Notes on...

There’s a reason Unst is called the island above all others

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

‘I’d like a copy of the Times,’ said the visitor from the south. ‘Yesterday’s or today’s?’ the shopkeeper asked. ‘Today’s, of course.’ ‘Come back tomorrow.’

Life on Unst has its idiosyncrasies, but personally, I blame the weather forecasters for giving the nation the impression that the place may not even exist. Their London-centric maps of Britain, showing Scotland fading into the distance, leave us off entirely. Not surprising, as we are the most northern of the Shetland Islands and nearer Bergen than Aberdeen. Newcastle is to us the deep south.

Yet we hold a key position in defence. It wasn’t a coincidence that when Kim Jong-un started building rockets, it was announced that the RAF base on the island would be taken out of mothballs. Should the North Koreans lob a missile over the pole, Unst is the first British land it would reach.


On the subject of rockets, there’s talk of Unst becoming the UK’s Cape Canaveral. The island, we were told at a recent community consultation, is ideally placed for launching satellites into polar orbit. The satellites would be scarcely bigger than biscuit tins and the small rockets needed for launch, we were reassured, wouldn’t incinerate the wildlife.

This year we’ve enjoyed another busy tourist season. Visitors arrive by caravan-ette, or bicycle, via three ferries from the British mainland. Alternatively they fly into the airport on Shetland mainland and hire cars. They come with binoculars and backpacks, anoraks and anticipation — excited to reach the most northerly tip of the United Kingdom and take selfies with the Muckle Flugga lighthouse as a backdrop.

Then they visit the most northerly gin distillery, most northerly tearoom, shop, castle, church and post office (to have their postcards franked with a puffin postmark) before heading south again. Not forgetting of course to sign the visitors’ book at the bus shelter, which has its own internet presence, and is newly decorated every year. This year’s theme is the centenary of women’s suffrage. Alongside there’s a large model of a puffin, currently wearing an Emmeline Pankhurst sash.

It is one of a dozen such puffins around the island used for the annual UnstFest puffin hunt. UnstFest is, unsurprisingly, Britain’s most northerly festival. The 2018 programme included the creation of the world’s longest golf course: nine holes stretching the ten-mile length of the island.

Nature lovers are guaranteed sightings of seals, while the lucky ones will spot an otter or two. The very lucky might see the Shetland killer whales. Many of the breeding birds have migrated south, but September is twitcher season. When some disorientated, rare foreign bird lands on Unst, the keenest birders have been known to charter planes to get here as fast as they can.

The short days and long nights of winter are when the community comes into its own. There are two fire festivals when squads of Vikings carry burning torches to the seashore. Everything will be battened down as the gales are sure to blow: the strongest wind ever recorded in Britain was here. And on still and clear frosty nights you might see the merry dancers, the Northern Lights, flash across the sky. We call Unst the island above all others — and we mean it.

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