Old Lerwick: Lanes and Lodberries by Douglas Sinclair is the long-anticipated follow on from Old Lerwick: People and Places published in 2017. Douglas Sinclair is a Lerwegian and historian who grew up in the historic south end of Lerwick and has spent most of his life living in the heart of Lerwick, immersing himself in the history, the people and the places. He has dedicated much of his adult life to unearthing and telling the stories of the town – in fact if you’ve had a walking tour of Lerwick in the past, the chances are, Douglas was your guide.
Lerwick has seen an immense number of changes over the years, from its humble beginnings in the 17th century; a time of smuggling, Dutch fishermen and poverty, to the unsympathetic demolitions and rebuilding of the 1960s and towards the present-day town; a desirable and popular tourist attraction and thriving fishing port. [You can read more about the growth of Lerwick here].
Lerwick itself is a relatively new town – certainly in European terms. It only began to develop in the 1600s in response to the arrival of Dutch fishermen each summer who were following the herring north. Douglas’ book documents the growth and development of the town from these early beginnings right up to the present day.
Examining every building from Lower Leog at South Commercial Street, right along to Fort Charlotte at the north end of the town centre, Douglas delves into the closses [closes], lanes, tunnels and piers of Old Lerwick, giving the modern-day names and uses for the buildings too to help the reader visualise which building is being described.
I was fascinated to read about the “trances” – buildings that the street was able to pass through via an archway – that were dotted along Commercial Street, including one close to where the present-day Wine Shop is. Many of the buildings and the trances associated with them were demolished to widen Commercial Street, allowing better pedestrian and vehicular access.
People sometimes react with horror when they realise the number of demolished buildings in and around Old Lerwick over the years – particularly when faced with historic photographs. Still, it’s important to remember that they were built long before the days of town planning, and, over the years, many of these buildings became impractical for the working town around them. One clear example of this was the destruction of buildings to create the present-day Church Road that provides easy access to the town centre for vehicles.
It’s equally important to recognise that, during the 1960s, the condition of many of these historic buildings was poor, and the general feeling of the decade was one of ‘out with the old and in with the new’. Residents of Lerwick’s old town wanted modern conveniences – and who are we to judge their desire for a modern kitchen and a flushing toilet.
The ‘modern’ Heddell’s Court actually won architectural awards when built. Today it’s hard not to think about what was there and to consider, with some sadness, what we lost – but those thoughts come from a place of modern-day privilege that are unfair to the people whose lives were drastically improved by modern housing and plumbing.
However, there were and are occasions where buildings and structures were thoughtlessly destroyed – usually at the hands of the council. I was horrified to read about the various misdemeanours of the council over the years who sanctioned the destruction – often needless – of many buildings and different structures around the town, some for no apparent reason, like the historic steps at Gardie Court. The destruction of these (see the outline on the photo where they once stood) was unnecessary. The steps, destroyed by the council in 1958, were believed to date to the 17th century and were listed in the Inventory of Shetland of the Royal Commission of the Ancient Monuments of Scotland, number 1245.
The book itself is easy to follow. It’s laid out in a way that allows the reader to track the town’s development in a way that ‘walks them along the street’. Generally speaking, it skirts along the shoreline from the south towards the Tolbooth before heading through Lerwick’s tapestry of Lanes that lead towards Commercial Street from the Hillhead. Finally, we trace the shoreline – an area that was much changed when the Esplanade was built, displacing many of the buildings, piers and lodberries that crookedly lined the original shoreline.
The book is brought to life by many historic photos showing long-forgotten, now-demolished buildings that once cast their shadows over the town. Some of these buildings, like Twageos House, were grand and imposing – others, like Lizzie Lodestar’s Cafe, could be easily overlooked yet left a great impression in the hearts and minds of several generations of Lerwegians who carry fond memories of the building.
Douglas has also included a series of modern-day photos to accompany the historic images as a means of comparison. These are not only helpful for the modern reader to identify specific buildings, but in 10, 50 or 100 years, these images will also be historic. We generally don’t think to photograph the minutia and small details of our towns.
Much of the story of Lerwick, and the narrative of this book, hinges on the ‘famous’ Police Commissioners report of 1845 and the changes to street names and lanes that were made. So if you’ve ever wondered why many of our lanes have two names – you’ll have to read Douglas’ book!
Collectively, Douglas’ books are the most significant piece of research into the town’s history since Thomas Manson’s Lerwick During the Last Half Century (1867-1917), published in 1923.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, as much as I did his first (which you can buy here). And although there are elements of repetition between the two books, I don’t think that matters, as each can stand-alone or as part of a fully-comprehensive, meticulously researched history of our fascinating, beautiful, living, breathing, ever-evolving town.
Personally, I owe Douglas a great deal of thanks for taking me on several Lerwick walking tours and generously sharing his knowledge of the Lerwick of past generations.
Until next time,
If you're interested in Shetland books, you may like my blog on Shetland's Best Literature, or some other book reviews I've written:
Hello from Laurie
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