The Unst Heritage Trust comprises the Heritage Centre and Boat Haven, on Unst in the Shetland Isles. Our small museums are dedicated to the cultural heritage and history of this most northerly island in Britain.
Unst has a special place in Shetland, its culture and our hearts; its values and heritage are precious possessions able to enrich our lives and others. Unst Heritage Trust gathers, distils and delivers this enrichment through the imaginative use of its unique resources.
The Unst Heritage Centre owes its existence to the foresight and effort of the original Unst History Group.
Realising that a way of life linked to the old methods of crofting and fishing was disappearing, they organised an exhibition of old artefacts in the Haroldswick Hall.
The response was encouraging, making visitors realise that many similar items had already been cast aside.
A further exhibition was organised to coincide with the 1985 ‘Hamefaring’.
It became a priority to save both these artefacts and their stories so the hunt was on to find a suitable permanent home for them. Cost and availability were to make the task very difficult. However, Mouat’s Shop at Haroldswick became vacant and available in 1997.After alterations, much of it carried out by volunteers, it reopened to the public as the Unst Heritage Centre.
Joan Mouat and May Sutherland, with their extensive knowledge of Unst and its people did a sterling job as its main curators. Over the following years old treasures gathered till the building was groaning at the seams.
When the Haroldswick School closed in 1997 the History Group saw the possibility of a larger and suitable venue where the growing collection could be extended and developed.
The Shetland Amenity Trust came to the rescue by purchasing the School and leasing it back to the History Group. The move was made and the old school, which had served the area for 117 years, found a suitable role as Unst’s Heritage Centre.
At this stage the Unst Heritage Trust was formed to manage the Unst Heritage Centre and the Unst Boat Haven.
Unst Boat Haven
For many hundreds of years Unst has lain in the midst of one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. The small wooden boats fished for cod and ling which were cleaned, split, salted and dried on the stony beaches. The dried fish were then shipped abroad in massive quantities. Boats like the sixereen ‘FAR HAAF’ were capable of fishing thirty miles off shore., while sturdy fourereens fished nearer the coast. With the onset of sudden storms there were disastrous results.
From the middle of the 1800’s herring fishing played an increasingly important part. It is difficult today to look round Unst and believe the following : In 1861 Unst had a population of 3000, In 1869 there were 28 fishing boats registered in Uyeasound. In one week in 1904 seven steamers sailed from Baltasound with 3000 tons of cured herring. In the three summer months of 1905 almost a quarter of a million crans of herring were landed at Baltasound (1 cran =4 herring baskets).
There were 40+ herring stations in Baltasound with their coopers, gutters, and labourers, – a huge extra summer population. It will help to bear this in mind when walking round the Boat Haven. The wooden boats all have one thing in common. They are all built in the Scandinavian style of construction.
Coontin Kin’ used to be a common topic round the fire in hundreds of Shetland homes. A massive effort has been by the Shetland Family History Society to record all the data and make it available to all who are interested. It never fails to amaze that two names can be entered and their relationship almost immediately can be given, even if the connection is made by many different strands.
In Unst we owe a great debt to June Owers who delved into the history of Unst’s families for many years. The original family trees drawn up by her remain at the Heritage Centre. During the 70’s and 80’s she turned her attention to Unst’s abandoned croft houses, drawing them to scale and documenting who had lived in them – a monumental piece of work. With financial assistance from our Community Council we now can display excellent copies of these drawings which are of great interest to folk who are searching for their roots.