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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 4


The Harbour—The Town—Its Situation—Arrangement of the Streets, &c.—Shops, &c. —Public Buildings—Docks—New Town—Villas, &c.—Loch of Clickhemin—Sound.

PASSING the Knab we describe a slight circuit, and find ourselves in the Sound of Bressay, or in more modern language, harbour of Lerwick. This spacious and commodious harbour, one of the finest in the kingdom, is nearly three miles long, and from a mile to a mile and a half in breadth. Sheltered on the one side by the mainland, and on the other by Bressay, it is completely landlocked. It has thus two entries, a south and a north, the former being the larger and safer. A small holm and some shallows, situated north from the town of Lerwick, divide it into two unequal portions, the southern again being of greatest practical utility. At almost any spot good anchorage is to be obtained. Many a goodly ship, and many a noble fleet, have its placid waters borne, from the days of the piratical Norseman, down to our own times when the stately ironclad, “La Reine Blanche,” took shelter, while the fair lilies of France were being trodden in the dust by the black eagle of Prussia. It was in this Bredeyiar Sound, as the Norwegians termed it, that the numerous fleet under Haco, King of Norway, lay for several days, when that monarch was on his fatal expedition against Scotland. In 1653 it harboured an English fleet of ninety-four ships under Admirals Deans and Monk, and two years afterwards another fleet of ninety-two sail, commanded by the Earl of Sandwick. The immense Batavian fleets, of many hundred vessels, that have often graced its waters, will be referred to hereafter.

Even Bressay Sound can tell its rumours of wars, though happily they are of rather ancient date. In the summer of 1640 four Dutch men-of-war were quietly awaiting the return of the East Indian fleet in this harbour, when they were suddenly surprised by a formidable flotilla of ten Spaniards. A deadly conflict ensued. After a brave resistance, the weaker side was forced to succumb. Two of the unfortunate Dutchmen were sunk on the Lerwick side of the Sound ; a third escaping through the north entrance, was run ashore and blown up by her crew, somewhere about the south coast of Nesting, while the fourth was captured by the enemy. The destruction by fire of large fleets of Dutch fishing-busses which this harbour witnessed twice during last century will be mentioned hereafter.

We now come to Lerwick, the most northerly town in the British Isles. It is built on the mainland of Shetland, along the eastern shore of Bressay Sound. The site has exactly the form of an amphitheatre, and thus offers great natural advantages. Unfortunately the architects who designed the metropolis of Thule have not availed themselves of these, for nothing can exceed the irregularity with which the buildings are arranged. In many instances they forcibly remind us of Gray’s description of Kendal. “They seem as if they had been dancing a country-dance, and were out. They stand back to back, corner to comer, some up hill, some down.” There is, nevertheless, a method in this seeming confusion, for the houses are arranged with reference to the main street, a narrow thoroughfare which follows the sinuosities of the harbour, and the Hillhead, a broad and regular road, which, as its name implies, runs along the top of the hill, on whose eastern slope the town is built. Loosely speaking, the shore at Commercial Street may be said to form the arc of a smaller, and the Hillhead or High Street that of a larger, concentric circle. Connecting these two arcs, in a radius-like manner, numerous lanes, more or less steep, ascend the hill. Along these streets and lanes, which vary much in width, the houses and other buildings are placed at irregular intervals. The main street and principal lanes are well paved all over with flagstones, these thoroughfares being too narrow to admit of a causeway in the middle for carts and horses. Indeed, when Lerwick was first built, vehicles were unknown in the island, and even Shetland ponies seldom passed through the town. Many of the houses have their gables towards the street, and those on the lower side of Commercial Street, are either built on the seashore, or actually in the sea. Thus, if the Crown asserts its still disputed right to all property below high-water mark, Her Majesty will soon confiscate a large portion of the most northerly town in her dominions. From various points along the seashore, piers and jetties, of different lengths, project into the harbour. Only one of these, Victoria Wharf, situated in the middle of the town, is long enough to admit of vessels coming alongside for the purpose of loading and unloading.1 As Victoria Wharf can only admit vessels of comparatively small tonnage and light draught of water, it is to be hoped arrangements may soon be made for the construction of a pier, alongside of which vessels, of every size, trading to the port may be.

Lerwick is a comparatively modern town, as shown by some of the old charters which describe the peninsula on which it is built as “the East Ness of Sound, now called Lerwick.” It appears to have been built about the beginning of the seventeenth century, and evidently owes its origin to Bressay Sound. At that time this spacious bay was annually visited by not less than two thousand Dutch busses. The circumstance that it was originally built as a trading post for the Dutch fishing-vessels, during their rendezvous in the Sound, together with the nature of the site, accounts for its peculiar construction. It is said by travellers very much to resemble some of the smaller seaport towns of the Netherlands. The houses were built on the seashore, with their back doors opening towards the harbour, evidently for the convenience of the Dutchmen, who could thus easily land the contraband portion of their cargoes without much fear of interruption from revenue officers. Most of the old houses were provided with very ingenious places of concealment for smuggled goods; and some of those which had unfortunately been built on the upper side of the street had this disadvantage compensated for by means of a subterranean passage, connecting them with the seashore. No feature of this unique little town is more striking to the traveller than the number of shops which line the main street. Nearly every building in this thoroughfare contains such a place of business. Many of them are very handsome, and would do credit to any city. The wares offered for sale present every variety, “from a needle to an anchor.” Formerly nearly everything could be bought at the same shop, but now each merchant adheres pretty closely to his own department of trade. To the tourist the most attractive place of business is that of the hosier, whose shop presents a tempting display of the far-famed Shetland goods, of every size, shape, pattern, and shade. The knitting of these articles forms the employment of the female portion of the population, which, as in other parts of Shetland, is greatly in excess of the male. On purchasing hosiery the merchants generally pay the girls with goods, and seldom with ready money. Hence most females of the lower orders dress in a manner far above their station. The finery displayed by them on Sunday is very gaudy, but generally in good taste.

The best view of Lerwick is obtained from the harbour, from which it presents a highly picturesque appearance, particularly by moonlight. Overhanging the town, on the north, we have Fort Charlotte, which x very much resembles the Castle of Edinburgh on a smaller scale ; and, flanking it, on the south, stand the Educational Institute and Widows Asylum, two handsome buildings, for both of which we are indebted to the munificence of a distinguished Lerwegian, the late Arthur Anderson, Esq., chairman of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company.

The public buildings consist chiefly of the churches, all of which crown the heights over the town. If the Lerwegians are not religious, it is not for want of churches. They are supplied with no less than eight, viz., Established, Free, Episcopalian, United Presbyterian, Congregational, Wesleyan Methodist, Baptist, and Roman Catholic. All these denominations are provided with churches, save the Roman Catholics, who worship in one of the rooms in the priest’s house, in Commercial Street. The parish church is a substantial building, with a Doric front of hewn stone, presenting, externally, rather a ponderous appearance, owing to its flat roof, and the want of a spire. Internally, however, it is as comfortable and commodious as could be desired. It has lately been provided with an organ. The Free Church is a neat modem erection, with an elegant Gothic front, and is well fitted up internally. St Magnus’ Episcopal Church, situated to the south of its last-mentioned rivals, is a handsome building in the Early English Gothic style. Inside it is tastefully decorated. The Wesleyans, finding their former place of worship too small, have just erected a new chapel, as a memorial of Dr Adam Clark, the founder of Methodism in Shetland. The site is a commanding one, and the erection, both as regards size and architectural features, is such as to reflect credit on all concerned. The other churches are plain buildings, and have no architectural features entitling them to further notice. The parish school, an excellent building lately erected, lies on the western slope of the hill, a short distance from the town. Situated along the main street the only public buildings are the Tolbooth, a plain old-fashioned house, and the Commercial and Union Banks, elegant erections placed in the very centre of the town, which they serve greatly to ornament. Several large and handsome houses have been built within the last few years towards the south of the town, which has become decidedly the “ west end.” Two sets of spacious docks, with quays, small harbours, shipbuilding yards, cooperages, forges, sail-lofts, extensive stores, <fcc., are situated at Freefield and Garthspool, which together form a small village, nearly half-a-mile to the north of the town. The docks at Freefield, which are the more extensive, were constructed, at great expense, by the late William Hay, Esq., and those at Garthspool by the late William Mowat, Esq., of Garth. Both of these were gentlemen of great enterprise and ability, of whom their country, on which they have left their mark in many ways, may well be proud. Freefield is used as the dockyard of the well-known firm of Messrs Hay & Co., and Garthspool as that of its present proprietor, Joseph Leask, Esq., who has very much improved it.

New Town.—Separated from the Hillhead by a ravine, and facing the Borough Road (so called from its forming the boundary of the borough), stands the U.P. Manse, a large “land” of houses, similar to those so common in Edinburgh, and a few neat villas and cottages, all of which have been erected since 1865, and have received the name of the New Town.

It is built on feus from the town parks. These feus became necessary in consequence of over-crowding and insufficient house accommodation in the Old Town, and were obtained after .rather a hot war of words, waged in the Shetland Advertiser newspaper, whose existence extended from January 1862 to March 1863. Several gentlemen’s residences are situated in the neighbourhood of the town, each of which presents its own features of interest, whether from situation, architecture, or surroundings.

The view from the summit and western slope of the eminence on which Lerwick is built is bounded by a range of hills, which, rising in the low Ness of Trebister (beyond that of Sound, just mentioned), after attaining some height takes a crescentic course, and, on approaching the sea to the north of Freefield, slopes gradually away, so as to admit of the north road passing round the base. This range is very much concentric, with the arcs of a greater and lesser circle, already mentioned, as described by the shore and hillhead. The Loch of Clickhemin is a fine sheet of water a mile to the west of the town. On the west it is overhung by the high hill just mentioned. On the north and south its banks are low, and on the east it is separated from the sea merely by a beach, called the Air of Clickhemin, over which the south highway road runs. Upon a small island in the midst of this lake are placed the ruins of a Pictish Castle or Burgh,.in a much better state of preservation than most buildings of this kind in Shetland. The island communicates with the shore, by means of a causeway of large stepping-stones. As the construction of this burgh is very similar to others of the same class, we need not discuss it here. In a south-westerly direction, and at a distance of a mile and a half from Lerwick, is situated, at the foot of the same hill, the ancient country village or toun of Sound. The inhabitants are very primitive in their habits, and at the same time scrupulously honest and moraL Most of them pique themselves on inhabiting the exact spot of ground held by their ancestors for centuries, and look down upon the Lerwegians, exclaiming—

“Sound was Sound when Lerwick was none,
And Sound will be Sound when Lerwick is done.”

They are generally averse to all changes and improvements, and, in matters of rural and domestic economy, are very much in the condition of their remote forefathers. They subsist chiefly by supplying Lerwick with milk and peats. Lately, however, a fish-curing station has been opened in the neighbourhood, which affords some of them profitable employment. Sound is the property of Sir Arthur Nicolson, Baronet, one of whose seats, Grimista, lies on the northern shore of Bressay Sound, about a mile from the town.

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