North by north
When it takes not one but two ferries to reach an island the feeling of remote otherworldliness is intensified. When the culture there speaks more of Norse history, of viking longhouses and longboats, and when rocks are all that break up a sub-Arctic desert landscape, you know you’ve travelled a long way from the familiar in your own country.
So it is with Unst.
I drove as far north as the road would take me, past wild Shetland ponies, freshwater lochs and the bemused-looking native sheep and lambs that freely roam, then walked a long way out across open peaty moors to a wildlife haven to sit, buffeted by the relentless Shetland wind, above the high Hermaness cliffs on the northernmost edge of these isolated islands.
In the near distance, just past the frantic nesting colonies of gannets, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmers was the reassuring solid white form of Muckle Flugga lighthouse, built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s father in 1854. And then, north by north to the Arctic Circle, nothing but white-topped grey waves breaking turquoise over the rocks. The birds whirled in the gusting wind then the rain changed its mood from gentle to battering, driving me to find shelter in a hollow near the cliffs.
I met a German photographer there who shared his hot tea as we huddled against the banks and watched the weather develop . We had both been up here before, had developed impressions, images and ideas in our imaginations, and were returning after many years in search of the atmosphere and conditions in which to create new work. As the weather worsened I figured my job was easier than his and retreated back over the moors in search of a bed and a dry place where a pen would work.
The bonxies, the notorious Pirates of the Sea, were brutal beasts; bigger, beefier and much more prolific than I had imagined. They didn’t attack as I walked through their nesting grounds along the path to the cliffs, but wanted me to know they could if they felt like it and had a sinister glint in their eyes as they carried out arrogant reconnaissance missions just above my head. They looked as though they could do serious damage if provoked, or maybe even just for random fun on a day when too many twitchers dared to disturb their far-flung garrison.
I’ve run out of roads, ferries and even moorland as Muckle Flugga is the very last, most northerly rock in the UK . I can now only turn round and travel south.