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A Lerwick waterfront walk

by Alastair Hamilton -

These days, our exercise takes a little more planning than usual, so combining a walk with a shopping trip can make sense.

In this case, that trip led me to Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, and in fact the town and its immediate surroundings offer plenty of walking potential. I’ve illustrated this piece with some photographs I took along the way, but I’ve used others as a reminder of how the waterfront used to look before lockdown – and how, when something like normality returns, it will again.

This time, my route started at Hay’s Dock, which these days is home to the Shetland Museum and Archives and Mareel, our arts centre. Alas, neither is currently open, due to the lockdown; but in normal times, either is a good place for a pre- or post-walk refreshment, quite apart from the other things they offer.

Mareel has two superb cinemas and a concert hall, and there’s usually an art exhibition, too. The Museum tells Shetland’s story from ancient geological origins to, pretty much, the present day, and the Archives are an essential resource for anyone conducting research on the islands’ past.

The lack of activity here isn’t total, because the ‘receivers’ – four loudpeakers that reproduce sound recordings drawn from Shetland’s rich heritage, the playback influenced by wind speed – continue to intrigue those who pause here.

The dock itself dates from 1830 and was one of many along this stretch of the northern waterfront, which was the heart of Lerwick’s fishing industry. Hereabouts, herring was landed in vast quantities, then gutted and packed in barrels by hundreds of filleters; nearby, coopers made the barrels and there would have been all the other services needed to keep boats seaworthy and nets serviceable.

Boats were built at Hay’s Dock, too, including the sail-fishing vessel Swan, launched here in 1900, and now Shetland’s very own sail-training vessel. Lerwick owes its existence to the fishing industry, having its origins in seasonally-occupied huts and sheds that served the needs of the Dutch fleet from the 16th century.

From here, our route leads towards the town centre. We can take advantage of a new walkway, created when this area was redeveloped, though – thanks to the presence of the islands’ fuel storage tanks and an active shipyard – we can’t quite keep to the water’s edge all the way. We rejoin it at the fish market, soon to be replaced by a new one farther north.

We continue past the ferry terminal that serves the island of Bressay, next to which is Albert Building, now the headquarters of Lerwick Port Authority. It dates from around 1900 and was restored in 1990. It’s one of those Shetland buildings whose dark red corrugated metal walls immediately recall the building styles found along the Norwegian coast.

This part of the harbour is usually busy with all manner of visiting craft, from tall ships like the beautiful Norwegian Statsraad Lehmkul to visiting naval vessels. In wild weather, fishing boats from all around the North Sea take refuge. Until 1977, Victoria Pier was the terminal for the ferry service linking Lerwick with Aberdeen. The connection with town centre life was direct: I remember being in D&G Leslie’s shop, just across the street from the ship, when the customer ahead of me asked why there were no pork pies. The shopkeeper simply nodded in the direction of the St Clair: “For’ard crane’s broken down”.

In normal times, the summer months see smaller cruise liners berth on the outer face of Victoria Pier. Larger vessels anchor in the harbour and ferry their passengers ashore on tenders. The port was due to welcome more than 100 visits from liners this year, but it looks as though it will be 2021 at the earliest before these calls can resume.

Also likely to be missing this year are most, if not all, of the dozens of yachts that make their way here from all around the North Atlantic and – occasionally – from much farther afield.

Today, the pier and the docks on either side of it are quiet. The harbour tug, Kebister, and the pilot boat, Knab, await their next duty, and in the small boat harbour beyond, there are also just two vessels, the Lerwick Lifeboat and one of several boats that take visitors on cruises around Bressay and the seabird cliffs of Noss.

All the land on which these piers and the adjoining Esplanade stand is reclaimed from the sea, which - until the 19th century – ran right up to the buildings that form the seaward edge of the town centre. Many of these would have been ‘lodberries’; ‘lodberrie’ literally means ‘loading stone in old Norse, so it’s essentially a jetty, but there would typically have been a merchant’s warehouse and, in some cases, living accommodation. The building now occupied by the Peerie Shop was one of these. We’ll come to more lodberries, in their original setting, a little farther on.

We pass the Tolbooth, completed in 1770, though later extended to the rear; it’s one of Lerwick’s older buildings. It served as Town House and later as the post office; now, it’s used by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

In the foreground is a striking and beautifully-executed piece of public art, Jo Chapman’s bronze sculpture, Da Lightsome Buoy, that celebrates the islands’ connections with the sea and especially their pelagic fishing heritage.

Beyond the Tolbooth is the Queen’s Hotel, formed in the mid 19th century from three buildings and restored following a serious fire in 1987. Its walls are washed by the sea, sometimes quite dramatically. The hotel has, in its time, hosted many well-known visitors to Shetland, ranging from Sir John Betjeman to Paul and Linda McCartney.

The Queen’s is by no means the only building around here with its feet in the sea, because the next stage in our ramble takes us past several more lodberries. It’s easy to imagine traders operating from these and a couple still have loading doors at which boats could tie up. There are tales, too, of smuggling around here, with illicit gin or brandy secreted in hidden tunnels.

One of the lodberries is instantly recognisable to millions of television viewers around the world because it’s the fictional home of Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez. Filming on the next series would be under way by now, were it not for the coronavirus pandemic.

A little farther south, there are two reminders of a figure who looms large in Shetland’s history, Arthur Anderson (1792-1868). Born in the Böd of Gremista in Lerwick, he spent ten years in the Royal Navy before becoming a shipping clerk in London. He later co-founded the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, which we now know as P&O, a company which grew to have the largest fleet of steamships in the world.

But Shetland remained at the front of his mind. He set up the islands’ first local newspaper, the Shetland Journal and – keen to disrupt the fishing monopoly enjoyed by lairds of the day – he established the Shetland Fishery Company, based on the western island of Vaila. He became the Whig MP for Orkney and Shetland in 1847, reflecting an almost unbroken tradition of liberal politics in the islands that has featured two Liberal or Liberal Democrat leaders at Westminster, Jo Grimond and Jim Wallace (now Baron Wallace of Tankerness) and another at Holyrood, Tavish Scott.

Anderson’s name lives on in Shetland. He provided funds for the Widows’ Homes, which we pass on the left on this walk; though it would be remiss not to admire the re-use of a boat as a roof on a local photographer’s garage, a solution once common in Shetland.

Arthur Anderson also founded the Anderson Educational Institute, opened in 1862, which lies on rising ground to our right. Its motto was, and remains, Do Weel and Persevere.

The Institute later became the Anderson High School, which recently moved to a new site in the west of the town. The original building remains, unfortunately hemmed in by more recent structures, but the area is to be redeveloped and it’s to be hoped that the original school and the two other Listed Buildings on the site will enjoy a much improved setting.

Before long, the public road ends and we follow the footpath that leads around the promontory known as the Knab. We’re only around ten minutes’ walk from the town centre, but here are spectacular sea cliffs, nesting fulmar petrels, and great views west to the island of Bressay and towards the South Mainland and the island of Mousa. There’s an informal nine-hole golf course here, too, at the top of which is the coastguard station.

Lerwick was heavily fortified during the World Wars and there are reminders around the coast and to landward. One of these is close to the footpath, a Second World War torpedo station, designed to attack any enemy vessel that sought to enter the harbour. This was just one of scores of fortifications: there is a lookout point farther up the hill and, as we reach the top of the path, we can see the Ness of Sound, where there are more concrete structures dating from that period.

It's downhill from the viewpoint here, past the golf course and then above a rocky shore that’s often an excellent place to encounter seals, which sun themselves just fifty yards or so from the Tesco supermarket and even closer to Fjara, an excellent shoreside café restaurant.

It’s possible to wander on from here, along the Sea Road and on to the Ness of Sound. For today, though, this is the end of my waterfront journey and it’s time to head back to pick up the car - and find out if, this time, I remembered to bring the shopping list.

Another time, we’ll combine that daily ration of exercise with an exploration of more of Shetland and its history.

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