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.
A little about Laurie
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Shetland with Laurie
Copyright ©Alexa Fitzgibbon
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Shetland tourist info: shetland.org