This episode : Jimmy Perez follows a tip-off from ‘Two-ferries’ Mcduff and heads for Unst
Lerwick is the most northerly town in the UK but if you want to go North by North, North you need to get to the intriguingly named Unst, our northernmost inhabited island. But to get there you first of all need to get to Yell – the island not the delivery company. Our journey from Lerwick to the ferry port of Toft took us alongside the Button Hills above the beautiful Dales Voe which reminded us a little of Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand.
The ferry across to Yell took about 20 minutes. The ferry service here is very slick. You join either the booked or unbooked lane. If the latter you will only get on the ferry if there is room but you only have to turn up 5 minutes before the sailing time and the ferries are frequent so it’s no big deal if you have to wait.
From the port of Ulsta on Yell you need to drive north to Gutcher and catch another ferry there. The ferry to Unst is smaller than the one to Yell so people often race each other to get from one port to the next in time for the next available sailing. We had given ourselves plenty of time to make the journey so ambled along through Yell and even had time for a short side trip before lining up for the ferry.
From Gutcher to Belmont on Unst is an even shorter crossing – about ten minutes so before long we were travelling the A968 looking for the sign to Westing. As its name suggests this is in the west of the island and our chalet, which turned out to be a kit house brought over from Norway, was perched in the hills above the glorious Lunda Wick.
We very soon felt at home in our wonderful warm, clean, well furnished chalet, with its fantastic views and we pretty soon came to love Unst. It has everything you could want – sandy beaches, rocky inlets, moorland hills, coastal cliffs, green valleys and a truly peaceful atmosphere. And nowhere is more than 30 minutes away by car.
The main village (you can’t call it a town) is Balta Sound which has at least two shops, a hotel, a pub and a fantastic bus stop. We have been finding that Shetlanders are every bit as quirky and fun loving as the New Zealanders – perhaps not surprising as many folk from these parts emigrated to NZ. Dotted around the island are various old phone boxes, defunct refrigerators and a variety of containers which house a micro-shop. You can buy home made cakes and sweets, fresh eggs and other consumables and put your money in the honesty box provided.
In some settlements the humble, utilitarian bus shelters have been transformed into pop-up shops, museums, art galleries and exhibitions. But Bobby’s Bus Shelter in Belmont must surely be one of the best. The story goes that the local council were considering getting rid of their bus shelter which upset seven year old local lad Bobby no end. He objected to the removal of the shelter citing the fact that he would leave his bike in it when he caught the bus to school so that it would remain dry in the rain which has a tendancy to fall here in Shetland.
Thankfully, the bus shelter was reprieved and it is regularly decorated in a theme. At the moment it is prinked out for the Queen’s Jubilee with a throne, flags and bunting, a fake TV, etc. Jane was prevailed upon to sit on the throne and look suitably royal, which she did with the ease of one born to a higher calling.
Further down the road at Haroldswick there is a depiction of a rather earlier slice of history. A replica Viking longhouse and ship tell you that the Shetland isles have always been heavily influenced by their Nordic heritage which you see at many sites and which are echoed in many of the place names.
At Haroldswick there is a delightful tea room which does a great scone with jam and cream (and butter but don’t tell the doctor). We made our way back home to our chalet and were just taking in the view after our evening meal when we realised that we were going to get a brilliant sunset. So we high tailed it down to the nearby stony beach and just watched the sun sink into the west. It was glorious to be out at 10.30 at night seeing the heavenly firmament slowly fade away.
You might think that such a show would herald a spell of settled weather. Well, this is Shetland so think again. In the night the wind was howling and the rain beating down so it was a bit of a disturbed night. Not surprisingly we slept in late and then did a few chores but by then the clouds were beginning to lift so we made some sandwiches and tea and headed off for Herma Ness, a national nature reserve right at the northern tip of Unst. It is noted for seabirds and we were not disappointed. A long and sometimes steep climb up a boardwalk leads right to the cliff edge. When we finally got there, a little puffed from the exertion it has to be admitted, we noticed several people with binoculars and cameras gathered about and looking at one particular spot on the grass. I gasped in surprise when I realised that there was a tiny, clown faced bird going about its business – a Puffin. She (or perhaps I’m being sexist here, it may have been a he) was nonchalantly searching about in the grass, not at all concerned by the humans gathered about or the clicking of camera shutters. Eventually, when she had gathered enough dried grass she disappeared down her burrow with not so much as a backward glance. Take a bow, Puffin.
What a magical start to a visit to the northernmost seabird colony in Britain. Uttering a sigh of content we walked along the cliffs to the left to view the massive Gannet colony which lives in this outermost reach of our islands. And what a sight it is. To me Gannets look a little like Concord with their sleek white bodies and their long, sharply pointed bill. And, unlike Concord, they are very successful – you’ll find them all over the world and in each hemisphere. And they are superb fliers and fantastic to watch as they dive vertically into the sea when feeding. But I don’t think any of them reach Mach 1, even in a dive.
It’s not only Gannets on these cliffs, of course, there are Fulmar, Skua, Guillemot and Razorbill.
Returning to the boardwalk we turned left instead of right to walk towards Muckle Flugga. This small island really is the northernmost reach of the UK. The next piece of land after this is Greenland, inside the Arctic Circle. Short of getting on a boat there’s no access onto the island so we had to content ourselves with a view of the lighthouse.
Returning along the cliffs we noticed amongst the cruising Fulmars some small black and white shapes hurtling themselves at the rock face. The binoculars confirmed that they had the distinctive colourfully banded bill of the Puffin. We watched for ages as Puffin after Puffin sped in on whirling wings, rather like a tiny clockwork toy. The birds nest in burrows, often using holes left by the many rabbits which abound in the soft, peaty soil of the Shetlands. At the moment though it appears that we are too early to see them actually nesting, apart from that one individual at the start of the boardwalk. They just seem to be gathering, perhaps reuniting before mating and laying eggs.
Herma Ness proved to be one of the nature highlights of the trip so far. The following day we had intended to return to the northern part of Unst, this time visiting Lamba Ness, also noted for its cliffs and seabird colonies but the ‘haar’ or sea mist had rolled in up there so we explored the area around our chalet at Westwick and the lovely golden beach at Sandwick. Parking at Muness Castle we walked the Ham of Muness, delighting in the Plovers, Turnstones and Oystercatchers and being followed along by a Common Seal keeping a careful watch on us just in case we were intending slipping into the water. In the frigid North Sea? You must be joking, Mr Seal.
Unst may be as remote as you can get on the Isles of Britain but it’s also about as peaceful as you can get and as we packed away our gear we had a real sense of regret at leaving our Scandinavian flat-pack chalet.