It lies off the tip of the most northerly inhabited island of Britain, Unst in the Shetlands. I had visited Unst once before, or rather, I had anchored off it. The Earl of Zetland took me there in 1974 when she offloaded passengers and packages into a flit-boat at Uyeasound.
The next time I heard of Muckle Flugga was years later when a friend commented on his national service in the RAF. While his friends had been posted to Singapore, Nairobi, Colombo – he had been sent to Muckle Flugga. He could get a rail warrant, he said, from the nearest station when going on leave, the trouble was that was at Bergen. However, when I looked up Muckle Flugga on the web it was apparent he was using a little poetic licence. He must have been posted to RAF Saxa Vord, a radar station named after and situated on Unst’s highest point of 935’ (285ms), next to the village of Haroldswick and overlooking the scrap of rock with a lighthouse which grandly bore the name Muckle Flugga.
So recently I had an urge to have a stab at getting as near as possible to Muckle Flugga courtesy of the Ferries of Northlink and Shetland Islands Council. Though my timing might have been better. The fi rst fierce gales of the winter had arrived and all the ships had recently been stormbound. Still, the weather was now better (or so I thought…)
And so I found myself on a cold moonless night aboard the Hjaltland heading out between the rows of oil rig boats in Aberdeen into a black North Sea, Lerwick bound. I had been aboard her before in ’07. She bore a new livery since SERCO took over her operation in 2012, but she was as smart as ever.
The ship going north was reasonably steady. On my very first Shetland trip in 1974 on the lovely little St Clair, one of the last non ro-ro passenger-cargo mail boats in the UK, she had rolled and I had staved off sea-sickness by eating my meal very slowly while focussing on swallowing garden peas that were balanced on my knife. I tried it this time too. It isn’t an easy trick and does seem to push any queasiness to the back of the mind.
She docked on time and by 8am I was driving northward up Mainland in a vehicle convoy including a couple of commercial vans that had just arrived with me from Aberdeen. In the still dark Shetland morning, the lights of small convoys of traffic can be seen maybe four miles away in that bleak largely treeless landscape. On such islands, traffic, especially at either end of the working day, tends to drive in convoys – or ferry loads. There is comfort in knowing if one vehicle is going to catch the ferry they all will – and one of them might know the ferry timetable – which I did not. We drove past the ferry sign for the island of Whalsay. The next one would be for the ferry to Yell, which today was my stepping stone to Unst.
A very lightly loaded Daggri took me to Ulsta on Yell where the now reduced convoy reformed and headed across the island to Gutcher on the Bluemull Sound. Here a triangular ferry service links Yell to Unst and Fetlar. Waiting was the Bigga which took me the ten minute crossing to Belmont where a weathered tourist sign welcomes voyagers to Unst’s delights. I had a feeling of déjà vu. Back in 1974, in the last days before ro-ros, the Earl of Zetland had called at all these islands, but in dense fog. She had steered by what must have been a primitive radar and I hadn’t seen a thing until nearing Unst when we had exited a sheer wall of fog to find a sparkling blue sea and sky. Looking back from the ship, I could see a hole in the fog in the very shape of the Earl of Zetland and when we dropped anchor off Uyeasound, the hook was clearly visible on the pristine sea-bed.
Fog was not an issue today. The sky was dry, but overcast and somewhat threatening. I now tracked north up across Unst passing the scattered communities of Uyeasound and Baltasound to approach Haroldswick. Here was an impressive full size replica Viking ship alongside a rebuilt Viking long-house. Everything now was ‘the most northerly…’: the most northerly petrol station, café and church. There was a visitor centre housing traditional Shetland rowing and sailboats, closed in the off season. RAF personnel at Saxa Vord were apparently no mean small boat sailors (there was little else to do). The former barracks buildings of RAF Saxa Vord now form a small resort village, though seemingly empty in winter.
I was quite at a loss of how to get close to the most Northerly part of the island. There is no road access to the nearest part of Unst to Muckle Flugga and I had no time or inclination for the four or five hour walk that would mean. But – I was finally told – if I drove up Saxa Vord hill on a track which still leads to the radar station, closed but still out of bounds by order the MoD, I would be looking down on Muckle Flugga and have a very acceptable if somewhat dizzying view of it, with nothing between there, the Faeroes, the North Cape and the Arctic.
And soon, looking dramatically miniscule in a cleft in those bleak outlying high moors and sea-cliffs of Unst, there it was with a scrap of rock even further north known as Out Stack. It was worth every mile and every minute. I was hardly three hours from the Aberdeen Ferry at Lerwick after two more ferries and two hours of driving – about 60 land miles. I was as far north as I ever could go in the UK. And entirely alone, not a soul for miles. Every step now was southward.
I had a little time to explore some fascinating corners of Unst. I noted the war memorial overlooking the sea under Saxa Vord hill and nearly all named were RNR or MN. A nearby shed incorporated a boat for its roof. Near Uyeasound is one of the most impressive sights of the islands, Muness Castle, Britain’s most northerly fortress which seems to have been sited to guard two anchorages when Shetland was a trading crossroads of maritime Northern Europe. Dating from 1598 it was sacked fi rst by ‘pirates’ in 1627.
I returned too soon across to Yell and thence to Mainland. The little ferries carried some impressive articulated trucks and a fuel tanker that had been delivering to Unst.
Shetland is not just in the oil business. At Uyeasound and elsewhere were rows of salmon nets. Workboats and trucks of the salmon industry were in abundance. And some of the isolated harbours of Shetland support impressive state of the art deep sea fishing vessels. It is a hardworking place and the ferries year round back that up by getting the produce to market.