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The Northernmost: a passion for the North Isles

by Tom Morton -

We have the Northern Isles, often taken to refer to Orkney and Shetland. Then we have Shetland, which is obviously further north than Orkney. And on we progress, upwards, onwards and northwards, beyond 60 degrees, through Mainland, Shetland’s principal and biggest island (374 square miles, only surpassed in Scotland by Lewis and Harris combined, and Skye) until we come first to Yell, and then Unst, with Fetlar off to the east. The North Isles, as they’re called in Shetland.

And if northerliness is the key to Shetland’s soul, then Yell and Unst in particular are where you go to unlock that concept. Because there’s something about the travel towards, and ultimate arrival at Britain’s northernmost reaches that is deeply satisfying; enriching. To glimpse Muckle Flugga and the Out Stack is to know you have come to the end of Scotland, the end of the UK, and that beyond, out there, the globe curves, narrows towards the Arctic and the North Pole.

It’s a thrilling, elemental moment, to gaze out from Hermaness or from the upper slopes of Saxa Vord. It can mark the conclusion of a pilgrimage, much as the early pilgrims to Santiago continued on to the Galician coastline and threw their burdens, their accumulated luggage, symbolically into the sea from what was then seen in mainland Europe as The Edge of the World. And as such, somewhere for a new beginning. A fresh start. No matter what religious affiliation you have, if any.

Of course, today we know Shetland as ultima thule, The World’s Edge. The ultimate destination.

Ultima Thule. The World's Edge. The ultimate destination

To the Northlands - a song by Shetland artist Brunt Hamersland, with a slideshow of scenes from Shetland, heading north to Yell and Unst

In the Northlands, there is space to dream

Pilgrimage has always been a major part of Shetland’s cultural, religious and geographical existence, with sites such as St Ninian’s chapel on St Ninian’s Isle and Crosskirk in Eshaness traditional destinations for those seeking spiritual renewal. But Unst is extraordinary in this regard, with not just known pilgrimage sites such as the ruined church at Clibberswick, but, it is thought, up to 24 chapels on the island, though some locations are uncertain and their origins obscure. Early Christian missionaries, monks travelling from the Pictlands south, may have seen Unst as a base on the lip of Scandinavia in their drive north. The vikings, with Unst their first stop on the way from Norway, may have variously wiped them out, absorbed and tolerated them and then, as the centuries passed, the Norse imposed their own forms of Christianity. Wherever in Shetland you see the name ‘Papa’ or ‘Papil’ there were probably monks or priests at one time, named, remembered, killed or good-naturedly cultivated by the settlers from Scandinavia.

And of course modern ecclesiastical settlements too, such as the lovely ‘Northernmost Church in the UK’ - the Methodist sanctuary in Haroldswick, a stone’s throw from Clibberswick. Viewers of the TV programme An Island Parish will know about Eastern Orthodox nun Mother Mary, but are perhaps less familiar with the Society of Our Lady of the Isles, an Anglican religious order for women formed by the Reverend Mother Mary Agnes in Fetlar, and now based, less formally, in Unst.

Pilgrimage has always been a major component of life in Shetland

Fetlar - sometimes known as ‘The Garden of Shetland’ - is reached either from Unst or Yell by ferry, and offers, within its compact boundaries, some of the most extraordinary geology, flora and fauna in all of Shetland, with its breeding populations of red-necked phalaropes and more. It’s worth remembering, too, that depending on how long you stay, one ferry ticket from Mainland Shetland to Yell also gives you a free ferry ride to Fetlar and Unst, AND your return fare to Toft. For you, your car and passengers. It’s one of the greatest bargain in Scottish tourism.

Yell tends to receive less attention by pilgrims, travellers, and tourists as they race from one ferry to another on the way to Unst, and it keeps its glories guarded from the casual speeder towards Belmont. However, taking the time to meander up the East Yell road opens up the wonders of Burravoe, including Britain’s most northerly Episcopal church, St Colman’s, and the Old Haa. Continue to Otterswick, visit the legendary Aywick shop, and walk out to Burra Ness, where most of the filming for the seminal On the Trail of the Wild Otter was shot. There’s much more to see and do, while detours to Cullivoe and the Herra, with its memorial to legendary guitarist ‘Peerie’ Willie Johnson, are essential. Deep sea angling trips are available from Cullivoe. There's weaving and art to see at Sellafirth. And the UK’s northernmost pizza parlour is in Mid Yell!

For some Mainland Shetlanders, and so-called ‘toonies’ (Lerwick residents), both Yell and Unst offer places of escape, both for short holidays and sometimes long-term second residence. For visitors, they offer a journey and a destination, phenomenal wildlife and scenery, and the sense of a crucial journey made and completed.

Some visit, return, return again and then never leave. These islands have an attraction that goes beyond history, geography, and even the availability of work - though there are thriving businesses in both Yell and Unst in fields as diverse as renewable energy and salmon farming, tourism, photography and boatbuilding. They are places to live, to breathe, to dream and encounter what in pilgrimage terms is often called 'thinness': the feeling that in such places, you can sense there is more to life than just existing. Catch a glimpse of the Beyond, be it Valhalla or a vision of Torshavn.

These are, in so many ways, the ultimate islands.

You can sense that there is more to life than simply existing
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