District of the Month: Unst

by Alastair Hamilton -

Every month, we look at what each district in our islands can offer new residents. This month, we visit Unst, Britain’s northernmost inhabited island.

Unst packs a great deal into an island that’s just 12 miles by five. There’s much that’s remarkable, quite apart from the fact that it obviously hosts the most northerly British examples of so many things: people, houses, trees, a post office, a brewery, a distillery, a producer of hand-made chocolates, a glass artist’s workshop, a very unusual bus shelter and a small supermarket that’s aptly named The Final Checkout. From Hermaness or Saxa Vord, you can gaze northwards to Muckle Flugga and, beyond that, Out Stack, the storm-battered rock that’s the last outpost of the United Kingdom.

The last outpost of the United Kingdom.

Unst is of interest for many other things. Its geology is complex; you can walk across rock strata that were once part of an ocean floor, forced upwards as continents collided. The rock found over much of the island is serpentine, which appears as beautiful, rounded green or black pebbles on the tiny beach at Clibberswick or as oxidised orange outcrops on the higher parts of the island; there’s even a stony ‘desert’, which is home to a plant, Edmondston’s Chickweed, that grows nowhere else in the world.

Unst folk take their heritage seriously and, when you visit the Unst Heritage Centre and the Unst Boat Haven, it’s easy to see why. The island has compelling stories to tell, whether of natural history or human endeavour. As well as unique geology, there’s abundant bird life that features thousands of seabirds on Hermaness and a remarkable range of rarities that, over the years, have made landfall here. There are many sites associated with the Vikings, including a full-size replica of the Gokstad ship and a wealth of archaeology.

Unst folk take their heritage seriously.

But Unst clearly has a future as well as a past. Knitting has always been important and lace knitting is particularly celebrated. The island’s environment has always attracted scientists, but these days it’s also the home of a project that exploits hydrogen as a fuel and which offers advice to communities and businesses all over the world. More is being done to cater for the many visitors who make their way north: the island has a couple of hotels and a range of other accommodation, including the impeccably-restored Georgian mansion, Belmont House. What’s more, it’s not hard to find an excellent cup of tea and some scrumptious cake to recharge the batteries after an energetic coastal ramble.

Unst clearly has a future as well as a past.

So, what – apart from supplies of tea and cake – are the practicalities? Well, travelling between the Shetland mainland and Unst does involve two short sea crossings, but the ferries are frequent and you pay on only one of them. By car, you can reach Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, from Baltasound in around two hours. The island is home to around 700 people and has a good range of facilities for its size. Local shops include an excellent bakery that produces great bread; their range of oatcakes uses sea-water in the mix. Other facilities include a primary and junior secondary school, a modern leisure centre with a swimming pool and a well-equipped care home. There’s employment in agriculture, fish farming, nature guiding and talc production as well as in the other businesses we’ve mentioned. Modern communications make it much easier than it used to be to keep in touch.

If you’re used to rural living, Unst offers familiar pleasures; walks, fishing, bird-watching and more, in an environment that really is very special. If you live in a town or city, a move here would clearly offer an entirely new way of life.

Walks, fishing, bird-watching and more, in an environment that really is very special.

It’s worth bearing in mind that this is a community that has been welcoming folk for centuries, from the German merchants of the Hanseatic League to refugees from occupied Norway during the Second World War, not to mention hundreds of military personnel. Unst folk are very keen to have new folk join them on ‘the island above all others’ and there’s lots more information on their website; they’ll even send you a free guide to making the move!

This is a community that has been welcoming folk for centuries