Unst and back again…….

A hobbit’s tale by Tom Bradwell’s ghost writer……

Concerning Unst, it is a delightful island in the northeast of Shetland, and the peace and quiet was interrupted the last two days by a team of geoscientists hunting for treasure. In this case treasure would be boulders or sediments that would allow the dating of ice margin retreat across northeast Shetland. We set off from Lerwick around 8 am armed with tools of the trade; rock saw, hammers, ground penetrating radar (GPR), percussion corer, RTK dGPS and a film crew. Getting to Unst required driving to a short 30 mins ferry crossing from Toft on mainland to Ulsta on the island Yell. Our time on Yell was brief with views of the rugged peat covered island on the journey from Ulsta to the next ferry terminal at Gutcher (north Yell) suggesting little prospect of glacially transported boulders. Hopefully Unst would deliver the goods! Following the Yell to Unst crossing, also brief (20 mins), we were ready to explore.

The journey to Yell....

The journey to Yell….

We journeyed about as far north as you can drive on Unst to Herma Ness in the northeast, here hopefully our targets would provide the most northerly of our Shetland grid of sites. To cover the ground we divided into two teams: OSL and sediment group (Rich, Matt, Chris, Vince and Saskia) and Rock gatherers (Derek, David and Tom). For one of us (Rich), the plan for finding sediments involved following the footsteps of a predecessor at the University of Liverpool, geologist Derek Flinn who published extensively on the glaciation and glacial geology of Shetland in the 1970-90’s. An article on ‘The Milldale Glacial Lake, Herma Ness, Unst’ by Derek Flinn appeared in The Shetland Naturalist in 1992. Part of the mapping by Flinn identified an enigmatic outwash fan raised above (70-110m OD) the valley floor on the west flank of Burra Firth valley. The attraction for us lay in the potential for glaciolacustrine deposits to include sands for that elusive deglacial outwash material. Matt and Rich hiked up Milldale Burn and examined numerous exposures on the left bank that showed 3-4 m of sandy diamict, but no outwash. Meanwhile Chris explored the feeder outwash channels and confirmed an inflow feeding the deposit from the south. Our plans to run GPR survey were sabotaged by the Holocene, a very annoying 3 m of undulating and hagged peatland. All in all not a great success (except for some TLC for a new-born lamb by Chris), and then we abandoned the feature as, probably an outwash fan but composed of materials coarser and problematic for sampling. We then explored the other end of the Loch of Cliff and there are other bench like features also suggesting the presence of a former glacial lake but no sign of the sediments. Disheartened, we investigated other possible sections for glacigenic material in Norwick and Bray of Skaw, but the only prospect on the north margin of the sandy beach at Bray of Skaw we later revised interpretation of coarse cobble gravels to that of a storm beach buried by interbedded wind-blown sand and peat.

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For the team searching for rocks, the day was exhilarating and slightly frustrating, exploring the stunning landscape of Herma Ness walking from the car park at Cleva Ness to the tip of the headland north of Hermaness Hill, the far northeast of Unst and Shetland, overlooking the remote offshore rocks of Muckle Flugga. A great circular walk, but the entire area was covered with peat, and little sign of bedrock or boulders, notwithstanding the promising bedrock lithologys. Thus no evidence of glacial activity, in the form of sculpted bedrock, erratics, pseudoerratics or striations, was found. The team drew a blank in the northeast on the headlands of Skaw. Hill of Clibberswick though covered with bedrock exposures sadly there was no clear evidence of glaciation, no boulders and the bedrock was ultramafic metagabbro. Even though not promising a sample was taken for possible cosmogenic nuclide dating using the 36Cl isotope.

Tired, dazed and confused the two groups reconvened in the lounge bar of the Baltasound Hotel, having acquired our chalet style hotel rooms, for some much needed Shetland Ale or Guinness. Much debate followed, focussing on the apparent lack of glacigenic sediment and boulders, as well as the challenges of some very complicated bedrock, much of it not suitable for cosmogenic nuclide dating. Baltasound Hotel did us proud for dinner with an excellent array of foodstuffs: scallops, salmon, haddock, fish cakes and steaks. The Baltasound Pub (same place different room) did us prouder with beers, single malt and Eurovision! A lengthy evening ensued of spirited debate, and a tantalising fragment of local knowledge; “try the boulders south of the ‘Westing Road’ they look out of place……..”

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Day 2, after an excellent breakfast and a detour to debate the beach deposits at Bray of Skaw, we continued the search for boulders starting at Keen of Hamar walking through extensive exposure of Serpentinite and Britain’s largest chromite mine, at the coastal cliffs, we finally discovered that elusive evidence for glacial activity we had been searching for a glacial diamict that buried the Serpentinite showing glacially smoothed and scoured surfaces, these striations testifying to erosion by ice. Sadly the slopes littered with debris from the mining offered no prospects for cosmogenic nuclide dating.

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Finding bedrock: returning to the extensive north-south valley containing the Loch of Cliff, we explored the hills around Hargal Burn examining bedrock ridges and erratic boulders marked on the BGS geology sheets. Though not completely ideal, the rock team sampled the stoss and lee side of roche moutonnee form composed of psammite. We then followed up the wisdom received in the pub the night before on our journey back to the ferry in the south of Unst. Sure enough on the Westing Road, many boulders were visible, and a short journey west, 100 m distance from the Standing Stone south of the road we found a series of psammite boulders potentially moved by ice and containing good quartz veins. So after a shaky start we were ready to leave with 7/8 samples promising cosmogenic nuclides from the northernmost target of our sampling campaign.

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The return home went like clockwork, catching both of the return ferries promptly and all for excellent value, £54 for two cars and eight people return travel! We left Unst at 17:55 and made it to the excellent fish and chips shop/restaurant in Brae by 19:00, and what a feast awaited. The second best Fish and Chips in the United Kingdom, Frankies, battered scallops, pan fried scallops, mussels in blue cheese, ham and garlic, battered haddock, sea food tagliatelle and smoked haddock fish cakes, this place is off the scale, exceptional we cannot recommend it more highly. The team tired, satisfied, happy and ultimately successful returned to our digs near Lerwick for some much needed rest. Tomorrow waits with further sampling planned and our sampling grid beginning to fill…….

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