Island of the Month #3 Unst

The Isle Above All Others 

In our third Island of the Month series we go to the most northerly inhabited island in the UK. At 46 square miles, Unst is the third largest island in Shetland after the mainland and Yell. We spoke to Gordon Thomson of the Unst Partnership (UP) to find out more about their work in the community and the challenges faced by this most northerly isle. 

Those plying their trade in the North Sea, from ancient vikings to oil riggers, have found Unst to be a strategic safe haven, but the recent population history of Unst appears to have been at the mercy of the changing nature of both industry and military. 

Oil & the RAF 

In the 1970s the population of Unst was around 1200, partly sustained by the arrival of Chevron Oil (now the third biggest oil company ‘across the pond’) in the 1980s. The impact on the local population and economy was significant, as was the impact when they withdrew in 1995. But it wasn’t just the oil industry that made its presence felt.  

With a radar station presence dating back to the Second World War, Unst has been host to the decade-by-decade modernisation of military radar technology, with the number of defence related jobs sitting at around 250 at one time. However, just like an oil boom’s inevitable bust, so a combination of technological advances and defence cuts reduced the need for radar station personnel based in Unst and the RAF left in 2005. 

Population now sits at around 650, with a more balanced mix of jobs including agriculture, tourism, aquaculture, and public sector jobs in education, roads, ferries and healthcare. In contrast to some other Scottish Islands, Gordon feels that the local council have to be acknowledged for their work investing oil money in remote communities like Unst, and he cites the fact they have a good leisure centre, generally good road infrastructure, and a ferry service that is frequent and reliable.  

Employment 

Formed in 2000, UP’s main aim was to work with Shetland Islands Council on job creation when the RAF announced it would be withdrawing. Through partnerships with agencies like HIE (the then Shetland Enterprise), UP supported new business startups for the benefit of the wider community such as the Pure Energy Centre which was ahead of its time working on a range of renewable energy technologies. They secured support for creation of a small industrial estate with 5 units which paved the way for companies like boat builders Unst Inshore Services. Shetland Amenity Trust also made use of this to begin a new scrap/vehicle collection scheme. The Council opened a new Care Centre on the island in partnership with Shetland Welfare Trust. Partnership working remains crucial to UP, and they provide regular updates to the local community council. 

Lift off 

There is a chequered history of grand development ideas being floated in Scottish Island communities, and Unst has had its fair share: one such idea was for a deluxe spa resort on the old RAF estate. “Another big development in 2005 was when the much of the RAF Saxavord radar site was taken over by Saxavord Resort Ltd. This included a some twenty five houses and other facilities like big storage buildings, and a large kitchen from the old officers’ mess. There were all sorts of plans for a resort, health spa and shop.” 

“Visitors were going to fly into Unst Airstrip and stay in this deluxe resort, but it never really got enough investment to make it work terribly well.” 

However, UP are generally supportive of development that will create employment and leave a lasting legacy for the community. “Short of a maximum security prison, we’d be keen to support development generally. Someone did suggest that at one point actually!”. 

The business team behind the spa resort idea have now founded Saxavord Spaceport Ltd. “The latest plan is to convert Saxa Vord into the Shetland Space Centre. They are wanting to build a control centre and launch small satellite rockets, with the Control Centre next door to the gin distillery as it happens. The hope is to redevelop Saxa Vord, use the accommodation for workers, develop 3 launchpads, and the company has the backing of some big companies like Lockheed Martin for this £44m development.” 

Gordon describes it as “the next big hope for Unst”, explaining that it will bring much-needed skilled jobs, and likely have an impact on accommodation and hospitality provision in the island which will strengthen the tourist offering.  

“Some people aren’t happy with the perceived impact on tourism and bird life, but the rocket launches will be confined to about two or three a month with each launch lasting a short period of time. There would be a lead-up time before the launch of about a month, where engineers and other staff would come to Unst and  prepare the rockets for take-off.”  

Back down to earth  

At ground level, UP are kept busy with their community projects. They run a small but popular second hand shop in Baltasound, which is well supported by the local community who provide regular donations. Gordon acknowledges that it is all down to healthy levels of community support that UP can do anything at all – “we couldn’t keep going if we didn’t”. The shop is currently only open 2 days a week but is well supported. “Families come because there’s usually lots of toys. We put bigger items on our Facebook page and get a steady supply of donations. Maybe recently it’s something to do with people clearing out their houses during COVID!”  

UP, like countless other community groups across Scottish Islands, have stepped in to help with food provision for those in need of this support. Since the pandemic they have established a food voucher scheme to top up the income of those on Universal Credit. Previous schemes were organised from Lerwick, where food boxes were sent the 60 miles north via bus and ferry. The voucher scheme, however, means that those in receipt of the vouchers can spend them in the three local grocery shops in Unst. 

Waste?  

Despite climate change very much being on the agenda in the run up to COP26, discussion is often very high-level, and for a global problem, this is understandable. But the nitty-gritty day to day issues don’t often get the attention they deserve. UP have a highly commendable focus on waste management. When Shetland Islands Council stopped their skip service years ago, UP established a community skip scheme which is – like their community shop – well supported by locals paying a monthly subscription to dispose of their waste. Their diligence in securing the skip site and monitoring what goes into it means the council don’t charge them landfill tax for their skip scheme. The scheme is also subsidised by profit from the second hand shop in order to keep the scheme affordable for the community. But despite this, Gordon comments that “You could say it feels like a tax on living in a remote community, because if you live within driving distance of Lerwick you just turn up at the Recycling Centre and leave your waste there.” 

UP are now trying to gather support for a purpose built recycling and upcycling facility which would bring items back to a usable commodity that can be returned into the community. This would promote awareness of the environmental impact of throwaway culture and its environmental impact, and reinforce the message of reducing, reusing, and recycling. UP consulted the community earlier this year about this idea, and received numerous suggestions in response including a multi-functional workshop for basic carpentry, metalwork, clothing and fabric repairs. This would enable donated items like furniture and bikes to be repaired and upcycled, and for wood material to be crafted into other items like planters. Other suggestions included a laundry facility, a drop-off area for excess fixtures and building materials, a composting facility, and a gardening area which would host community polycrubs. 

In terms of issues the community face, healthcare provision isn’t one of them: “We’ve got a good health service with staff including 3 locum doctors,  reception team, community nurse, and community midwife based at a health centre. Gordon is part of the relief ambulance crew and there’s a retained fire service unit. 

Key challenges: jobs, broadband, tourism provision 

Asked what the main challenges are in Unst, Gordon says employment is the biggest issue, with the main goals being attracting and keeping young people. Better overall broadband coverage is cited as the next biggest issue, with provision patchy across the majority of the island. The third biggest issue cited by Gordon was an under-developed tourist offering. 

The island is well served by three good local shops, but suffers from a lack of food businesses like cafes and restaurants. When the pandemic hit, two of the shops that have cafe facilities used the cafe premises to run their food collection services which left the very popular Victoria’s Vintage Tea Rooms as the only cafe in the island. 

Feeding and Watering  

Despite tourism picking up in the last few years (over 27,000 visitors in 2019 according to a Shetland Visitor Survey) Unst still has a major lack of hospitality and accommodation providers. “Until recently, you couldn’t actually get an evening meal anywhere in Unst unless you were a Hotel resident. Because of this, and the accommodation shortage, we get a lot of day-trippers who drive up to the most northerly house in the UK, go and see Muckle Flugga lighthouse, visit Hermaness National Nature Reserve, but then go away again.” There are however plenty of self-catering properties, and “many people from elsewhere in Shetland have houses here which they use to visit in the summer.” 

The lack of hospitality provision became embarrassingly apparent when a film company working for an Italian DJ came to Unst with a motorbike enthusiast and running ‘influencer’ to film a music video but found it difficult to get accommodation or a meal due to the lack of restaurant provision. The Shetland News site covered the bizarre story of how they selected Unst for filming.  

Like many other communities in Scotland following the ‘staycation boom’ that followed the pandemic, there has been increased interest in providing campervan ‘aires’ to provide space and basic facilities for motorhomes with a number of sites being looked at by individuals and Shetland Recreational Trust.  

Gordon is confident Unst has a huge amount to offer, with various small businesses, a popular museum and boat haven, a leisure centre with a pool and the annual Unst Festival drawing people back to this most northerly island. “If we get the Space Centre, a second hotel, and some accommodation to improve our tourist provision then I feel we are in a much stronger position such that if the Space Centre employment eventually dissipates [like with oil and military] then we will be more resilient.” 

Space Centre or not, it is community groups [and SIF members!] like Unst Partnership that we think are the real bedrock of self-sustaining and enterprising communities. 

With thanks to Catriona Kirkwood, Unst Partnership, Shetland Space Centre and Shetland Flyer for allowing use of photographs.

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