Around Unst and to Muckle Flugga

Yesterday marked the first day of a holiday in Shetland and it certainly got off to an excellent start with a chartered boat trip around Unst.

It was all a bit of a rush in the morning with a fairly short window of opportunity for getting off the ferry, offloading the kids with my parents at our amazing accommodation, and then getting to the ferry at Toft to head to Yell by 8.45am. It was a tall order, but we made it and our small group gathered at Cullivoe to head out on board Lysander, the new boat owned by the same company as the Compass Rose which took us to Muckle Flugga and numerous islands in the area in 2019.

We climbed on board and off we set. It was very good to be back out with bagging friends after such a long time without being part of a group beyond just a few people. The plan was to sail clockwise around Unst and visit a number of islands on the way. We got off to a good start and after a few members of the group had set foot on some islands it was time to head for the main event of the day, an attempt to land on Muckle Flugga. The skipper reported the conditions up there the previous day had been very rough and so he didn’t hold out much hope of landing. Ever the optimist I was willing to withhold judgement until we got closer. The further north we got the more surprised we became at how calm it still seemed. Finally Muckle Flugga with its majestic lighthouse came into view and us lighthouse baggers waited patiently – well, not actually very patiently at all.

Approaching Muckle Flugga

As we edged closer it became more obvious that landing was likely to be possible, although we still needed to check out the landing area a bit closer as there was still a little bit of swell running in there. A few of us keen beans hopped into the brilliant ‘tin bath’ tender and set off for the landing. There was quite a bit of movement in the water, but thankfully not enough to stop us getting safely onto the rocks.

Looking up on the approach to the landing

After a brief celebration we were keen to get going up those historical steps. It was a real delight to see so many puffins around and although many were scared off as we made our way up the steps, we were still able to see them at fairly close range. There were some fulmar chicks around too threatening to spit at us, but we left them in peace and moved on.

Puffins on Muckle Flugga
Out Stack and the puffins

Although I’d been before and so knew the lie of the land there, it was still a real pleasure to see the stunning views towards Out Stack and to the east. Added to this was the pure joy emanating from those I was with who felt just as awe-inspired as I had the first time around, enjoying the combination of getting to this so rarely visited corner of the British Isles and seeing the incredible lighthouse and landscape of the area.

The view south from Muckle Flugga
Muckle Flugga Lighthouse
The lighthouse from the helipad

There was no way we could have gone to Muckle Flugga without Joe the Drone coming along. I’ll let those pictures speak for themselves.

Muckle Flugga and its neighbouring rocks
A Joe the Drone view of Muckle Flugga Lighthouse
Muckle Flugga Lighthouse and Out Stack

Knowing our work was not done for the day, we enjoyed the last moments of exploring before descending back down to the boat. After leaving Muckle Flugga we headed down Burra Firth for a few of the group to set foot on another island. This was rather fortuitous as it gave us a chance to see the Muckle Flugga Shore Station from the sea.

Muckle Flugga Shore Station at Burrafirth

I was particularly excited about our next stop as it was an island I knew wouldn’t be easy to get to. Holm of Skaw is home to the lighthouse that replaced an old sector light which was within the Muckle Flugga complex. The structure here is a flat-pack lighthouse and very much a standard one. There was a bit of swell at the landing point we went for on the west side of the island. The rocks were covered in barnacles, which certainly helped to prevent slipping, but wasn’t too easy on the hands. Once up on the grass it was actually quite a surprising island, which reminded me a lot of some of the islands in Yell Sound, like Little Holm and Muckle Holm with some really surprising flora and fauna about. The island is fairly flat and grass-covered, but there are some reminders of its harsh location with some impressive geology on the east side. I found this particularly interesting as I always expect the west side of islands to be the more rugged, but I suppose its location gives it a little protection from the west.

Approaching Holm of Skaw Lighthouse
Holm of Skaw Lighthouse
A geo on the east side of Holm of Skaw

Joe the Drone refuses to miss an opportunity so got some excellent images of the island.

Holm of Skaw from above
Holm of Skaw

After the challenges of landing on the west, we used a calmer spot on the south of the island for returning to the tender. I had missed getting a bit wet on a tender so was actually quite pleased, sitting at the very front of the tender, to get a bit of a splashing. You don’t get the fully experience if you aren’t splashed along the way on these boat days.

Down the east side of Unst we had our final stop of the day, which was Balta island. I’d visited this one and its lighthouse in 2019, but it was great to approach the island from the north this time and see how just long it is. It’s a pretty special island and somehow stands out from many others. It boasts some very impressive little beaches and it was only from seeing the drone shots later on that day that I appreciated just how rugged it is on the east side. Again it surprised me, but this one is very much more sheltered on the west side with Balta Sound being only a relatively narrow channel between the island and Unst.

Balta island from the north
Balta from the south

We landed on the rocks below the little breakwater and set off, heading south to the lighthouse for the lighthouse baggers to visit Balta Sound Lighthouse. This is another easy island to walk about on and the sheep have left some nice little tracks all over the place. There are remains of old buildings on the island and I imagine there is plenty of history there and it once was home to a fairly good-sized population.

On the approach to Balta Sound Lighthouse
Balta Sound Lighthouse

It was great to see the lighthouse again and to be joined by the rest of the lighthouse bagging group there too. It’s another standard flat-pack, but it’s a really lovely location. I could spend a lot longer on the island just walking around its coastline.

Balta island

It was then time to head back to Cullivoe and rest after an enjoyable but tiring day 🙂