HAVING been to Unst in the Shetland Islands, I didn’t blink at the news that rockets will soon start blasting off from the UK’s first vertical launch space station– Scotland’s most northerly inhabited isle is already its most otherworldly.

Stevenson is said to have based the map for Treasure Island on Unst; killer whales regularly accompany the ferry, a bus shelter wins arts awards; a gin distillery has resurrected an old RAF base – and the local birds knock you off your feet.

Arriving back on Unst. I’m gutted to just miss our cetacean cousins who caught the ferry just before. Orca-less, but undeterred, I gun north to SaxaVord, the sprawling RAF base that closed in 2006. It’s now in private hands and before Covid sported an unlikely hotel and restaurant. I stayed here seven years ago in an old officers’ house and dined on Shetland scallops with military detritus scattered all around. The hotel is slated to re-open, with plans for a major revamp as part of the big things afoot at SaxaVord.

When I was last at SaxaVord, the embryonic distillery was struggling for survival in one of the old RAF hangers. Today, Shetland Reel Gin is known throughout Scotland, coming in myriad flavours alongside the “original” I tasted. “We’re doing well, people know our gin all over the world now,” says distillery manager Mark Turnbull. He’s right – at my tasting, there are three times more Americans than Scots. Not that Unst is swamped with visitors.

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Pootling to post the obligatory postcard franked to prove it was sent from the UK’s most northerly post office in Baltasound, I meet a local tradesman. “People love how quiet Unst is,” he tells me, “they like that it feels like the 1970s, even the 1700s.”

As we talk more, he admits he’s concerned the arrival of the space station may disrupt Unst and not bring the promised skilled local jobs.

I think about that as I head back up to another part of SaxaVord just up the road, to the HQ of the SaxaVord UK Spaceport. Education officer Mason Robbins welcomes me. And re-assures: “We’re very much engaging with the community to train people up in skilled roles so youngsters want to stay in Unst. We’ve also recently housed a couple of Ukrainian families who are keen to work with us.”

It’s not just people being engaged with, as sustainability officer Sorcha Leavey tells me: “We’re working closely with bodies such as NatureScot to ensure the wildlife is both protected and indeed respected with a bird protection plan.”

The National: Spaceport SaxaVord HQ, as sustainability officer Sorcha Leavey points out, fits in quite nicely with the brochs, longship and the castles of UnstSpaceport SaxaVord HQ, as sustainability officer Sorcha Leavey points out, fits in quite nicely with the brochs, longship and the castles of Unst

I push on further north still and check into my wee hideaway, Shorehaven, an old lighthouse building down by the waters of Burra Firth, a hulking fjord in the shadow of the modern RAF monitoring installation that was rushed back up in 2018 when the MOD realised Putin was becoming a real threat.

I say check in but the door is open and the key hangs just inside. I pour a whisky – they’ve left me a welcome dram – settle in front of the log fire and pore over a map of Unst. There is plenty to pore over. The isle may only be a bijou 46 square miles, but it’s a craggy coast wonder, a veritable geological marvel with myriad types of rock, including ultra-rare steatite. Unst bursts alive with history too – I literally trip over Viking and Iron Age ruins as I hike around the coast near the beaches at Westing and Easting. My favourite Unst hike – and one of the best rambles in Scotland – is around the Hermaness National Nature Reserve.

NatureScot has handily put in an information booth at the start and sections of the boardwalk that ease the worst of bog yomping, though you still have to tackle the “bonxies” – great skuas – hulking birds that can hurl you clean off your feet.

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I FORGE past them out west, and the effort is worth it as I sit atop some of Europe’s highest cliffs and most dramatic coastal stacks. Puffins waddle around their burrows feet away and the gannets are playing on the gale-force winds as I struggle to stand, these gorgeous birds somehow managing to hover in mid-air.

From Hermaness you can see Muckle Flugga. The most northerly island in Scotland is a Tolkien-esque wild wonder that fights a constant battle with the Atlantic breakers that regularly sweep right over it – even over its striking white lighthouse, designed by the Stevensons. The guestbook confirms Robert Louis Stevenson made it to Muckle Flugga and more than one Unst resident I meet insists he based the map in Treasure Island on Unst.

We can debate whether Unst was Stevenson’s inspiration, but there is no doubting the isle boasts Scotland’s finest bus stop. Bobby’s Shelter is not only a comfy place to wait for a ride but it is always bedecked with a themed display that constantly changes. There is a book swap rack too and a wee box with local goodies for sale – come and catch a bus and take homemade cakes and eggs home.

After four days of swirling around Unst, the idea of space travel here doesn’t seem so outlandish. And I’ve not even talked about the ghostly castle built by an evil mainland Scot, the brochs or the waylaid Viking longship. You’ll just have to come up for yourself. You might see a passing space rocket, but on this extreme northerly charmer, there are always far more surreal things to capture your imagination and your heart.

lNorthlink Ferries (www.northlinkferries.co.uk) sail from Aberdeen to Lerwick, then it’s two Shetland Ferries (www.shetland.gov.uk/ferries) further north to Unst lwww.visitscotland.com