Coordinates: 60°45′N 0°53′W / 60.75°N 0.89°W / 60.75; -0.89
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Old Norse nameǪmstr[1]
Unst is located in Shetland
Unst shown within Shetland
OS grid referenceHP600091
Coordinates60°45′N 0°53′W / 60.75°N 0.89°W / 60.75; -0.89
Physical geography
Island groupShetland
Area120.68 km²
Area rank14 [2]
Highest elevationSaxa Vord, 284 m (932 ft)
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Council areaShetland Islands
Population632 (2011) [3]
Population rank19 [2]
Population density5.2 people/km² [3][4]
Largest settlementBaltasound

Unst (/ˈʌnst/; Norn: Ønst) is one of the North Isles of the Shetland Islands, Scotland. It is the northernmost of the inhabited British Isles and is the third-largest island in Shetland after Mainland and Yell. It has an area of 46 sq mi (120 km2).[4]

Unst is largely grassland, with coastal cliffs. Its main village is Baltasound, formerly the second-largest herring fishing port after Lerwick and now the location of a leisure centre and the island's airport. Other settlements include Uyeasound, home to Greenwell's Booth (a Hanseatic warehouse) and Muness Castle (built in 1598 and sacked by pirates in 1627); and Haroldswick, location of a boat museum and a heritage centre.


There are three island names in Shetland of unknown and possibly pre-Celtic origin: Unst, Fetlar and Yell. The earliest recorded forms of these three names do carry Norse meanings: Fetlar is the plural of fetill and means "shoulder-straps", Ǫmstr is "corn-stack" and í Ála is from ál meaning "deep furrow".

However, these descriptions are hardly obvious ones as island names and are probably adaptations of a pre-Norse language.[6][7] This may have been Pictish but there is no clear evidence for this.[8][9] Taylor (1898) has suggested a derivation from the Old Norse "Ornyst" meaning "eagle's nest".[10]


Muness Castle

The Shetland Amenity Trust's "Viking Unst" project excavated and displayed part of the island's Norse heritage. Work was undertaken on three longhouses – of which 60 are known of on the island – at Hamar, Underhoull and Belmont. The replica Viking ship Skibladner can currently be seen ashore at Haroldswick.[11]

Skibladner, Unst

The remains of pre-12th-century Christian chapels survive on Unst: St Olaf's Chapel, Lund, and Our Lady's Kirk at Framgord, Sandwick on the south east coast.[12] Norse-style cross-shaped gravestones stand in the surrounding burial grounds at both Lund and Framgord, and rare "keelstone" burial markers survive at Framgord.[13][14][15] Late Norse longhouses have been identified around both bays; the house at Sandwick still retains its cow-shaped byre door.[16]

Small cross-shaped marker with a grave stone shaped like the keel of an inverted ship at the late-Norse Christian Chapel at Framgord, Sandwick.

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell sailed to Shetland after the Battle of Carberry Hill. He was at the house of Olave Sinclair, the receiver or sheriff of Shetland on Unst, in July 1567 when his enemies arrived in three ships, and he fought a sea battle for three hours before sailing to Norway.[17][18] A later sheriff, Laurence Bruce, built Muness Castle in 1598.

The Rev Dr James Ingram (1776–1879) was minister of Unst from 1821. In the Disruption of 1843, he and most of the Unst population, left the established church and joined the Free Church of Scotland (a very typical pattern in the Highlands and Islands). He erected a new church at Uyeasound, funded by the Countess of Effingham. Ingram retired in 1875 aged 99 and died aged a remarkable 103. His father and grandfather also lived to over 100.[19]

Robert Louis Stevenson's father and uncle were the main design engineers for the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga, just off Hermaness on the north-west of the island. Stevenson visited Unst, and the island is claimed to have become the basis for the map of the fictional Treasure Island[20] – a claim shared by Fidra in East Lothian.

In the 1950s, a Canadian sociologist, Erving Goffman, undertook a year of ethnographic research on Unst for his doctoral thesis, which underpinned his best known publication, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956) and the dramaturgy approach he developed.[21]

Geography and geology[edit]

The island lays claim to many "most northerly" UK titles: the tiny settlement of Skaw in the north-east of the island is the northernmost settlement in the UK; Haroldswick is the site of Britain's most northerly church; the Muckle Flugga lighthouse, just off the far north of Unst, was opened in 1858 and is the most northerly lighthouse in the UK, situated close to Out Stack, the most northerly rock in the UK.

Western Norway is 200 miles (300 km) away.

The islands of Unst and Fetlar are mainly formed of ultramafic and mafic igneous rocks which are interpreted to form part of an ophiolite,[22] a section of oceanic crust from the Iapetus ocean which was destroyed during the Caledonian orogeny.

Unst was once the location of several chromite quarries, one of which was served by the now-disused Hagdale Chromate Railway from 1907 to 1937.[23] Unst is the type locality for the mineral theophrastite, a nickel-magnesium variant of the mineral, (Ni,Mg)(OH)2, having been discovered at Hagdale in 1960.[24]

On 7 January 2007, Unst was shaken by an earthquake measuring 4.9 on the Richter scale, which at the time was assessed by the British Geological Survey as "the largest earthquake of its kind in the area for 10 years".[25]

Economy and transport[edit]

The Unst Bus Shelter

Ferries link Belmont on the island to Gutcher on Yell and Oddsta on Fetlar.

The Unst Bus Shelter, also known as Bobby's Bus Shelter after a child who saved it from removal, is a bus shelter and bus stop near the village of Baltasound which is equipped with home comforts such as a television set, and is maintained by local residents.[26]

Unst is also home to the Promoting Unst Renewable Energy (PURE) Wind Hydrogen project,[27] a community-owned clean energy system based on hydrogen production. This project is part of the Unst Partnership, the community's development trust. The Pure Energy Centre was formed using the skills and knowledge gained during the PURE Project and has installed hydrogen systems in diverse locations.[28]

At the southern end of Unst, above the island's ferry terminal, stands Belmont House. Dating from 1775, Belmont has been described as "possibly the most ambitious, least-altered classical mansion in the Northern Isles".[29] It was restored between 1996 and 2010 by a charitable trust, who now operate the building as a venue for hire.[30]

The island's population was 632 as recorded by the 2011 census,[3] a drop of over 12% since 2001 when there were 720 usual residents.[31] During the same period Scottish island populations as a whole grew by 4% to 103,702.[32]

In 2016, the island was the subject of Series 11 of BBC Two's An Island Parish.[33]

The island has an airstrip, the Unst Airport, which has been decommissioned as an airport, has no regular flights and is only used for emergency flights.

Saxa Vord[edit]

The Saxa Vord Royal Air Force radar station closed in 2006, with the loss of more than 100 jobs.[34]

In April 2007, RAF Saxa Vord's domestic site, plus the road up to the Mid Site, was purchased and renamed "Saxa Vord Resort" by Highland entrepreneur Frank Strang. Strang's company Military Asset Management (MAM) "specialises in the regeneration of redundant or surplus Defence Assets".[35] The base was converted to a tourist resort and natural and cultural heritage centre. In 2013, Saxa Vord had self-catering holiday houses, a 26-bedroom bunkhouse, restaurant and bar, leisure facilities and a guided walks/evening talks programme.[36] Three local business relocated their premises to the Saxa Vord site: Unst Cycle Hire, Valhalla Brewery[37] and Foord's Chocolates, Shetland's only chocolatier.[38] Saxa Vord distillery, a gin and whisky distillery is located on Unst.[39]

SaxaVord Spaceport

In 2017, Frank Strang established the Shetland Space Centre Ltd and proposed that Lamba Ness would make a suitable launch site for rockets taking satellites into polar orbits.[40] In October 2020, the proposal was given more substance by the announcement that the UK Space Agency had given its approval and that Lockheed Martin was intending to use the site as a UK base for its rocket launches.[41]

In January 2021, plans were submitted for three rocket launch pads[42] and the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced on 17 December 2023 that SaxaVord had been granted a spaceport licence "to host up to 30 launches a year", making it "the first fully licensed vertical spaceport in Western Europe."[43][44]


Unst is important for its seabird colonies, including those at Hermaness National Nature Reserve. It is also known for its plant life, including the Norwegian sandwort and Shetland Mouse-ear, the latter unique to the island.

On the island, the commonly seen Great skua is known as the "bonxie".[33]

Notable people[edit]

James Ingram by Otto Leyde

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pálsson and Edwards (1978) p. 251
  2. ^ a b Area and population ranks: there are c. 300 islands over 20 ha in extent and 93 permanently inhabited islands were listed in the 2011 census.
  3. ^ a b c National Records of Scotland (15 August 2013). "Appendix 2: Population and households on Scotland's Inhabited Islands" (PDF). Statistical Bulletin: 2011 Census: First Results on Population and Household Estimates for Scotland Release 1C (Part Two) (PDF) (Report). SG/2013/126. Retrieved 14 August 2020.
  4. ^ a b c Haswell-Smith (2004) pp. 481–85
  5. ^ Ordnance Survey. OS Maps Online (Map). 1:25,000. Leisure.
  6. ^ Gammeltoft (2010) p. 17
  7. ^ Gammeltoft (2010) pp. 19–20
  8. ^ Gammeltoft (2010) p. 9
  9. ^ "Norn" Shetlopedia Retrieved 23 January 2011
  10. ^ Taylor (1898)
  11. ^ "Viking Unst" Archived 11 August 2012 at the Wayback Machine Shetland Amenity Trust Retrieved 5 January 2014
  12. ^ "Trail 5: Sandwick to Framgord". Shetland Amenity Trust. Retrieved 15 September 2014.
  13. ^ "Unst, Sandwick, Framgord Chapel and Cemetery". Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland. Retrieved 15 September 2014.
  14. ^ Burral and Sandwick. Unst Heritage Trust booklet available 2014.
  15. ^ Sandwick Archaeology and History. SCAPE Trust (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion) pamphlet available 2014.
  16. ^ Ritchie, Anna (1993). Viking Scotland. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd. pp. 122–124. ISBN 0-7134-7316-9.
  17. ^ Agnes Strickland, Letters of Mary Queen of Scots vol. 1 (London, 1842), pp. 244–248
  18. ^ Guy, John, Queen of Scots, the True Life (2005), p. 360
  19. ^ Ewing, William Annals of the Free Church
  20. ^ "Unst: the island above all others" unst.org Retrieved 15 July 2009
  21. ^ Anthony Elliott; Bryan S. Turner (23 July 2001). Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory. SAGE Publications. p. 94. ISBN 978-0-7619-6589-3. Retrieved 3 March 2014.
  22. ^ "Unst on the Scottish Geology website maintained by the Hunterian Museum". www.scottishgeology.com.
  23. ^ Simms, Wilfred F. (1997) The Railways Of Shetland ISBN 0-9528881-3-0
  24. ^ Livingston, A. and Bish, D. L. (March 1982) "On the new mineral theophrastite, a nickel hydroxide, from Unst, Shetland, Scotland" Mineralogical Magazine 6 No. 338
  25. ^ "Earthquake at sea shakes island". 8 January 2007 – via news.bbc.co.uk.
  26. ^ "Unst Bus Shelter". Retrieved 8 January 2008.
  27. ^ "PURE hydrogen project". Archived from the original on 4 February 2016. Retrieved 4 February 2016.
  28. ^ "PURE Energy Centre Ltd" Archived 2 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine SHFCA Retrieved 21 January 2014
  29. ^ Historic Environment Scotland. "BELMONT HOUSE (GDL00054)". Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  30. ^ "Belmont House". Belmont Trust. Retrieved 25 August 2011.
  31. ^ General Register Office for Scotland (28 November 2003) Scotland's Census 2001 – Occasional Paper No 10: Statistics for Inhabited Islands. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
  32. ^ "Scotland's 2011 census: Island living on the rise" BBC News Retrieved 18 August 2013
  33. ^ a b "BBC Two – An Island Parish, Series 11 – Shetland, Your People Shall Be My People". BBC. Retrieved 4 April 2016.
  34. ^ "'No funds' for closing radar base". BBC. 24 August 2005. Retrieved 8 January 2008.
  35. ^ "Military Asset Management". Military Asset Management. Archived from the original on 9 March 2007. Retrieved 8 February 2010.
  36. ^ "Saxa Vord Resort". Retrieved 30 January 2013.
  37. ^ "Valhalla Brewery". Retrieved 6 November 2007.
  38. ^ "Foords Chocolates". Archived from the original on 19 October 2011. Retrieved 6 November 2007.
  39. ^ Wishart, David (2020). Whisky Classified. Choosing Single Malts by Flavour. Pavilion Books. p. 263. ISBN 978-1911595731.
  40. ^ "Unst in Shetland to aim for space programme". BBC Scotland. 14 November 2017. Retrieved 16 November 2020.
  41. ^ "The Race Is On As The UK Goes Ahead With The Approval Of The Shetland Space Centre". Orbital Today. 2 November 2020. Retrieved 16 November 2020.
  42. ^ "Shetland space launch plans submitted". BBC. 18 January 2021. Retrieved 23 January 2021.
  43. ^ "Shetland is first UK spaceport for vertical rocket launches". BBC News. 17 December 2023. Retrieved 18 December 2023.
  44. ^ SaxaVord granted spaceport licence by UK Civil Aviation Authority UK Civil Aviation Authority, 2023-22-17.
  45. ^ "Thomas Barclay". University of Glasgow. Retrieved 25 February 2010.
  46. ^ "Sinclair B. Ferguson". Banner of Truth Trust. Retrieved 26 October 2017.


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