Lerwick’s Fine Victorian Town Hall Is Reborn

by Alastair Hamilton -

After around two years of painstaking work, the fine Victorian Town Hall in Lerwick has emerged renewed, with its remarkable story brilliantly re-told for a 21st century audience.

That story begins in the late 19th century, when local community leaders were concerned that the town, thriving thanks to the profits from the fishing industry, lacked a civic building capable of accommodating meetings, concerts and other kinds of performance.

A campaign for a proper Town Hall began, led by Charles Rampini (1840-1907), a lawyer who had come to Shetland from Edinburgh via Jamaica. A committee was set up in November 1880 to manage the project and they quickly appointed an established Inverness architect, Alexander Ross. His brief was to design a ‘plain and massive and handsome’ building that would have ‘full scope for future decoration’.

full scope for future decoration

The committee’s first task was to raise the necessary funds and they set about it energetically. In less than a year, they had sufficient funds to commission a local builder, John M Aitken. The estimated cost was £3,240.

There were great celebrations when the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred, arrived to lay the foundation stone. Interestingly, the festivities featured a large group of 130 torch-bearing guizers, with fiddlers, who created a procession and afterwards went on to parties in local houses. The foundation was thus laid not only for the Town Hall, but also Up Helly Aa, which replaced an earlier tradition of running barrels of burning tar along the main street.

Various modifications and extensions were incorporated as construction proceeded. One change involved substituting a square clock tower for the short spire that the architect had originally proposed. These changes increased the final cost to £4,541 5s 6d, but that was offset by additional lettable office space.

The grand opening, in 1883, demonstrated the building’s scale and flexibility. There was a grand ball, a flower show and a concert by the Lerwick Choral Society.

The architectural style of the Town Hall echoes the Flemish Gothic tradition, which was commonly adopted in civic buildings elsewhere at that time. It is a good example of its kind; but the way in which it was decorated made it very special indeed.

The promoters of the project hadn’t just wanted to create space for events and office workers. From the very beginning, they wanted the building’s decoration to tell Shetland’s story. A separate committee was established to plan and carry through a decorative scheme. Among its members was a businessman, Arthur Laurenson (1832-90) who was immersed in history, had a comprehensive knowledge of the Norse sagas and studied linguistics.

The committee came up with a plan for the windows in the main hall; they wanted to tell Shetland’s story from the 9th to the 13th century in stained glass, beginning with Viking adventures and ending with the marriage between Margaret of Denmark and James III of Scotland.

There was to be more stained glass on the staircase, where an impressive window depicts Earl of Morton, Grand Master Mason of Scotland, delivering a lecture on Freemasonry.

In what is now the Council Chamber, on the ground floor, two of the windows were gifted by the cities of Amsterdam and Hamburg.

There were many other kinds of decoration, including heraldic shields fixed to the main hall’s timber ceiling and carved stone heraldry in the entrance lobby marking trading connections with Aberdeen, Wick, Edinburgh (and, separately, its port of Leith), Dundee and Glasgow.

There was heraldic stained glass, this time in a huge rose window and four other windows in the north gable of the main hall.

The Decoration Committee’s cultural ambition was extraordinary, but it was matched by an insistence on securing the best craftsmanship that Britain could provide. Two firms were appointed to make the stained glass windows; one of them had made the windows for the House of Lords and the other was also highly regarded.

the best craftsmanship that Britain could provide

Today, the stained glass is regarded by experts as being of high or very high quality, equal to the best created in Britain at that period. It ranks alongside the glass in the great English town halls such as Manchester, Rochdale and Plymouth, the latter destroyed in the Second World War. In Scotland, there is no comparable installation of equivalent quality that tells a secular historical story. With all that in mind, the building these days has a Category A Listing from Historic Environment Scotland.

The Town Hall has been described as a reliquary, encapsulating Shetland’s history. It expresses the optimism and ambition of the time. Above all, though, it displays remarkable aesthetic sophistication and scholarship, demonstrating that its founders were well acquainted with styles favoured not only in Britain but across northern Europe. It also reflects the outward-looking, internationalist perspective that is, and always has been, integral to Lerwick and Shetland life. It reflects great credit on the promoters.

The Shetland Islands Council is very well aware of the building’s significance and no expense has been spared in looking after it. When alterations such as the installation of a lift have been made, they’ve been handled with great sensitivity. Recently, major repairs were undertaken to the stonework and all the windows were taken out and painstakingly restored by experts from Glasgow.

no expense has been spared in looking after it

Attractive but discreet panels explain the significance of all the features of the Town Hall, including the stained glass.

There is also a thoughtfully-designed app for mobile phones and tablets. It provides a comprehensive account of all the building’s features in either English or Norwegian. If the phone’s camera is switched on, the app responds to the eight trigger points around the building, automatically bringing up information about what’s in front of you.

But that’s not all. The app includes a series of short video presentations in which the animated characters of Arthur Laurenson and Margaret, the Maid of Norway, tell the Town Hall’s story. They’re voiced by local people and it’s a really appealing feature which all ages will enjoy.

Posted in: Heritage