Home Geography Extremes of Britain – The Furthest North

Extremes of Britain – The Furthest North

What are the furthest points north, south, east and west in Britain? Are they worth a visit? How easy are they to get to? In the first of four posts, I go to the northern-most point in Britain. And as getting there is quite a challenge in itself, I won’t tell you where it is straightaway.

Although the MS Hjaltland and the MS Hrossey are each 7,434 tonnes, the Shetland Islands Council is looking at the need for larger ships with more capacity and which would be better able to withstand the frequently choppy waters of the North Sea.

You can start by getting a train to Aberdeen which is on the north-east coast of Scotland. If you happen to live in Penzance in Cornwall at the other end of Britain you could catch the 08.28 train which will get you into Aberdeen at 21.55, a distance of 722 miles. Incidentally this is the longest single train journey in Britain. Southbound you don’t have to change, but northbound you have to change at Edinburgh. At Aberdeen you board the overnight ferry to Lerwick, capital town of the Shetland Isles. The ship will either be the MS Hjaltland or the MS Hrossey of NorthLink Ferries, each being 7,434 tonnes. The ferry sails at 19.00 (17.00 if the ferry goes via the Orkney Isles) and docks in Lerwick at 07.30 the next morning. It’s 224 miles (or 195 nautical miles). But to make sure of a good nights sleep, there are modern ensuite cabins or comfy reclining sleeper beds.

If you’re in a hurry though, there’s a choice of three or four flights a day from Aberdeen airport, five miles north-west of the city, to Sumburgh airport, 20 miles south of Lerwick, and the flight takes an hour and a quarter.

Lerwick is 600 miles almost due north of London as the crow flies. Bergen in Norway is 223 miles due east and is closer to Lerwick than Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, which is 301 miles south. The Arctic Circle is 400 miles further north. Owing to its northerly location, Lerwick, which has a population of 7,500, gets only 5 hours and 49 minutes of daylight at the winter solstice. In contrast, daylight lasts 18 hours and 55 minutes at the summer solstice. For a period of time in the summer, the nights never get completely dark with dark blue elements remaining in the sky.

The Shetland archipelago forms part of the division between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east. Of the 100 or so islands of Shetland, 16 islands are inhabited.

Next you have to get to Unst, the furthermost north island of the Shetlands and which has a population of 652. This involves two car ferry crossings, one of 20 minutes from Toft on Mainland (the name of Shetland’s largest island) to Ulsta on the island of Yell, then a 10 minute ferry from Gutcher on Yell to Belmont on Unst. The 55 miles by road and ferry takes about two and half hours, but there’s no quicker way. There was an airport on Unst, at Baltasound, the main settlement on the island, but this was mothballed in 1996 when flights to the offshore oil rigs were centred on an airport on Mainland. Baltasound is home to the most northerly Meteorological Office weather station in the United Kingdom, as well as the most northerly Post Office.

From the ferry at Belmont it’s a 12 mile drive north on the A968 through Baltasound to Haroldswick, the Viking centre of Unst and home to the Unst Heritage Centre, Valhalla Brewery, and Shetland Distillery Company, and then north-west on the B9086 to Burrafirth and Hermaness. The road is now single track with passing places. The B9086 ends at Burrafirth but a minor road continues to the car park and visitor centre for the Hermaness National Nature Reserve (NNR). The visitor centre is in the former shore station for the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse (see below).

To protect the blanket bog of the Hermaness moorland, a boardwalk has been constructed for most of the way from the visitor centre up Winnaswarta Dale to the cliff top on the other side of the Herma Ness peninsula.

From the car park, you walk north-west across moorland to reach the Toolie cliffs on the west side of Hermaness, and then north along the magnificent sea cliffs to the top end of Herma Ness, which will be the closest that you are likely to get to the northern-most point in Britain.

From the top off the cliffs you look down on a small group of rocky islets or skerries about half a mile offshore. The islet furthest north is Muckle Flugga. The name comes from Old Norse, Mikla Flugey, meaning ‘large steep-sided island’. There is a lighthouse at the northern end of Muckle Flugga. It was maintained by keepers until 1995 when the lighthouse was automated and the keepers moved out. The lighthouse shore station near Burrafirth is one of the few in Scotland which is separated from its lighthouse.

Muckle Flugga and the lighthouse with Out Stack in the distance. In the foreground is the ‘Taing of Loosswick’ on the Herma Ness headland. © Mike Pennington.

But even further north, 700 yards north-east from Muckle Flugga, is a roughly circular craggy outcrop in the sea suitably called Out Stack, which is the northern-most point in Britain. And that is it. There’s no land between Out Stack and the North Pole.

It’s 982 miles by road (and by sea) from Land’s End in Cornwall to Muckle Flugga though that’s not quite right as the road map is actually measuring the distance to the very end of the tarmaced road on Unst, and this is a place called Skaw which is east of Herma Ness.

Out Stack or Ootsta, which is also known locally as Da Shuggi, is Britain’s most northerly point. It’s no more than 200 yards by 150, and is only 90 feet high.

Unsurprisingly Out Stack has never been inhabited, but it is said that Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, landed on Out Stack after reports reached Stromness, Orkney, where she lived, of the loss of the Franklin expedition. The purpose of the 1854 expedition was to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage between Canada and the Artic ice pack. Lady Franklin wanted to get as close as possible to her missing husband. This must be doubted as there’s no safe landing on Out Stack. This is one reason, among others, why the brothers Thomas and David Stevenson, designers and builders of over thirty lighthouses all around the coast of Scotland decided in the early 1850s to build the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga and not on Out Stack. Thomas Stevenson was the father of Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson visited Unst to see the lighthouse and the map of the island in his book bears a marked resemblance to the shape of Unst.

Looking back to Muckle Flugga from Out Stack. © Andy Strangeway

Acording to a local tourist website, boat trips to Muckle Flugga and Out Stack can be arranged in the summer starting from the shore station for the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse which is at the end of the B9086 and close by the entrance to the Hermaness NNR. Alternatively there are whole days tours in summer from Lerwick in a catamaran operated by Thule Charters, though a strong stomach is advised as the sea can be rough.

If all else fails you can book a passage on the MS Norröna of the Smyril Line, a Faroese shipping company, which operates weekly sailings between Denmark, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. The Norröna takes a northerly route past Shetland, and as it passes Unst, Out Stack can be seen from the ferry.

The map shows Hermaness NNR in the north-west of Unst, and the path (in green) to the cliffs at Toolie and then north to the headland of Herma Ness from where Muckle Flugga and Out Stack can be seen. During the summer, thousands of seabirds including gannets, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins (photo right © James Warwick), and shag return to nest on the cliff faces. Inland, great skuas (known locally as boxies) nest in the blanket bog together with dunlin, golden plover, and snipe. Red-throated divers nest in the bog pools.

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