Somewhere between Mars and Jupiter

by Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie is a travel writer, blogger, and broadcaster who has travelled to and written about over 100 countries. In this blog, Robin meets Wild Skies Shetland, based on Unst and probably the most northerly community tourism organisation in the UK.

Not sure exactly where Unst is? If it helps it’s circulating somewhere between Mars and Jupiter! The asteroid Unst 394445 that is. It’s fitting that the only Scottish island with an asteroid named after it is home to the Wild Skies Shetland project, which encourages visitors – and locals – to turn their gaze to the heavens year-round to savour all sorts of life-affirming delights.

I love the idea behind Wild Skies Shetland. Their aim is to showcase the spectacular, ever-changing, always dramatic skies of Unst – the UK’s most northerly inhabited isle - year round. So, yes come here to seek the epic Northern Lights and world-class night skies in winter, but then also catch the ferry up in summer when the sun just plays with the idea of setting. Very Shetland and most impressive on Unst.

The aims of Wild Skies for me tie into the central tenants of SCOTO, (Scottish Community Tourism). Quite simply it is about developing the economy, generating income and employment for local people as visitors are encouraged not only to come, but to stay longer and spend consciously as ‘temporary locals’.

Engagement with Nature

Wild Skies is also about encouraging everyone – visitor or local - to engage deeply with nature. Jane Macaulay, one of the founders of Wild Skies explains, “The pandemic showed us many things – amongst them that the natural world around us, however tiny or spectacularly huge, is both therapeutic and life enhancing. Watching and marvelling at our ever-changing skies is, put simply, good for us.”

Wild Skies may literally be reaching for the stars, but this volunteer-run charity is rooted deep within the community on an island I’ve been lucky enough to get to a couple of times. The UK’s most northerly inhabited isle is not remote or distant to the people who live here, but an impressive community of 600 passionate souls bursting with life and ideas. Community involvement is at the heart of Wild Skies. Everyone involved has passion. And there is knowledge too – one trustee even spends his life hunting meteors.

A Creative Community

They are a creative bunch at Wild Skies too. I’m just off a Zoom call to its two driving forces - Catriona Waddington and Jane Macaulay – and now my head is full of vivid images of public art created by schoolkids, a film that sees the Unst asteroid take human form and come home on the ferry and I’m now desperate to check out the new Planetary Trail. The range of their sky-related events is impressive and I’m not the least surprised that they won an award in the partnership category at the Highland and Islands Tourism Awards.
Events they’ve staged to date include bringing an inflatable planetarium north to Unst, staging a theatre production to entertain and inform local school children and celebrations around an eclipse that drew interest from Breakfast TV and Radio 4. Wild Skies is putting Unst on the map at a time when space travel is literally taking off too at Lamb Ness in Unst’s north. It’s the site of the UK’s first vertical space rocket launch site - soon space tourists will be able to come here and see the SaxaVord rockets vault for the heavens.

Space on Unst

If you’ve resigned yourself to never making it into space yourself, relax as that new Planetary Trail is on hand from Easter through to autumn on Saxa Vord hill itself. I guarantee it’s like no other trail you’ve ever done. You don’t have to soar 4.5 billion kilometres to get to your ‘Picnic on Pluto’ as it is only 1.5 kilometres on this trail. Each metre you walk represents 30 million kilometres in space so you get to see how comparatively far apart the planets are. The relative distances surprise most visitors – I won’t spoil the surprise.

The Planetary Trail takes in a spectacular part of Unst, on a sweeping bluff that peers down steep cliffs towards the water far below. “It’s a walk even many local people had perhaps forgotten about." says Catriona Waddington. “This trail not only educates and informs about the skies, but it also opens up a lovely part of our glorious island.”

The Planetary Trail offers you the unique chance to travel faster than the speed of light. You should make it from the Sun to Earth in a few seconds, when in reality light takes over eight minutes to get here. Each of the planets is not just marked with a dull sign. Oh no, I said Wild Skies are a creative bunch – and Unst is a creative island – so each of the planets is marked by a sturdy locally-made board with a photo depicting a work of art created to represent that planet, star or asteroid.

The planets are given new life and perspectives by the people of Unst on these trail signs. We are talking a knitted planet Mercury, a glass Neptune fashioned in glass by Cheryl and Natalie Jamieson of Uyeasound, and on to a collage sun that was the proud work of pupils at the Baltasound Junior High School.

Community Welcome

Look out too for the Sky Trail. This separate trail will sweep around 13 sites around Unst when it is finished. The trail will use music, poetry, local dialect and poems -through the medium of talking benches and using Virtual Reality headsets – to weave together celestial magic and inform about aspects like Viking names for the stars, and the effect of the moon on the tides, which is very evident in Unst.

If you’ve long stared up at the skies dreaming and wondering, then a visit to the Shetland isle of Unst is a must. Here you can travel at the speed of light between the planets, appreciate the sheer size of the cosmos, engage in a flurry of sky-related events, and truly appreciate spectacular skies whatever time of year. Any time of year is a good time to drift off to this unique, magical isle, an isle that welcomes anyone joining the community in pondering the heavens.


Robin has been writing about travel for over 20 years, penning over 30 books and 1,000s of articles across five continents for the likes of the Australian Times, Telegraph, Wanderlust, Scotsman and Wanderlust. You can follow him on Instagram or visit his website.

This is one of a series of blogs Robin is creating with SCOTO Members across Scotland, which have been made possible through the Scottish Community Alliance's Pockets and Prospects initiative.

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Find out more about Wild Skies

Five other attractions that show Unst really is ‘An Island Above all Others’

1. Vikings – There has to be more Viking sites per capita on Unst than anywhere else in the UK: we’re talking 60 locations spread dramatically around the isle. I love just driving or cycling around with a map, then stopping to head off in search of old longhouses or a farmstead. You’ll find a replica Viking longship here as part of the Unst Viking Project.

2. Hermaness National Nature Reserve – Not just the best nature walk on Unst, for me one of the finest anywhere in Scotland. The new boardwalk makes it a lot easier. The views of the sea cliffs, with their seabird colonies, and out to Muckle Flugga and Out Stack (the UK’s most northerly island), are jaw-dropping.

3. Nature – You’ll have the idea by now that Unst is spectacular, but did you know it is blessed with gorgeous sandy beaches and some of the most fascinating geology in Scotland? And did you know it is a great place to see otters working their way around the shores and whales in the water? I’ve even seen orcas from the ferry to Unst!

4. Bobby’s Bus Shelter – A bus shelter that has won arts awards, seriously? Yes, seriously. Only on ever-creative Unst could such a utilitarian structure take on new life as an art installation with ever-changing exhibitions. A must see.

5. Festivals rooted in the community – Only 600 people may live here, but that does not stop Unst staging not one, but two Up Helly Aa festivals. There is the brilliantly fun UnstFest too, which often features an activity by Wild Skies. It doesn’t end there with Unst getting in on Shetland Wool Week and in 2023 Unst will be part of the Tall Ships returning to Shetland.

6. Immerse yourself in a creative community – The community on Unst is an inspiration to others all around Scotland and not just because of Wild Skies Shetland. The island is home to a whole host of arts and crafts creatives that conjure up work in myriad media across this diverse wee island, including Glansin Glass, Mella Handmade Soap, Skibhoul Oceanic Oatcakes and locally made knitwear for sale at the Heritage Centre. Buy any of their wares and you are consciously choosing to plough your money directly back into the community.

For more information check out Visit Unst.