Shetland’s Cast Iron Survivors

by Alastair Hamilton -

A Spanish friend of mine, walking around Inverness, was puzzled to find that many low roadside walls were punctuated by the stubs of iron railings; and, if you take an urban walk in most towns in Britain, you may well come across these.

What my friend didn’t realise was that many, many thousands of these railings – and the gates that were made in the same styles – were removed during the Second World War. They were cut from walls as part of a national effort to gather all available iron, the aim being to support the war effort. This was at a time when Britain had its back very much against the wall as it struggled to keep the military might of the Nazis at bay.

...many thousands of these railings were removed during the Second World War...

Had my friend chosen Lerwick, or the village of Scalloway, for her exploration, she’d have found that the railings in Shetland were left unscathed by the war effort. Apparently, it was simply too much trouble to cut them down and send them south, so these magnificent examples of late 19th and early 20th century craftsmanship survive. They’re a very prominent feature of the residential streets in Lerwick’s so-called ‘new town’, which was laid out on a grid plan during that period. For the most part, they’re in good condition and the variety of colour and design is remarkable. They certainly enhance the area. Scalloway, too, has some excellent examples.

...the variety of colour and design is remarkable...

More recently, the tradition of railings has been revived where new buildings have been erected. In Lerwick, a modern interpretation of railings was specially commissioned for the boundary of a care home. In Scalloway, as part of a wider project to improve the waterfront, a section of railings was designed to celebrate the village’s strong fishing tradition.

...the tradition of railings has been revived where new buildings have been erected...

The fate of the railings which were lost from almost every other part of Britain is not entirely clear. According to this article on a London website, it seems that many of the railings were never melted down as intended, and instead may have been used as ships’ ballast – resulting in their alleged appearance in West Africa –or even dumped in the Thames estuary, and in such quantities that the iron affected ships’ compasses. There is also a view that the entire exercise had more to do with propaganda than armaments.

...it seems that many of the railings were never melted down as intended...

Whatever the truth, we can be grateful that, in Lerwick and Scalloway, it’s still possible to see and appreciate these marvellous examples of period craftsmanship.

Posted in: Heritage