Lerwick's iconic buildings
by Laurie Goodlad -
No trip to Shetland is complete without a mooch around Lerwick’s historic town centre. Last year Lerwick’s Commercial Street was up for the ‘Best High Street’ in Scotland award. It was voted second only to our neighbours in Kirkwall, Orkney, who scooped the top place. Anyone who has visited Lerwick’s main shopping street will understand why Lerwick ranked so highly. Paved with flagstones and filled with small, crooked buildings dating from the 18th and 19th century, the town has a colourful and interesting past.
This blog will explore some of Lerwick’s iconic buildings and can act as a self-guided tour.
Overlooking Victoria Pier, and built in 1770, the Tolbooth was designated for collecting taxes, and over the years it has had a colourful and varied past. Of its numerous uses, it has been; a jail, ballroom, museum, archive, seaman’s mission, post office, and more recently, the headquarters for the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute).
Another firm favourite with visitors and locals alike is The Lodberrie; instantly recognisable by many visitors as the home of Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez in the fictional TV crime drama Shetland. This building, dating to about 1772 was one of 21 lodberries that lined the foreshore in Lerwick by 1814. The word 'lodberry' comes from the Old Norse hladberg and means ‘a landing place, or a landing stone’ and describes the type of use these utilitarian – yet beautiful – buildings were designed for.
Ultimately, these were trading booths, built with their foundations in the sea. Winches unloaded boats that could be berthed alongside, and legal goods were then sold from street-side shops, while illegal goods were taken into the maze of tunnels that ran underneath the street – and feet of the customs men.
The Town Hall
By the 1880s, the town had reached the top of what is now the Hillhead; it was a busy, overcrowded and squalid mess of buildings. There was no urban planning, just entrepreneurial locals trying to carve out their corner of this new town, which had so much offer and promise to the rising middle classes. Finally, in 1883, Lerwick’s Town Hall was built, immortalising the town as the capital and the main seat of power in Shetland.
Constructed in under a year, the Town Hall is a grand sandstone building with ornate carvings and beautiful stained glass windows. The clock tower dominates it – an addition not on the plans that were drawn up by architect Alexander Ross, but added by local builder John Aitken who had his own personal vision for the town’s most famous landmark.
Several attempts were made to build a fort of sorts in Lerwick at various points during wars with the Dutch – but it was burnt down twice. The Fort was completed in 1781 and named Fort Charlotte after King George III’s wife, Charlotte. An impressive fort, it is similar to Fort George in Inverness, being shaped like a pentagon with five-sides – indistinguishable now as the town has more-or-less swallowed it up in a bid to find space to build.
It has been a base for the Royal Naval Reserve, a jail and a court for a time after the Tolbooth was deemed unfit. It has been a Coastguard station and now it is the base for the Army Reserves and owned and maintained by Historic Scotland. The guns that proudly line the perimeter have never been fired in anger! From the Fort, there are great views of the town. You can gaze out over both the north and south entrance to Lerwick Harbour and across to the island of Bressay.
To the north of the Town Hall, are the County Buildings which opened in 1875. This is the police station and sheriff court. If you watch the Shetland series on the BBC, this is where Jimmy Perez works. The police station has five cells – here in Shetland, we have a very low crime rate (despite what the Shetland series might make you think!).
Islesburgh Community Centre
Islesburgh Community Centre is the hub of much of what happens in Lerwick’s community, with a vibrant and busy cafe and community spaces for groups to use for music, ballet, educational classes and private parties. It was built in 1902 and served as the Central School for many years – it was even requisitioned during the Second World War. If you look above the doors on the front of the building, you will see the original entrances for pupils marked with ‘boys’ and ‘girls’, segregating pupils as was once common. Like the Town Hall and many more of Lerwick’s grand buildings, Islesburgh Community Centre was built by local builder James Aitken.
Shetland Museum & Archives
Everybody planning a trip to Shetland should visit the Shetland Museum & Archives (open at the moment by appointment only). The custom-built museum opened its doors in 2007 in the historic Hay’s Dock area, overlooking Lerwick Harbour. Despite being a new build, the building retains much of the character and charm of Lerwick-of-old and its tantalising displays will give you a whistlestop education on the history and lives of people in Shetland.
Anderson High School
This new school, overlooking Clickimin Loch – and Broch – opened in 2017 and educates pupils from the age of 12-18, preparing them for future careers and university. It is one of two High Schools in Shetland (the other being in Brae, in Shetland’s North Mainland).
The original Anderson High School was funded in 1862 by philanthropist, and Shetlander, Arthur Anderson. Anderson left Shetland in the early 1800s and followed a career at sea. He went on to become the co-founder of the world-famous P&O Shipping Line. When he left Shetland at the tender age of 16, he was given one piece of advice – Dö Weel an’ Persevere. This is the motto of the Anderson High School as it continues to promote education in Shetland today.
The Widows’ Homes (South Commercial Street) and the old buildings of the Anderson Educational Institute (Twageos) are also attributed to Anderson who never forgot his island roots.
This, the oldest stop on our journey, takes you to the Clickimin Loch and back some 2,000 years in history to Shetland’s mid-Iron Age. A broch is a 2,000-year-old round tower, unique to the north and west of Scotland.
Archaeologists are still not agreed about their purpose. Were they defensive structures? Agricultural grain stores? Homes for high-status members of the community or bolt-holes in times of strife or trouble? Perhaps we will never know...
What we do know is that they have a unique construction; built with a double-wall, giving an inner and outer wall with a staircase between the two, leading to the top and that, even today, they ask more questions than they answer.
Whatever its original purpose, Clickimin Broch is an iconic building that sits right in the middle of Lerwick and has fascinated islanders and visitors alike for hundreds of years.
When you visit Shetland, you can book a Lerwick Walking tour with me @shetlandwithlaurie. To find out more and book, please visit my website.
For more things to see and do in Shetland, visit the trips and tours page.
Posted in: Heritage