Northern highlights

The Shetland Islands are unlike any other place in the UK. Beautiful, remote, wild and just a little wacky, writes Laura Craig Gray

The pilot of the small plane aiming for Britain's most northerly air hub told us what weather we could expect at our destination. "This morning it's plus nine degrees." The use of the word "plus" was alarming; this was summer after all. But the "Auld Rock" - the name given to Shetland by the islands' scattered inhabitants - is further from London than is Milan. Sumburgh airport is at the far southern tip of the Shetland archipelago; from here, I had resolved to travel to the UK's most northerly point on the island of Unst, which involves driving 70 miles and taking two ferries.

The pilot of the small plane aiming for Britain's most northerly air hub told us what weather we could expect at our destination. "This morning it's plus nine degrees." The use of the word "plus" was alarming; this was summer after all. But the "Auld Rock" - the name given to Shetland by the islands' scattered inhabitants - is further from London than is Milan. Sumburgh airport is at the far southern tip of the Shetland archipelago; from here, I had resolved to travel to the UK's most northerly point on the island of Unst, which involves driving 70 miles and taking two ferries.

My mother was born in Lerwick, Shetland's diminutive capital. She maintains that the British public underestimate the islands' size and remoteness, and for this she blames television weather forecasters. They have a tendency to shrink Shetland and to put it in a little box apparently within easy swimming distance of John O'Groats. Yet the Shetlanders' isolation from the mainland is a huge part of their identity. As they will tell you, Lerwick is further north than Moscow and closer to Oslo than London.

I was strangely relieved to be met at the airport by a representative of the car-hire company. Arrangements had sounded rather casual when I had spoken to the staff on the phone beforehand, as had the ferry company and the lady at the B&B. In each case, they simply wanted to know my name and my time of arrival.

The drive from Sumburgh to Unst was a breeze. Thanks to money from the oil industry, Shetland's roads are wide, well-maintained and virtually empty. Frequent, cheap ferry services link the islands. The landscape is wild and open: you can see for miles because of the absence of trees. However, this is no wilderness. For most of the route we were within sight of houses - modern, Scandinavian-style bungalows or picturesque stone crofts, many of which were ruined. The road took us along cliffs, past lochs, through stunning wild-flower meadows and across barren moorland scarred by shallow peat trenches. My companion and I had booked B&B accommodation in the village of Uyeasound on the southern coast of Unst. The house was a grand former manse surrounded by a field of Shetland ponies. When I asked for a key to the front door our landlady just laughed.

The UK's northernmost castle is a short distance away at Muness. This is one building that is kept locked, but only to keep out the sea birds. If it were in England, it would undoubtedly be run by the National Trust or English Heritage. Tourists would be charged admission and subjected to the whole pot-pourri-and-William-Morris-oven-glove experience. To visit Muness Castle, however, you simply knock at the white cottage nearby and the elderly crofter who lives there gives you a torch and the (huge and heavy) key. It proved to be a modest but rambling ruin, with small stone chambers, crumbling spiral staircases and little turrets looking out to sea.

When we returned the keys to the cottage, the gentleman living there told us how the castle had been built in 1598 by Laurence Bruce, a ruthless laird (landowner) who was engaged in a feud with his half brother, the Earl of Orkney and Lord of Shetland. He told us of the appalling cruelty with which the lairds treated the crofters and described the castle as having been built with "slave labour".

Our next stop was dinner at the Baltasound Hotel. The bar was full of Shetland fishermen clad in waterproofs. I listened in briefly to their conversation but could barely follow a word. The Shetland accent is radically different from mainland Scottish pronunciation, and the Shetland vocabulary is rich with words of Norse origin. As a result, this dialect is on the cusp of being another language altogether. Shetlanders still have polite and familiar forms for the second person - the word "du" (rather than "you") is used if speaking to a child, family member or animal. And the Shetlanders' lexicon is particularly precise when it comes to words for rain - from "weety" (damp mist) via "drush" (fine drizzle) through to "vaanloop" (a downpour).

It is not just the language that can seem alien; the landscape and culture often feel more Scandinavian than Scottish. The islands are riven with fjords or "voes"; steep-sided sea inlets. This is not a land of tartan, pipers and haggis, but of knitting, fiddlers and beremeal bannocks. At times it is difficult to believe that Unst is part of Britain at all. When we dropped our postcards into the UK's most northerly postbox I found myself surprised that its livery was the standard Royal Mail red. Later, watching Newsnight brought home just how far north we were. When the presenter linked to a correspondent reporting live from Downing Street, I noted with pleasure that it was dark in London, but still perfectly light in Unst.

In fact, it did not get properly dark at all. I got up at 1.30am to check. "Simmer Dim" is the Shetland expression for the gloriously long summer evenings. We had heard that this is also the name given to one of the beers produced at Unst's Valhalla Brewery - one of Unst's key visitor attractions. As we drove there the following morning, we came across a bizarre sight at the side of the road: a functioning, council-run bus shelter that is carpeted and decked out with net curtains, a sofa, several flourishing begonias, a TV, VCR, computer, microwave, sandwich toaster and stuffed cat. In case you get bored waiting for your bus in Bobby's bus shelter (as it is known), novels, magazines and a hilarious visitors' book are supplied. The only things missing are a bus timetable and an explanation of who Bobby is. It might not quite be the UK's most northerly, but Bobby's bus shelter is undoubtedly the most kitsch. Its barren location adds to the sense of the surreal. There was a stuffed gerbil in a cage in the corner, drinking "Simmer Dim" of course.

When we got to the brewery we were given the tour by Sonny, who set it up seven years ago. It is a thriving business and he hopes that his expansion plans will enable him to employ more locals. Because there is so little work on Unst, most of the island's youngsters never come back to settle after going away to secondary school. Unst's population remains steady, however, at around 1,000, thanks to the trickle of outsiders who come here to retire.

We left the brewery and drove north to a beautiful bay called the Taing. By the beach was a charming, tumble-down cottage. Clearly, I was not the first to have the fantasy: there was a big sign on the gate declaring "NOT FOR SALE". We set off from here on foot, up the cliff road to Skaw. It was too windy to talk but gloriously sunny. Skylarks sang overhead and the hillside was strewn with bog-cotton. After half an hour we arrived at the UK's most northerly house: a small farm crouching in the valley. We crossed the little wooden bridge beside the house and walked through a wild-flower meadow and on to Britain's most northerly beach. It was an idyllic setting: we sat on the golden sand and watched the seals playing in the breakers. For lunch, we went inland to the village of Haroldswick. There are no cafés or restaurants here. But in the UK's most northerly shop, there is a side room with facilities where visitors can cook food and sit down to eat it. The payment system operates entirely on trust.

The same was true of the visitor centre at Hermaness, one of Scotland's most spectacular nature reserves. A hike around it takes four hours. Initially we walked across grassland and moors. Orchids and sea-pinks were everywhere, and there was not a cloud in the sky. But soon we reached the cliffs and stacks where over 100,000 breeding sea birds make their home in summer. We saw great skuas, guillemots and puffins - comically struggling to land on ledges in the wind. Eventually we arrived at the most northerly accessible point in the UK. Just off the coast we could see the tiny, uninhabited island of Muckle Flugga. Its lighthouse was built by the father of Robert Louis Stevenson and those of a romantic inclination declare that it is the location on which Treasure Island was modelled. Maybe the similarities are more apparent on days when it is not necessary to wear two coats, a woolly hat, a hood and gloves. Just beyond Muckle Flugga lies Out Stack, a rocky column that really is the UK's most northerly point.

Elsewhere in the world, my sense of achievement at having reached the top of a mountain or the end of a long walk across difficult terrain is often diminished by the unexpected presence of people selling T-shirts and Coke. To my huge relief, nothing marks the most northerly point in the UK. It is just as it should be: desolate and utterly beautiful.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Shetland is easily accessible from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness on Loganair, operating on behalf of British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). A typical fare is £160 return from Aberdeen to Sumburgh. By sea, NorthLink Orkney and Shetland Ferries sail overnight from Aberdeen (01856 885500; www.northlinkferries.co.uk). A bunk in a four-berth cabin costs £36 in the low season or £55 in the high season for a single trip.

GETTING AROUND

There is a daily bus service (except Sundays) from Lerwick to Unst, but a rental car is very useful; Laura Craig Gray rented one from Bolts Car Hire Ltd (01950 460777; www.boltscarhire.co.uk) for £75 for three days.

To reach Unst it is necessary to take two short ferry crossings - one from Toft in the north of the Shetland mainland to the island of Yell and then one from Yell to Unst. The return fare is £19.60 for two people with a car. The ferries run roughly every 30 minutes and are operated by the Shetland Islands Council (01957 722259; www.shetland.gov.uk/ferries). Booking is strongly recommended.

ACCOMMODATION

Laura Craig Gray stayed at Prestegaard at Uyeasound on Unst (01957 755234). B&B: £19 per person per night.

MORE INFORMATION

Shetland Islands Tourism (01595 693434; www.visitshetland.com);

Bobby's bus stop ( www.unstbusshelter.shetland.co.uk); Valhalla Brewery ( www.valhallabrewery.co.uk)

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