Chances are you haven’t heard of Unst, unless you’ve been to Shetland, or you’re super keen on UK geography! Just in case you’re not up to speed, Shetland is a group of islands located in the North Sea, between Scotland and Norway, and Unst is the most northerly island, making it Britains most northerly isle, or as it’s often known, the island above all others.
So what’s so special about Unst, apart from it’s locational claim to fame? Well for starters, it’s a beautiful island, with a stark and untouched kind of attraction. It has an intriguing and long history, stretching back through the Viking period and beyond, and the people and sense of community on Unst are a part of its charm too.
For an island of roughly 600 people, and sadly declining, Unst has plenty to offer in terms of history and scenery. Not to mention if you want to tick off visiting all of the most “northerly” things in Britain, this is the place to go. It’s the end of the line, the northernmost point, and the ultimate Shetland destination.
The scenery of Unst
The third biggest island in an almost treeless Shetland has its share of peaty bogs, but add dramatic cliffs towering over jagged shores, heather covered hills stretching down to golden sandy beaches, animals grazing on fertile farmland and freshwater lochs, and you have a varied and spectacular landscape packed into just 12 miles long and 5 miles wide. And if you’re thinking that this must be packed with tourists, then you’d be happily mistaken. Most of the time you’re visiting these places on your own or with few others!
History of Unst
While there’s evidence that Picts once lived in Unst, it’s most well known for its Viking history. Unst once had the largest concentration of Viking longhouses of anywhere, including Scandinavia. Along with Orkney, Shetland became part of Scotland when the Danish and Scottish Royal households made an agreement that included these islands as part of a dowry. Unfortunately, the marriage never took place but the agreement stood, and Orkney and Shetland were annexed to Scotland in 1468.
Not much changed for Shetlanders for the next 100 years or so. Norse law reigned supreme and the people still looked north rather than south for cultural norms. In 1564 Mary, Queen of Scots gave Shetland to her half brother, Robert Stewart, who in turn made his half brother Laurence Bruce the sheriff. He built Muness Castle and is said to have treated the locals cruelly.
The fishing industry has always been important to Unst and has sustained the economy and lives of the people for centuries. However, the Islanders were often in hardship due to landlords taking all profits and money, land clearances, and ultimately, overfishing of cod and then herring led to the collapse of the industry.
The fishing industry did eventually make a comeback, as well as the knitwear industry, and the discovery of oil led Shetland to be what it is today.
Emigration occurred in large numbers over the years from Unst, and when I first visited I was stunned by the large number of stone crofts lying in ruins across the island. Sometimes it was without choice when land clearances took place, and at other times it was to chase a better life in new places like the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
My own family once lived in Skaw in the crofts that can still be seen there, before moving closer to Haroldswick and emigrating to New Zealand in 1926. Many people in former British colonies would be able to trace their family history back to Shetland.
People of Unst
Being a small island with a small population, Unst really does have a village mentality. The people who live there are very good at coming together and organising local events for entertainment. They welcome visitors and have plenty on offer for them to do, and I always felt welcomed to any community events like dances. Even though I have no idea of any steps! They also have TWO Up Helly Aa events in Unst every year.
Things to do in Unst
Hermaness National Nature Reserve
To the north of the island is the Hermaness National Nature Reserve, one of the biggest draws of visiting Unst and a top thing to do there. Walk across peaty bogs to the high cliffs of Hermaness for an opportunity to see puffins and other seabirds up close. The Reserve is a breeding ground for the Great Skua (or Bonxie to locals) which can be quite aggressive in breeding season, so stick to the path as you’re walking!
Once you reach the cliffs, if it’s Puffin season (March-August) you might be able to see them in burrows near the top of the cliffs so watch where you’re walking, or gaze out across to the sea and watch swarms of seabirds flying around. You can catch a glimpse of the Muckle Flugga lighthouse, perched on the top of Out Stack, the most northerly point of Great Britain, and follow a coastal path around the cliffs for a more lengthy walk.
Visit Bobby’s Bus Shelter
A bus shelter that’s a tourist attraction? Only in Unst! Bobby’s Bus Shelter is named for a local boy who, aged six, wrote a letter to the Council upon hearing the bus Shelter might be taken away, and that’s where he waited for the bus to school and left his bike. Instead, they installed a new shelter, and then strangely, it started to become furnished by unknown people. At first, there was a sofa, and at one point a television (not connected of course).
Now, the bus shelter decorations change every year according to a theme. The last time I visited, the theme was sheep, and this year it appeared to be gardening. It’s often connected with something happening in Bobby’s life, although he now lives in Africa!
Unst Heritage Centre
The number one place to go to learn about the history of Unst. It’s a modern museum with lots of artifacts from the history of the island and its inhabitants, including Shetland ponies! Learn more about the ponies, people of Unst and the locations around the world where many of them ended up. If you’re tracking your Shetland family history it’s also a great place to go as they have copies of census records and huge family trees of some of the more prominent families in the area.
Unst Boat Haven
A large shed holding boats that showcase the importance of the sea to Unst. Even if you’re not terribly interested in boats and fishing you can learn a lot about the history of the island here and get a sense for how precarious life would have been when men went out fishing in these mostly very small boats.
Shetland Distillery Company
Currently, the most northerly distillery in Britain making gin, and soon to be the most northerly whisky distillery (sorry Orkney), the Shetland Distillery company is the brainchild of the owners of the Saxa Vord Resort. They have developed the company in one of the disused RAF buildings on the site. Using local botanicals like apple mint and seaweed, they have created the award winning Shetland Reel Gin. Plans for the whisky are well on their way! Tours of the distillery, including tastings, are available for £10.
Next door to the distillery is the Valhalla Brewery, producing Britain’s most northerly brews. With names like Auld Rock, Simmer Dim and Old Scatness, the beers are proudly produced in a place with a strong Viking history.
Skaw and the most northerly home
Skaw was once a small settlement at the most northerly point of Unst, now all that remains is one croft house, which has the pleasure of being “the most northerly house in Britain”. The house is now available as a holiday let. There’s a beautiful golden sand beach nearby, abandoned crofts and plenty of hills to walk over.
Viking Longhouse Replica and the Skidbladner
It’s hard to miss the Viking replica ship, the Skidbladner, and the replica longhouse beside the bay at Haroldswick. See what the inside of a longhouse would have been like, and climb inside the Longboat too!
Although Laurance Bruce may not have been the nicest of men, he did leave behind a lovely 16th-century castle. it’s located just past Uyeasound in the south of Unst. Use a torch to get the most out of exploring!
Every July the community organise UnstFest, a combination of things to do and events to attend across Unst. There are parades, music and local dances, traditional dinners, archaeological digs, fun runs, and takeaway nights in a place where takeaways are not so available! The program is full of things to do in Unst that are free or little cost and it makes a great time to visit Unst.
This doesn’t even cover everything there is to see and do in Unst, this remarkable island in the north. There are over 100 miles of trails around the coasts and over moorlands.
Practicalities and Things to Know Before Visiting Unst:
How to get to Unst
Despite its northerly location, getting to Unst is relatively easy.
There are two ferry crossings from Mainland Shetland, but they usually line up and so it’s relatively easy.
- From Lerwick, follow the A968 road to Toft.
- Take the car ferry across from Toft to Ulsta on the island of Yell. The journey takes 20 minutes.
- Drive north up Yell to Gutcher, which takes approximately 25 minutes without stops.
- Take the car ferry from Gutcher to Belmont on Unst, which takes 10 minutes. Sometimes it stops by the island of Fetlar, (noted by an H on the timetable) so watch out for this.
In the summer season, you might need to book as they can become full around UnstFest especially. Check out the Shetland Ferry Timetable for times and booking details.
Read this post to find out more about how to get to Shetland in general.
The main villages
A small community in the south of Unst that you pass through on the way to Muness Castle.
The capital of Unst, and once a fishing port where over 10,000 people lived. It’s now home to the most northerly post office and has three local shops.
A village with a strong Viking history. Excavations have taken place here in the past and you can now see a replica boat and Viking longhouse on the shore of the bay. Haroldswick has the Unst Heritage Centre and the Boat Haven which both give you an extensive picture of the past. You can visit the old RAF base of Saxa Vord, complete with the most northerly brewery and distillery in Britain. Then there’s Victoria’s, the most northerly tea room!
Deciding where to stay in Unst isn’t too difficult, as there aren’t a ton of options.
This former RAF base now offers self-catering holiday houses and a hostel for accommodation in Unst. There is a restaurant and a cafe on site, as well as the distillery and brewery.
The only hotel available on the island, offering twin, double and family rooms.
Based on the shore of Uyeasound with views across the bay to Uyea Isle and Fetlar. There are hostel rooms of various sizes that can be fully booked out for groups or families.
I haven’t found one website that lists all of the B&B options on Unst, but if you search for them on Google you’ll find several options in different locations across the island.
I can’t wait to visit Unst again! Despite being a small island in the North Sea, it feels freeing rather than isolating. And I for one, will certainly be back!
Interested in Scotland’s other islands? Check out posts about the Isle of Lewis, Isle of Skye, and Orkney.
And to top it off, here’s the video! You can subscribe to my YouTube Channel for more.