A few months ago, during the school’s May long weekend, we headed north to the most northerly island of Unst to stay at Noosthamar – a picturesque self-catering holiday home overlooking the sandy shores of Burrafirth.
Unst is a two-ferry hop from Mainland Shetland and has a community of about 650 people. Getting to Unst is easy on the inter-island ferries that serve the isles and are operated by the Shetland Islands Council.
I’d seen Noosthamar on Instagram and thought it looked great. However, nothing can prepare you for that ‘wow’ as you turn the bend and see the house tucked in under the hill, looking across to the beach beyond. I immediately fell in love. The location is pretty unrivalled, and everything that Noosthamar had to offer ensured that we had the most relaxing stay. As we left, I vowed that I would share our experience when we returned. Fast forward to August, four months since our visit, and the memories are still fresh in my mind, and I’ve found a quiet moment to reflect on them.
Noosthamar itself is a beautiful whitewashed cottage boasting a sympathetic extension that floods light into the communal living space and can accommodate up to eight guests across four bedrooms.
The original part of the house was built in the early 1900s and is very much in the traditional style of building in Shetland – a traditional but and ben house with two rooms downstairs and two small attic rooms upstairs. The house was extensively renovated in 2012 and now has a modern kitchen, exposed stonework and a high ceiling with timber beams and floor to ceiling windows that flood light into this open and airy space.
Owners Joanne and James started their love affair with Noosthamar in 2009 when it was placed on the market for sale. Joanne says they had always wondered about a small project – perhaps an old house, on or near a beach – and Noosthamar excited them!
The house had been home to one of the boatmen who had serviced the nearby Muckle Flugga Lighthouse. Joanne remembers the niece of the late owners showing them around the house and regaling them with fond memories of holidays staying there. How she and her sister would spend the whole day playing in the ebb [shoreline at low tide], which, she says, her three boys have happily continued to do. The initial viewing ended on the beach, and so began the long process of renovations and extensions to the existing building.
They have done a lot of work to the property, sympathetically keeping the existing building and extending it to make the most of the incredible views. James started the project by tearing back the ceilings in the upstairs rooms to get them insulated, lined and enlarged, maximising the available space. In one of the walls, he found the set of pans displayed next to the fireplace in the main living space. Joanne explains that their ‘small project’ got bigger and bigger …
They began the extension process in 2010 and completed it in 2012, using local builders, Sandisons, to complete the work. Joanne says that it was a sad feeling seeing the old stone byre [outbuilding], which would have been such an important part of the house being knocked down, but that now their guests – and themselves – can sit for hours and watch the sea coming onto the beach whatever the weather.
Joanne, like myself, says that “so far, one of my lasting life memories is that first drive, past the neighbour's byres and around the corner, and there was Noosthamar just sitting there, with the beach and sea behind her – breathtaking!”
The name Noosthamar itself comes from the Old Norse language that was spoken here until a few hundred years ago. The name is entwining two Norse words: noost; a place (usually a hollow) where boats are hauled up in the winter, and hamar; a rocky outcrop in the hill. The house itself is tucked into the steep hillside, hewn out from the surrounding rock, and bedded into its surroundings, cocooning it from the worst weather brought in from the northeast. A walk down the stream that runs in front of the house leads to a small sandy beach where there is still evidence of boat noosts visible. Noosts were important places from Viking times until the mid-20th century, where boats were hauled above the tideline and tied down to avoid them being carried away in the winter storms. Without a safe place to keep a boat, it was tough to exist from the land alone, and in an age before our extensive road network, boats were the primary mode of transportation.
Noosthamar is a place where your shoulders instantly relax as you walk in the door. For anyone in need of a rural idyll, there’s no better place to escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
In terms of amenities, the house is well-equipped with bedding, towels, a washing machine, a tumble dryer and a generously equipped kitchen with everything that you’ll need to prepare an evening meal – so long as you remember to bring your food with you! There’s a large dining table that looks out across Burrafirth and another table outside on the patio area that overlooks Burrafirth beach and Hermaness. If you feel chilly in the evening – which we didn’t – there’s a wood-burning stove with everything you need to enjoy a cosy fire after a long day enjoying the hills and beaches of Unst.
The following review from Airbnb says it all:
“Noosthamar is absolutely perfect. In fifty years of self-catering holidays, this is definitely the very best holiday accommodation we have experienced.”
In terms of experiences, Unst has so much to offer visitors, particularly if you’re keen to lace up your hiking boots and explore the wider landscape, enjoying the scenery and the abundance of wildlife opportunities. I’ve written about Unst before, and one of my favourite walks is just across the water from Noosthamar – the Hermaness National Nature Reserve. I’ve written about this walk before, and you can access the details here. It’s a delightful 5.5 mile (9km) walk that will take you about three hours to soak in the atmosphere of this special place that boasts some of the best puffin and gannet spotting opportunities in Shetland.
I also created an Unst Top 10 for NorthLink Ferries that you can read here, but I’ll bullet point them below to give you an idea, and you can come back to that blog later.
All in all, we had an incredible stay at Noosthamar – and I’ve already booked it again for next summer. There’s so much to explore in Unst; a few days alone is never enough!
I hope that this blog has provided you with some travel inspiration for the future, and I hope you also get the opportunity to visit Noosthamar and Unst, ‘the island above all others’.
Noosthamar can be booked via Airbnb; however please note that you will need to book well in advance to ensure you can enjoy a little slice of this stunning house.
* If you are an accommodation provider and would like a review, please get in touch with me via firstname.lastname@example.org
A little about Laurie
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.