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Day 6: Yell and Unst

When we first planned our trip to Shetland, our intention was to stay on the Mainland island. But when we were killing time in a bar in Kirkwall on Tuesday night, the barman recommended to us that we try visiting two of the other islands, Yell and Unst, explaining that it was really easy to get across to them on the ferry. Once we were settled into our apartment in Lerwick last night, we started doing a bit of research on the ferries to see whether the journey really would be doable. Some of the details were a bit confusing, in particular the timetables, but it did look like it ought to be possible to travel from Lerwick all the way to the top of Unst and back again as a day trip.

The ferries between the islands are run by the local Shetlands Council and the fares seemed pretty reasonable, with a return fare from Mainland to Unst via Yell costing just £20.30 for the pair of us, plus the car. Effectively you are only charged for the first journey from Mainland to Yell, and you would only be charged for the journey from Yell to Unst if you hadn't originally travelled from Mainland that day. One critical point we picked up from the internet though was that the fare can only be paid in cash and no change is given, so you need the correct amount. We didn't have any cash on us at all, having used up the small amount we did have in paying various car parking charges, so after breakfast we set out into the centre of Lerwick to try and find a cashpoint.

The centre of Lerwick turned out to be really pretty.


This was the main street, but it didn't feel very busy.


We found a bank without too much difficulty and got the cash we needed.


We then needed to find a shop to break one of the notes in; we'd taken out £30 so with the fare being £20.30 and the ferry not giving change, we needed to acquire some coins too. That wasn't the simplest of tasks, as it seemed like most places in Lerwick didn't open until 10am, but we managed to find a post office and break £10 buying some chocolate.


With that sorted, we got in the car and drove north across the Mainland island.


The ferry to Yell leaves from a place called Toft in the northern part of the Mainland island. Unfortunately, when we put Toft into our Sat Nav we got zero results (which has been the case with several places on Orkney and Shetland). But there really aren't that many roads around here and the main routes are pretty well signposted, so we managed to make our way towards Toft without any difficulties regardless.


It was another very scenic drive :) 


We arrived at Toft having just missed a ferry at 10.45. Luckily, the crossing to Yell is quite short (around 20 minutes) so we didn't have long to wait before another ferry arrived. We had been quite confused on the local website about whether you needed to book a place in advance on the ferry or not, but when we arrived at the ferry terminal it all seemed quite simple. There were separate lanes to queue in, depending on whether you were booked or unbooked. The booked vehicles were then allowed to board the ferry first, with the unbooked vehicles following. There was plenty of room for all and, because the crossing was so short, everyone remained in their vehicles throughout, ready to drive straight off the ferry again once we reached the other side.

It was around 11.30 when we arrived on Yell.


This is the second largest of the Shetland islands, around 19 miles from end to end. The population of the entire island is less than 1,000 people :o 


The guidebook had made it clear that Yell wasn't exactly brimming over with sights. Two thirds of the islands is covered in what the author described as "uninspiring peat moorland".  There was definitely a lot of that, but we found it quite pretty nevertheless :) 

The biggest settlement on the island is the village of Mid Yell.


We stopped there on our journey across the island because it was getting close to lunchtime and the guidebook had mentioned that there was a pub here.


We had a look but couldn't see any sign of it. We did find a beach though :) 


While we were admiring the views, a local came to speak to us and we learned from her that the pub had closed down last year. 


She recommended that we climb up a bit of a hill outside the town for some better views.


It was really pretty up here :) 


She also recommended a beach for us to visit but we were keen to press on to Unst, so weren't sure whether we would have time to fit it in. We left Mid Yell behind, driving north across the island to a ferry terminal at a place called Gutcher.


We arrived about 5 minutes too late for the 12.35 ferry, which was the final one before a lunchtime pause. Oops :o  With no ferry and also nowhere to have lunch (the closed pub had previously been the only place to eat out on Yell!) it turned out we did now have time to explore the beach.


The beach is known as the Sands of Breckon.


We parked in a small carpark beside a farm and followed a trail downwards.


There was a sign at the start of the walk warning people to stick to the trail as the sand dunes are fragile. We concentrated very hard on sticking to the trail but somehow ended up being on the wrong trail or, at least, on a trail which never quite led us down to the actual beach xD 


We did get close enough for some lovely views though :)   


Visiting the beach successfully occupied the time until we could catch the 2pm ferry to Unst. This was an even shorter ferry journey, taking only around 10 minutes. Unst is the third largest of the Shetland islands and the most northern inhabited island in the UK. Our aim was to drive across Unst to Hermaness, which is the northernmost headland of the island.

It didn't take long before we saw the headland appearing in the distance.


On the way we passed more beautiful golden beaches. The quality of beaches on Shetland has really surprised me :) 


Progress along the main road to Hermaness was slow at times :D 


We made it to the car park in the end though and then walked down towards this white building, which was the visitor centre for the nature reserve which covers the headland.


Unfortunately it was closed because of the pandemic, so we had to climb back up the road again. There were some good views of the sea from the bottom though.


From the end of the car park a signposted path led upwards onto the moorland.


The underlying ground was very wet and boggy, but luckily there was a wooden boardwalk along most of the route.


We hoped that the path was leading us towards some cliffs, at which point we would officially be at the most northerly point of Unst. We weren't sure how long it was going to take to get there, though.


The path led us up steps...


...and across seemingly endless moors.


A certain frisson of excitement was added to the proceedings by the fact that one of the reasons that Hermaness is a nature reserve is because it is home to the world's third largest colony of great skuas. These are large, ground-nesting birds with a nasty habit of diving at the heads of anyone who accidentally gets too close to their nests. I was hoping that they weren't going to be in an aggressive frame of mind given that it was September and any chicks must be long since grown up, but still...


The walk was actually only a mile and a half but because it was fairly steeply uphill (105 staircases today!) it felt a lot longer. Finally we made it and got our first view of the cliffs :) 


There were some beautiful views of the sea.


And it was quite amazing to stand here and know that there is no other land directly north of these rocks.


It was definitely exciting to be here :) 


We did encounter a couple of other groups of walkers, but overall it felt incredibly remote.


Definitely no problems with social distancing here :) 


Once we'd finished admiring the views, we had to retrace our steps back to the car.


As we did so, we did encounter a few great skuas in the distance. Luckily they didn't seem in the mood to attack!


Soon the car was in sight.


Then all that remained was to drive back across Unst, take the ferry to Yell, drive across Yell again and back to the mainland, where we might finally get some food! As we were crossing Unst, we passed this unusual site which looked like a Viking village and longboat! 


We made it back to Lerwick without incident and found an Indian takeaway not far from where we're staying. It's been another exciting day on Shetland :) Tomorrow is our final day here, with a ferry back to Orkney in the evening followed by a brief overnight stop on Orkney before we return to the Scottish mainland on Saturday.

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