District Of The Month: Lerwick

by Alastair Hamilton -

Each month, we look at a different part of Shetland to see what it has to offer as a place to live. This time, the focus is on Shetland’s capital, Lerwick.

Lerwick lies on the east coast of Shetland, on the shore of a natural harbour that’s sheltered by the island of Bressay. There’s evidence of human settlement going back thousands of years; Clickimin Broch is the most prominent example. However, the town’s origins are much more recent. It began life in the 1600s as a seasonal trading post for those who did business with the Dutch herring fleet, which sheltered in Bressay Sound, now Lerwick’s harbour. It became permanent and, around 1700, the law court moved from Scalloway and Lerwick took over the role of Shetland’s capital, growing steadily thereafter.

...it began life in the 1600s as a seasonal trading post...

The traders’ premises along the shore, consisting of a jetty, a small warehouse and a dwelling, were known as lodberries, a term derived from Old Norse which denotes a flat, loading stone; they were connected by a winding street, today’s Commercial Street. On the rising ground above it, other housing was packed tightly into narrow lanes. In the late 19th century, a New Town was planned to the west of the original settlement; it was laid out on a grid pattern with wide streets, a public park, many fine stone villas and a splendid Town Hall that incorporates exceptional stained glass.

Today, Lerwick has a population of around 7,000, just under a third of Shetland’s population, and it extends well beyond the 19th century boundary. It provides services for the whole of Shetland and in fact hosts many services which wouldn’t normally be found in a relatively small town. It’s the centre of Shetland’s local government and there are several central government departments, too. There’s an acute general hospital, the Gilbert Bain, and the islands’ largest secondary school. Shetland College is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The town is also Shetland’s main hub for commercial and professional services, with banks, solicitors, accountants, architects, vets, surveyors and engineers. It’s the main trading centre, too. There are two supermarkets, many specialist shops, builders’ merchants, car dealerships and a livestock market. The media presence includes BBC Radio Shetland; an independent radio station, SIBC; and the islands’ only print newspaper, the Shetland Times.

...Lerwick....hosts many services which wouldn’t normally be found in a relatively small town...

Lerwick also has a substantial industrial base. Many firms operate in fish processing, the offshore oil sector and the services needed to support them, such as marine engineering. Some of Shetland’s construction firms operate from the town, too.

With all of that activity, Lerwick hosts a large proportion of Shetland’s employment and workers commute to the town from most parts of the Shetland mainland.

So is it all work and no play? Well, no. Leisure and recreation are extraordinarily well catered for. If sport’s your thing, the Clickimin Centre has a huge games hall and a 25m swimming pool equipped with all the usual diversions such as flumes and a ‘river’, as well as many other indoor facilities including squash courts and superb fitness equipment. Outdoors, there are full athletics facilities, including a running track, and playing pitches. There are tennis courts in the New Town and a skateboard park at the Knab. The nearest 18-hole golf course is less than ten minutes’ drive away, at Dale.

There’s been major investment, too, in award-winning heritage and arts facilities. The Shetland Museum and Archives tells the islands’ story very well indeed, beginning when they were a very long way from their present position. The displays throw light on every phase of Shetland’s development and there is a wonderful collection of Shetland’s finest knitwear and lace. It’s also a centre for conferences, and indeed weddings, and there’s a good café- restaurant with a terrific harbour view.

...Leisure and recreation are extraordinarily well catered for...

Mareel, the arts centre, has a superb concert hall which is also a venue for comedy. Its two cinemas are a treat if you’re used to retail-park multiplexes; blockbusters, like the Bond and Star Trek movies, open here at the same time as elsewhere. Classic and foreign-language films and relays from London’s West End via National Theatre Live also feature, so Shetland audiences have enjoyed productions such as War Horse, A Streetcar Named Desire and Hamlet featuring Benedict Cumberbatch.

Other venues include the Garrison Theatre, which presents drama and small-scale music; St Columba’s Church, used by the Shetland Community Orchestra; the beautiful Town Hall, with a great acoustic for chamber music; Islesburgh Community Centre, which forms the annual Folk Festival’s club; and the British Legion, hosting live music and comedy. The main hall at the Clickimin Leisure Complex is used for the very largest concerts, as it can accommodate 1,200; it’s also home to the Shetland Classic Motor Show, the food and craft fairs and similar events.

...Its two cinemas are a treat if you’re used to retail-park multiplexes...

When it comes to shopping, we do lack major stores like Marks and Spencer or John Lewis, though of course many people order online. However, our local shops will sell you some things you might struggle to track down elsewhere. For example, a wholefoods shop has a remarkable range of ingredients; a fish shop offers exceptional salmon and haddock, beautifully smoked on the premises; and a beer specialist stocks ales from little-known craft breweries all over the world. When you want to sit down, there are some nice cafés doing excellent coffee and cake; the waterside café-bar at Mareel is a favourite for cocktails.

There are many more sides to Lerwick; like the seals that haul up on the rocks next to a supermarket, or an otter that you might find eating its catch in the car park on the pier, right in the town centre. In January, the New Town is also the setting for that most spectacular of island fire festivals, the Lerwick Up Helly Aa, and the burning of the galley.

...local shops will sell you some things you might struggle to track down elsewhere...

If you’d rather sail a boat than set fire to it, there’s a marina and a very active boating club. Indeed, even if you’re a convinced landlubber, you’ll probably glance at the harbour now and again, because it hosts everything from beautiful old sailing ships to some of the world’s largest cruise liners; it’s very much at the heart of Lerwick life.

If a move to Shetland is on your agenda, it may be because you hanker for a truly rural retreat, a place where you can enjoy peace, quiet and open space, miles from anywhere. Many people who settle here feel that way and the islands do these things very well, as you can see from our other ‘District of the Month’ features. It’s also true that most people who live in Shetland don’t live in Lerwick, even if they work there and use its facilities; and that can be an attractive combination.

However, if town life appeals, Lerwick has an astonishing amount to offer for a community of just 7,000 or so. The setting is beautiful, the well-preserved old town is a gem and the facilities match or exceed those of places many times its size; and of course all the rest that Shetland has to offer is within very easy reach.

...the facilities match or exceed those of places many times its size...