To Out Stack – Britain’s Northernmost Outpost

Not technically an Arctic expedition, but … Did you know that Britain’s northernmost islands (off the Shetland Isles) lie north of Helsinki, Oslo, Stockholm and St Petersburg! So when a small band of Arctic-experienced colleagues committed to make our way there, it dawned on us that some expeditionary skills – organisational and practical – were going to need to come to the fore. To ensure we got to experience every mile, we travelled by surface transport only.

We set off on 16 June 2014 by train from London to Aberdeen, and within an hour of arriving at 5pm we were aboard the NorthLink Ferry to Shetland’s capital, Lerwick. While the sea passage can famously be extreme, we had one of the calmest crossings imaginable – phew! In port by 7am, it was the post bus north across Shetland Mainland (island), a ferry, then another post bus north across Yell (island), another ferry, then a final post mini-bus across Unst, the northernmost inhabited island in the British Isles, to our hotel base. It had taken 26 hours of non-stop travel.

Then it was onto rented bicycles to pedal north to the slipway at Shorehaven for the launch of our chartered 26ft vessel skippered by Edmund Nicholson. He announced that we had arrived to within the hour at the first weather window this year allowing a voyage to Muckle Flugga and Out Stack! We hove-to 50 metres off MF, lowered our specialist inflatable canoe over the side and paddled in pairs across to the MF lighthouse (now automated). And finally, we ventured northwards still further to the ‘notoriously difficult to approach and land on rock’ that is Out Stack. 25 metres off the rock, we lowered our canoe over the side, we assessed the daunting 12 foot swell surging up the rock from all sides for 30 minutes … and decided discretion was the better part of valour … and chose life.

Bizarrely, on a flat calm day, Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the British Arctic explorer Admiral John Franklin, may have landed on Out Stack in 1853/54 while travelling around Britain exhorting sailors to set off in search of her husband’s lost expedition, which head disappeared without trace somewhere in the NorthWest Passage north of mainland Canada.