So, the ferries were booked solid to Unst, apart from a mid afternoon sail which was too late to be useful plus I then had the issue of getting back! I’d managed to choose Unst Festival Week for my visit to Britain’s most northerly inhabited island.
My Unst plans looked to be scuppered the night before, when I’d phoned Shetland Ferries to make my booking. ‘Sorrrry,’ said the lady who answered my call (third attempt, number continually engaged) in her strong and lovely island accent.’We’ve nae space at oll.Ye could trry just turnin’ up off courrrse….’
No space meant none on the TWO ferries I needed to take – Mainland to Yell then Yell to Unst and back.
I set off from camp at 8am next morning after a super-early shower (snoring guy still snoring, I could hear him from the kitchen.What’s more, I was told by another fellow camper that there was a ‘partner’ in there with him.God help her or him.) Scoffed a pot-o-porridge sprinkled liberally with sugar (my Mum in Law would be horrified at that sacrilege) and gallons of tea.It was drizzly and grey outside, with the mist hanging low over the island’s low rolling hills and moorland.With any luck, I hoped it would clear though my main concern was whether I’d actually get to where I wanted to be .I hate the ‘turn up and hope for the best’ scenario that can happen with last minute plans involving ferries.Must be the control freak in me; my plan for a day away tends to have a touch of the military campaign about it.I don’t do ‘go with the flow/see what happens’ very well!
Even in the fog, it was an attractive drive to the north eastern end of Mainland, about 40 mins away, where I faced my first hurdle – the little ferry to Yell at Toft.
Amazingly, the jetty was deserted apart from one large lorry in the booked queue. I drove into the non-booked queue and ten minutes later, myself , the lorry and two other cars (unbooked) were all sailing merrily to Yell with several empty spaces still to fill.One down, one to go! So much for being fully booked!
I never saw Yell at its best on the 25 minute drive to Gutcher and managed to arrive just as the Unst boat departed, which is the story of my life with unbooked ferries. I sat in unbooked lane nervously, waiting for a stream of new cars to whizz into the booked lane and scupper my chances. But only another three cars appeared in the next hour.So an hour later at 11.15am, with the boat half empty, I was whirled across the calm waters to Unst, panic over.
Clearly, people book a ferry (it costs nothing to book ahead) but then cancel but don’t tell Shetland Ferries; or they ignore their original booking and turn up on chance, for an earlier or later ferry.
I liked Unst more than Yell mainly because the area I was headed for – the National Nature Reserve of Hermaness – turned out to be superb, even in the fog.All wild land and cliffs, a fine pink beach or two and a smart little lighthouse overlooking a turquoise bay.
With my rucksack packed with cheddar and salad sandwiches, water and honey roasted cashew nuts, I took off along the excellent track – a good gravel path, then duck -boarding over the damp, soft moorland mosses and grasses.
It is all designed to make sure you don’t venture into the bird nesting areas, though patrolling Great Skuas would soon rectify that mistake if anyone dared go cross country.Not only was veering off the path likely to end in a plunge to hip level or worse in the bog , but the area is the world’s third largest breeding ground of these formidable predatory seabirds – which attack and sometimes drown others birds, even the big black backed gulls and gannets – and are highly aggressive if you stray into their territory.They were patrolling close by the path, quite magnificent to watch in many ways.
The fog stayed well down as I crossed the sweet smelling moorland and at times I could barely see 20m ahead. It just wasn’t lifting at all and it blanketed everything in silence – very spooky.In about 35-40 mins, the boardwalk suddenly ended and I knew I was in the vicinity of the bird cliffs.But they were cloaked in mist.In fact where the ground ended over the drop was difficult to make out and I kept well back.I’m always a bit unnerved by cliff edges anyway, more so when I can’t quite make them out!
Two cute wee puffins stood outside a burrow, a lovely sight; below them, the fog swirled , thinned tantalisingly, then thickened again. A couple of people loomed out of the mist and we commiserated about the conditions.What the heck , it was windless and mild so I took off towards the highest section of cliffs where 100,000 + gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots make up one of Britain’s most important seabird colonies.I was enjoying the walk and it was on soft, short cropped crass now, nice and dry.
The powerful smell hit me as I approached the bird cliffs, that pungent fishy smell that is unmistakable. Then came the noise; the squawking, squealing and screaming of thousands of birds, fixated on feeding their offspring and guarding jealousy their tiny nest ledges from chancers and predators.
I kept well back as the ground was so broken until I heard voices further below me. Tentatively I wandered down the hummocky ground, more edges and ledges revealing themselves as I progressed carefully. Suddenly four people emerged from the whiteout, standing on a broad ledge, the woman with a babe in arms, staring down into the invisible abyss.
‘My favourite place on Shetland,’ the guy said, shaking his head in frustration at being unable to see a blinking thing of the drama below.They lived in Scalloway and had hoped, as I had, that the weather might improve.’It’s an amazing place.Just a shame you can’t see it…’ he commiserated when I told them it was my first ever visit.
They headed off and I hung around, more confident now of the ground.But if anything the fog was becoming even more dense rather than clearing and eventually staring into nothing at all seemed a bit pointless so I headed back. I loved the silence and sweet scent of the moorland section, so decided to stop for half hour and have my lunch.Sitting just off the boardwalk on a stone, I watched the skuas flying past me, coming closer and closer as they got used to my figure in the landscape. It was quite magical in an ethereal sort of way; they were curious, checking me out with their brown intelligent eyes but not in their usual intimidating way.They were very vocal, chattering in very distinctive, low harsh tones to each other, the only sound in an otherwise silent world.
Back at the car park, I took a wander down to the Lighthouse, enjoying the wildness and beauty of the whole area. It’s somewhere I would love to come back to see properly.There’s a fine looking walk out to the brilliantly named rocky islet of Muckle Flugga with its mid 19th century Lighthouse.
Tiny Haroldswick – named after the Viking Harald the Fairhair – was a 20 min or so drive away, in another attractive looking area of Unst. I made a bee-line for Victoria’s Vintage Tearoom, probably better again than Lerwick’s Fjara Cafe.Gorgeous inside, all a tearoom should be, with food served on old china.Very busy too at 3pm. Nice wee shop with soaps and I bought two Lodberry Shower Gel bottles to take back; another weakness, great smelling soap! I took my warmed fruit scone and tea out on the terrace, just in case the Orcas made an appearance again.
Two final sights to be seen – the superb Viking Longship that sits outside the village, beside a reconstructed Viking Longhouse. Unst was the first landfall for the Norsemen and over 60 Viking sites have been found on the island.The longship is a faithful replica of the fabulous Gokstad ship on display in Oslo (which I saw a year ago after the Greenland trip.) A little set of ladders allowed me to climb inside the ship and even move the oars.The longhouse with its turf roof, was very dark inside making it a bit difficult to explore but it is quite a sight.
Finally, 5 mins drive away , lay Unst’s bus-stop, perhaps the world’s most famous.Just outside Baltasound, it is decorated in a different theme every year though who decorates it is a mystery.
Decision time now – to find somewhere to pitch the tent for the night, or head back to Mainland? The gloomy weather didn’t do the rest of the island any favours, it was all looking a bit uninteresting and flat and grey and the camp site I checked out at Gardiesfauld wasn’t attractive. I called Shetland Ferries to check if I could book the Unst crossing and was told ‘yes’ – plenty spaces. All very weird, what a change! A relief , finally, when I reached Toft on Mainland, ferries done with and now the only decision being – where to camp?
It was a beautiful and fast drive towards Hillswick on West Mainland, an area close to tomorrow’s plan of attack – the cliffs of Eshaness. Encouragingly, the skies were now clearing the further west I got. The cliffy coast in the evening light looked superb and I had to stop and get out of the car and just stare several times. Layer upon receding layer of headlands and offshore rock stacks, a fractured coastline washed by the cold North Atlantic.
Passed a small roadside lochan where I briefly watched a family of three Red Throated Divers, one of our most beautiful birds, perusing the shallow water for food. Red throats tend to feed at sea during the day and return to their inland nest sites in the evening. They are known as Loons in America and utter the most ghostly, melancholy cry. Spine chilling.Real birds of the wild.
Braewick was a very small campsite with a large cafe (shut) and some lovely views over a wide bay. But it was TOO small, too cramped; I like a bit of space.I’d also passed a nice looking little hill further back with a rough pull off for the car so made the decision to wild camp instead. The scenery was just so lovely here and the night such a pleasant one now, that getting out on my own seemed the best option.
Good decision, as a walk of barely 6-7 mins took me to an area of short cropped grass offering a decent pitch and well hidden from the road.There were no houses in immediate view too – a small farm a couple of miles away – so it was perfect.And the view was even better up here than at Braewick.
It’s always a bit of a trachle to make sure you bring everything you need to a wild camp but the car wasn’t any great distance away if I forgot anything.In jig time the tent was up and I poured myself a ‘Cactus Jack’ to celebrate, a cheapo bottle of pre-prepared Marguerita and stocked in our local supermarket.Bliss! I was extremely lazy this trip about cooking and made up another bowl of tuna and onion mayonnaise then buttered some fiery Jalapeño bread I’d bought in Lerwick.Anyway, everything tastes twice as good outside and after a long day, it went down a treat.
Some fruit and then some honey roasted cashew nuts with a few cups of tea, water boiled on the faithful Trangia Stove and I was very happy I’d made the minor effort to be up here. The area is called Watch Hill, quite ordinary compared to some of the brilliant local names close by.The superb cliffs I could see directly across the bay with their stacks were The Runk and The Neap.Further round and out of my sight lay the Heads of Grocken, like a monster out of Tolkein. The stunning headland and cliffs beyond the next bay had The Drongs sitting offshore below the Pund of Grevasand.
I’m always slightly nervous on a wild camp, a female on my own, but so many areas in Scotland are just so safe , it’s silly really to feel that way. I also didn’t think Shetland was one of the Mad Axe Murderer capitals of the world so once I’d taken endless shots of the sunset and soaked in the mesmerising views and light, I hunkered down in my cosy sleeping bag and got a very good night’s sleep.Nature’s call at 2am led me out into a very different world of thick mist, my little tent spot completely enveloped in it. Hopefully it wouldn’t be so cruel again as to hide my view of the Eshaness cliffs later that day, just a 15 minute drive away, though it wasn’t looking too promising!
FINAL DAY: Eshaness and an amazing boat trip to the Noss cliffs: up close and personal with seals as never before.