Lerwick : Capital of the Shetland Islands

Located around 160 kilometers off the north coast of the mainland of Scotland, Lerwick is both the capital and main port of the ruggedly beautiful Shetland Islands. While there are more northerly settlements on the Shetland Isles, such as the village of Brae, Lerwick is the most easterly and most northerly town in Scotland and is home to one of the United Kingdom’s primary coastal weather stations.

The town and its surroundings have some interesting attractions, including the Lerwick Town Hall, completed in 1884; the hexagonal 17th century stone Fort Charlotte; the Shetland Museum and Archives; the Iron-Age drystone Broch of Clickimin; and the 18th century Shetland Böd of Gremista dating back to 1780. Lerwick is also home to a number of churches, some of which are of historic and architectural significance.

The name of the town has its roots in Old Norse and the now extinct North Germanic language of Norn spoken in Shetland and Orkney prior to Norway pledging these archipelagos to Scotland in the 15th century. Lerwick means ‘bay of clay’ and towns with similar names are found in south western Norway, as well as on the Faroe Islands, both of which are across the sea neighbours to the Shetland Islands. The history of the area where Lerwick is situated is believed to go back for some 3,000 years, with evidence of ancient human occupation concentrated around the Broch of Clickimin.

It was in the 17th century that the fishing settlement on the west side of the natural harbour of Bressay Sound came to be known as Lerwick. Early residents lived in wooden huts and this settlement was burned to the ground in the 17th century by purists from Scalloway who objected to the immorality of the fishermen and sailors settled in the sheltered harbour. After rebuilding the settlement of Lerwick, it was once more burnt to the ground in 1702, this time by French invaders. The first stone building to be erected in Lerwick was Fort Charlotte in the mid-17th century. It was built on the waterfront to offer protection from sea-bound invaders. Other stone buildings soon started springing up along the shoreline and the settlement began to develop up the steep hillside overlooking the harbour.

Lerwick was declared the capital of the Shetland Islands in 1708, and experienced rapid development and a measure of prosperity in the 19th century, with the town expanding to the west. Lerwick received another boost of economic activity in the 1970s when oil and natural gas was discovered in reservoirs beneath the North Sea, and the port became a support centre for vessels used in the offshore oil industry. New housing developments took place as oil-industry workers flocked to Lerwick.

Today, in addition to being the capital and commercial centre of Shetland, Lerwick is the cultural hub of the area, with most events and festivals taking place in and around the town. One of the most famous of these events is the well-supported Up Helly-Aa fire festival which takes place annually and is well worth experiencing.