People Who Live in Small Places #6: The Scottish island of Unst

I’m so excited about this entry into my Small Places series because it’s in my own country! As I’ve posted this series, I have learnt so much about so many different places. But when you get a post like this you realise how many places there are really close to where you live that you just knew nothing about! To be honest, the northern islands of Scotland are as alien to me as some of my other “small places” (in fact, I have visited the Seychelles and lived in Gibraltar so they are a lot less alien!), which is what makes this post so fascinating.

A joint mother-daughter effort, this post about Unst, a small Scottish island, comes to you courtesy of Rhoda (mum) and Morag (daughter). Morag blogs at Wir Unst Family.

Please tell me a bit about your “small place”

Unst is an island in Shetland. It is Britain’s most northerly inhabited island and is closer to Norway than the mainland of Scotland. Often when you see a map that includes Shetland, it is in a box due East of Aberdeen, but that’s not actually where it is! There is a whole facebook group determined to get Shetland correctly on maps!

Unst has an interesting geology with multiple bands of different types of rock, all found in the area of Unst which is only 12 miles long. As a result of this diverse geology Unst has a wide variety of habitats giving a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Having said that, trees are not in abundance on the island, due to the combination of wind and salt air.

There is however, a small wood planted by a renowned Botanist, Dr Laurence Edmondston, in the mid-1800s which has a sheltering wall around it, and so the trees are a decent size. This attracts bird life that prefers trees, although there is a huge range of birdlife which arrives on Unst, some native, some migratory.Unst is often the first land mass they reach on the way south from the Arctic. Over the years we have also played host to some rarities that were blown significantly off course. As you might therefore imagine, Unst is very much a bird watcher’s paradise.

Unst is the home of some unique flora, one of which was discovered by Thomas Edmondston, and named Edmondston’s Chickweed . It only grows on the island of Unst, and no where else in the world. Unst, as with other places in Shetland, has a good population of Shetland ponies, and Shetland sheep. The Shetland breeds of ponies and sheep are smaller and hardier than their mainland counterparts, to better survive the conditions, especially the winter winds. The same has also been said of the people!


Shetland Pony and Foal. Taken at Uyeasound, Unst

What are the good – and not so good – things about living there?

As I suspect may be true on many small islands, Unst is fortunate to have a thriving and close community which pulls together in hard times, and celebrates together in good times. This has obvious good points, the rallying spirit when things go wrong, recent examples include the community pulling together to protest the possible school closures; but also has some not so good points, because everyone knows your business.

Many facets of life have a good and bad side because of isolated island life. Take a simple thing like produce for example, on the one hand there are still many small-holding farmers (crofters are they are called in the Highlands and Islands) who grow vegetables, so you can get produce such as potatoes, cabbage, and turnips which were grown locally, but then, because of the isolation, other things that won’t grow in Shetland, such as fruit, costs more due to freight prices.This has encouraged the creation of a small business on the island, The Unst Market Garden, which produces salad plants, fruit and vegetables in a poly-tunnel.

Unst is an island in between the North Sea and the Altantic and so its weather is very much at the mercy of the elements. Due to being surrounded by the sea, the temperatures are mild, winters, although cold and sometimes snowy, are not anywhere near the harsh winters of the North East of the U.S.A., although the wind chill factor does makes it feel colder than the recorded temperature might otherwise advertise.

In summer we have long light evenings, the Simmer Dim as it is known, and around the longest day, the sun barely sets. We are at 60°North, on a level with the South of Greenland. The reverse is of course true in the winter time when children come home from school in the dark. The on-line shopping revolution has made a huge difference to isolated places such as Unst, so you can order things online that you couldn’t buy on the island. However, there are also some marvellous shops on the island that stock a whole range of goods, and islanders are very good at supporting these shops with their custom because we know that if we don’t support them, we will lose them.

What do you find to occupy yourself in your spare time?

The Oil boom of the 1970s saw Leisure Centres being built all round Shetland, so the island of Unst, with a current population of 600 people, has a Leisure Centre with a 12.5m pool, squash court, three badminton counts, and a gym which is actively used by the community and the school which is located right across the road. Each village on the island has a community hall which is used for events, agricultural shows, evening dances, weddings, and even regular fish and chips nights. These events are always well attended.


Winning Veg entry in the Unst Agricultural Show

Since retiring as Britain’s most northerly head teacher, Rhoda had become involved with the Unst Heritage Centre and the Unst Boat Haven which are run by volunteers on a trust. She helps with researching new topics for display at the centre as well as helping to create unique books about the history of the island and the knitting heritage. Many people come to the centre looking for family history information as well, and Morag is currently working on a complete Unst family tree to supplement what is in the centre for those visitors.

Once a week, Rhoda also runs a Fairtrade shop every Saturday afternoon. She says the rest of her spare time, which isn’t a lot (you’re supposed to be retired mum!) is spent reading, walking and visiting friends.


The Unst Boat Haven has a unique display of Shetland Boats

How easy is it to “get away” and where do you escape to? Do you feel the need to escape?

The north isles of Shetland (Unst, Yell and Fetlar) are linked to the mainland of Shetland by ro-ro ferries, which run regularly through the day. To take a day-trip to Lerwick, the capital town of Shetland, is about a couple of hours from Unst. To travel further afield, there is the choice of the overnight boat from Lerwick to Aberdeen, or the plane from Sumburgh, the southern-most tip of Shetland. In the winter, the seas can be rough, so beware sea-sickness. The planes can be affected by strong winds, but the pilots who man the flights to Shetland are quite amazing, and seem to be able to land them in all sorts of weather.However, Morag feels she has spent many extra hours in airports when travelling to and from Shetland in the winter, due to bad weather delays.

In the summer, seas and air flow is much calmer, but sometimes too calm and the flights can be disrupted as much, if not more, by fog in the summer, than any bad weather in the winter. When Rhoda traveled south for Morag’s wedding, they made sure there were a few extra days before the wedding in case of any summer travel delays. Rhoda still likes to get away from the island to see other places, mainly to visit friends and family. She does notice less need to escape than she had in her younger years. Internet shopping has meant that getting to shops is less of a draw than it previously was.


Caption: Puffins come on land for only three weeks a year. Taken at Hermaness, Unst

What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving to the island?

The island of Unst has been very used to a flexible population for centuries. In the late 1800s the herring fishing season saw a huge influx of herring fishermen and herring gutter lassies for several months. The population swelled from 500 in the village of Baltasound to 12,000! More recently in the 1950s, there was an RAF early warning radar base on Unst, which brought a new population of RAF families to the island, increasing the population and filling the schools. This base was decommissioned after 2000 and the population decreased accordingly. Nowadays the population is a mix of native Shetlanders and people who have chosen the island life.

If you’re thinking about moving to the island, come to visit in the summer, but also in the winter. Island life draws many people because of the quiet, slower pace of life. Make sure you can cope with this slower pace of life. Winter weather is possibly the hardest thing to cope with for those who aren’t used to it.


Caption: Skeotaing Beach – wouldn’t look out of place in the Med, a few degrees cooler though!

Can you tell me a bit about yourself, and your mum?

Rhoda has lived on Unst all her life, apart from attending school in Lerwick which required staying in the school accommodation for a term at a time, and a brief spell in Aberdeen at Teacher training college. She returned to the island as a qualified teacher and got a post teaching at the Baltasound school. Later in her teaching career she became Britain’s most northerly head teacher at the Haroldswick school. When the Haroldswick School closed, the building was re-purposed as the Unst Heritage Centre and Rhoda was back in her old stomping ground.

Morag is Rhoda’s daughter and also grew up in Unst (after being born in the hospital in Lerwick) and lived there until she went to school in Lerwick (which by this time was weekly boarding rather than whole term boarding as it was when her mum went). After finishing secondary school in Lerwick, she went to University in St. Andrews and then got a job in Hampshire. Although she doesn’t currently live in Unst, she is still in regular contact with friends and family who still live there, and is trying to put together a complete Unst Family Tree.

Thank you so much Rhoda and Morag for this fascinating insight into life on a small, Scottish island. I hope one day to visit! In the meantime don’t forget to check out my earlier People Who Live in Small Places posts: Mayotte, Gibraltar, a small village in France, the Seychelles and a small country in Europe. And if you live somewhere small, and would like to feature in this series, get in touch!

People who live in small places part 1: Mayotte

Back when I first started blogging (which feels like years ago but was in fact just a few weeks…) I was intrigued to find that one of my viewers came from a tiny island in the Indian ocean I had previously never heard of called Mayotte. This discovery inspired first of all this post and now a whole series of posts which I am calling People Who Live in Small Places.

I was lucky enough to be able to not only track down Curtis, my visitor from Mayotte, but also to pursuade him to be the first person to contribute to this occasional series. Having lived in a few small places myself (Gibraltar, St Lucia), I was intrigued to hear how Curtis coped with life on such a small island so I asked him a few questions. This is what he told me:

First of all, can you tell me a bit about Mayotte?

Mayotte became France’s 101st daprtment in 2011, making it now a part of France in the same way as Martinique or La Réunion – or Normandy. It’s in fact two islands: Grande Terre and Petite Terre, with a total population of just over 200,000, and growing fast. About a third of the people live in the main town, Mamoudzou, the rest being scattered among other small towns and villages.

It’s surrounded by a coral reef, making it a prime destination for divers, or simply for those who like to hang out on one of its many beaches, gazing at the lagoon, taking a dip in the water that’s always warm.


The beautiful aquamarine sea around Mayotte

You get the picture: beautiful tropical island. There’s a downside, though. Just 70 kms from the Comoros Islands (one of the poorest countries in the world), Mayotte attracts illegal immigrants keen to get to an island that’s now officially part of the European Union. They make the crossing daily in small, unstable boats called kwassa-kwassa. It’s estimated that over 12,000 people have died in the last 20 years trying to reach Mayotte.

Another estimation: these immigrants make up almost half the population of Mayotte. They live in shanty towns, and often break into the homes of the rich, white population to steal whatever they can. The police call this ‘survival delinquency’. But although it’s rampant, violence remains rare.

Mayotte's capital Mamoudzou

Mayotte’s capital Mamoudzou

What are the good, and the not so good, things about living on Mayotte?

So there you have the best and worst of Mayotte: picture postcard beauty, but a serious problem of immigration, insecurity and poverty. Despite this, the atmosphere is relaxed. The people are very friendly. 95% Muslim, they are moderate in their religious views and women play an active role in the community. You lie on the beach and watch the locals (the Mahorais) enjoy their voulé (huge barbecues), and it’s pretty blissful. Especially when you think what the weather’s like back in Britain.


The traditional “voule” – what we would call a barbecue.

So what do you find to do with yourselves in your spare time?

Apart from the beaches, not a lot. If you’re fit, and don’t mind trekking in the heat, there are many walks to go on (a Naturalists’ Association provides guides). But Mayotte is small. If you do feel the need to ‘escape’, that means travelling to nearby countries like South Africa, Mauritius or Madagascar.

Mayotte is less developed than other overseas French departments like Martinique or La Réunion. You can find everything you need, more or less, but it’s definitely not for shopaholics. Fewer shops and less choice – no malls or fancy High Streets. Activities are maritime: if you like fishing or diving, or you have a small boat, you’ve come to the right place. Same if you’re a fan of flora and fauna – it’s not Madagascar in that respect but dedicated walkers can find plenty of interest.


A beautiful Mayotte beach

What is the community like?

The white population, almost exclusively from metropolitan France, are mainly there to work – teachers, hospital staff, police. There’s no real animosity, but neither is there a lot of mixing with the local population of Mahorais. Consequently, word gets around the white community quickly. So if you don’t want something to be known, best be careful what you say!

And what advice would you offer anyone thinking of visiting or even moving to Mayotte?

There aren’t many tourists as yet, the island still lacking in infrastructure, and competing with other islands like Mauritius, which is much better equipped. But a tourist could easily stay for a fortnight without getting bored, no doubt longer if you’re into diving and snorkelling. Any stay longer than that means finding some activity to keep you busy. If you don’t actually have a job (which is my case), then another activity is essential. Could be botanical, or helping out in an association educating young children, or learning the language (shimaoré), or writing. As I’ve only just retired, and writing is a passion of mine, I have more than enough to do to keep myself busy!


Preparing a voule

A bit about Curtis:

I was a university teacher in France until a few months ago, then followed my wife to Mayotte, where she works as a school inspector. We’ll stay two years, which seems about right to get to know the place well. But any more might be difficult in such a small place. I’m very happy writing (and blogging!), and fortunate that I can do that anywhere. Right now I’m learning as much as I can about Mayotte, both through observation and research, to make it the setting of a current work in progress. Because of the complexity of the island’s population and history, it offers a rich, and little-known, context to have as the background to a novel.


Thank you so much Curtis for your fascinating introduction to the small place where you live. You can read Curtis’s blog Journey of a Squivelist here and in the meantime if anyone else who lives in a small place (including small islands, rocks, even small towns) would like to feature on my blog please let me know!