Unst Coast


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Unst

Neil Oliver meets the man who designed the first hydrogen car in Unst. Neil also visits the old Baltasound Herring Station. Dr Alice Roberts unearths a mysterious skeleton.


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What a fantastic place to start our journey -

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on Unst, the most northerly inhabited island

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in the British Isles.

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I already know a few things about Shetland - it hasn't got any trees,

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it's had an oil boom, and its history is more Scandinavian

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than Scottish.

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But when you get here, you find this.

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An early warning station.

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Saxa Vord used to track German U-boats and Soviet aircraft.

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But it's not on red alert anymore. Now, the island's going green.

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This tiny car runs on hydrogen gas.

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It's the brainchild of Unst man Ross Gazey.

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-Ross.

-Hi, Neil.

-How you doin'?

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-Not too bad.

-What is a hydrogen-powered car doing on Unst?

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Well, I had this idea for hydrogen power, and all the things

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it could be used for, and this car has become part of that.

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And where do you get hydrogen from? You don't see a lot of that in the cold counter at a supermarket.

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We actually make our own hydrogen from wind power and tap water.

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You're pulling my leg.

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No, not at all. Not at all.

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We take the electrical power from the wind turbines that we have,

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and we use it to generate hydrogen from tap water.

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You do that just by passing your electrical current through water,

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and it breaks water down into hydrogen and oxygen.

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-Couldn't give us a lift, could you?

-No problem. Jump in.

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Excellent.

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This car's got no harmful emissions. The only thing that comes out

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of the exhaust is water.

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What is the top speed of the vehicle?

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45 mph.

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Hi-tech hydrogen cars might be the island's future,

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but right now, this one's taking me on a journey back in time.

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I'm travelling down the east coast of Shetland, to Baltasound.

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This is exactly the sort of scene I was expecting. Just a few houses

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and buildings dotted about, there's not a soul to be seen,

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it's very peaceful and quiet.

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But I know for a fact that here at Baltasound,

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it wasn't always this way.

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This was once a boom town. In its heyday, the prize was silver.

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The silver darlings of the sea - herring.

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Ian Napier knows the story.

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What would this bay have looked like at the height of the herring boom?

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It would have been a real hive of industry,

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there's a record of as many as 16,000 people being here for

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-the herring season.

-So this place would just have been crowded?

-Yeah.

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I mean, you hear stories about being able to cross the bay

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without getting your feet wet. There were more than 2,000 fishing boats

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based in Shetland for the season. All along the foreshore

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there would have been a series of piers, each one would have had

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a little huddle of buildings with it. When the fleet was in, it must have been very crowded.

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At its peak in 1905, almost a quarter of a million barrels

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of cured herring were packed here and dispatched to Eastern Europe.

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It created opportunities.

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The gutting and the packing of the herring, the emptying of the barrels

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was all done by women. There would've been thousands of women working here.

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It was perhaps the first time that they had the opportunity to earn cash.

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The boom was inevitably followed by bust.

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By the 1930s, bigger, faster ships started to bypass Baltasound,

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and this small harbour fell silent.

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Shetlanders have to live with the ebb and flow of opportunities.

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The history of their struggle is written around the ribbon of this coast.

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Remarkable secrets of an ancient civilization are beginning to emerge

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at Sandwick Bay.

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When coastal erosion revealed curious stones, the foundations of a 2,000-year-old settlement,

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the islanders got together with a team of archaeologists

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to unearth their Iron Age past.

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It's the discovery of a virtually-intact skeleton

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that makes this dig so exciting. Who is this?

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And what can their burial tell us about this ancient society?

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It's a mystery that bone expert Dr Alice Roberts hopes to solve.

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Now, this dig is quite special to me,

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because it's a chance to find out more about prehistoric Shetland,

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and to find out specifically about the lives of people in the Iron Age here on Unst.

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But also to meet one of those people.

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'The islanders are working with Dr Olivia Lelong and her team

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'to investigate this community and their unusual buildings.'

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-It is literally right on the shore, isn't it?

-Yeah. You can see the wall,

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standing up here. And it would've carried on up, probably curving around like that,

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-with the slabs forming the walls and the roof.

-And all of this construction is going on in stone.

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Which is very weird, isn't it, compared with the rest of Britain,

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where you've got a lot of timber roundhouses and things being built in the Iron Age.

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Here you've got buildings with stone floors, stone walls, stone roofs.

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Yup. They're just using what they had and in very clever ways.

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They didn't have trees, so they used the materials they had.

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The discovery of hearths, fish and animal bones,

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and pottery, suggests that these are homes. But who was living here?

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I've been asked to put my skills as a bone expert to the test,

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and examine the remains of this ancient islander.

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The bones have been carbon dated at 1,800 years old,

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but that's all that's known.

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It is quite unusual to have bones this well preserved.

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So this means the better preserved they are, of course, the more they can tell us.

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We can tell whether this person's male or female, how tall they were, how healthy they were in childhood...

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and that's somebody who lived... 1,800 years ago. On Unst.

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If you just take one of these pelvic bones and just look at it,

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and the narrowness of that would very much lead me to the conclusion

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that this is likely to be male.

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In terms of what you can look for on the skull, there is a ridge

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above the ear hole just here. So that's masculine.

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And quite a nose. I'm gonna say on balance I think it's a male.

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And it's a male with quite a nose on him!

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Now I know the sex, I can calculate his height from his bone measurements.

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Five foot seven. So he's the same height as me.

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There's no evidence of disease or malnutrition here.

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This coastline provided a rich, varied diet for these Iron Age people.

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The teeth are in pretty good condition, actually.

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There's no tooth decay. So this is a young adult who,

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if they were alive today, wouldn't need to have any fillings.

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'We're gradually piecing together what life was like for this ancient community, but there's more.'

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-Are these some of the artefacts that were buried with it?

-Yes.

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That's amazing that it was actually found in the excavation - it's so tiny!

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It's a little spiral of copper alloy bronze,

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-with two little rings of what might be glass.

-That's amazing.

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This was placed just beside the mouth.

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There are various theories about what they were. The most popular is they were mirrors, or a picture

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-of the moon.

-It almost looks like it's got little craters on it, doesn't it?

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-It's one of those things we'll never know, isn't it?

-Yeah, probably not.

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This coast once nurtured a people who didn't just survive here - they had an appreciation of beauty,

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they made exquisite things, and they shared a culture where respect for the dead was important.

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1,800 years ago, a young man was buried on this beach looking out to sea.

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And this burial, and in fact the whole excavation,

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has brought together the community to uncover its own heritage,

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and to find out what it really means to be an islander on Unst.

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E-mail [email protected]

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Neil Oliver meets the man who designed the first hydrogen car in Unst. Neil also visits the old Baltasound Herring Station. Bone expert Dr Alice Roberts unearths a mysterious skeleton which reveals the surprising lifestyle of ancient Shetlanders.