The most northerly inhabited island in Britain, Unst, is fascinating for both its natural and its human history.
Unst has two of Shetland’s National Nature Reserves: Hermaness is a major European breeding site for seabirds such as gannet, great skua and puffin. It includes the dramatic stacks of Muckle Flugga and Out Stack, the most northerly point of the British Isles.
The other reserve, at the Keen of Hamar, is a stony desert with unusual mineral soils favoured by rare arctic-alpine plants, some of them unique to Unst and Shetland.
Unst has been inhabited for at least 5000 years. Traces of ancient settlement are everywhere and, because so little of the island is cultivated today, remarkably undisturbed. There are numerous ruined brochs about 2000 years old, several Norse house sites, a late 16th century castle at Muness, a beautifully restored 18th century laird’s mansion at Belmont, and many deserted croft houses from the 19th century and earlier.
People still don’t know exactly when the Vikings first came to Shetland. The Viking Unst archaeological project is trying to find out, with digs at some of the island’s remarkable Norse longhouse sites. The excavations welcome visitors at living history events in the summer and you can also see a full-size Viking ship replica at Haroldswick, where legend says the first Vikings landed.
Yell, the largest of Shetland’s North Isles, is one of the best places in Europe to see skuas, red-throated divers and otters. All are present on the RSPB reserve at Lumbister, one of many fascinating walks in an island where many aspects of the old Shetland way of life still survive.
The centre of Yell is wild moorland but around the coast there’s a great variety of scenery, from sensational sea stacks at Da Eigg on the west coast to the sheltered inlet of Burravoe in the south-east corner. Near Burravoe, a little-known colony of seabirds at Neapoback is one of many surprising wildlife delights in the island where Shetland’s most famous naturalist, the late Bobby Tulloch, lived all his life.
Bobby’s photographic archives are on show at Burravoe Haa, one of the most original and interesting small museums in Scotland. It includes a small gallery where the work of several fine artists working in Yell and Unst is regularly exhibited. The Haa’s superb collection of old photographs and artefacts is looked after by enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteer custodians, whose home bakes are legendary.
Of special historical interest are the memorial at Gloup to the victims of a 19th century fishing disaster, and a beautiful ship’s figurehead, ‘Da White Wife’ on the shore at Otterswick, at the spot where a German sailing ship was wrecked in 1924. Much of Yell’s archaeology no doubt still lies beneath the deep peat for which the island is famous but notable sites include the broch at Burraness, the Iron Age promontory fort at Burgi Geos and medieval church remains at the Kirk of Ness.
Since Norse times Fetlar’s been known as the ‘Garden of Shetland’. Its good soils support some of the best grazing land in Shetland. Fetlar’s also exteemely rich in wildlife: one of Britain’s rarest birds, the delightfully tame red-necked phalarope, nests here on the RSPB reserve at Funzie. Puffins can be seen almost anywhere on the cliffs and at the sea stack of Clett on the north coast there’s a particularly large colony. In summertime a continuous stream of seabirds passes Fetlar through Colgrave Sound, on the way to and from the feeding grounds.
The ferry ride from Gutcher or Belmont is a wonderful experience in itself. As well as the seabirds en route you’ll pass close to the uninhabited islands of Linga (‘heather island’ in Old Norse) and Sound Gruney (‘green island in the channel’).
Seals are plentiful and Fetlar’s also home to a thriving population of otters. The peace and quiet of the island make it a specially good place to watch them, and the occasional porpoises, minke whales and orcas feeding in the plankton-rich waters offshore.
The remains of a massive prehistoric wall, Da Finnigert Daek, divide the island in two. The story of Fetlar’s past and its folk culture is told in multi-media displays at the cheerful and welcoming island heritage centre at Houbie, another of Shetland’s first class local museums.