My journey from Unst back to Edinburgh started with a short ferry ride to Yell. I thought about visiting the hamlet of Gloup, where the drowned men came from, but instead decided to see if I could find otters. Despite looking, I hadn’t seen otters on Unst. Yell has a lot of otters. When the BBC want to film otters, they go to Yell. Apparently it is otter-central for otters in Europe. (Interestingly, they were extinct in Yell and reintroduced. Though I can’t remember where I read this.) So I went to a bit of the coast renowned for its otters. I went to Otter Wick. The clue is in the name.
It also had the White Lady, a figurehead from a sunken boat: she stands on the shore, looking toward the site of the wreck. She is crudely carved, painted white, and frankly spooky.
I didn’t see any otters; more irritating, I bumped into a couple who told me they had seen otters on Unst the previous evening. I did see lots of seals in Yell, and had a good walk along the coast before heading to the next ferry, to Mainland.
It was cloudy on Mainland. Rather than head straight to Lerwick, where I was staying, I decided to go north. I drove right to the north, past hamlets and Nordic-looking towns, oil depots and large fjord-like voes.
I stopped and went for a walk. I walked from the east coast of Mainland to the west; from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It took me a minute or so: despite being a fair distance from the north of the island, at Mavis Grind the inlet – voe – to the east and that to the west almost meet, leaving a narrow isthmus barely wider than the road. The Vikings used to carry their long boats from one side to the other, to save the long sail north and then south around to top of Mainland. (The Scottish place name Tarbert – or Tarbet – indicates the same, which is why it is such a common place name around the coast.)
The road sign just south Mavis Grind warns of otters crossing the road. Not when I was there, there weren’t.
Its northerly position makes Unst militarily important: RAF Skaw was established during the war to monitor (potentially hostile) shipping traffic; and RAF Saxa Vord joined it and continued after the war as a radar tracking station, part of the cold war effort.
And cold it must have been. The tracking station itself is the top of the highest hill on the island; it is the site of the highest recorded wind speed in the UK – 197 mph. At which point the equipment was blown away. So it might have been even stronger. (Two people died in Hermaness in the storm when the hut in which they were sheltering was blown away.)
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.