With its narrow streets in the oldest part of town, and sea-edge ambience, Lerwick hardly feels Scottish at all. As the main town in Shetland, it offers a different and Scandinavian perspective – plus a fascinating visit.
Lerwick – at the crossroads on the northern seas
From the Norse meaning ‘mud-bay’ the settlement at Lerwick took advantage of the shelter of the island of Bressay opposite. In the first half of the 17th century, it was a place frequented by 17th-century Dutch fishing vessels and local traders. As a temporary base for the fishing season at first, the wild goings-on were strongly disapproved of by the authorities in the then capital, Scalloway!
When relations between Britain and Holland deteriorated, a fort was built overlooking the shore. This was later rebuilt as the present surviving Fort Charlotte (1781). The herring fishery brought prosperity to the town in Victorian times, and a wave of new buildings. Later still, the oil boom of the 1970s gave Lerwick’s well developed port and strategic location a new importance.
Today, in spite of its perceived remoteness, Lerwick is a well-resourced town and a good base for exploring the Scandinavian heritage, seascapes and wildlife of the archipelago.
Accommodation in Lerwick:
There is a choice of hotels close to Lerwick town centre, with bay and harbour views. The town also has guest house and bed and breakfast accommodation, some in fine Victorian houses on the outskirts. Self catering is well represented with a good selection of townhouse and flat accommodation. There is also a well-appointed youth hostel. A caravan and camp site is located on the edge of the town.
The Shetland Museum is a wide-ranging, well-presented collection in an interesting building, covering everything about Shetland and its heritage from ancient times to the present day. On the edge of Lerwick, Clickimin Broch makes a great introduction to these unique northern towers. It is in the care of Historic Scotland, who also look after Fort Charlotte in the town. Another historic building is the Bod of Gremista. The word relates to ‘booth’ – part accommodation, part storage and trade.
Scalloway Castle and the Shetland Crofthouse Museum are just two more historic attractions within easy reach of Lerwick, with Mousa Broch also on the list of ‘must sees’.
Lerwick has a popular 18 hole golf course, dating from the oil boom days! Because of its low traffic density, Shetland is of interest to cyclists and the islands are on the North Sea Cycle Trail. The open landscapes and impressive coastline mean there is plenty of choice for walkers in Shetland. Anglers can enjoy brown trout sport in more than 300 lochs in the islands. Kayaking and diving are also popular watersports here.
Shetland and seabirds go together. Species that excite comment further south on mainland Scotland – for example, great and Arctic skuas - are relatively commonplace in these wild northlands! From Lerwick, a ‘must see’ trip is to the island of Noss by Bressay, for its soaring cliffs and gannet colonies. Cruises are available. The Loch of Spiggie is a little further, with Sumburgh Head also on the birdwatcher’s list and particularly easy to view if less able (or a vertigo sufferer!).
The former island capital of Scalloway is easy to reach from Lerwick, only 6 miles (10km) to the west. Its main feature is the conspicuous ruin of Scalloway Castle, built 1600 for Earl Patrick Stewart, the brutal ruler or Shetland at that time. It was an administrative centre for much of the 17th century before falling into decay. Scalloway was the base for the wartime operation known as the ‘Shetland Bus’ – the small vessels that kept open links between Scotland and Norway, then occupied by the Germans. Scalloway Museum tells the story of the brave mariners, as well as portraying the heritage of the community.
Though Up-Helly-Aa at the end of January is perhaps the most famous event in Lerwick, there is plenty on the islands’ events calendar. Lerwick is especially strong in musical events of all kinds. For example, the town’s long established Folk Festival is at the beginning of May (with an Accordion and Fiddle Festival in October). Maritime links are celebrated with the Bergen-Shetland Races around midsummer. Full information from www.visitshetland.com