Cliffs. May 2013.

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.

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It was another great walk; blowy, with birds. Up the coast from the ferry terminal, with Yell to the west. The coast was full of inlets, as costs are; Shetland has many deep sea lochs, as if to emphasise its Scandinavian heritage. (“Voes” in Shetland – fjords in Scandinavia…) Lots of smaller cuts in the cliffs, too – “geos”.

Shags (fnaar) and terns were the predominant birds – large gathering of shags sunning their wings on the cliffs. There were a lot of shore birds as well – waders, mainly. And some terns. A seal watched lazily from the sea as a followed the line of the beach.

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The walk took in several ruined buildings. Unst is full of ruins. Standing stones. Viking ruins. Medieval ruins. Abandoned crofts and cleared settlements. Ruins, and lost history, abound. (Later, in the Lerwick museum, I read of an excavation of a cleared settlement, which indicated that the inhabitants had left quickly and in a hurry – their pots and pans still over the fire, nothing packed away.) My amateur eyes could not discern one ruined settlement from another: I accepted what the guide book said were Viking ruins from Celtic ones and Christian settlements. (Ok, I could identify the standing stones…)

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History lurks within the soil: you can see the boundaries between ancient fields left by generations, the trees that weren’t cut down (ok not in Shetland, no trees except those planted by Victorian landowners!). The whole of Britain has been shaped by man. The history of Unst is one of change. The Vikings replaced the Picts, the Scots replaced the Vikings, and landowners replaced the crofters. The ruins on the peat moors were very dramatic and evocative.

I walked by ancient and ruined chapels, one still used as a burial ground – a strange mix of ancient and modern (albeit dead).


I walked back past Belmont House, a fine Georgian building on the machair – it looked as if it were transplanted from Edinburgh.


* * *

There are a lot of northerly places on Unst: the most northerly Post Office in Britain, the most northerly road, the most northerly house… Which I walked by. I started from Norwick beach – a very fine, broad beach of golden sand; it looked Mediterranean, but for the breeze. The track to Skaw rises from the north of the beach and climbs the cliffs (imaginatively named “The Cliffs”). The gate was locked, a notice saying the track was closed because of the danger of landslips. Instead, I just head straight up the hill to meet the road, and walked – well, north, over Swartling to Skaw.


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I don’t know what Swartling is, but it is marked on the map. Actually, there are many features shown on the OS map of Unst that I couldn’t really work out what they were. I know I was there, but couldn’t tell what the map referred to. For instance, I’m pretty sure that “Horns of Hagmark” are cliff stacks that I walked along; but “The Giant” – just south on the map of the Horns of Hagmark – what is it? I was looking for it – I mean, who wouldn’t go looking for “The Giant”? But, well there wasn’t anything very gigantic there. Still, I wasn’t sure what I was actually looking for, so it could have been anything.

On the other hand, the map is full of great names. Like “The Horns of Hagmark”.

At Skaw I said hello to the woman who was cleaning her stream (she had passed me in her LandRover and offered me a lift, and smiled when I said I wanted to walk) and walked on the beach. There is a farm at Skaw (the most northerly…), and a traditional “haa” – a hull-roofed dwelling. I climbed the cliffs to the south and followed them, undulating up and down and in and out, watching terns fish and fulmars somehow sitting in their nests on the cliff-face. And I saw a Great Northern Diver.




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The path leads out to the Garths (what? What?!) and Lamba Ness, the point which is almost cut off – the track fills the width of the isthmus. The Garths and the Ness are dotted with abandoned, derelict military buildings; there is a sketch map on the road identifying their different functions. It was the site of a large RAF radar installation in World War 2 – RAF Skaw – which kept watch over the route from the North Sea into the Atlantic. (Presumably the gap between Shetland and Orkney was patrolled by the Navy.) It has an odd feeling, this huge site returned to nature.

I walked back to Norwick, getting to the road where the closed track met it; there was a guy walking up the track, so I thought I’d risk it. After a couple of hundred yards, there was a large crack in the tarmac; a bit further on, the road had slipped about a foot. I could see more cracks in the track, too, the tarmac hanging onto the edge of the Cliffs. I decided to give it a miss, returning to the road and then back down the hill, the way I had come.

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