There isn’t a great deal to do on Unst. This didn’t come as a surprise. I knew there were no restaurants (I was early in the holiday season: the two hotel restaurants opened the weekend I left), nor a pub I could get to without driving (the nearest bar to me is in the hotel which would be opening the weekend, etc).
What there was a lot of was walking. Which I did; on six out of the seven days I was there, I walked about ten miles out more. (On the other day, it rained, and I went too the two – excellent – community museums.)
Unst is an island, which means almost every walk – at least every walk I did – involves the coast. There was Hermaness, of course, its dramatic cliffs dropping precipitously; and the following day I went on another coast walk, this time on the west coast; and more cliffs.
I was staying in Unst, the most northerly (inhabited) of the British Isles, in Haroldswick, the second-most northerly hamlet on Unst; Norwick, as the name suggests, is further north (and there is a house at Skaw which is Britain’s most northerly habitation).
Pretty far north, then. So what I did on my first full day was go as far as I could. I walked to the end of the British Isles; at least, the end you can get to.
The most northerly point on Unst is Hermaness; a nature reserve. Just off Hermaness is Muckle Flugga, one of the lighthouse Stevenson’s lights built on one the largest of a chain of skerries; the end of the series, the end of the line, is the literally named Out Stack. (The BBC can get permission to land on Muckle Flugga, but for most people it is prohibited. It also seems quite dangerous, so whilst one can get a boat around Muckle Flugga, I chose not to.)
I walked out across Hermaness Hill, climbing through the heather (avoiding the breeding area set aside for the birds) to the brow of the hill, when the lighthouse came in sight. It was a lovely morning with bright blue skies. The hill slipped steeply down to the sea, with tall cliffs dropping down to the water. There were large numbers of birds –
Arctic Great Skuas (“bonxies”) on the heath, gannets and fulmars on the cliffs. (And lots of little brown jobs – lbjs – on the heath too, but I could only recognise a few.)
I got the time of the boat wrong; fortunately arriving early, not late. I had two hours to spend in Aberdeen; I wandered around, had a coffee, had some chocolate. The centre of Aberdeen seemed badly hit by the downturn, with many shops closed out vacant; yet oil money was meant to keep the city buoyant whatever happened in the broader economy. It might be that the petrol dollars are not evenly distributed, and that the centre suffers whilst offer parts boom.
I went to the Maritime Museum, down by the docks. It is an excellent museum, though full of images of disaster. Oil paintings of wrecked vessels and drowning sailors abound; one display after another recount tales of bravery and folly at sea: while fishing fleets destroyed by a turn in the weather. Fishing families, poor at best, devastated as all the men drown. (This must be why so much of the folk music is full of despair.)
Worst of all was the detailed exhibit on the Piper Alpha disaster. Twenty five years ago, the drilling platform caught fire, killing 167 men (including some rescuers); the 61 survivors were scarred physically and mentally. (The father of a friend of mine was a psychiatrist who worked with survivors at an Aberdeen hospital – and apparently he found it traumatising enough.) It is hard to comprehend the horror. On a rig, there’s nowhere to escape to. Even today, the disaster hangs over the city, which is dependent on oil.