The Shetland Isles – A Day Trip to Unst
Things to do at Scotland's Northern Limits
Highlights of an Unst Day Trip
The force of the wind is difficult to resist, the screeching of several thousand seabirds is a repetitive din in the background and the drama of the ocean surrounding me is all-consuming. I’ve spent the last couple of hours strolling between sheep, gawking at the vast spectacle of the Isle of Unst’s coastline. Human presence has long since been forgotten and on a grey and moody day in far-away Shetland, it’s just me and Mother Nature. I’m standing at pretty much the most northerly point of Scotland. And it feels good.
Following on from my previous blogs on the best of Mainland Shetland and my Shetland Travel Guide, I’ve been building up to documenting my day trip to Unst. One of Shetland’s remote and sparsely populated (only 700 people live here despite its fairly significant size) North Isles, Unst seems to be widely regarded as the Isle with the most to offer. Visually spectacular it also boasts historical and wildlife appeal – not to mention Britain’s most northerly distillery.
This is the walking route that trumps all others in these parts. The sheer scale of Hermaness and the power of the collision point of land and sea here is something I doubt I’ll ever forget. There’s around a 5 mile walking stretch (not particularly challenging at any point but stay well clear of the edges) that will satisfy your coastal curiosity and then some. The route starts at Hermaness car park (the road simply and definitively ends, you’ll know you’re there) and heads north and west along a boardwalk. Passing through a desolate moor – a Shetland speciality – things start to become interesting as you emerge at the ludicrously exposed coastline. Follow this north as far as you like before either turning back or continuing on a lengthy circuit. Guillemots, puffins and gannets by the thousand will keep you company and look out for the true northern limits of Scotland – the outlying uninhabited islands and the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse.
Being the most northerly person in Scotland was hilariously empowering. I had a bit of a moment. A kind of ‘This is Sparta!’/Leo Di Caprio in Titanic thing that we’ll now move swiftly on from. It’s curious. There’s a Hermanus in South Africa at pretty much the southernmost tip of that continent – although I can’t find a connection, that can’t be a coincidence. I’ve been there incidentally and it’s famous as a brilliant spot for whale watching. Both now hold eternal memories for me.
The Bus Shelter
Probably the best bus stop in Scotland, if not the world, lives on Unst. I think it’s fair to say that buses are not the most reliably frequent in these parts – and the locals have acted accordingly. Kitting out the shelter with chairs, books, a phone, a football, decorations and even a change of clothes, this is sheer class. You’ll find it on the main road outside Baltasound and it’s a bit of a must-see.
As a castle lover, it was a wee bit of a shame that the atmospheric Shetlands are home to just two castles. Fortunately, both are riddled with mystery, and a grim past. The rather sadistic origins of Scalloway Castle on Mainland are matched by those of Unst’s Muness Castle. It’s remote – this adjective is becoming a bit of a mainstay in my Shetland musings I must say – evocative and picturesque. Constructed by Laurence Bruce in the 16th Century he was the local bailiff who was evidently prone to a bit of corruption. Replacing elected officials with his own allies and cronies, his nature was linked to that of the Earls of Orkney. This was a particularly unpleasant family by all accounts. Self-serving and vain the lot of them should have had a crack at a career in politics!
The castle ruins are magnificent and the 1627 fire that largely decimated the stronghold has not robbed it of its aura. Spread over multiple floors, the same sullen mood downstairs that’s reminiscent of Scalloway Castle’s ground floor is palpable. The upper level is considerably grander and the rooflessness of Muness gives a thorough appreciation of the relative opulence of Bruce’s lifestyle here.
Unst Boat Haven – Haroldswick
This unique little place is another worth finding time for in your day trip. Essentially a container packed with a huge collection of small boats, the Boat Haven is a lovely tribute to the importance of the fishing industry to Unst. Nearby Baltasound was once the biggest herring port in Europe. The fairly arduous task of catching and readying herring 100 years ago has been replaced largely by fish farms these days but an enormous amount of care goes in to maintaining this place. In the same way that Glasgow pays tribute to its shipbuilding past, or Dundee to its former status as the jute capital of the world, I love that old industries are affectionately reflected on around Scotland. Times change, but these mighty legacies remain.
For an excellent lunch stop, pop next door to Victoria’s Tea Room where fine views over the water will give you a well-earned chance to absorb your day so far.
Just outside of Haroldswick, you can find the roadside Viking Unst display. This comprises a remarkably authentic Viking longship and neighbouring longhouse. The Skidbladner Longship is well worth clambering aboard. Imagining this beast of the sea tearing into your harbour full of hairy, axe-weilding invaders – not something I’d fancy facing to be honest. But as I’ve discussed in preceding blogs, this was and is a vitally significant element within Shetland’s history and this is one of the best spots to properly engage with it. Plus, let’s face it, Vikings are cool.
My introduction to decent gin came relatively recently. Like most, I’d always made do with standard lines of pretty bland stuff and never really appreciated gin in the same way I do other (cough, whisky, cough) spirits. Shetland Reel was maybe my first proper awakening into what flavour can do to gin – with their orange flavoured ‘Simmer’ range really impressing me. Since then of course gin has taken off in a big way with countless great suppliers of the stuff (Scotland produces around 70% of the UK’s gin) popping up nearby.
So it was a real treat to visit the Shetland Distillery Company’s base – Britain’s most northerly you’ll not be surprised to learn – and see where the magic actually happens. Tours should be arranged in advance by contacting the distillery directly. Although whisky is on the way, the focus is very much on the Shetland Reel gin range and the seaweed infused stuff is particularly delicious. Big thanks to Mark for a very informative tour and, believe it or not, this one busy peerie still does all the work. I’ve been waiting ages to fit ‘peerie’ into one of these blogs – it means ‘wee’ or ‘small’ in these parts and remained the only Shetland word I was able to pick up. On that note, my work here is done.
Practical Info for Visiting Unst
A day trip to Unst is very do-able from Mainland Shetland but requires a bit of island hopping. Assuming you have your own vehicle (something I’d strongly advise) you can catch the ferry from Toft (North Mainland) and cross over firstly to Ulsta on the Isle of Yell. You then drive straight across the island (no dilly-dallying as the boats leave bang on their departure time) to connect with the second crossing that goes from Gutcher to Belmont on Unst. The first crossing between Mainland and Yell takes around 20 minutes, the second between Yell and Unst takes around 10. Buy your ticket for both ferry crossings on the first section and the cost is £18.70 return (cash only unless booked in advance). I advise making a full day of it by getting an early crossing and returning in the early evening but always check schedules (and weather) ahead of your journey.
Where to Stay
Although Unst will have you falling deeply in love with the rugged and windswept outdoors, you’ll want a warm bed to come back to. While the island itself does have a handful of options, doing a day trip to Unst from Mainland would probably be my advice unless you are planning on a very extensive exploration.
So setting up base in North Mainland becomes the ideal scenario and I recommend the Moorfield Hotel in Brae. Conveniently set with easy access to both North and Central Mainland, it is a modern, extremely comfortable and highly welcoming hotel that’s ideal after long days on the road. Particularly popular with business guests and local workers who value staying connected and boasting over 100 rooms (including a restaurant, ample parking and friendly staff) this would be my top tip. You’ll be within 2 minutes of the renowned award-winning Frankie’s Fish and Chips and the staff were even friendly enough to take me to and from the village centre when the nearby taxi service (not to be relied on by the way) left me unexpectedly marooned. That’s Shetland charm.
While I was invited to stay at the Moorfield as a guest, that in no way influenced the above recommendation. I chose to stay there as my research indicated it would be the ideal base for this chunk of my Shetland travel itinerary – and it exceeded my expectations.
Who has been to Unst? Are there any other Shetland day trips to the islands you’d recommend?
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