Lerwick – Shetland’s capital – dates from the 17th century but is a bustling up-to-date town with 21st century ideas and amenities. From the modern Mareel cinema, arts and music venue to Iron Age broch remains at Clickimin, the islands’ main town has many sites of interest.
Photo: Kim Rendall Authentic knitwear and locally-made crafts and gifts are easy to come by in a town that is well-served by independent shops, and there’s a good selection of bars, restaurants, cafes and takeaway outlets. There’s also a small shopping centre and two supermarkets to supply all you need for a self-catering stay.
Sheltered by the island of Bressay to the east, Lerwick (from Old Norse Leirvik – ‘muddy/clayey bay’) has an excellent natural harbour that attracts vessels of all shapes and sizes year round. The ‘small boat harbour’ and Victoria pier areas are a hive of activity during the summer months. Yachts, pleasure boats and cruise ships are frequent visitors, and this is the main departure area for boat trip operators and the venue for sailing races and regattas.
Shetlanders have long been associated with the sea and memorials to islanders involved in both the whaling industry and the fishing industry stand on the redeveloped waterfront. Lerwick lifeboat is stationed in the harbour while the old Tolbooth building is now the lifeboat station and shop.
The Swan, with her green paintwork and orange sails, is a big attraction and often berthed in the harbour. Built as a sailing drifter in Lerwick in 1900, she has been restored to her original state and provides an opportunity for sail training cruises and private charter. Another interesting vessel is the Dim Riv replica longship which offers short trips in harbour waters in the summer.
The ro-ro ferry to Bressay leaves from the Esplanade, just by the offices for Lerwick Port Authority and port control in Albert Building. Further along is the Malakoff (a boatyard since the 19th century) and the North Ness area which was formerly the site of gutters’ huts and barrelling yards in the boom years of the herring industry.
Photo: John Irvine Mareel stands on the North Ness waterfront and the adjacent Shetland Museum and Archives is at the historic Hay’s Dock. Both areas have been extensively redeveloped over recent years. While Mareel provides today’s film, arts and music fans with an ideal venue, the museum is the place to start your journey through Shetland’s fascinating story, from our earliest rocks – half the age of Earth itself – to the recent oil industry.
The Shetland Textile Museum is located on the north road out of town at the Böd of Gremista, which was the birthplace of Arthur Anderson, co-founder of the P&O shipping company.
The ferry from Aberdeen arrives in the ‘sooth mooth’ daily and berths at Holmsgarth, in the north part of the harbour, where much of the fish processing and oil related traffic and quays are also to be found. There are business and industrial estates at Blackhill, Gremista and the Greenhead, and the Shetland College buildings (part of the University of the Highlands and Islands) are sited at Gremista.
Back in the town centre, Commercial Street, or ‘Da Street’ as locals call it, is still the hub of town life although, like town centres and high streets everywhere, needs support to remain vibrant. The Living Lerwick project organises various ‘shop local’ events and promotions to encourage both locals and visitors to browse in the shops, relax in the cafes and bars, or just take in the atmosphere of the town.
Photo: Kim Rendall The steep, narrow lanes leading uphill from the street were cramped and crowded residential areas for all town dwellers in the 1800s. Much demolition, renovation and redevelopment has taken place over the years and the lanes are now a desirable location.
The Market Cross has its most important day in late January when the Up-Helly-A’ proclamation (the bill) is placed there for all to read. The bill is visited by the Jarl and his squad of Vikings on Up-Helly-A’ morning during their daytime parade along the Esplanade and ‘da street’.
The Visit Scotland tourist information office at the Market Cross can help with your holiday queries and bookings.
Smugglers’ tunnels run underground and a guided tour of Old Lerwick will explain all, and also give a few insights into the town’s interesting history and traditions: did you know the sites of today’s Thule Bar and Peerie Shop were once ‘lodberries’ (piers, developed as warehouses, where goods could be directly loaded and unloaded from boats)?
Photo: Steve Birrell The picturesque south end of Commercial Street still has lodberries, a hotel and houses built into the sea, although when number 10 was built in 1730 it was the only house on the sea side of the street. The Queens Hotel (1860) incorporates Yates’ and Hay’s lodberries. The house called ‘The Lodberrie’, near Bain’s Beach, is probably the most photographed in Shetland and the home of Jimmy Perez in the popular BBC drama series Shetland.
A walk towards the headland of the Knab leads past the Knowe, the former home of artist Fred Irvine, which has a boat for a garage roof. At the top of the hill, the Anderson Homes (Widows’ Homes), now converted to flats, were built in 1865 by Arthur Anderson in memory of his wife as homes to the widows of seamen. The old Anderson High School buildings are another of Anderson’s legacies, the original building being opened in 1862.
Passing the town cemetery the Knab footpath leads to a (free) nine-hole golf course and a skatepark. The viewpoint gives some fine views of Brei Wick and to the south. Continuing down Breiwick Road, take the footpath around the rocky coastline – looking out for seals, seabirds and waders – to emerge near Clickimin.
Photo: Kenneth Shearer Stroll out the Sea Road, past the supermarket, to get close-up views of the seals which often haul out on the rocky foreshore in front of the fire and ambulance station and residential care homes. Up Seafield Road and past the Lower Sound houses is the Sands of Sound, a popular beach with townsfolk, and also the ‘Dinghy’, where summer swimming lessons were held before Lerwick got an indoor swimming pool.
Back on the main South Road you’ll find the Clickimin Broch. Excavated in the 1950s, the site was occupied from 700BC to the 5th or 6th century AD. The broch (known locally as the ‘Picts’ Castle’) is managed by Historic Scotland and open to visitors. Interpretive panels tell the history.
The footpaths around either side of Clickimin Loch take you to Shetland's new high school and halls of residence which opened in 2017. The Clickimin Centre with swimming pool and flumes, games hall, fitness suites, indoor bowling arena and squash courts, as well as playing fields and an athletics track, is one of eight leisure centres throughout the isles.
Back again to the town centre and another Historic Scotland property, Fort Charlotte (1665). The fort, with its replica guns ‘protecting’ Bressay Sound, stands above Commercial Street on a sandstone cliff. Built by John Mylne (master mason to Charles II) to protect shipping in the second Dutch war, the fort was taken and burned in 1673. Reconstructed in 1781, it was named after Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. Having served as accommodation to the town’s bachelors, and as a prison, coastguard station, RNR depot and armoury, today it is home to the TA Defence Volunteers and Army Cadet Force.
John M. Aitken built Lerwick Town Hall on the Hillhead in 1884, to the design of architect Alexander Ross. Stained glass windows depict scenes from local history, including one of Princess Margaret of Denmark. The Town Hall houses the council chamber and the impressive hall upstairs is a popular venue for recitals, weddings and dances. The hall is open to visitors during working hours. Another interesting architectural building is the Grand Hotel (1887) on Commercial Street. It was designed by William Hamilton Beattie, architect of the famous North British Hotel in Edinburgh.
Shetland Library is on Lower Hillhead, based in the former St Ringan’s Church (1886). Other church buildings in the town include St Columba’s (1825-9); St Magnus Episcopal Church (1862-4); the Methodist Chapel (1872); and St Margaret’s Roman Catholic Church (1911). Baptist followers have a recently-built church at Quoys in the Sound area and there are also supporters of the Baha’i Faith, the Mormon Church, and various evangelical groups.
Photo: Agnieska Gardner The former Central School (1902) in King Harald Street is now the well-used Islesburgh Community Centre which also serves as the ‘festival club’ venue for the annual folk festival and accordion and fiddle festival. The adjacent Islesburgh House (1907) is a popular hostel which has twice in recent years been voted the world’s best hostel.
The ‘Jubilee’ gardens across from the hostel provide bowling, putting and tennis facilities while the children’s play park next door will allow younger visitors to let off steam.
Search here for accommodation providers in the town or check with Visit Scotland.
For public transport information see travel.shetland.org.
Visit The Shetland Times Bookshop on Commercial Street for a great range of books, maps, guides and gifts, or go to the online shop.