Where the Shetland Ponies Play

Beach on Unst, Shetland

We rolled and rocked over the North Sea; we were bound for Lerwick, capital of the Shetland islands. Some days the sea is too rough and the ferries won’t run, stranding people at the docks. Luckily for us, we had a relatively calm ride. We set up shop in one of the lounges at the far end of the ship, watching a few movies before curling up to sleep on the benches. When we initially planned to sleep in the lounge, we felt a little shy about it, but looking around we could see that we were amateurs. More seasoned ferry riders were pulling out sleeping bags, pillows, and eye masks; everything they needed for a good night sleep curled up on a bench.

We arrived early into Lerwick, and hopped a bus to work our way basically as far north as we could go. After three buses and two ferries, we had made it to our new home for the next few weeks, the Baltasound Hotel on Unst! Unst is one of the North Isles in the Shetland islands. While we initially thought the landscape looked a bit barren, we realized that it had a beauty all its own.

Beach on Unst, Shetland

It’s windy all the time. The few evenings when the wind has died down almost completely make you feel a bit strange for a moment (before you feel relieved at the break!). We were given our first day to get a look around the place, and we took full advantage. Hiking around the Keen of Hamar nature reserve, we eventually made our way to the nearby community of Haroldswick. Unfortunately, at three in the afternoon on a Tuesday, everything was closed. On the bright side, we did get to see a replica Viking ship and longhouse!

We were lucky enough to arrive just in time to catch the end of the yule season and the local fire festivals that come along with it. We made our way to the Up Helly Aa festival on Yell, the neighbouring island to Unst, with a new friend from the hotel. The weather was awful, the wind was blowing and rain was spattering, but the locals were still ready to party!

We started the night at the top of a hill overlooking the bay at Cullivoe. The Guizer Jarl (the head honcho) led his own jarl squad (complete with requisite Viking attire) and  all the other jarl squads with flaming torches down the street toward the bay, guiding a small Viking galley to the harbour. Reaching the harbour, they set the ship into the water. The jarl squads cheered and marched before one by one throwing their torches onto the galley and setting it alight. As the burning ship drifted further into the bay, fireworks were set off and the cheering jarl squads made their way back up to the hall to get the real party started! Each jarl squad gave performances, ranging from songs to skits to mini-game shows, filled with insider jokes poking fun at the Guizer Jarl and his squad members (most of which went over our heads). They wrapped up at around midnight, after which the bar opened up and the dancing started. Young and old alike danced the night away. Nathanael and I tried (and failed) our hand at the local dances and nearly trampled two adorable little girls. Before we knew it, it was six in the morning and we were just getting to bed.

Up Helly Aa festival in Cullivoe, Shetland

Viking ship burning Up Helly Aa festival in Cullivoe, Shetland

Muness Castle was at the top of our must-see list for Unst. The most northerly castle in Britain, building of Muness Castle began in 1598. Unfortunately, use of the castle was short-lived. Raided in 1627, the castle changed hands in 1718, and was abandoned by 1750. Just shy of 20 miles round-trip, it was a hefty bike ride but well worth the effort!

Muness Castle, Unst, Shetland

The castle is small, but has a special charm. The sign leading up to the gate invites you in, “Castle open, no key required.” Just inside the door, tucked into a cabinet to keep out moisture, a couple of flashlights have been left by Scotland Trust for guests to use while exploring the castle with just a friendly reminder to ensure they are switched off when they are returned to the cabinet. The lower level is dark and mysterious; following a staircase up leads to the partially intact upper levels with crumbling fireplaces and time-eaten stairs.

Hiking around Unst is like stumbling over all the historical periods we’re taught about in school (stone, bronze, etc) all at once. The Shetlands are an archaeological gem. Moving backwards through time, you have the ruined stone homesteads from the past couple generations which dot the landscape wherever you look. You have Muness Castle from the 17th century, and right down the road is the Clivocast Stone, a standing stone possibly from the Neolithic Age. A few miles north, and you can find Underhoull Broch from the Iron Age and several remains of Viking longhouses from the Viking/Norse Period.

As you may have guessed from the title (and were probably waiting for the whole time while reading this), ponies!

Shetland ponies are everywhere and they’re so cute! Sturdy and furry, ambling across the fields wherever you go. While some are a bit shy, a lot of them come right up to the fence when you walk by. Apparently they’re expecting treats, though I can’t imagine why…

Shetland Ponies, Unst, Shetland

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