Britain's most northerly man and otter stories

Malachy reflects on the vulnerability of rural communities during a visit to Unst and meets some of

I am currently in Unst, Britain’s most northerly island, proud home to Britain’s most northerly shop, house, church, chocolate factory, brewery and person (which, at some point this weekend, was quite possibly me). The island has also been home, since January, to my brother, Rory.

Reaching Unst is something of a trek. From Lerwick it is nearly an hour’s drive, then a 15-minute ferry journey to the island of Yell, a further 20-minute drive across Yell, and a final, 10-minute ferry ride to Unst. Beyond this island there is nothing except water – a lot of water – and then ice. The Arctic Circle is only about 400 miles north of here, not much more than the distance from London to Glasgow.

Unst, like most of Shetland’s outer islands, and indeed like rural areas all over Britain, has suffered from depopulation and a lack of employment opportunities over recent decades. In Shetland, as elsewhere, people tend to gravitate towards the largest centres of population – in our case, Lerwick – and this inevitably makes it difficult to retain employment, and to attract new people to live and work in more remote areas.

Here though the problem has been made even more severe by the recent closure of the RAF base, Saxaford, and the subsequent loss of jobs and families from the island. Although the closure was carried out in a gradual process over a number of years, the change has been dramatic all the same. In the last decade the population has decreased from around 700 to 500 people – a serious dent by any standard.

Rural communities are vulnerable to any changes in population and employment, and they can feel seriously threatened when problems occur. Much thought has gone in to finding a sustainable way forward for Unst, and the desire to create opportunities for young people and newcomers is paramount. Here, as in other remote parts of Shetland, many people are looking to tourism to provide the answers, and certainly a healthy supply of visitors is important for any area. But I am not convinced that the tourist industry, fickle as it can be, is where the solution should be sought. A community must first serve itself before it should begin to serve others.

* * *

Rory and I spent most of Saturday driving through Unst and Yell in the rain with no particular place to go. We had rather optimistically taken fishing rods with us, though the weather didn’t look too promising. I had also been hoping to see an otter or two while I was here. They are relatively common in the North Isles, although, as we stopped to look out at one empty shoreline after another, Rory was quick to explain that “You never see them when you’re looking for them”.

As evening approached we headed back towards his house in the north of the island. The rain had eased considerably by then and we decided to take the rods and try a few casts from the beach beside the house. Rory had caught a good sea trout here the day before I arrived, so we were fairly hopeful of our chances.

Down at the beach, we had hardly begun to fish when out of the water appeared a pair of otters, just 100 yards to our right. Entirely unbothered by our presence the pair lollopped slowly up the sand, pausing here and there to examine items of interest along the way. We watched until they disappeared into the grass above the beach, and then returned to our fishing, as the light rain became a steady downpour.

Postscript: Sunday 4th March
Driving back to the ferry this morning in wonderful sunshine, we passed a family of otters swimming in the sea beside the road. As we watched, the mother came out of the water and up onto the road in front of us. She looked over at us for a moment and then, perhaps hearing the cries of her cubs, retreated to the sea again.

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