Victoria Pier, Lerwick. Photo: Alexa Fitzgibbon.
At this time of year, when the days are getting shorter, and I undergo the daily ritual of opening all the blinds and shutters, only to close them again hours later, it makes me think about the place I call home and the town I call home: Lerwick.
Commercial Street, Lerwick. Voted second best high street in Scotland this month. Photo: Shetland with Laurie.
This week Commercial Street was up for the ‘Best High Street’ in Scotland. It was voted second only to our neighbours in Kirkwall, Orkney, who scooped the top place. Anyone who has visited Lerwick’s main shopping street will understand why Lerwick ranked so highly. Paved with flagstones and filled with small, crooked buildings dating from the 18th and 19th century the town has a colourful and interesting past.
Shetland with Laurie's Lerwick walking tour. Photo: Susan Molloy.
During the summer I offer guided evening walking tours that explore the old town, its buildings, its people, and all the stories associated with them. Without giving away too much of the tour, this blog will shed a little light into the history of our capital – and only – town in Shetland.
Lerwick's picturesque waterfront with the buildings reaching into the sea. Photo: Susan Molloy.
Tours begin in the town centre at the Market Cross; I start by asking visitors to imagine they were standing at the same spot in 1600. I paint the picture; there are no buildings or houses and where the market cross stands was a small sandy beach with a gurgling fresh-water burn running down what is now Mounthooly Street (the lane beside the Tourist Centre).
Lerwick's Lanes are steep and narrow. Access to the foreshore was always a problem as Lerwick grew from the 1600s.
Lerwick was not a natural choice for a town and, in fact, Scalloway (6-miles to the west) was the main town in Shetland until about 1838. Scalloway was an obvious choice; it sits at the foot of a fertile limestone valley, has a wide, natural harbour close to rich fishing grounds, and there is a good supply of fresh drinking water. Lerwick did not share these qualities, and the land where the town now stands was only ever used for grazing animals from the neighbouring township of Sound (which has now been swallowed up by the town).
But, what Lerwick – or Leirvik, (meaning the muddy or clay bay from Old Norse) – did have was a good, natural harbour. Bressay Sound offers shelter from easterly winds and a good anchorage for ships. Without Bressay, it's unlikely that there would have ever been a town here, Bressay provides the perfect buffer from the sea that can so ravage the exposed coastline of Shetland.
View from Fort Charlotte, Lerwick, with the island of Bressay in the background providing shelter to the harbour. Photo: Susan Molloy.
The Dutch Connection
So how did the town that should never-be grow and develop to become the leading trading point in Shetland? From the 1500s Dutch fishermen, who went to sea in ships called busses, began venturing north into Shetland waters in search of herring. The first real written account of them comes in 1615 – although Shetlanders would have been familiar with the sight of their busses from as early as 1469. In 1615 a piece of legislation from Scalloway (the then capital) banned all trade within Bressay Sound (Lerwick was yet to be named), and all the temporary trading booths that lined the foreshore were ordered to be razed to the ground.
The first time ‘Lerwick’ was mentioned was in a similar proclamation from Scalloway, ten years later, in 1625. It said that Lerwick was a lawless place filled with drunkenness, debauchery, murder, theft and prostitution; and it was again ordered to be destroyed. In particular, it was said that women were not to attend the foreshore and, that if they did have any knitwear to sell, they were to send a son, brother or husband to do their bidding for them.
William Aberdeen's 1766 map of Bressay Sound and Lerwick. Map available in the Shetland Archives.
Despite this, the town grew, and by 1766 when William Aberdeen drew his map of Bressay Sound, there were a good handful of substantial stone-built houses lining the rocky foreshore, all built gable on to the sea, maximising every square inch of foreshore available. Aberdeen describes the scene at the time:
“Every year between eight or nine hundred Dutch vessels make their rendezvous here before they go to the fishing, and was it not for this Dutchmen, the town of Lerwick would soon decay. The Dutch leave peas, barley, cheese and money for stockings.”
What Aberdeen doesn’t mention is the illicit trade in brandy, gin and tobacco that is often said to have built Lerwick. So was Lerwick really built by smugglers? As well as all the legal trade that took place between Shetlanders and the Dutch fishermen who came ashore, there was a high proportion that was of course, illegal. Evidence of this can be found under Commercial Street, from Harry’s Department Store to Leog at the south end of Commercial Street are a series of underground tunnels – many of them are still there, some have collapsed, and others have been filled in during building works. Illegal goods – gin, brandy, tobacco – were unloaded from the ships and squirrelled away underground to avoid customs. There is no doubt that trade – legal or otherwise – formed the foundations of the town.
Left: Smugglers' tunnel under Commercial Street. Right: A small door that led to a smugglers' tunnel, Lerwick.
My Top 3 in the town centre:
The Tolbooth, Lerwick. Built c. 1770.
One of the first stops on the tour is at the Tolbooth, overlooking Victoria Pier, built in 1770 it was designated for collecting taxes, and over the years it has had a colourful and varied past which I talk about more on my tours. Of its numerous uses, it has been; a jail, ballroom, museum, archive, seaman’s mission, post office, and more recently, the headquarters for the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute).
The famous Lodberrie, now a private residence this building is also the fictional home of Detective Perez in the hit BBC crime drama Shetland.
Another firm favourite with visitors and locals alike is The Lodberrie; instantly recognisable by many visitors as the home of Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez in the fictional TV crime drama Shetland. This building, dating to about 1772 was one of 21 lodberries that lined the foreshore in Lerwick by 1814. The word lodberry comes from the Old Norse hladberg and means ‘a landing place, or a landing stone’ and describes the type of use these utilitarian – yet beautiful – buildings were designed for. Ultimately these were trading booths, built with their foundations in the sea. Winches unloaded boats that could be berthed alongside and legal goods were then sold from street-side shops, and the illegal goods were taken into the maze of tunnels that ran underneath the street – and feet – of the customs men.
James Stout Angus, who grew up in Stout’s Court, wrote about a kokkilurie (daisy) that grew near his home, written in the dialect, his poem is evocative and pure:
“Dey wir ee peeire white kokkilurie at grew
At da side o da lodberry waa;
Hit wid open hits lips tae da moarnin dew,
An close dem at night whin da caald wind blew,
An rowe up hits frills in a peerie roond clew
As white as da flukkra snaa.
“In October, ee nicht he cam on ta blaa
Wi a odious tömald o rain,
Da spöndrift cam in ower da aest sea waa
An drave trowe da yard laek do moorin snaa;
Neist moarnin my peerie white flooer wis awa,
An vever wis seen again.”
Bain's Beach, the only remaining part of virgin foreshore in Lerwick's town centre.
A favourite of mine, this is the only part of virgin foreshore that remains in Lerwick's town centre. The golden sand is a surprise in the middle of town, and it always takes me right back to my childhood, conjuring up memories of eating fish suppers on a summer night when the tide allowed access to the beach. Because there was so little available land for building on the shoreline, much of the centre of town, including the Esplanade and everything that stands east of Fort Charlotte, has been reclaimed from the sea, drastically altering the natural shoreline.
Shetland with Laurie walking tour. Photo: Susan Molloy.
Dutch fishermen continued to use Bressay Sound as a rendezvous point before the commencement of their summer fishery (24th June) right up until around the First World War, after that their busses were replaced with more modern ships and the trade dwindled off.
Despite this, Lerwick was now firmly established, and the home fleet had a thriving fishing industry, and this caused another ‘boom’ for the town. In the early 1900s herring was still big business and local boats – and those from the north of England and Scotland – were chasing the silver darlings. This fishery caused the town to burgeon yet again as many incoming workers flocked to Shetland for the summer herring season. For the first time, the catch was being processed and shipped from Lerwick, rather than being taken away on rudimentary factory ships, or busses. With the industry rooted in Lerwick, there was a considerable growth within the town as factories sprang up with all the associated barrel-makers and accommodation blocks to house the workers.
Over the years there have been many changes and improvements to the town – some better than others. Drainage and sewage systems were introduced in the 1870s; at that time the town was described as filthy and diseased, with open sewers running down the lanes to the sea.
'Pavement graves' in the Lerwick Lanes (note the cross marked on the flagstone). Photo: Susan Molloy.
One of my favourite places to show the changes is Church Road – leading up from the Tolbooth towards St Columba’s Kirk. At one time Church Road was known as Sooth Kirk Closs and was lined with overcrowded houses. It was densely populated and the houses in poor condition. In the 1960s the houses were torn down to allow the new road to go in, allowing better access to the town centre. At the same time, the graveyard that sat between Sooth and North Kirk Closs was removed – and turned into a car park – with the council advertising in the local paper, asking people to kindly collect their relatives. If you walk around the area, there are still paving slabs marked with a simple cross, indicating the spot of a previous grave. Whatever the rights and wrongs, it did allow much-needed access to the town centre and certainly gives me a talking point on my walking tour.
Lerwick Town Hall during Remembrance service.
By the 1880s the town had reached the top of what is now the Hillhead; it was a busy, overcrowded, squalid mess. There was no urban planning, just entrepreneurial locals trying to carve out their corner of this new town which had so much offer and promise to the rising middle classes. Finally, in 1883 Lerwick’s Town Hall was built, immortalising the town as the capital and main seat of power in Shetland.
Lerwick still boasts a thriving fishing industry. Photo: Alexa Fitzgibbon.
Lerwick was built on the fishing, and it is those deep roots that keep it thriving today. Today Lerwick is one of the top fishing ports in the UK; we have a flourishing industry and new boats coming year-on-year to make up the fleet. I am very proud of the place, and town, I call home.
If you would like to book a walking tour with me, please email and get in touch, tours will be running between May and September on Wednesday evenings. For info please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Johnson family. Photo courtesy of Larry & Beth Sutherland.
I remember my great-grandmother – Grandmam – well, she was a petite woman who was quiet and kind. She possessed a power so great; a strength of character that carried her family through life with an incredible unity. She was a quietly determined woman with a kind and gentle heart. I remember her at home, occupying a chair in the corner, surrounded by her makkin. Her seat of power and command, to me, it was her throne, and she was the Queen. She was the head of the family but was neither demanding nor harsh, her soft eyes, infectious smile and intuitive ways invited respect, it didn’t demand it.
What struck me in each of the letters was her care; whether that be knitting blankets to send to Albania or blanching carrots for the freezer to prevent needless waste. She came from a large family, they had very little growing up, but what she did possess was a strength of character that I can’t fail to admire.
Grandmam, or Barbara (Babsie), was one of six children born to George and Eliza Johnson (nee Fraser). I never knew my great-great-grandmother Eliza, and I can’t remember her being talked about, probably because I was too young to remember or listen. My own granny said that “Aald Mam was one of the kindest people there was. The last thing she did was give away her last half-a-crown.” A selfless woman, she brought up her own family of six before bringing up a second family of four. She lost her husband young, and then her daughter, leaving her to bring up the grandchildren. All of this she did from their croft at the Hillend in Voe, nestled on the slope leading towards Lower Voe it was described as “a very poor croft but one that brought up a family”. My granny explains how Aald Mam had struggled her whole life but would always give her last to anyone who came to visit.
I am very much connected to Aald Mam, or Eliza, whether it be in the lines I trace on our family tree, or in my own home, sitting proudly on a dresser. A year or two ago I was given Aald Mam’s mixing bowl; a wide, shallow earthenware bowl, mottled and worn through age and use. It was one of her few personal possessions. She was born in 1878 on the island of Papa Stour, her six children, including Grandmam, were all born between 1910 and 1921; a time of hard work, war and loss.
We have just had Remembrance week, where we think back to the 11th November when the guns fell silent for the first time in four years over Europe.
Trench cake is a homemade fruit cake that was released as a recipe by the Ministry of Food using readily available ingredients. During the war every hen was engaged in ‘active service’, and anyone keeping poultry was expected to donate their eggs to military hospitals to aid wounded servicemen in their convalescence.
It was a nostalgic process (one that I shared on my blog last year, and am revisiting) and I thought a lot about my own family as I made the cake. I wondered whether Aald Mam had made trench cake in the bowl and whether Grandmam had licked the spoon clean as my daughter, Lena (then 2) had done. I wondered what worries and woes she mixed out in the bowl. Perhaps they too worked together in their busy kitchen in Voe, mixing up cakes, as Lena and I did on that rainy Saturday morning in November.
I’ve decided to share the recipe again and hope that someone else will take a morning to remember the lives lost, changed or affected by war and how so many gave so much in the trenches, oceans and kitchens to provide us with the freedom we enjoy today.
Dolphin made from beach-found plastics at Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary.
We are in a climate crisis, and it seems that everywhere we look, we are reminded of this grim reality. It can feel overwhelming, but there are things we can all do on a small, local level to abate this. This morning, before breakfast, I consumed two climate change articles and signed a petition calling for our council to declare a ‘climate crisis’.
Shetland is often at the raw end of climate change, and this is something that I’ve wanted to touch on for a while but have never felt equipped to do so. Where do you start? Where does it end? Which facts can I pick out as truths, and which ones are just scaremongering and political propaganda? These are all questions that have haunted my thoughts when I start to consider writing about this topic. It’s a huge subject. It’s greater than you or I, and it’s snowballing, faster and faster towards … towards what? Another question I can’t answer.
What I can do though is talk from my experience about what I see and how I try to make tiny-ickle changes for the better – ones that you too can make.
We live on an island; a rough, exposed group of over 100 islands in the centre of the North Atlantic. The sea surrounds us, and that’s where I see the problem manifest itself the greatest in the form of plastic pollution.
I’m a baby of the 1980s. I grew up with plastic. I am the plastic generation. And although my mum was a bit of a hippy who wore long floaty dresses, made our clothes and swore by cloth nappies and breastfeeding I still played with plastic toys, bagged up shopping with single-use bags and as I grew older, bought plastic bottles from the shop almost daily.
Yet, when I remember my childhood, I recall playing with old pots and pans (from a nearby dump), scooping up pony manure for mud pies and broths and hunting in the burn (stream) for frogs. I don’t remember the ‘1991 toy of the year’ which was probably plastic and was more than likely tossed aside after a few moments. I do remember the Kinder Surprise Tapsi Turtles – they were amazing, weren’t they? And now, 25-years later, I despair at the trash that comes from those eggs that my bairns insist on buying and almost instantly discard, they’re no longer collected and played with. It’s getting worse, not better.
With almost 1,700 miles of coastline, Shetland is known for its outstanding natural beauty, secluded beaches and wildlife. However, this often harbours a much uglier side and one that anyone living here will know all too well: plastic pollution.
Whenever I go to the beach, I endeavour to ‘pick up 5’. Quite simply, I pick up five pieces of plastic pollution or do a quick two-minute beach clean. I do this with visitors too, and it’s usually met in one of three ways: Some question what I’m doing, some lament at the ‘fuss’ made about plastic these days but most will stop and try to meet their target five items too.
The greatest offenders of our roadsides and beaches in Shetland. Waste from the fishing & aquaculture industries and plastic, single-use bottles.
Of the second group, those who don’t understand the ‘fuss’, I try to thoughtfully educate them and help them see the problem from our local perspective. Earlier this year I had a couple from America, they lived in a land-locked state, in a city where garbage is uplifted by trucks and carted away somewhere out of sight for disposal. They were shocked when I showed them images of entangled animals and took them to Hillswick to speak to Jan Bevington, who runs a wildlife rehabilitation centre. By the end of the day, they too were picking up small pieces of twine, rope and bottle caps for disposal, and that made me feel proud and happy. If we can change attitudes and educate, even on a small, local level, we will ultimately all make a huge difference. We have also to accept that some people will never share this opinion, and that’s fine too, all we can do is try to educate and enlighten and hope that people will listen.
Hillswick Wildlife Centre in Shetland North Mainland.
Another stark reminder from the natural world are found in the impressive gannet colonies across Shetland. Beauty hot spots like Noss and Hermaness feel like you have been transported right into an Attenborough documentary, however, if you look at the nests through binoculars, the sight is shocking: nests constructed from plastic and rope; blue curling where there should be seaweed and straw. The photo below from Brydon Thomason clearly shows the problem of plastic in our breeding seabird colonies.
Gannets nests strewn with rope and plastic at Muckle Flugga, Unst. Photo courtesy of Brydon Thomason, Shetland Nature.
Another example from another beauty spot is the beach at Rerwick in Shetland’s South Mainland where visitors can expect to see dozens of seals on the beach. A closer look with binoculars reveals that several seals are entangled in plastic strapping. Ultimately these animals are on death row, awaiting a long and painful death.
Seals on Rerwick Beach in Shetland's South Mainland. What this photo doesn't show is that several of the seals here have rope around them, which is slowly killing them.
As the climate changes and sea temperatures rise, we also have wetter, windier winters. This has a direct effect on fishermen and farmers who depend on the land and sea. Nature is always the first to adapt in response to these subtle, gradual changes. Seabirds may fail to breed successfully, fish stocks may move into different waters, and land becomes waterlogged and degraded.
What can we do
Plastic is a relatively new phenomenon, and it has some essential uses, in some cases, it is entirely necessary. What we need to do is stop and think a little. Ask our grandmothers how they stored cheese before cling-film. And maybe you could sew that button back on, rather than discarding the shirt?
Climate action doesn’t have to be overwhelming, start small, and here are a few examples:
Some of the things we can do to make a difference: shop with consideration; pick up litter; make or buy wax wraps to store food.
I know that this might seem a bit doom-and-gloom compared to the usual posts I produce, but it’s important to highlight, and I hope that you have read this far and haven’t felt that I am just adding another layer to all the noise out there regarding climate change.
I still have a long way to go personally. Our family still produce too much waste. I still pull plastic wipes from a plastic pack to wipe snotty noses, but I have replaced my disposable face wipes with reusable cotton alternatives, and I buy my loo roll from Who Gives a Crap. I still buy Comfort fabric conditioner because I like the smell, but I have swapped out my washing liquid and shower gels for environmentally friendly alternatives.
We don’t have to turn our lives upside down to make a positive impact, but we can stop and think: Do I need it? Is it reusable? Is there a more environmentally alternative? And most importantly, how can I take care of my own little patch of the world for the future.
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.