By Alastair HamiltonApril 25th 2020
Alastair Hamilton

Among the many reasons to visit or live in Shetland is the opportunity for walking, whether on a spectacular coastline or in the hills. The choices seem almost infinite.

But coasts and hills aren't the only options on the walking menu. It might come as a surprise, but those who love an urban walk needn't be disappointed. Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, offers plenty of walking potential.

One possible starting point for our ramble is Hay’s Dock, which these days is home to the Shetland Museum and Archives and Mareel, our arts centre, in either of which you can enjoy something to eat or drink before venturing on.

The museum and archives tell Shetland's story from the earliest geological times and the displays draw on a rich collection of artefacts. The textile collection is very impressive and is nationally recognised. Temporary exhibitions occasionally bring us wonderful pieces from national galleries, such as a remarkable Holbein painting and ceramics by Grayson Perry. The archives are an essential resource for anyone researching Shetland's history.

Mareel offers two state-of-the-art cinemas, with properly raked seating that's much better than the usual arrangement in shoebox multiplexes. Current releases form part of the programme but there's a good selection of classic and international films too. An excellent concert hall hosts local and visiting musicians in every genre. There's some gallery space, lots of scope to work on a laptop and, behind the scenes, facilities that enable training in sound engineering and other media disciplines.

On the quayside outside the museum, an unusual feature is the set of four ‘receivers’ – loudspeakers that reproduce sound recordings drawn from Shetland’s rich heritage. What's played is influenced by wind speed and it's well worth pausing here whenever you're visiting this part of the waterfront.

Hay's Dock 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 near the former fish market, which has been 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.

In summer especially, this part of the harbour is busy with all manner of visiting craft, from tall ships like the beautiful Norwegian Statsraad Lehmkul to visiting naval vessels. Cruise liners have become frequent visitors over recent years; typically, we can expect at least 100 over the season. Smaller ones berth on the outer face of Victoria Pier and larger vessels anchor in the harbour and ferry their passengers ashore on tenders.

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”.

The warmer months also see dozens of yachts make their way here from all around the North Atlantic and – occasionally – from much farther afield. Norwegian, Swedish, Faroese, Icelandic, Dutch, German, Danish and French yachts are the most common, but occasionally we may see transatlantic visitors from the USA and Canada. Very rarely, an Australian or New Zealand flag may flutter in the breeze.

The picture looks very different in winter. Lerwick's harbour is a superb natural haven, sheltered by Bressay and accessible in any weather. When storms threaten, fishing boats and other craft from all around the North Sea take refuge. If, say, the cargo has shifted on a vessel carrying timber, the skipper will make for Lewick in order to put things right.

All year round, though, we'll almost always find the harbour tug, Kebister, and the pilot boat, Knab, awaiting their next duty. The Lerwick Lifeboat has a berth in the small boat harbour, as do the boats that take visitors on cruises around Bressay and the seabird cliffs of Noss. On summer evenings, this is also the scene of much activity by local dinghy sailors, who take part in competitions or pleasure trips in Bressay Sound.

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 was chosen as the fictional home of Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez in BBC1's Shetland. However, Perez won't feature in the next series, so perhaps some other Shetland home will find itself in a starring role.

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. The islands' current MP, Alistair Carmichael, and MSP, Beatrice Wishart, are also Liberal Democrats.

Anderson’s name lives on in Shetland. One reminder is the Widows’ Homes, which we pass on the left on this walk, and for which he provided funding.

In passing, 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 and still occasionally employed.

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, which stylistically has some appealing French touches, remains. This 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.

From here, there are several more walking options. If we want to return to our starting point, we can continue past the Broch of Clickimin and then along the north shore of the loch, passing the new Anderson High School and rejoining the waterfront in the Garthspool area en route to Hay's Dock.

Another possibility is to head back through the so-called 'New Town' of Lerwick, which dates from the late 19th century and features many fine stone villas, the very attractive flower gardens and the Lerwick Town Hall, which contains some of the finest secular stained glass in Britain.

However, if an even longer walk is what's wanted, it's possible to head south along the winding Sea Road and on to the Ness of Sound, a grassy peninsula from which there are great views in all directions. There's a description of that route here.

And these aren't the only the options Lerwick offers. The Lanes area, above Commercial Street, is worth exploring; in winter, it's sheltered and in summer, when fuschia and flowering currant spill over the stone walls, it's a treat for the senses. Fort Charlotte offers a helping of military history and excellent views.

Another popular outing is the climb from Clickimin, over the Staney Hill and back via the old North Road. Nor, in that direction, should we exclude further exploration north of the town centre, where - among the industry - there's the Böd of Gremista, that other link with Arthur Anderson. Nearby, there's quite often a chance to see some of the best-fed seals in Shetland; they hang around to benefit from generous fishy treats provided by boats landing catches at the fish factory.

So, there's more to walking in Shetland than those wonderful cliffs and moors!