to speak of in November. I already got lucky in managing to get into Reel! Valhalla is definitely the UK’s northernmost brewery and brews interestingly named beers with a Viking angle and a Shetland accent. I’ll have to catch up with them on my next Shetland trip.
From war ship to worship
Fun fact: just a few miles from the Viking war ship, near Reel at Brakefield Crescent, you’ll see a sign for Britain’s northernmost church. The sign isn’t in the best of shapes, not unexpected in this demanding climate, but the tiny Methodist congregation is proud of their house of worship.
After Reel, it was time to focus on my main reason to go to Unst today: hiking the Hermaness National Nature Reserve. This gorgeous area is all the way up, at Unst’s northern point.
Reaching the car park, there was only one other vehicle parked, a rugged SUV. I pulled in next to it with my tiny Kia and started my hike.
One thing at this time of year in a place like this: it’s very wet! I was prepared though, with solid hiking gear like dressed in layers, an excellent wind- and waterproof jacket, beanie and waterproof boots. Fortunately, I would not need the rain pants I had brought along just in case.
I also carried a small but highly effective and waterproof LED torch aka flashlight – with spare batteries, having learned that lesson on a previous less successful occasion – which I did end up needing. Still, some areas required a bit of detouring, as I wasn’t ready for water more than a few inches deep.
Go west, young man
I made my way along the marked path, often thoughtfully improved with boardwalks, to the west coast. Not overly steep, just some hills up and down, before reaching the stunning coastline. Wind blowing, birds wheeling over the cliffs, not a soul in sight.
Hiking up over and along the treacherous coastal cliffs, the views included lots of waterfalls too, not surprising with all this wetness!
Name that lighthouse
At the northern end, you can see a tiny islet just off the Unst coast, by the glorious name of “Muckle Flugga”. It has a famous lighthouse: what a stunning setting for a lighthouse keeper! But, due to automation, it is unmanned these days. Hiking this far does require some care, it’s slow going, and I had started late in the day. And daylight is short this far north…
This is where I admit I often over-estimate my abilities – and/or under-estimate the changes in weather and daylight. Yes I made it and saw Muckle Flugga under the final daylight, but my return became rather challenging. Darkness set in at 4pm, winds were picking up, rain started to sprinkle.
Safety after sunset
I didn’t want to risk going back along the cliffs after dusk, but the Hermaness Reserve offers several circular walk options. I thought I’d take the less clear but hopefully safer inland path. What I didn’t know is that several areas were flooded and rather challenging to cross! Oh well, that’s the adventure, and aren’t dry feet overrated?
As the sun set on the marshy wetlands, I got a few cool sunset shots in the twilight.
In the dark after that, I had to edge puddles and ponds, venture onto some beams bridging them, or circle around. Thank you, waterproof hiking boots and small but super duper flash light.
The heat is on
Arriving back at my loyal rental Kia, I drove back across Unst to Belmont to catch the ferry – which I saw pulling out as I descended the hill to the dock. Not to worry, as in a rare act of foresight I had brought along a ferry schedule, so I knew it wasn’t the last one of the day. I ended up waiting an hour.
No coffee or anything to be found here, but these are the moments one is glad to have a backlit Nook and a rental car with a working heater! I ended up finishing “Cold Earth” in this unforgettable setting just as the ferry pulled in.
Nurturing Norse Gods
The Yell-Mainland ferry ran as hoped for and I made it back to Lerwick late in the evening without any misadventures. Back in my rental cottage, I changed into dry clothes and non-muddy shoes. Time to barrel right into town for dinner, but quickly! Stuff closes early here, but I found a nice spot for a tasty meal – I was raven-ous, keep reading… – and some heavenly pints! In the Viking spirit, it felt right to order those straight from Valhalla, and by Odin and his ravens, boy did they taste good!
My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. It’s what you’d experience yourselves. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
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