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Return to Unst, Shetland Isles.


My previous visit to Unst was September 2019. Having spent almost three weeks on the UK's most northerly isle it all seems a bit of a blur looking back. I may not be Robert Macfarlane but I do like to think I'm fairly articulate. However, I always struggle to put in to words the enormity of my feelings for this very special place. Hopefully the images can do that for me instead!

I'd first visited Unst in February 2018 and completely fallen in love with the sense of freedom that the island offers. During that week I didn't see another soul around the coastline the whole time I was there, other than my friend Paul who accompanied me on the trip. At times we felt that we had the whole island to ourselves. For the first visit my expectations weren't actually that high. I thought maybe there wouldn't be enough photographic interest for a whole week and that perhaps Hermaness would be the only worthwhile location photography wise. Luckily I was wrong, very, very wrong. The entire coastline of Unst is worthy of exploration, particularly the rugged north, with countless rocky inlets and soaring majestic cliffs. Whilst these impressive cliffs offer a real sense of the wildness and true force of the sea, there are days when you may want to retreat to one of the many pristine beaches, often as respite from the howling winds. The wind can regularly reach speeds in excess of 70mph at any time of the year and I've encountered this force on both visits.

Hermaness, National Nature Reserve (NNR).

On the first evening I decided to have a walk up to Hermaness, a stretch of coastline that I would return to several times over my three week stay. This particular evening was calm and I was rewarded with beautiful light. Hermaness is a designated NNR (National Nature Reserve) due to it being a huge seabird colony. Being September I'd most definitely caught the back end of the season, but there were still thousands of gannets around the whole island, as well as fulmars, razorbills, cormorants and of course the great skuas or Bonxies as they are affectionately called in these parts. Bonxies have a fearsome reputation and are also known as the pirates of the seas, regularly attacking other birds and stealing their meals.

Skull on Norwick Beach.

On several mornings I set myself a 5 am alarm call. I'd wake up feeling peaceful; the energy here is so good. I felt grounded, yet free with no expectations. It’s a different rhythm and time does indeed slow down. On several mornings I headed down to the beautiful Norwick beach. Some of the sunrises were out of this world. I had wonderfully varied conditions and was able to get some pleasing shots. There's such a strong connection to the natural world here, gannets plunging in front of subtle sun rays. The elements are in charge here; this landscape holds and heals you. Fresh and wild, the all-encompassing power of nature is evident in every breath and footstep. In the above image of the skull, I shot a few compositions of this scene, all with the skull in focus. In this particular image, an incoming wave moved the skull, which I felt added an air of unease which suited the macabre nature of the scene. For me it seemed to encapsulate the transient nature of life and holds a certain beauty.

Norwick Beach.

Outer Skaw, my favourite place in the world!

After several 5 am starts and late finishes, I was beginning to feel so tired that I was becoming really clumsy and short tempered, dropping filters and such like. As photographers we don’t always enjoy the beautiful moments that we capture perhaps as much as we could! Of course the thrill is often the anticipation of getting a great shot; this time however I just wanted to sit and take it all in. The previous days had all blurred in to one. It was one long passage of time chasing from location to location, in the zone, until burnout. I headed back to my cottage, had coffee, fell asleep. In the afternoon I went over to outer Skaw, which has become my favourite place ever, with a wildly rugged yet beautiful coastline. There's no phone signal and I completely zoned out, zen-like. I felt really happy and carefree; the sea and sky were calm, just me, fulmars, gannets and cormorants.

The start of a new day; this looks quite tranquil but the truth is I was struggling to stand in the gale force wind!

Outer Skaw taking a battering from 70mph winds, not uncommon on Unst.

The 15th September was a big day weather wise with wind speeds of up to 70mph. I walked from the wick of Skaw around to Houlls-nef. It was utterly exhilarating - I’ve been lost for words at times at the raw power of nature here and it lights up my soul. As I walked around I'd find myself whooping and hollering with sheer joy, shouting and talking at curious seals, fist pumping every time a gannet plunges in to the sea amidst dramatic sunrays or a grey and brooding sky; the power of the sea is ever present, it is completely wild. There are no expectations out here, no pretence, no confusion, everything is very real, immersive, visceral. I’ve seen such dramatic light, so much wildlife. Various skulls litter the beaches and coastline, the skulls of geese, seals, seabirds reminding us that life is precious, life is fleeting, we must fully live this life to find ourselves. One day I was sat in my car and a little juvenile black headed gull was sat a couple of metres away from me, his soft feathers buffeting in the wind, looking so delicate. In that moment I realised that every life is precious, every life deserves respect, I felt that deeply.

I feel very at home here. This wild place has a good energy, unlike anywhere else that I’ve visited. It is dramatic and powerful but also peaceful, the landscape holds you, the sea uplifts you, the wildlife accompanies you. It fills me with joy. It is a place to find oneself and freedom. Even down to the minutiae, in a quartzite outcrop that I came across, delicate little flowers growing from the hard, sharp rock. This quartzite would have been charged, intensified by the previous day’s full moon. No wonder the energy here is so good!

Getting near the end of my trip I wanted one last walk over to Hermaness again for sunset to do a waterfall-in-to-the-sea shot which I'd recce'd earlier in the trip. The scene is beautiful and I managed to nail it but the composition is a bit busy for my own taste. However, it is a wonderful record of a pristine spot to which no photograph could fully do justice. I had an amazing cliff top walk back by head-torch light, which was very spooky with Bonxies everywhere!

In between Hermaness and Muckle Flugga the coastline is truly EPIC.

This is what a wave looks like through my lens that has washed back over the cliffs at 70mph.

I needed a ‘rest’ day by now; it's amazing how much battling against the elements here tires you out. It's utterly exhilarating but you certainly begin to feel it after a few days. I'd decided to head over to Burrafirth, which has another pristine beach I know to be sheltered. It's quite amazing, as even with 50-60mph wind around the island this spot was dead calm and tranquil.

Secluded - Burrafirth beach.

Burrafirth beach.

On Unst, nature is the law, the elements rule.

Beauty in the detail.

Feeling free, relaxed and on top of the world!

I left a piece of myself on this island that I can plug in to for energy when I am low, equally I brought some of that island back within me. As I said at the beginning of this blog post, I wish I could put into words the emotions that arise here from the power of nature. I intend to continue visiting this special island.

I am now providing bespoke Photo-tours in specific locations that I have researched and explored over many years. These adventures can be tailored to your own requirements. It goes without saying that you'll receive full photographic tuition, but just as importantly these journeys will focus on really connecting with a landscape. Unst is a place I've come to know so well, seeking out little known corners of solitude and wild beauty. I'll help you to really immerse yourself fully in this landscape; we'll simplify kit and concentrate on what really matters, being comfortable and at one with the natural world. With my degree in conservation, you'll also benefit from an in-depth knowledge of wildlife and ecosystems. “Landscape has a vast depth and subtlety of presence. The more attentive you are, and the longer you remain in a landscape, the more you will be embraced by its presence.” – John O’Donohue Get in touch to find out more on 07450 533754 or message me.


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© 2015 by Karl Holtby