Close to the old pier at the head of Harold's Wick and just behind the Haroldswick Shop is the Unst Boat Haven. Housed in a purpose-built crinkly shed, the Boat Haven is one of the most attractive and interesting museums in Scotland: and it is worth the trip to Unst from Mainland for a visit to the Boat Haven alone.
The interior of the Boat Haven slopes up to its rear, and it is laid out as a shingle beach and shoreline. Most of the boats on display are pulled up on the beach out of reach of the sea, or moored in the (simulated) shallow water. Scattered along the beach between and around the boats are many of the barrels, boxes and other odds and ends that were in everyday use by fishermen, some of whom are still tending to their boats.
The internal space is large, but it is made to feel even larger by the use of a mirror occupying most of one end wall, and a fine mural of the shingle beach curving off into the distance on the other. The overall effect is striking and you really can begin to get a feel for the fishing community whose working lives are represented here.
The traditional Shetland boats the Unst Boat Haven was established to preserve do not fall into neat categories. The smallest inshore fishing boats on show are known as whillies or eela boats. Slightly larger boats might be called yoals, up to around 23ft long overall and built for fishing up to 10 miles offshore.
The largest of the open boats on show are known as sixareens, propelled by a square sail or by six oarsmen (hence the name). These measure around 30ft long overall and were designed for fishing up to 40 miles offshore. Fishing was for whitefish, cod or ling, and the boats carried long lines baited with herring. The lines could be up to 6000 fathoms (or nearly 7 miles) long and could take up to two hours to set and four hours to haul in.
Facing the Boat Haven across its car park is an open fronted shed. This is home to a replica sixareen built in 1993 and in use regularly until its retirement to the Boat Haven in 2002. Other boats in the indoor collection were built between the 1860s and the 1960s.
One of Shetland's defining characteristics is the almost complete absence of trees. Traditionally, boat building in Shetland had been heavily dependant on the industry in Norway, with many boats being imported whole or in kit form. This remained true for a thousand years from the 800s to the 1800s.
From the mid 1800s, Shetland's links with Scotland started to become as strong as those with Norway, and larch was increasingly imported from Scotland for use by indigenous boat builders. Most of the boats on display at the Boat Haven are the result of this home-grown industry.
The Boat Haven is about more than just the boats themselves. A range of fascinating displays are on view, including a number of impressive model boats and an enormous sea shell collection. Some of the skills involved in boat building and repair are also shown, including a recreated blacksmith's workshop