Unst - Treasure Island
Unst is a mere 12 miles from north to south and 5 from east to west. Although small there are plenty of things to see and experience.
Stand on the summit of the hill of Saxa Vord, the most northerly hill on the most northerly populated island in Britain, and stretch your eyes:
- To the north, just offshore, lie the rock outcrops of Muckle Flugga and Out Stack – Britain’s most northerly outposts. Next stop: the Arctic.
- To the east, less than 200 miles away, lies Norway.
- To the south lies Unst – and beyond that, over 600 miles away, London.
- Due west, beyond the north tips of Yell and Mainland Shetland, and across the restless Atlantic, lies Greenland.
The atmosphere is quite remarkable. The light can vary from the pure and sharp, with colours standing out with a Mediterranean intensity, to pale washes of blues, browns and greys, but they are always austere, as though cooled by the crystal light and aged by time. However, even greater than the uniqueness of the colour is the sense of space – of being at one with the two absolutes of the North: limitless water and free, fresh air.
Quite simply, on the hill of Saxa Vord you are on the edge of the world – on the Ultima Thule of the Ancients.
The Island Above All Others
Roughly rectangular in shape and a mere 12 miles from north to south and 5 from east to west, Unst may be small but it packs a punch way above its size when it comes to things to see and experience. Indeed, Robert Louis Stevenson visited Unst in 1869 to see the Muckle Flugga lighthouse, built by his father a few years earlier, and was so impressed that some say that he used it as the basis for his “Treasure Island” map. Impressive it remains: Unst really IS the island above all others!
Unst is fringed by a rough, serrated coastline of massive sea cliffs and rocky headlands separated by deep bays and inlets (wicks and sounds) with, here and there, stretches of beautiful, pristine sand. Offshore lie rocky outcrops and verdant islands, like Uyea and Balta. Inland, the island has an open, almost entirely treeless landscape of rolling hills covered in course grasses and heather, separated by valleys dotted with lochs and pockets of more fertile land containing scattered crofts. Big skies and long views abound.
Villages – small crofting townships like Baltasound, Haroldswick, Norwick and Uyeasound – are situated close to the coast, demonstrating the island’s traditional dependency on fishing and agriculture.
Today that dependency remains and the people of Unst (population around 600), who are immensely proud of their cultural heritage, many tracing their ancestry back to Norse times, still live very traditional lives. Crofting, fishing, and fish and shellfish farming are still key to the island’s economy, though tourism, construction, transport and craft industries, with local manufacturers like NorNova Knitwear, all have crucial roles to play.
However, Unst islanders are nothing if not resourceful and Unst is the proud home of PURE, the first and only operational community-owned renewable hydrogen energy system in the world. The island is also home to Steven Spence, Unst's famous - and favourite - fiddler, who exports fiddles and other instruments from Unst and who also accepts commissions to compose fiddle tunes for special occassions - See Spencies Tunes.
Getting around Unst is simple too. Upon alighting from the Yell to Unst roll-on/roll-off ferry at Belmont, the main road leads north up the centre of the island to Saxa Vord and on to Britain’s first and last house at Skaw. From this main artery many smaller roads lead to the coast, with interesting things to see and experience along every one.
The subject or roads cannot be raised without also mentioning one of Unst’s most surprising tourist attractions, Bobby’s Bus Shelter – surely the most comfortable and famous in the world?
Unst is fringed by a rough, serrated coastline of massive sea cliffs and rocky headlands, separated by deep bays and inlets, and with stretches of beautiful, pristine sand.
Unst’s natural heritage is truly outstanding, and the island has two National Nature Reserves.
Archaeological and Historical Attractions
The prehistory and history of Unst together cover some 5,000 fascinating years, and the signs of man’s activities throughout this time can be found in every corner of the island.
The vast majority of the buildings on Unst today have been built over the past 150 years. However, remains of earlier buildings and settlements can be found all over the island, wherever the ground was fertile enough to support a population.
There are many historic remains to be found on the island of Unst, such as Unsts Boat Haven, Baliasta Kirk, Greenwell’s Booth and more.
The geology of Unst is world-famous and forms a major part of Shetland’s bid to secure European Geopark Status. Unst is a geologist’s paradise, containing some rare and exotic rocks and minerals displayed in magnificent settings.
Unst’s wildlife is also extraordinarily rich, with everything from whales, to otters, puffins and Shetland ponies, and so much more. Not to forget exotic plants like Edmondston’s chickweed, that is found in Unst and nowhere else in the world.
Unst alone is a special and memorable place to see wildlife. As Simon King wrote:
"Even when you’re not looking, this place is cracking for wildlife!"
The incredibly long daylight hours in midsummer, a time when it never gets dark, is known in Shetland as “the Simmer Dim”. You will be able to achieve an amazing amount between dawn and dusk, or you can just sit on a rocky headland or cliff and gaze out to sea, watching the sun remain on the horizon.
As with all remote and isolated communities, the people of Unst often make their own entertainment – and what entertainment it is. There is always something going on and visitors are welcome to participate in most events.
Events take place throughout the year in the various village halls.
UnstFest is an annual festival that takes place every July on the island, and is great for the whole family. All of the community are involved or attend the event and bands from all over Shetland travel up to play. As well as offering different activities for all age groups throughout the week. With a variety of events planned there's everything from bannock workshops, fishing, guided walks, and much more.
You can read more about the festival here.
Unst Music & Dance Club (UMDC)
Focusing mainly on music, these nights take place weekly and visitors are always welcome to listen or take part. You can catch the UMDC in Saxa Vord Lounge Bar.
Peerie Dances are held every fortnight on Unst in June, July and August. “Peerie” is small in the Shetland dialect, and in this case it means that the dances are intimate, sociable affaires with warm and welcoming atmospheres. Visitors of all ages and abilities are always made extremely welcome and there are plenty of locals on hand to demonstrate the steps and guide people through the dances. Once bitten you will be completely smitten – they are great fun.
Up Helly Aa - Shetland’s Viking fire festivals.
The largest Up Helly Aa in Shetland takes place in Lerwick on the last Tuesday in January each year and is the biggest fire festival in the world. Up to 1,000 Viking “guizers” march through the streets in full costume with flaming torches before ritually burning a longship; after which it’s party time with music, dance….and much, much more.
Unst has two of its own:
- Uyeasound Up Helly Aa, celebrating the approaching spring, a Viking “Jarl” (earl) leads his guizers through the streets before the ship burning on the shore, followed by the compulsory celebrations to follow! It takes place in mid-February.
- Norwick Up Helly Aa, taking place a fortnight later, in early March, and is the most northerly in Shetland.
Focusing on the finest of locally grown produce, are held once a month and are an excellent opportunity to buy the freshest of food and to meet the island’s people.
Village Hall Chip Nights
Fish & Chip Nights are regularly held in village halls on Sunday evenings. Local volunteers fry the fish and chips - and a range of other foods besides - and the bar is also open. Very popular with locals, this is a great opportunity for visitors to mix and experience another side to island life.
For more information on things to do in Unst, click here.