Exploring Unst

We set out from our base at Gardiesfauld, to explore the tiny island of Unst, which lies at the northern end of the Shetland Islands. Typical of the islands, Unst has no motorways, no dual carriageways or major roads. Most routes are single track, with passing places [if you’re lucky!]. Having said this, traffic is sparse. Just short drive away from our site is Muness Castle, small but relatively intact, sitting in an imposing position above the sea. We can walk around the structure and it’s quiet, with only one other couple stopping to look.

Like the other islands, Unst is littered with abandoned, ruined, stone cottages and in a nearby cove these buildings are everywhere, although the sole inhabitants of the bay now are Shetland ponies, skittish when we approach. Contemporary homes on Shetland are less glamorous; low, pebble-dashed houses, presumably easier to insulate against unforgiving winter weather.

There is also, scattered around the landscape much evidence of early settlements, with many remains of Viking long houses and burial mounds.

On a trip up to the north of Unst- the north of the north- at Baltisound, we happen upon Bobby’s Bus Shelter, a place of pilgrimage for tourists. Situated on a corner, it is embellished with all manner of creature comforts- a chair with a cushion, a TV [not real] bookshelves complete with books. There is even a ‘bus shelter visitors book’. Outside, a house-shaped box contains eggs and home-baked items for sale. A customer to the box informs me the bus shelter is customised each year. Inside the box there is a plethora of delicious baked items, from cheese scones to lemon drizzle cake. I choose a pack of cinnamon muffins for us, although finding the correst cash for payment is tricky. Tucked inside with the bakes is a cash box, open, with the notes and coins that customers have left. I’m humbled by the honesty of the customers and the trust of the baker. The muffins are delicious!

Baltisound also seems to be home to Unst’s one and only bar, although it’s an unprepossessing building. Beyond Baltisound we happen upon a replica Viking ship and a replica long house, immaculate and beautiful…and deserted! We have it all to ourselves.

Then we are up at the very tip of Unst and it feels remote, although there are a few homes. From the beach, we wind up a narrow track and around a bend to a car park at Hermaness Nature Reserve, above a rocky semi-island with a couple of houses that must be holiday homes. There are skuas nesting here and I spot what I think is a Lapland bunting.

Here on the islands I feel I’ve been transported back to a previous era, to a time when communities were small, people knew each other. The shops are community shops, packed from floor to ceiling with essentials. The pace of life is slow, the outdoors a precious resource for work and leisure. Each village has a community hall, essential for socialising. No other part of the UK I’ve visited is like this now, like the UK of my childhood, the 50s.

Our time on lovely Unst is up, but we’ve much more to see yet as we return to Shetland itself…

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

6 thoughts on “Exploring Unst

  1. Not a comment for posting here, but a correction of your brief piece at the Guardian today. The beach you visited was not at Sumburgh Head, rather it was the beach at Grutness.

    Sumburgh Head is a little further south, and sits above the cliffs where puffins nest.

    Hope that helps.

    • From the picture, it certainly looked like Grutness beach. However, rereading your description, it may well be West Voe beach. You’ll probably want to check out Google maps, or something equivalent.

      • I’m not a Shetlander, no, although I’ve spent a lot of time there over many years. I love it all, not least the wonderful beaches, but it’s the fiddle playing that is the main draw for me.

        To summarise, Sumburgh Head has spectacular cliffs, and puffins during the mating season, but no beaches.

        Apologies for derailing your blog, please delete all my posts here. Glad you enjoyed your visit to Shetland.

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