I am huddling in a hollow atop a mammoth black cliff. Below, a ferocious gale is whipping up the waves of the North Atlantic into mountainous white peaks, the breaks causing the ground to reverberate with powerful shudders. I try to stand but the wind slams into me, bowling me sideways. "This is a pretty fierce storm," shouts my guide, David Richardson, above the roar. At that point the rain arrives, swathing earthwards in a biblical deluge. I hunker down, exhilarated and spellbound, into my hollow. Thank the stars for Gore-Tex.
It should be clear by now that a weekend on Unst – the UK's most northern outpost, located at the furthest corner of the far-flung Shetlands – is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. First, there's the weather. "It's not always too bad," says David. He's not wrong. Within 20 minutes of our thrilling cliff-top storm we are walking through bright sunshine, the view framed by blue skies and white fluffy clouds. "The weather moves pretty quickly through this part of the world," says David. "You can get all four seasons in one day."
To get a sense of perspective on Unst's location, consider this – it is further north than Helsinki; Prague is closer to London than Unst; if you head north from Unst the next landmass is straight over the North Pole in Chukotka, northern Siberia. Finally, the nearest capital city is Oslo and the nearest cinema (or conurbation of any description) is Bergen in western Norway.
The landscapes are also huge, bleak and magnificent. "I know it's an overused adjective," says David, "but I think you can rightly sum this place up as awesome." With the changing weather arrive plentiful rainbows – I count six in one day – and dramatic changes of light. The lack of trees adds to the effect; just vast open tracts of unsullied land that most of the UK has long since seen the back of. It's easy to imagine I am in another country.
"The locals certainly don't consider themselves Scottish," says David, as we walk along the cliffs. "And they've always looked more towards Scandinavia than Britain." Travel back to the start of the 20th century and Unst was home to a population of up to 10,000 who came to work in the island's herring fisheries. These days, a sparse population of 500 is spread throughout Unst's 12-mile by five-mile expanse. Go back further, and the entire Shetland archipelago was under the control of the Vikings.
Just off Hermanness is a run of jagged rocks called Out Stack. "That's officially the final point of the British Isles," says David. It is, quite literally, the ends of the earth.
When not guiding people through storms, David is also head of marketing and development at the remarkable Saxa Vord. "This used to be the UK's premier RAF Cold War listening station," says David as we arrive at a cluster of former military buildings set just behind a looming hill south of Hermanness. The plan is to turn the old station into a unique North Atlantic tourist resort. "First, we're trying to get the hospitality right," he says.
With gallons of piping hot, strong tea, piles of cake and a mountain of freshly cut sandwiches plonked down in front of us the moment we return from our walk, Saxa Vord is certainly getting the hosting right.
The former living quarters and offices are to be turned into accommodation and conference and cultural facilities, with a spa.
A short walk brings me to a circle of sturdy houses. "These were the married quarters, and it's where you'll be staying," says David. I'm led into a newly decorated house complete with three bedrooms, giant kitchen, living room and conservatory.
Later, over some succulent locally caught haddock, David is keen to hear my first impressions. I confess that Unst is wild, dramatic and hard to reach (it took a train, a plane and two boats to get here). The accommodation is excellent and the warmth of the welcome certainly genuine. "And what's been the highlight?" he asks. For me, it is the storm on the cliffs – a unique chance for this city boy to feel the full force of nature.
How to get there
Andrew Spooner travelled to Shetland courtesy of Virgin Trains (virgintrains. co.uk). Flights from Stansted to Shetland 23 May-27 Oct 2008 with Atlantic Airways (flyshetland.com).
For accommodation and activities contact Saxa Vord resort (saxavord.com).
Contact Visit Shetland (visit shetland.com)
Further browsing: read about the heritage of Unst and Shetland at shetland-heritage.co.ukReuse content