Not the End of the World. May 2013.

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.)

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Walking along the cliffs was very bracing. Looking north, with nothing beyond the light and Out Stack, somewhat daunting. I was the most northerly person in Britain. Everyone was south of me. It did feel a bit special.

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I walked back along the cliffs, on the west coast. There were large colonies of gannets clinging to the steep sided cliffs and skerries. Gannets are vary beautiful – but the fulmars are the most graceful flyers. Both were a joy to watch. Their numbers were impressive, their flights hypnotic. I spent a long while just watching.

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What I didn’t see were puffins. I had expected many: Hermaness is famous as being one of the largest puffin colonies in the world. Last time I visited Shetland, I saw large numbers of puffins at Sumburgh; they are captivating birds. They were so impressive when we visited in mid July, we went back the next day, and watched them flying – and clowning! We went back a third time; and there were none: overnight, they had flown away, not to return to dry land until the next spring.

But this time, at Hermaness, there were none. I met a group of six or seven walking the other direction – the only people I passed the whole day. I asked if they had seen puffins, keen to know where to look as I took the long walk back; they hadn’t seen any either. At least this meant I wasn’t just being thick! They were a group of geologists: Unst has an interesting geology, half of it derived from north America (the result of continental drift – the Highland fault that separates the ancient north American rocks in Scotland from younger European rocks runs through Unst), the rest from the Atlantic floor, including a large chunk of very rare serpentine soil. I have travelled half way around the world looking at plants growing on serpentine (namely, New Caledonia) – ironic that a large area of serpentine is found in old Caledonia, too.

It was, though, a glorious walk, following the cliffs; warm (not hot!), sunny, a bit breezy. The birds I did see were so impressive and beautiful.

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