I went on a couple of walks along the coast near where I was staying, on at dusk, the other, longer, during the day.
I went at dusk hoping to see otters, active around the turn of the tide (apparently). No otters, but a striking sky and a good walk along the shore.
There are two small, community museums on Unst, and I waited for the bad weather day to take advantage of them. It is two for the price of one: the same ticket gets you into both. They were both in easy walking distance for me; but it was pissing with rain, and I was buggered if I were going to get drenched again. I drove.
The boat haven is a large shed, full of boats. I wasn’t certain; it didn’t seem my kind of thing. I didn’t think a collection of boats would be interesting.
I was completely, totally wrong. It was fascinating. Not really the boats themselves – though they were quite beautiful, some of them, crafted with great craft and love – but for the stories they told.
Unst is nearer to Bergen in Norway than it is to Edinburgh, and it was Norwegian before it was Scottish, the result of Viking invasions in the 8th century. Before that, it was inhabited by the Picts.
Nobody is really sure what happened, of course (unlike the transfer from Norwegian to Scottish power in the 14th century, the political shenanigans of which are well documented – needless to say, Norway might have a valid claim to Shetland, even today…).
I still hadn’t seen puffins. I went to the Hermaness reserve headquarters to see if the warden could point me in the right direction. The HQ is in the former shore house for Muckle Flugga, where lighthouse keepers would stay during their off periods, and where their families lived the whole time.
The warden want there, but there is very good display, including a map showing where different birds could be seen. Puffins should be – exactly where I had been walking.
So I went back there.
I walked the longer but faster path, west to the cliffs and then north. I met a woman and we chatted briefly; she was keen to see bonxies but hadn’t realised that they were the large birds all around. I passed a tall guy carrying a large tripod and a load of camera equipment.
It was a fine day, though rain was forecast. The views, same as before but in reverse, and in different light, were good. I kept my eyes open, scanning the cliffs and the sky for puffins.
I saw several as walked back until I walked back until once more I was the most northerly person in Britain, opposite the lighthouse. On the step grass slopes down to cliffs were a while troop of puffins. Not a crowd, not the hordes that I had expected but quite a few.
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.