Unst Diary Summer 2005 (Dad's version)

james in the ferry  

One of the great things about going to Shetland is the journey. Its is a bit of an adventure. We found the long drive north to Aberdeen a lot more relaxing than driving a similar distance south. Somehow, people seem to go just a bit slower and take it a bit more easily. Then there's the little chef breakfast. The best bit is you get to go on a ferry with a cabin and a cinema (well nearly) and shops (well - one). The only minus is the large number of people sleeping in the bar. Now I come to think about it, I used to travel to Shetland on the St Clair, sleeping on the deck perched on two deck chairs, kept awake by the dogs in the deck kennels and being sent to sleep by the warm, diesel smelling, carbon monoxide rich air from the exhausts. I bet the rich (older) people in cabins got just as irritated then as I do now.


Lerwick seems to have a shiny new terminal which means that you don't have to walk down a set of amusingly tilting steps and then along the boat's side to get off. They get the cars off the boat a lot quicker too, which almost caught me out. Lerwick itself is still busy and has changed little. Lots going on at the harbour, as usual, but more shops. Clickimin is worth a visit while you are in Lerwick. We usually go on the way back as the lure of Unst is too hard to ignore. You really get a feel for the busy community in its fortified buildings. There are brocks all over the islands with several on Unst. This one is a lot better preserved than the other ones you will see.


The journey up the islands to Unst involves two small ferries. If you haven't booked, you get the excitement of pulling up in the unbooked lane and watching what seems like a never ending stream of booked cars arriving at the last minute and driving straight on in front of you. A good maths exercise is to get the children to work out how many cars they think the ferry can hold and the probability that there will be room for us. However, it always seems to work out unless a bus or truck appears. However, I also always book for the way back as my nerves can't take it. The fare is automatically a return. They assume that you will be going home, which is very modest.


Once you are off the last ferry, it is a short drive through uyeasound. Keep an eye out for the standing stone, the road to Hannigarth is just after it on the left. There is another huge stone on the road to Lund. Shetland has an ancient feel wherever you go, I suppose it is because it hasn't all been wiped out by new development. There are sights and signs of a past way of life everywhere. However, there are new features - you can just about see one of the many salmon farms in the distance near the island of Uyea. The cliffs in the far distance are on Fetlar - a good place to see a red-necked phalarope or so I'm told - I wonder what that is.


This is Hannigarth, our home for the week. I first saw the house in 1980. I peered through the windows, surprised to see that it still contained someone's things even though it was obviously unoccupied. I was on my way down to the sea where I was reliably informed, I would find a superb beach and a Norse farmhouse. I also found some field mushrooms which I had for tea (probably more information than you need - but there aren't many places where you can reliably pick wild fungi in August). The accommodation is great. There is a TV but we lied to the kids about the aerial being blown off in the winter.


Here is a rare photograph of Jane doing some housework (yes, I have paid dearly for that). We discovered that packing enough clothing (admittedly including more shorts than was sensible for a Sheltland climate) was a bit pointless for the children because they would only wear their favourite (and presumably) fashionable items anyway. Thank goodness for the washing machine and the Shetland wind that can dry clothes even when it is raining.


Here is the view from one window in the kitchen. Try not to spend too long staring out to sea in the hope that a pod of killer whales will casually pass into view. Equally, don't spend too much time staring out in the hope that you will see the children coming back from the beach. However, do spend as much time as you like just looking - its well worth it.


And here is the view from the other window. Shetland has a lot of rabbits (huge understatement). There is an impressive warren above the beach so watch out for the holes. I can't help thinking that there could be a local industry waiting to be started. The view also generally contains at least one sheep, some starlings and an oystercatcher. Don't worry if you don't see an oystercatcher, you'll hear them plenty.


This is the beach at sandwick below the croft. We visited it at least twice a day. We did the usual beachy things, enjoyed the rock pools, marvelled at the view, did photography and looked at the Norse homestead remains while playing cricket. Its interesting that the children think that cricket is a beach sport like volleyball (pauses while picturing what an abdominal protector would look like in a pair of speedos). The best thing seemed to be to set the children playing and then walk along it (see picture) on your own, thinking about stuff but definitely not work or overdrafts or politics or poverty or what the children are getting up to while you are doing your "I want to be alone" bit. Mostly they were making traps on the beach for you to fall down when you got back.


Well, it is Shetland after all and there are lots about. Some seem quite wild and unused to contact with people but this lot mugged us as we walked back from Muness. They look cute of course but don't forget that they are still basically horses and should be avoided.


One of the best days was a visit to Hermaness nature reserve at the Northern tip of the island. We parked near the lighthouse shore station (now flats as the lighthouse is automated) and walked up through the bog, taking a left turn about halfway up to get to the coast. On the way we saw lots of Bonxies. I was tempted to send a child off the path to get some dramatic photos of the way that they defend their nest but that would have been wrong - the parents might abandon the chick. Also, I didn't know where the nearest hospital was.


Personally, I think that puffins have a contract with Kodak or Agfa. You get to the coast and see your first puffin. Click. Then you realise that there are lots. Click. Click. Then you realise that you can get a lot closer to them than you would expect. Click. Click. Click. Then one flies up with a beak full of sand eels and taunts you by flying off before you can get ready, until you realise that it wants to get in the burrow near your camera bag so you move away a bit, set up the tripod and wait and here it comes, really fast and into the burrow before you can click. Thats okay though because you will catch it on the way back out, the thing is, they're really sneaky as well as fast. Click. Oh well.


This is the muckle flugga lighthouse and the white splodge is a whole bunch of gannets. There's a story that the little islands were rocks thrown by the giant Saxa at Herman (another giant). I'm not sure if this is true but it was lucky for the gannets anyway. The best thing about gannets is watching them dive for fish like feathered extreme sports fanatics. Terns get their food in much the same way except they hover above the sea before diving. Arctic skuas however, have the rather more disgusting technique of waiting until a tern has got a catch and then harrying it in midair until it regurgitates the fish, which the skua catches and eats before it hits the ground. On the subject of disgusting but interesting - fulmar chicks have an interesting trick with their last meal.


One of the best things about Unst is the beaches. They are all beautiful, clean, deserted and none have an ice-cream kiosk. They also possess the must-have feature for the children, a small stream that can be dammed, diverted and used to trash clean clothes. Each beach on Unst has its own special feature. This is skaw, with some very interesting geology as well as some little sandy coves reached along the coast. Burrafirth used to include a football pitch and golf course, it has sand that glitters with tiny mica flakes that you can never get off your skin. Norwick is one of the biggest with some nice rock pools in the middle. Lund has its own haunted mansion and an 11th century chapel with viking graves.


Botanists might like to visit the Keen of Hamar nature reserve. The rock-strewn debris sports a range of plants that should really be in the arctic or up a mountain. It has its own endemic plant - Edmonston's Chickweed. It also has some dramatic cliffs so don't walk around staring at the ground too much. I alwasy try to visit the place, kiss the ground and re-visit my lost youth. Its a bit complicated.


One of the best places to see seals is at Westing although there are very few places along the coast where you won't see a seal. You sit on a beach for half and hour and along comes a seal to find out what you are doing. So, you watch it, watching you. I wonder if they think that Westing is a great place to see a human. Westing is also a fantastic place to see a sunset, on the one day a year when there are few enough clouds. Unst is the place where clouds from all over the world come on holiday. The beach is also a favourite place for the kids to pick up pebbles which they make you carry and then forget about until you surreptitiously try to drop them back on the beach.


Our last day started at around 4 in the morning. We had seen some otter tracks on Sandwick beach on the previous evening and Kate had wanted to see one. The general rule about otters is never to set out to see one, because you won't. So, Kate and I set out to see one. I set the alarm and surprisingly (she isn't a morning person) she got up and got dressed. We walked silently (another first) down to the beach just after dawn and just as we got there Kate spotted an adult otter making its way down the beach. We watched it swim out and dive, catch an eel and then walk back onto the beach towards us. Finally, it jumped up on the bank and ran off inland to its holt somewhere near the abondoned crofts. Kate does have lots of jam on it. The picture shows the prints of otter, human and dog on the beach - spot the difference.


Three reasons why Unst is environmentally friendly (apart from its friendly environment - obviously). Its public transport system has unrivalled facilities, the fuel is completely renewable and its electricity generation uses its greatest asset. Probably the only advatages to having one of the wettest and windiest climates in the UK.


So, when people ask where me where I am going on holiday (just so they can tell you about their fantasically expensive trip to Florida), and I reply "Unst" and have to work my way back through Shetland?, Northern Isles? and Scotland? before getting any recognition, I am really quite glad that so few people know where I am talking about. In future I think I will just say "To the best place on earth". I am also quite glad that I will get home rested, and not at 2 in the morning after my plane with no leg room from Florida was delayed and we had to spend the night in the departure lounge with no money and only Burger King to eat.