Unst Staycation

Back in April, I was preparing for a big trip to the other side of the world, which was consuming all of my savings and brain space. Work was busy, life was becoming a drag after a long winter and I needed some time out. However, with such a big trip on the horizon I couldn’t justify leaving Shetland until that time, but I needed to get away. Easter weekend was approaching so I messaged some family and friends to see if they were available over the long weekend to arrange something, but nobody’s availability seemed to be aligning with mine. I felt deflated and disappointed that my first ‘staycation’ of 2019 had already been a flop until the idea of going it alone crossed my mind… No, that wasn’t for me. I’d definitely get bored of my own company over the course of the weekend and I’m definitely not capable of setting off hiking myself. What a silly idea. I’d just stay home… or was it?

I had a meeting arranged with a client on the isle of Unst the Friday afternoon. I wondered if it would be ridiculous to just stay up a night after my meeting, have a nice dinner and enjoy a glass of wine looking out to sea as the sunset. Although it sounded idyllic, my brain does tend to have a wonderful imagination sometimes.

Then as if by fate, my phone flashed and I’d been tagged in a post – ‘Gardiesfauld Youth Hostel’ has shared your post. Oh how lovey, I always appreciate a share “We hope Leah might head north sometime soon, and share some of our many gems. Maybe she’ll even stop over for a night at Gardiesfauld while she’s up??” Well I couldn’t not go now could I… but I’d only every stayed there once when I was 12 on a school trip. How could I go back now as an adult alone?! It’s probably pretty obvious by now that this whole wild, solo traveling wasn’t something I’m familiar with. Nevertheless, I needed to get away, Gardiesfauld had basically invited me and I already had a meeting in Unst scheduled so my staycation was indeed aligning after all, just not how I’d initially assumed.

I emailed the hostel and booked myself a room for two nights (different room sizes and sharing options are available) I used the ‘Visit Unst’ website to plan my trip and decided upon a flexible schedule. I wanted most to just set foot on as many beaches as possible, see a beautiful sunset and switch off.

I set off on the Friday, first by catching the ferry from Shetland mainland at Toft to get to the island of Yell. Here you have to drive through Yell to catch the ferry into Unst. My travel to Unst consisted of:

Drive from Lerwick to Toft – 40 minutes

Ferry from Toft to Yell – 20 minutes

Drive through Yell – 30 minutes

Ferry from Yell to Unst – 10 minutes

Keep in mind, these are estimates depending on speed, sheep on the road in Yell and waiting on ferries in-between. You can find the ferry timetables on the Shetland Islands Council website.

After arriving in Unst I attended my meeting and spent the afternoon working. Then when five o’clock struck my staycation started. On the drive to my accommodation I was excited to be a tourist so I stopped off at the reconstructed longhouse and longship placed at Haroldswick which recreates the rich Viking history on Unst. Unst being situated close to Norway meant that many Vikings came across Unst before landing in mainland Shetland. “Unst is thought to be the first foot-fall of Vikings in the North Atlantic and there are remains of at least 60 longhouses on the island – the highest density of rural Viking sites anywhere in the world. Viking Unst is a project run by Shetland Amenity Trust. There are a number of places to visit to discover the true Viking history: The Skidbladner is a full size replica of the Gokstad ship, found in a Viking burial mound in Norway in 1880, and is built using the same materials in the clinker fashion.  The original ship is thought to have been built during the reign of Harald Fairhar, who is said to have landed in Unst, and after whom the bay of Haroldswick is named.” – http://unst.org/web/viking-unst-archaeology/ Truly amazing huh?!

Afterwards, I arrived at Gardiesfauld Youth Hostel where I found my room that had a beautiful view out over the beach below. I couldn’t believe that at just £16 a night this was home for the weekend. On previous trips to Unst we’ve always rented houses. I’d never considered staying in the hostel before. More fool me. I took a look around to familiarise myself with the facilities and discovered a lovely conservatory looking out to sea, a large modern kitchen, laundry facilities and picnic benches in a beautiful garden. I was kind of chuffed I’d taken this plunge. This wasn’t what I expected a hostel to be at all. Very homely, clean and it had everything I needed to feel at home.

The view from my cozy room

I changed into some walking clothes, packed my rucksack and made my way down to St Olaf’s Kirk, where I parked up to take in my first dose of beaches on the walk to the Westing for sunset. The first and main beach is Lund which in low tide is a mixture of pebbles and stunning vast white sand. On walking this beach you get a real sense of Unst. It’s alone, it’s wild and it’s beautiful. At the end of the sand, if you venture up over the broo (small slope of a hill) and out to a point, you see another smaller white beach. Here is where I’d originally planned to cook my dinner, but I discovered the carcass of a whale that had washed up and come to rest. I decided to go and have a closer look, so I made my way down off the broo and shuffled my way down onto the beach to check out what was once a mighty mammal of the sea. It was so decomposed by this stage it was hard to tell what type of whale it had been. As captivating as the discovery was, I didn’t fancy eating dinner on a beach with a dead whale, so I followed the outline of the land and walked until I found another small beach. This time a very stony one, which was a mixture of big rounded boulders and small smooth pebbles. The variety of colours in the rocks made it interesting, but what took my attention was the stack which shot up out from the sea in the geo, where hundreds of kittiwakes were nesting. They weren’t so keen on my presence so I left them in peace and kept on moving. Keeping to the edge of the cliffs I could now look back and get an impressive front view of Lund and the voe which revealed the scatter of mini beaches picked into the coast line. It is here you discover the ‘secret beach’ which lies under the Cliffside boasting its superior natural beauty with deep white, crystal clean sand. The best kept secret of the Westing. I sat there as the daylight started to dip and realised I was miles from the car by this point, alone on the most northerly coast of Britain. The noise of the sea, the swoosh of the birds above, the beauty of the views. I’ve never felt so at ease, so at peace. I sat there in my own silence just absorbing the moment as the red sun started to set. I made my way back to the pebble beach and by then the birds had settled a bit. It was less chaotic. The sunset had brought calm all around. The sea was still and the stack,  black in the shadow of the sunset. The raw, organic beauty was mind blowing and I didn’t seem to care I was out there alone with no phone signal. By this point I hadn’t even eaten, my hunger had disappeared because who has time to cook when all this is happening around you? By now I was half way back to the car and because it was April the night sky was kind to me and allowed me to make it back in reasonable light. Guided by a full moon like a torch illuminating the coastline, I’d now made it back to Lund beach, but the tide had come in since I’d left, meaning half way across the beach the sand just came to an abrupt end and a tall wall of rock was blocking my route back to the car. In fact I couldn’t even see the car. How long had I been out here for this to happen? Whipping out my best rock climbing skills I laughed at myself as I scaled up over this surprise challenge. Up and over, the car was in sight at the kirk and suddenly I was knackered and hungry but completely fed on fresh air and high on what had been an exceptional evening. Everything and more that I’d pined for.

My walking route out to the Westing from St Olaf’s Kirk

The following day I claimed the conservatory at the hostel. I sat in the baking hot sun, like lady muck in my glass room, looking out to sea on this splendid island. Relaxed and tuned out from the real world. It was too much effort to endure the painfully slow Wi-Fi so I was delighted to disconnect from the world and UN-communicate. After enjoying breakfast in this ideal setting I set off to discover more of Unst. I’d always heard of this ‘Hermaness’ place, but like a lot of Shetlanders we are often guilty of never venturing to these places which tourists pay thousands of pounds to come and see. And since last night’s adventure had given me the confidence to find my inner Dora the Explorer, I was well up for finding my way to Hermaness where there are over 25,000 pairs of gannets, but I wanted to see my pals the Tammie Nories (puffins) who had returned to Shetland for the summer. On route to Hermaness I stopped off at Burrafirth beach which sits under the towering Cliffside road which leads you to Hermaness. This beach is a very unique beach. Firstly its sand is like a huge flat oil slick of yellows, oranges, greys and ivory’s but if you place your hand in the sand it will sparkle and glint as the beach is covered in natures glitter.

After a stroll along the beach, being chased by nesting birds, I made my way up to the walkway which leads you to Hermaness, home to more than 100,000 breeding seabirds – one of the UK’s largest seabird colonies.You can follow a boardwalk path for the majority of the walk over the moorlands and choose the 8km or 12 km route. You can find out more by clicking here. I set off on an extremely windy day fully exposed to the harsh North Atlantic Ocean. But I’d committed to going and forced my way through the gusts, out into the wilds of nature. I kept walking, forcing my way up over the hill, feeling like this was the route to nowhere. I met a few tourists on their way back “be careful out there, it’s really windy at the cliffs” I guess they weren’t to know this is normal for me. But as I reached the overwhelming sight of this extraordinary bird colony, I was made all too aware of just how windy it was. My back pack kept catching in the wind, dragging me with it. I was alone, on the most northerly tip of the UK with no phone signal. Suddenly my know-it-all cockiness stood for nothing, this was dangerous. But I’d made it all the way here and my Tamie Norrie pals had spotted me, so I had to go say hello! I took off my rucksack and stowed it under a ridge so I had more stability and I carefully found a sheltered spot on the cliff side to sit and converse with my pals. I’d worn red socks because a guy who works for the SNH had once told me they are attracted to them. So I dangled my legs their way to carry out the red sock challenge. Tammie Norrie’s are inquisitive creatures with big personalities. If you are calm and quiet they will brave getting close to you. I sat there for a bit as they all started to pop out of their burrows to see who this visitor was. The cliff sides were smothered in thousands of pairs. It’s an extraordinary sight to watch as they carry out their flight and squawk to one another returning for a beak bashing and a ruffle of the feathers. My red socks had been noticed by one little guy in particular. He was fascinated and slowly made his way towards me, being watched closely by his pals. I sat there, still and relaxed, avoided taking pictures in case it would deter his progress. Eventually he was there. Closely followed by his pals. I was sat at Hermaness surrounded by these amazing little birds full of character and charm. They hung around, sussing out my presence, waddled around, accepted me being there and were cool with this massive human sitting on their patch. When you see puffins in magazines or on postcards or posters you’d be fooled into thinking they are quite big birds, but in real life they are so petite. Their colours are vibrant and their personalities are cracking. I’m by no means a bird person, but watching Tammie Norrie’s to me is delightful. I could sit and watch them for hours.

But unfortunately on this day the piercing cold wind was getting the better of me. I went back to the broo where my rucksack was and discovered it was lea under there, so I set up my outdoor kitchen and prepared dinner as the sun set over the sea. I toasted marshmallows and drank tea until it was getting dark, when I remembered I had to find my way back to the car, so I headed home after what had been a totally unique and new experience up at astounding Hermaness.

The previous two days had been full of adventure and new experiences. I was starting to feel quite at home alone in Unst. No concept of time, constant fresh air and scenery to keep me amused and the benefits of a digital detox were starting to work its magic. The third and final day of my trip took me to a couple more beaches. First stop was the iconic Norwick Beach: known for its ever changing burn, the natural course of the burn often changes direction and ‘the taing’ is a unique piece of rock which jolts out form the long white beach which also makes Norwick Beach special. The unique geology of this beach is what makes it a must see attraction. The beach has information boards situated for you to learn more about its unique rock formation – I won’t ruin the surprise.

After a morning stroll along Norwick I headed to Skaw beach which is the most northerly beach in the UK (hence why I didn’t take my bikini) it’s rural location, down a long and winding road leads you to a view  out into the wilds of the North Sea. Your next stop is Bulandet, Norway. Here I cooked up some Tapas for lunch while taking in the last of my staycation tranquility. I enjoyed the beauty of my location and the novelty of this rather posh picnic, much to the amusement of a tourist as he passed by- he was just jealous he was probably having a pre-packed ham sandwich for his lunch. I then made my way back south of the isle towards the ferry, but I wasn’t ready to leave just yet… so I drove to Muness Castle for a quick pit stop before the ferry to enjoy one last piece of history. Muness Castle is tucked away on the South East side of Unst. Like everything in Unst it’s “The UK’s most northerly….” And in this case Castle, a remarkably fine tower house of the late 1500s. Its structure still stands remarkable strong given its exposed and weather beaten location. It’s really a very lovely little castle and I’d highly recommend finding it.

But like all good things, they must come to an end and the next ferry out was here to take me on my two part ferry crossing back to mainland Shetland. I’d had the most amazing time and due to the sheer amount of things I’d done and seen in my short visit to Unst, I felt like I’d been gone a week. I returned rested, detoxed and revived. I was so glad I’d challenged myself to take this trip alone and explore not only a place, but who I was as a person. I learned so much on my trip to Unst and felt excited to plan my next solo staycation. I couldn’t recommend it more!

To summarise my stay, if I were to describe to you the feeling of being on Unst I’d have to say I felt free and at ease. Totally relaxed and calm. For such a small place, the range and quality of experiences are huge. I took a very holistic approach to my stay to allow myself to unwind and enjoy the natural beauty of Unst, but there is so much more to see and do. On previous trips I’ve visited the Boat Haven which houses an impressive historical collection of Shetland traditional boats used over the years. I’ve enjoyed the Gin tour at the Shetland Reel Gin distillery. I’ve learned about the history of Unst at the Heritage Centre. Been humored by the famous bus shelter. Had high tea at Victoria’s Tea Room. Made use of the facilities at the Leisure Centre and much more. You literally could never be bored in Unst. I’m already looking forward to my next visit. Roll on Unst 2020.

Garths Croft, Bressay

Bressay… Lerwick’s little sister.

Bressay lies to the east of Lerwick, shielding the town from the mighty North Sea. Bressay is Shetland’s fifth largest island at 11 square miles, and is home to around 360 lovely people.

One of my most memorable walks. In the far distance you can see the Bard where I cooked up dinner at the WW1 gun looking over to the Island of Noss which sits behind Bressay.

Because Bressay is so accessible given it’s just a 7 minute ferry crossing from Lerwick, it can often be dismissed as a destination to go and check out. But don’t be fooled by its ‘toonie’ connections, Bressay is an island rich in splendor. With its seabird population residing on the notable cliffs that boast a number of sea caves and arches, a dozen freshwater lochs, a stunning retired but refurbished lighthouse, a heritage centre, a friendly local café and a pub, restaurant and hotel Bressay definitely is a place to be visited and explored.

Bressay has always been the protective sister to Lerwick throughout its existence – in the 20th century that role turned especially seriously when, during World War One, two naval guns were placed on either end of the isle to protect Lerwick form any unwanted visitors approaching via the sea. We’d learned our lesson with the Vikings, this wasn’t going to be an option again!

One of two WW1 guns placed on Bressay in the 20th century. Note the island of Noss in the distance.

As someone who actually resided in Bressay for an all too short time I have a soft spot for the isle and its locals. There is a strong sense of community in Bressay. Although it is very much a commuting isle being so close to Lerwick, the community works hard to preserve that special island lifestyle. Although I left the isle a few years ago, I regularly go back to events in the hall, or to the local for a dram, or for a cycle or walk which I loved to do so much when I lived there. I still feel very much part of it and at home when I get on that ferry. The people in Bressay are some of the most welcoming and genuine people I’ve been lucky enough to know.

Which brings me to introducing you to one of them. This is Chris. Chris is originally from the south of England and moved to Shetland thirteen years ago and has been in Bressay eleven years now:

Chris delivering the goods at Bressay Up Helly Aa. Bannocks with salt beef is a traditional Shetland supper which is paired with reested mutton tattie soup – the best!


“I liked that there were lots of folk I could ask for crofting advice, and folk gave me an opportunity to help out, volunteer and work to get more experience in Shetland agriculture.”

Chris

Chris lives on and runs ‘Garths Croft’ which is the quaintest, tidiest and most beautiful story book croft I’ve ever seen. He takes great pride in his set up which is reflected in his happy and friendly animals who are delighted to welcome their visitors. His beautiful white croft house, sprawling land, fruitful polytunnel and stunning views out over the sea to Lerwick makes for the ideal modern day croft life. 

Garths Croft, Bressay

When Chris got in touch to announce the arrival of some new additions I got over to Bressay as soon as I could. How adorable it was to see some brand new piglets:

Chris has a keen interest in breeding top quality animals and prefers to focus less on mass-market breeds but more on native and heritage breeds. His main focus is on his Saddleback, Tamworth and Iron Age pigs, which he cleverly uses to plough and fertilise his land before reseeding. This method is working well for Chris – you can visibly see how beneficial this system is working for his land, beautifully complemented by the hundreds of tons of drystone dyking undertaken to create a new yard, garden and shelter for existing and newly planted trees – hopefully one day to be a woodland! The dykes provide shelter for the amazing polycrub that’s growing plums, cherries, apples, pears, raspberries, strawberries, grapes and then, outside in the beds, you’ll find veg, tatties, corn and salads growing….. I told you this was story book stuff!

Pollycrub dreams…

Other residents on the croft include our adorable native Shetland sheep who are bred for their uniquely coloured fleeces, some Norfolk Bronze turkeys, and Shetland and Orpington hens who just strut around unphased by visitors.

Shetland sheep. Famous for their unique fleeces which provide beautiful natural colours. The wool has been used for knitting traditional Fair Isle garments for centuries. Shetland wool uniquely keeps you cool and warm and has been used for generations to make ganzies for fishermen and crofters and still today is very popular locally. Shetland Sheep are also reliable flocks and during lambing are renound for being very able and independent.

Chris works in conjunction with local restaurateurs The String to supply produce for their seasonal, local menu and to the cafe at the marts. Chris aims to supply more local restaurants, cafes and hotels with his produce to provide excellent fresh low-mileage ingredients to feature  on menus across Shetland.

Chris’s traditional croft with a contemporary twist is well worth a visit. It’s a delight and a welcome addition to Bressay’s offerings.


“I’ve developed and diversified the croft to incorporate croft tours as part of the business model. I welcome and encourage visitors keen to visit and look around and learn about native, heritage breeds and crofting and sustainable agriculture to come and get up close and personal with the animals, fleeces etc. This started with Shetland Wool Week but I now work with a number of local tour operators,  and I’m enthusiastic to welcome further future visitors. All they have to do is call me on 07748 926454 to arrange.”

Chris
The best photobomb ever?

Garths Croft is en route to the Bressay lighthouse which makes for the perfect combined afternoon visit to Bressay, or as part of a much larger exploration of the island. Go check it out and experience this quaint and happy place.

You can stay at this lighthouse which offers stunning sea views and the opportunity to stay on Bressay for a holiday or staycation. Find out more information by clicking here.

Have you ever noticed how the sun is always shining down on Bressay?

Shetland Islands with Leah

For more information on the Bressay ferry timetable click here

Wanders and Wallabies

And then it was April. April in Shetland is a funny month. The daffodils pop up, lambs appear on the hills and the puffins return, but don’t be fooled by these cute spring additions. April usually brings bitter northerly winds and snow showers!

Nevertheless, the lovely thing about April is the lengthening daylight. The clocks have changed going into April bringing the start of the ‘the light nights’ which peak in mid-May to mid-July when the ‘simmer dim’ returns. When, if it’s been a fine day it’ll not get dark at all. The climate is totally unique up here – if you want to find out more, you can do so here. It’s really quite interesting.

Saturday brought us the first weekend of ‘the light nights’ allowing for a few extra hours of daylight to go out and explore. I’d had a pretty stuffy week in the office so was desperate to get out walking. I’d had a little circular walk in mind for a while so given the weather was gusting a north-easterly I thought it would be a lightsome one to try.

My chosen destination isn’t one usually associated with walking; it’s the Algarve of Shetland with its beautiful, white, dazzling beaches. The island of Burra is one of the most stunning areas of Shetland. With engrossing views over to the Clift Hills you get a very Scandinavian feel as you enter Burra over two bridges and drive along, with a mini fjord-like roll of hills alongside you. These formidable hills across the voe are very prominent as they stand tall in the distance towering over Burra. However, the flat land of south Burra allows for views down to Fitful Head, and the best view of the island of Foula from Hamnavoe.

Shetland 40 Coast and Country Walks by Paul and Helen Webster (Available in the Peerie Shop)

We headed to the most southerly point of Burra to stunning Minn Beach. It was a flying gale, but wrapped and prepared it didn’t really bother me too much. Even little Pippa was delighted to be running free on the beach, rolling in the sand. It wasn’t a cold wind and it was a beautiful bright day.

Pippa at her happy place: the beach
Walking along the tombolo to Kettla Ness

If you walk the length of the beach there is what looks like an island at the other side, but it’s not an island, it’s just narrowly joined by the beach tombolo. This is Kettla Ness peninsula. Heading off anticlockwise along the banks you get a westerly view out towards the island of Foula. You’ll first see ‘Fugla Stack’ which is the scene of a shipwreck where a steamship ran aground in 1910. It now lies on the seabed only to be seen by divers. The famous ‘Sweetie Wreck’ was named by locals because so many tins of peppermints later washed ashore.

There then is a small hill to climb marked by a cairn. Although the incline doesn’t seem substantial, I was surprised at the 360 ̊view it revealed. On walking down the hill there is a picturesque loch with some nice cliff views at ‘The Heugg’ looking back towards the west of Burra. As you follow the banks of this walk you are led to Kettla Ness and Grot Ness where you can see the cliffs of Fitful Head standing in the distance in all their glory. Then, as you walk around on the east side, the views change from cliff side to East Burra appearing. Three quarters of the way around you’ll come across a scattering of old ruins which look to have once been an impressive crofting community.

We took shelter in one of the houses so I could prepare ‘Leah’s Culinary Skills in the Hills’ a title which has developed from ‘picnic queen’ as I’ve gradually become more adventurous in my outdoor cooking prospects. On the menu was some local fresh baked bread and scallops. Easily and quickly fried up on my peerie gas stove, it made for a perfect warm and comforting lunch as we squatted in the ruins completely sheltered form the wind. As we sat enjoying the scallops and a cup of tea we sat looking out the little house window which perfectly framed Minn beach. I wondered if the old occupiers had ever considered how precious their view was, or if they’d always been too busy crofting and fishing to sit and appreciate their surroundings like we can today.

At this point we’d been out for around three hours. My lungs were full to the brim with the freshest of fresh air and although my lugs were starting to suffer the consequences of a north easterly, I thought what a wonderful way to start my Saturday. But it wasn’t over yet…

Carly and Pippa towards the end of the walk approaching the beach from the opposite side

Burra is an ancient fishing community. Scattered with a mixture of old croft houses and modern Scandinavian wooden mansions, you get a feel for the old and new Shetland. But now in Burra you can also get a feel for the Australian Shetland. Eh? I hear you think… Deep down in East Burra you’ll find ‘The Outpost’, home to a Shetland family with a twist. Dad Dave is Australian and on his croft you’ll find a more exotic range of animals than your usual sheep and Shetland ponies. Here you can experience a little bit of Australia in Burra. Dave has created a visitor friendly experience where you can go to see his wallabies, emus, possums and some Kunekune pigs, goats, rabbits, a cat and an adorable dog called Toffee for good measure. The enclosures are set up to allow visitors to come and feed the animals at their own leisure.

The Wallaby family. Dave is sure there is another Joey in Mums pouch waiting to hop out very soon.
Carly feeding the very friendly goats who live with the Wallabies
One of two tiny little possums wakening from her nocturnal sleep and having pear for breakfast

Then afterwards, if Dave is kicking about, he may even invite you into his personal, homemade bar for a refreshment. Dave is a keen brewer and I was lucky enough to be offered a little cider tasting experience where I was treated to everything from honey mead to chilli cider… There I was thinking the wallabies were random enough. I couldn’t have enjoyed my experience at the Outpost more.

Dave the Australian Shetlander convincing me to try his chilli cider

Now, I must stress that this is not a business. Dave is providing an opportunity to allow locals and visitors to see and experience something a little less traditional Shetland. If you visit, please treat his property and animals with respect and adoration as he rears and cares for the animals with so much love. If you do visit be sure to take some donation money to slot into the feed boxes which are positioned at every enclosure. The Outpost is a truly unique and unexpected day out, but definitely now one of my favourites.

While we were there an emu egg had just hatched. Emus will be the newest addition at The Outpost
You’ll find feed boxes at all the different enclosures, which you are welcome to feed the animals from

After spending the whole day in Burra I arrived home around 6pm with a huge smile on my face reflecting on the randomness of my day. A stunning beach, sharp cliffs, fresh scallops, wallabies, chilli cider, holding an emu egg… then the phone went off. I was summoned to help feed at my uncle’s farm. Suddenly baby lambs didn’t seem so exciting… I wonder if he’d consider some joeys next year…

Another unique and exciting day here in Shetland. Is it any wonder I find it hard to summarise living on these inimitable islands!?

You can find the full photo album on the Shetland Islands with Leah Facebook page.