We left our chalet in Yell early so we could catch the 9:30 am ferry to Unst, the most northerly aisle in Britain and as far north as we could possibly go on our trip.
I had booked us on the ferry in advance since the Unst ferry doesn’t fit as many cars and it’s popular on the weekends. We sped northwards stopped occasionally by sheep and lambs crossing the road.
We joined the queue to get on the ferry and when it opened they crammed us all in like sardines. There are no views on these ferries. Everyone stays in their cars watching the hull and waits for the slight swaying to stop and then you’re directed off one by one by the crew.
I was so excited to get to Unst. This was supposed to be the cherry on top of the delicious sundae of the trip. First, because it is home to thousands of puffins, the beautiful penguin-like bird that lives on the edges of the cliffs.
Second, because Unst is most closely aligned with the Viking heritage. It was one of the first places they landed as they went raiding from Norway.
And third because it’s the tip of the top of the islands.
D. was most excited about going out on this road on the northern peninsula. A man who was riding his bike to as many Scottish Isles as he could told him about the road when we met him on the Papa Stour ferry.
The problem was we didn’t have the most detailed map and so we were guessing where the road would be.
We pulled over to find D. a coffee (the endless quest) and asked a man about the weather. He said the fog and rain were supposed to clear up in the afternoon so we decided to take our time heading up to Hermaness Nature Reserve and see the Viking longhouse and boat first.
The boat is a replica of a Viking ship that was found buried. The Norwegians had originally planned to sail the replica to the U.S. but it only got as far as Shetland so the Shetlanders decided to finish restoring it and put it permanently on display.
The longhouse was also a replica of what some other Viking settlements looked like that have been uncovered.
All I could think was how terrifying it must have been to the Shetlanders at the time to see that boat coming in from the sea knowing that all the men aboard wanted to plunder your stuff.
But Shetlanders are very proud of their Viking heritage and celebrate it each year with fire festivals in the winter with men in Viking dress and fire sticks that they throw at a boat in the harbor to burn it up. This is called Up Helly Aa and though I would love to go D. wasn’t thrilled at the thought.
“I don’t really care about that kind of stuff,“ he said. Fair enough.
Hermaness Nature Reserve is at the very top of Ulst. It’s the most like a U.S. national park of any place in Shetland. There is no entrance fee. You just park at the bottom of a hill near the visitor center and start climbing.
They have laid down a walkway to the cliffs to keep tourists from mangling bird habitat. But as we walked up two things happened.
First we seemed to be herding a pair of sheep and lambs up the hill. And second we had another attack by bonxies (the Arctic Skuas) and this time we acted as if we were old pros at this - raising one arm high while we each took turns taking photos.
After several miles of walking we reached the top of the hill and the views of the north Atlantic and the lighthouse were magnificent.
But I wasn’t prepared for the thousands of birds on the cliffs flying below us. It was a Nature event that I have never experienced before. Literally cliff after cliff were covered in birds so that it appeared as if the cliffs were white. Guillemots seemed to be in the biggest abundance.
We climbed even higher and met our first puffin. And then one more joined him and then another. We were enthralled.
We walked even further until we were the only ones out there with the puffins and D. spotted one quite close to us along the cliff’s edge. He dropped down on his belly and took out some binoculars to get a better view. We stayed with that puffin for at least half an hour before wandering back when we found a huge tour group coming up from below - all with red jackets.
“The red coats are coming, the red coats are coming,” D. joked, and they were. A few more pictures and we were off to find this mysterious road the biker had suggested to D.
At Haroldswick we drove out east towards the coast. The first road we took led us to a nice beach but not a view so we turned around to look again for “the road”. About half way back we saw a steep road going up the side of a hill.
We decided that must be it and D. turned up the road. It was quite steep and I joked that it must be Shetland’s version of Going to the Sun. The views were good but it turned out that the road led to the Shetland space station (a round white globe on the cliff) and there were gates and warnings about radiation everywhere.
D. turned around, disappointed, and we were nearly at the bottom of the hill when I tried to cheer him up by praising his driving.
I said, “You know, you’ve done a really good job driving,” and as soon as I said it we heard a boom and then I said, “We have a flat tire.”
Now, I am not really superstitious but that was awfully weird timing.
What happened next was part comedy and part marriage testing. First we found out that there was no spare tire. I called the rental car company. They confirmed. No spare tire just a bottle of foam sealant and a compressor that you hook to your cigarette lighter. All of this was in tiny writing in the instruction manual. None of it worked. Instead our tire stayed flat.
Lots of swearing ensued. We called the local garage but no one was available. “It’s Sunday and they’re all fishing,” I was told. “Call back at 9 am tomorrow.”
“Of course,” I said.
Luckily our flat occurred almost on the doorstep of an old military compound turned into resort.
We hiked up the hill to their check-in. The bar man was the only person available and he quickly got us sorted into a room with two twin beds for 45 pounds.
“Welcome to our new college dorm room,” I told D. when we were alone. The unisex bathroom was across the hall and D. asked if he thought it was okay to go in there with just his underwear on in the middle of the night.
“Probably not,” I said. “But I also don’t think anyone else is staying in this wing so you might get away with it.
Long and short was that it wasn’t ideal but I just felt lucky we had anywhere to sleep except the car.
On the upside, the staff was very friendly and sympathetic. “No spare tire! Give ‘em hell!”
At dinner we met a young American attending BYU University who was working at the hotel and at the space station for the summer helping shoot off rockets into space.
He said he could barely understand most of the things people said when they ordered.
I hoped he could understand the orders to shoot off the rockets okay!
A good dinner, a sunset walk down to the local beach after, and a new season of Grantchester watched together on my twin bed cheered us up. Not a bad place to be stranded at all.