View from Hannigarth

 

Sandwick beach

So, we start by heading north (which is left) and head in the general direction of Hermaness. Let's see how far we get before the blisters appear and the sandwiches run out, or the dog decides it has gone quite far enough thankyou.

Turning left has the immediate advantage of taking you past a chambered cairn, a Norse homestead and an ancient settlement called Framgord, all in the first twenty minutes of your walk.

Anyway, walking along Sandwick beach is something you can never become tired of. It is also level (at first) and not too boggy (also at first).

Even better, the walk will take you to Baltasound where there are three opportunities to stop and buy energy-rich snacks (chocolate) and such like.

The good thing about walking on a small island like Unst is that you really shouldn't get lost. Keep the sea on your right and the land under your feet and you are unlikely to go wrong.

Chambered cairn

A little further along the beach is the remains of a Norse house. It is likely that this was part of a larger Norse settlement. It has been suggested that the gap in the wall may have been a doorway into the byre at one end and the widening shape allowed cattle to enter while reducing the amount of wind getting in.

Framgord chapel

Sandwick to Collaster

Almost as soon as you hit the beach, you will see an interesting pile of stones above the high tide mark. Back in 2005 the chambered cairn was excavated before the sea could destroy it. As well as various artefacts, archaeologists found a skeleton, probably iron age. The site was then re-built but, what with rising sea levels, it will no doubt end up being destroyed by a storm despite the material used to stabilise the beach and protect the cairn. I expect that "back in the day", the sea was considerably further away.

Norse Homestead

 

Carry on walking along the coast and you will come to the remains of a Viking chapel at Framgord. As well as the graves of more recent settlers, there are some markers of Viking graves in what is left of the chapel.

Brough Taing

Shag

The next part of this stage of the walk takes you past the long-abandoned settlement at Colvadale. As well as many ruined crofts, noosts and a chapel, there are medium-sized cliffs with lots of sea birds in residence.

As you carry on up the coast, look out for Huney and Balta to warn you that the coast will soon cut west into Balta Sound. When it does, see if you can spot signs of the Herring industry on Unst. There are jetties and the footings for the little huts that housed the herring girls who gutted the fish as they came off the fishing boats.

Once you are in Balta sound, there is a road that follows the coast and we usually take it because you will have to use it eventually to cross the stream that empties into Balta Sound. Cunningly, when you cross the water, you will arive at the first of the three shops - Skibhoul Stores. This one has a bakery.

You will also have noticed that you passed an airfield at Ordale, a reminder about the oil industry's past glory days. I guess that even today, if you are very, very rich, you can fly directly to Unst in your own private helicopter.

Balta and Swinna Ness

The very famous Shetland Mouse-ear Chickweed

Use one of the stiles to have a look at this ancient and botanically important Nature Reserve. You might even spot an Edmondston's Chickweed. It takes a while to get your eye in but when you do, you discover there are lots of the blighters. This is the only place in the world where you can see them - enjoy!

Baltasound to Hagdale

After you have also visited Hendersons aka Ethel's (because it's ony fair and anyway you are bound to forget something), there is a road that follows tight to the coast and passes what I think must be the only proper woodland, at Halligarth. This takes you to the pier. Back in the day I remember there being piles of talc brought from the quarry further north at Quoys; waiting to be shipped off to be used to make paper, cosmetics and paint. Nowadays, the pier is more likely to be used by the boats servicing the salmon and mussel fisheries.

Carry on and keep looking for more Herring industry remains as you walk by the coast until you get to Swinna Ness. The north side of Swinna Ness has some impressive cliffs which take you up to the top of the Keen of Hamar.

Hagdale and Haroldswick from the Keen of Hamar

There is also a partly excavated longhouse at Hamar to investigate before you move on.

Hagdale horse mill

This is also a second opportunity for shopping as the small "industrial estate" next to the road has another shop with a small cafe. It is called "The Final Checkout".

By the way, beware of the Unst shops; they contain all manner of wonderful things that you don't think you need and before you know it ...

The coast then takes you to the Geo of Hagdale and if you walk inland along the burn, you will be taken into an industrial landscape from the past. There are several spoil heaps and a restored horse mill.

The mill was used to crush chromite (iron chromium oxide). The dense ore would build up while lower density impurities were be taken away by the flow of water. This is an example of the sort of work that Shetland ponies did on the island before small children got their hands on them in the rest of the UK.

Hagdale horse mill

Once you are suitably fed and watered, retrace your steps to take you back to the coast and continue your journey around Unst.

How to pull a boat up a hill

Along the way, you may also find out what happens to all those motor car parts that are no longer fit for purpose before the days of garbage collections!

Hagdale to Haroldswick.

Hagdale is the croft a hundred metres or so above the shore. There was no gently sloping beach for the crofter to launch the boat. The solution, shown in the picture is still in place but I doubt if it is still in working condition. See if you can also spot a couple of Noosts where the boats would have been dragged, safe from the winter storms. The Noosts are a handy marker for long lost settlements.

Sticking to the coast as we are, once you pass the Wick of Hagdale you will find yourself looking across Harold's Wick to Clibberswick. Unfortuntely, walking this section means taking on either the rocky shore or some very boggy ground inland. Take your choice, wet feet or twisted ankle.

Refuse solution at Harold's Wick

Looking across Haroldswick

As you can see, Haroldswick isn't a big settlement. However, it does have a concentration of museums and tea shops.

Looking across Haroldswick

Haroldswick

In the past, Haroldswick's claim to fame was being the hamlet with the northernmost post office. Sadly, you can no-longer buy a postcard (of the post office), lick the stamp to glue it to the card and then have the stamp franked with "Sent from the UK's northernmost Post Office" to impress your friends and relations. The number of post offices on Unst has fallen in much the same way as the number of shops.

However, Haroldswick does provide you with an opportunity to do some proper "Grockling" and take a bit of a sit-down with a cup of tea and some home baked cake.

There is a re-created viking longhouse with a longship parked outside, a tea room, two museums - the Boat Haven and (just up the road) the Unst heritage centre, some interesting wetlands for the birders and a nice bit of coast to watch seals and the occasional otter while enjoying your cream tea, cake, local history etc.

Looking across Hagdale to Clibberswick

Okay, it is time to own up. We have walked over Clibberswick. Twice. The cliffs are scary but definitely worth the climb and it is a great place to sit and watch fulmars demonstrating their flying skills.

The trouble is, several cups of tea and many cakes tend to put the blood supply in all the wrong places.

That's a proper biological excuse!

Clibberswick to Norwick

Having taken advantage of the delights of Haroldswick you are faced with one of those dilemma things. Do you stick to the coast to climb Clibberswick hill with its rocky serpentine outcrops and impressively scary cliffs ...

... or do you take a short-cut along the road north passing Saxa Vord. This was once an RAF camp built to house a garrison of folk who protected us with their many radar stations both in the second world war and then later on in the cold war (which wasn't really a war but it definitely was a period of geopolitical tension).

The fact that we only have photos of the South and North sides of Clibberswick and not many of the hill and scary cliffs probably gives away what we tend to do.

Looking across to Norwick from Clibberswick

Norwick's discontinuity

Rocks at a cunning angle

The old road

Norwick to Lambaness

There is no doubt that Norwick is very interesting geologically. The beach is both sandy and cobbly. It has a small stretch of sand dunes at its back. It also has a strange sticky out bit roughly in the middle.

This is part of something called the Mohorovičić discontinuity. I have read that it marks a point where the crust meets the mantle. You wouldn't normally expect to see this on the surface. Judging by the angle of the rock outcrops and the rather sudden way that the type of rock changes, there has been some serious geology going on.

Of course, I could have got this all wrong. If rocks are your thing, have a look at the geological map on the stairs in Hannigarth to fully appreciate Unst's varied geology.

A few years ago, you would now head north along the steep road rising from the beach. This is still possible on foot, with care. However, a few winters ago there was a major landslip which effectively wiped out the road that took you further north. If you are travelling by car or don't fancy climbing a road that theoretically could fall into the sea at any moment, there is a fairly hefty diversion on a new road constructed for the purpose. It takes you inland and over the hill to Lambaness and then Skaw.

Lambaness

Lambaness

The beaches on Lambaness

Lambaness

Lambaness is a peninsula and while there is a temptation to follow the minor road that misses it out and takes you to Skaw, you would miss some beautiful coast and the opportunity to observe some recent history. There is plenty of evidence that it was a very busy place in the second world war and then the cold war years.

Right then, you have sensibly decided to follow the rather rugged southern coast of Lambaness. If you are fortunate enough to be walking when the tide is right, you might hear the water gurgling as you pass Saxa's Kettle. Saxa was of course a giant who got into a bit of an argument with another giant over something or other. This inevitably involved some pretty hefty rock throwing (and such like) and that is why Unst now has two big hills - Saxa Vord and Hermaness and the rocks of Muckle Flugga. If you need more information, the book case at Hannigarth has a proper historical account of all this to prove that it really happened. The book is called "Noost".

Once you reach the end of Lambaness, give yourself plenty of time to look at the various evidence of the RAF occupation.

As you start to walk back along the northern shore, you will find some of the most beautiful and secluded beaches on Unst. Admittedly it is likely that the sheep have got there first and pooed everywhere, but hey!

From this point you could walk inland to pick up the minor road or keep to the coast. Either way should bring you to Skaw.

Skaw

WW2 remains at Skaw

A more recent installation at nearby Saxa Vord

The rugged coast of Saxa Vord

Skaw to Saxa Vord

A visit to Skaw means that you get to bag a few of the "northernmost in the UK" prizes. The northernmost settlement, the northernmost beach, the northernmost radar station in the second world war, the northernmost minor road, the northernmost sandwich eaten today. However, if you Google it, check that you don't find yourself reading about Skaw beach in Thailand.

For a short time it was also inhabited by the northernmost scruffy dog in the UK.

The Norternmost Dog

Once you have finished making sandcastles and burying members of the family in the sand, carry on around the coast heading west towards Saxa Vord (the hill, not the giant. Also, not the secret cold war and modern day radar installation and definitely not the RAF camp near Haroldswick). It's all rather confusing really. (By the way, this is a reference to an ancient radio programme and it shows my age).

I seem to remember having to sign the official secrets act a long time ago when I was travelling to Unst to do some field work. I think that everything has gone a bit lax since then and we all have other things to worry about. Still, better safe than sorry. You never know when you might need fair warning of a hail of ICBMs.

The cliffs get pretty high and exposed on the walk around the top of Saxa Vord so you could cut the corner and head across the southern slope to a road. However, there are some small Lochans that are often inhabited by divers and anyway, I know you aren't the sort to cut corners.

Burra Firth and Loch of Cliff

Burra Firth

The old lighthouse shore station

Saxa Vord to Burra Firth

Saxa Vord and Hermaness are separated by Burrafirth. Presumably, this reduces the bickering. The trouble is that while keeping giants apart is very sensible, it adds a fair bit to your walk around Unst. Thanks to the MOD, there are some handy roads to make life easier. Head south along Burra Firth until you hit Burrafirth beach. Take your boots and socks off and enjoy!

A handy MOD road

Burra Firth

 

The walk up Hermaness starts with a small car park (for those less adventurous than yourself) and follows a boardwalk to protect the bog (and your walking boots). It also ensures that you won't be disturbing the nesting birds too much with the added benefit that you are therefore protected from being lightly tapped on the head by a grumpy Bonxie.

Looking north

When you get to the coast, you should walk north along the cliffs to get a look at the birds and Muckle Flugga before heading back.

Gannets courting

Burrafirth to Hermaness

The Burn of Burrafirth carries a fair bit of water from the Loch of Cliff and so take the road to cross it by the bridge. Follow the road because it will take you to the first part of the walk up Hermaness.

Watch out for Bonxies having a wash in the Loch and see if you can spot any overgrown tees and greens. Believe it or not, there was once a 9 hole golf course here. I think it's an RAF thing. I guess that golf makes a posting to some God-forsaken backwater somehow more tolerable. If you like golf.

Bonxies showing off

The road takes you up to the point where you can see the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse shore station. Very sensibly, the lighthouse is now automated and the shore station is now divided up into flats.

Muckle Flugga Lighthouse

Puffin

Fulmar

Shetland ponies

Well done, you made it.

Or possibly, you made parts of it. Maybe on different days. Anyway, you thoroughly deserve the cake you bought from all those shops. All you have to do is get back to where you started.

Click here to magically transport yourself back to the start.

Richard and Jane King - 03/10/2019