Unst – a botanical treasure island

by Jon Dunn -

You’ve ventured north to Shetland – you’ve heard all about the warm welcome, you’ve craved the sweeping horizons and the way you can see the weather coming from afar; those light nights of summer have been calling you, while you’ve read everything you can find about the islands that exist on the very edge of the British Isles’ consciousness.

And now you’re here, at last. Maybe it’s a short, flying visit. Perhaps you’re here a little longer. You’ve so much you want to do, so many places to visit – it can feel a little bewildering, all of this choice. I’m often asked where folk should go if they’ve got a spare day here, and I always recommend Unst.

(Of course, you’re already going to Unst – you’ve come this far north already, a journey to Britain’s most northerly point, overlooking the Stevensons’ impossible lighthouse on Muckle Flugga from the soaring vantage point of the Hermaness headland is practically obligatory…)

That lighthouse may be at the very northerly end of Britain, and looking out upon it may well be the objective of many a journey to Unst. It also marks the beginning of one of Shetland’s richest literary tales. Robert Louis Stevenson, better known as an author, spent time here in 1869, sent to learn the family trade of lighthouse engineering by his family and to put his dreams of a career as a writer firmly behind him. The story goes that he was inspired by the colourful characters he met during his stay on Unst – so inspired that he populated the cast of Treasure Islandwith scarcely concealed Unst folk. Legend has it that even the map of Treasure Island was loosely based upon the contemporary maps of Unst…

That may all be the stuff of rumours, as unreliable and vague as a treasure map. What’s certainly true is that Unst is a botanical treasure island, home to plants found nowhere else on Earth, let alone in Shetland. By the time Stevenson visited the island, Unst’s most famous botanist, Thomas Edmonston, had already discovered the endemic chickweed that was to bear his name for posterity before his untimely death in 1846, only 21 years old and tragically shot in the head, by accident, by a sailor on the coast of South America.

Edmonston is long gone, but Edmonston’s chickweed still grows on the slopes of the Keen of Hamar, delicate white flowers shaking in the light breeze that sweeps the stony hillside. They’re found here and nowhere else. Not in Shetland, let alone anywhere else in the world. Was there ever a more precious treasure for the visiting naturalist?

Make a bee line for the Keen, and walk out onto the hill in Edmonston’s footsteps. At first glance the chickweeds aren’t obvious, but they’re there at the height of summer. Wander across the slopes and you’ll begin to notice them, and more precious things besides – orchids of several kinds and amethyst shades, scarce emerald green ferns, diamond-white alpine flowers usually found high in Scandinavian mountains but here almost at sea level… This corner of Unst is a treasure chest.

Yet the whole island is a cornucopia of wildflowers in the height of summer.

Damp ditches boast swathes of starry-flowered white bogbean; bog asphodels lend saffron starbursts to the hills; and fields are painted pink and white by the sweeping brushstrokes of ragged robin and cotton grass. A walk almost anywhere on the island is sure to be rewarded. Visitors to the Hermaness National Nature Reserve usually walk briskly along the boardwalk and path towards the cliffs, eager to get to the bustling seabird colonies. Those that take their time and look down may be in for a pleasant surprise. Amongst the masses of egg-yolk yellow tormentil flowers are some hidden secrets – hidden, but by no means innocent, at least not if you’re a passing insect. Two species of carnivorous plants call Unst home, and both grow right at the edge of the path on Hermaness. You’ll need to get down on your knees to appreciate the sparkly ruby beauty of round-leaved sundews and the chartreuse leaves of butterwort.

One of the things that makes Unst so special is the underlying geology of the island. It is, even by Shetland’s high standards, remarkably diverse. As we drove across Unst one day some years ago, discussing this very subject, a visitor carefully remarked to me,

“Unst’s certainly got a lot of geology, hasn’t it?”

I’ve heard similar claims for Shetland’s weather… You can see weather fronts coming from a way off in this open landscape, and similarly you can see the colour and texture of the rocks in the landscape change as you pass through it. Small wonder Shetland is a UNESCO Global Geopark and, here on Unst, that magnificently varied geology means you know what you might find tucked away in some small, hidden corner.

The Keen of Hamar may be Unst’s most famous botanical playground for visiting naturalists, but further surprises are hiding out in the hills and on the headlands, in the wet alkaline flushes and the wild coastal margins. I’ve found scarce orchids in places they’ve never been seen before. And who knows? During your visit to Shetland’s botanical treasure island, maybe you’ll find a precious prize of your own.

About Jon Dunn

Jon Dunn is a natural history writer, photographer and experienced wildlife tour leader based in Shetland, but with strong links in mainland Europe and North America that see him travelling widely in search of memorable wildlife encounters.
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