Unst: Shetland is different – and different is good

THERE is a feature to be written on how people originally from the Far East and Sub-Continent have ended up living and working in Scotland’s remotest areas. I’d be up for it. It would get me out the office and probably some free food.

Think about it. A move from, say, Shanghai to Edinburgh makes sense. But the Shetland Isles! In Lerwick, the capital, there are a couple of Chinese and at least two Indian restaurants. Was that ever the plan?

Our cities and towns must feel, at least at first, very strange even with so many familiar sights and sounds. But Shetland? It’s another world to me and I’m Scottish. I’m not even sure the islands are.

I spent a little under four days there and, frankly, found it confusing. Not that the islands aren’t beautiful, they are, not that the people weren’t friendly, they were excellent hosts, and it won’t be too long before I return.

But it’s not Scotland. Not really. It’s also not Norwegian. It’s a mixture of both and more. Oh, and there was no Jimmy Perez, the coolest cop on telly, and tragically it turns out that Sergeant Alison ‘Tosh’ Macintosh doesn’t live there all the time. She is ace.

The BBC detective series Shetland has, my taxi driver informed me, increased visitor numbers since 2013 by as much as 20 per cent. Whether this is true is not, the most northerly point of the United Kingdom is like nowhere else in Britain.

Sitting 100 miles north of Scotland, Oslo is closer than Glasgow. It’s only belonged to Scotland since the 15th century. The locals I spoke to feel Scottish only sometimes. I could see why. It’s different and different is good.

The scenery is, as you might expect, gorgeous. There’s a real beauty in bleakness. Shetland isn’t mountainous, there are no trees, but the beaches and shoreline – and I didn’t see any rain which was lucky – rival the west coast.

There wasn’t a moment on the drive which wasn’t spectacular. For me, green field after green field never gets boring, specially when they are peppered with ruins – the clearances were especially hard on the islands – farms, crofts and a lot of sheep.

I stayed on Unst, the second of the big islands; just the one flight, taxi, long drive and two ferry trips away from Glasgow. I had to get from the mainland, to the wonderfully named island of Yell to Unst and a minute or so beside the terminal stands the quite frankly wonderful Belmont House, my home for two days – but not forever which is a damn shame.

Originally built in 1775, it lay in ruins for many years until 2011 when some determined locals decided the first house on Unst should be refurbished. It’s big enough for 13 people and you won’t be on top of one another.

The kitchen is huge, the upstairs sitting room perfect for lounging on a couch while drinking wine – which I tested thoroughly – and looking out towards the sea or the walled gardens.

Watching the sun go down over the bay below was pretty special. Also, those who run the house organised dinner for our small group on the first night: all local produce and cooked to perfection.

Nice beds, great baths, and a sense of living breathing history. Belmont is a delight.

It’s also a great base to see Unst where you will get the opportunity, as I did, to be the most the most northerly person in Scotland and therefore the British Isles. This was on Norwick beach where, for all you geology fans out there, you can jump from one rock to another which takes you from one tectonic plate to another.

The lovely Jane was our guide. She takes us to Murness Castle, a 16th century ruin, home once to a Patrick Stewart who like sex and drinking, at the same time by all accounts, but was hated by the islanders. He was executed for treason. Karma.

This is a place for history buffs. The Vikings, naturally, cast something of a shadow, although Jane tells me they weren’t quite as bad as they have been made out. And while we frown on pillaging these days, the old Vikings have got to get some credit.

There is a reconstructed Viking ship. They ate, slept, worked and did everything else on deck. They even made it to Greenland on one of those things.

The walking is great and flat for the most part. There is an abundance of wildlife, abandoned brochs, current houses which are unique to the islands. No wander will be unrewarded. You don’t have to stray too far from Belmont. I could have stayed there for a very long time.

Not everything is wonderful.

Lerwick’s pubs and hotels are far from great and the locals know it. Tourists expect and deserve better. The bus timetable let me down, so I got a taxi from the airport to Lerwick. We were there within 20 minutes. It cost me £50.

I thoroughly recommend you going there but as the numbers swell, the main town has to raise itself in terms of what’s on offer.

However, the Shetland museum in the capital is a must-see. I had three hours to kill before my ferry and did so easily in one of the best of its kind. It’s unmissable. In my top three.

The ferry on the way back was fun. I’d do that again. If you can, get a room so you can shower and sleep during the 12-hour overnight crossing. You could spot the regulars. They had a sleeping bag and curled up on a seat somewhere.

The bars are open late, and the food is of the old school dinner variety.

When I go back, I’ll take in as many of the islands as I can. Some 16 are inhabited and ferry access is good. The Shetland Isles is a magical place. Up Helly Aa, the famous fire festival, takes place in January. I fancy that.

And I need to ask the Bangladesh lads who ran one of the Indian restaurants what they make of it all.

Low season rate at Belmont House – sleeping up to 13 people – (from Oct to April) is £1,300 for 7 nights, £650 for 2, £750 for 3. High season (May to September) £1,800 for 7 nights and £900 for 3 – 2-night stays in high season can be arranged in consultation with Belmont for £800.

There are regular fights from Glasgow to Shetland for about £160 one-way on Loganair.

An adult single on the ferry costs £17.15 to £19.90. A car is maximum £60 and a premier outside berth for two is £69. See Northlink Ferries.

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