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Scalloway: A walk through history

by Alastair Hamilton -

For the time being, adventures far from home, or that aren’t combined with essential travel, remain off the menu. So, when I needed to do some food shopping recently, Scalloway seemed like a good option, and – on a gorgeous afternoon – it would be a perfect opportunity for exercise. The village enjoys a beautiful setting and has a rich history.

People have lived in Scalloway for a very long time. The name is derived from the Old Norse Skálavágr, meaning bay of the big house(s). However, there was a prehistoric settlement here too. On the ridge to the north of the school, there’s extensive evidence of occupation through the Bronze Age and Iron Age – including a broch.

I began my walk at Scalloway Castle; most of the photos below were taken that day but I’ve added a few, pre-lockdown, interior shots of the castle and museum, which may remain closed for some time.

It was in the castle that Earl Patrick Stewart held court. Stewart, born around 1566, was the son of Robert, Earl of Orkney, who was an illegitimate son of King James V. Through inheritance from an elder brother, Patrick became Earl of Orkney and a little later, Lord of Zetland, as Shetland was known for official purposes. But he seems to have been the kind of person who could start an argument in an empty room.

the kind of person who could start an argument in an empty room

He fell out with (among others) his three younger brothers, whom he had accused of trying to kill him; his half-uncle, Sheriff of Shetland Laurence Bruce; and the Earl of Caithness.

His tendency to upset folk was eventually his undoing. His crimes and misdemeanours led to a trial before the Privy Council in 1609 and imprisonment in Edinburgh and Dumbarton. That didn’t deter him: he managed to foment an unsuccessful rebellion in Orkney, led by his son, who was hanged for his pains. Patrick’s role led to his being tried again and he was beheaded in February 1615.

Work on the castle, thought to have been overseen by his Master of Works, Andrew Crawford, was completed in 1600. There’s no denying that it’s an impressive structure, as of course it was meant to be.

Despite later development nearby, it’s still prominent in every view. Less impressive were the methods he used to construct the building, involving forced labour; it stands as an important reminder of the brutality of those days.

The castle is typical of Scottish castles of the time. There were four storeys and an attic, but the most impressive space is undoubtedly the great hall, which occupies the first floor and was apparently richly decorated in its day.

Under Norse rule, the settling of legal matters had been the responsibility of ‘tings’, assemblies held to determine important matters. The principal one was held about two miles north of Scalloway. Robert Stewart moved that assembly to Scalloway in the 1570s and, when the castle became available, Patrick convened it there. Much of the law applied in Shetland continued to be Norse, though, and that only changed in 1611.

The castle continued to be used as the court after Patrick’s execution and it is said to have been used to house Cromwell’s troops in the early 1650s. By the early 1700s, it was falling into decay and some of the decorative stonework was later re-used elsewhere. Since 1908, it has been protected and is now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland.

Adjacent to the castle is the Scalloway Museum, which should be on anyone’s list of places to visit in Shetland. Really well laid out, with excellent labelling, the exhibits tell the story of the village. The newly-expanded museum – which originally occupied premises on Main Street – was opened in 2012 by the then Prime Minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, now Secretary-General of NATO.

A particular theme here is the ‘Shetland Bus’, codename for an extraordinary operation run mostly from Scalloway during the Second World War.

The ‘Shetland Bus’, in its original form, was an operation involving a fleet of Norwegian fishing vessels that plied the North Sea to transfer agents and carry supplies to the Norwegian resistance. When Norway fell to the Nazi invasion in April 1940, many Norwegians escaped to Shetland on these fishing boats.

The British government wanted to support the resistance and to provide an escape route for refugees and compromised agents, so those boats and their young volunteer crews were deployed to do that. The crossings were made during the darker winter months, to reduce the risk of detection, so the crews had to face storms as well as the risk of capture or sinking by the enemy.

Originally, the base was the hamlet of Lunna, in the north-east of the Shetland mainland, and Kergord House in Weisdale was the headquarters. From 1942, the operation moved to Scalloway, partly to allow for better engineering back-up but also because it was thought that using a port on the west side of Shetland would raise fewer suspicions.

The toll on boats and crew – 44 men had been lost by early 1943 – led to the fishing boats being replaced by ‘sub-chasers’, fast armed patrol boats borrowed from the US navy. They carried out hundreds more missions with no loss of life, right to the end of the war.

But those early crews will never be forgotten and visitors to the museum may well shed a tear when they read the poignant accounts of their bravery and sacrifice. One man involved, Leif Andreas Larsen, holds more British war medals than any other non-Briton. On the museum’s website, there’s a more detailed account, with videos and other information, including a link to the main website dedicated to the Shetland Bus.

We’ll come across other important reminders of that story on this walk, but now it’s time to head over towards the centre of the village, walking along New Street.

Here, colourful houses overlook the harbour and there’s a studio, right on the shore, that’s available for use by visiting artists. As well as living accommodation and a ‘clean’ workspace on the upper floor, there’s a basement where messier projects can be undertaken. It’s a gorgeous and inspiring setting.

The studio is rented on a monthly basis and you can find out more, and enquire about a booking, on the WASPS website.

Inset into the wall of a house on the opposite side of the street, there’s a curious plaque. Some of the text is so eroded that it’s very hard to decipher, but it sets out a theory about ‘earth tides’. One visitor – a maths lecturer – has taken the trouble to investigate what lies behind the inscriptions, and you can read the results on his blog.

As we reach the northern end of New Street, the Old Haa comes into view. It’s one of the village’s older buildings, dating from around 1750, and is a good example – albeit one of the larger ones – of the ‘haa’ houses of that period. The haa houses – the English equivalent would be a manor house – were built by local lairds; this one is Category A listed.

A marriage stone – a panel above the doorway – commemorates the union of James Scott and Katherine Sinclair in 1750.

Now, we’re on Main Street, which as you might imagine is the commercial heart of the village. There are a couple of small supermarkets here, along with other businesses including a hairdresser, an architect’s practice, the Scalloway Hotel, a pub and a pharmacy that incorporates the post office. Here, too, there’s a youth centre.

As we walk further, we come to more reminders of the Shetland Bus. Dinapore House was used as a headquarters and, nearby, there’s the Shetland Bus memorial, which commemorates all those who died in the operation. It was constructed using stones from the lost crewmen’s home districts in Norway.

Surmounted by a beautiful model of one of the fishing boats, it’s the focus for the marking of Norway’s Constitution Day on 17 May each year. Commemorative wreaths are laid.

That was the date, in 1814, when the country’s constitution was signed, confirming Norway’s distinct identity from Sweden, though the union between the two countries didn’t end until 1905. The links between Shetland and Norway remain strong and Norwegians display a strong affection for the islands.

One of the factors that led to the establishment of the Shetland Bus operation in Scalloway was the shipyard and workshop operated by William Moore and Sons. A new pier and slipway were constructed and parts for the engines were brought by agents from Norway.

Today, plaques mark the site’s place in history, including a wartime visit by Norway’s Crown Prince Olav, after whom the slipway is named, and the bravery of Leif Larsen and his crews.

Panels above the slipway tell the story in detail.

The last Shetland Bus site on our route is Norway House, so named because this was the living accommodation for the Norwegian crews. It had been a net repair loft, but was converted to provide sleeping quarters and a dining room. Leif Larsen was apparently amused, many years later, to learn that the building had become (for a few years) the Shetland Volkswagen dealership.

Looking in the opposite direction, we can see one of Scalloway’s two marinas and, beyond it, the NAFC Marine Centre, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, where a wide range of courses is taught.

It’s possible to return to our starting point either by the route we followed on the way here, or by any of several paths and streets that take an inland course. That provides an opportunity to admire the work of Scalloway’s many gardening enthusiasts, who benefit from the shelter that the buildings and the hills to east and west provide.

One of the notable features of the village is the large number of trees and shrubs, which are in turn home to lots of garden birds. This is also a good place to look out for rarer migrants in spring and autumn. As I wandered back to the car, I was serenaded by blackbirds and a host of others.

If you’re thinking of moving to Shetland, and perhaps especially if you have green fingers, Scalloway could be a very appealing proposition. The Marine Centre’s courses could be of interest, too.

It may be some time before it becomes possible to visit Shetland on holiday but, when that day comes, there’s lots in the village to absorb some of your time.

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