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. Continue reading →
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…). Continue reading →
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.) Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
The rain had stopped. I walked around the Village, down Bleecker Street, looking at the buildings – mostly brick, full of architectural detail. I love walking through New York streets: there is so much to look at. I walked down into SoHo, zigzagging across the lattice of streets, watching people, looking at the buildings.
I woke early, and snuck out into dawn streets. I caught the subway down to City Hall, the downtown local, and stepped over the water. I realise that, perhaps, the Chrysler Building may not be my favourite structure in New York. (Favourite is a very flexible word for me; it changes with the weather.) The Brooklyn Bridge is, or just then, early on a Saturday morning, it was. Few people were about: some joggers. A line of cormorants flew under the bridge, skimming the water. A fleet of police cars, lights flashing, sirens stuttering, sped into the city on the car deck. (I later learned this was, I think, a ceremonial affair: it was the day a memorial to dead policemen was being dedicated.) Continue reading →