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Lerwick

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

This edition is copyright © The Editors of the Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-2016.

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Lerwick, a burgh of barony, a police burgh, and the chief town and county town of Shetland, stands on Bressay Sound, near the extreme E of the parish just mentioned. By road it is 4 miles SE of Tingwall, 6 ENE of Scalloway, 21½ N by E of Sumburgh Head, 42½ S by W of Balta Sound in Unst, and 115 NE of Kirkwall, by reference to which its distance from places further S may be ascertained. The sheltered landlocked bay must certainly have been used to a large extent from very early times, and there was in all probability from a very early date a village on or near the site of the present town, but of this there seems to be now no trace left, unless it be in the narrow and inconvenient main street. The present burgh, notwithstanding its very quaint and ancient appearance, which makes it look older than many places of thrice its age, dates only from the early part of the 17th century. Mention is made of it in 1625, in an `Act anent the demolishing of the houssis of Lerwick, ' when the sheriff of Orkney and Shetland gave orders that, in consequence of the great wickedness of every sort that was going on among the Shetlanders and the Dutch who resorted to the Sound in the prosecution of the herring fishing, all ` the houssis of Lerwick, quhilk is a desert place, ' should be demolished. Desert probably refers to the condition of the country in the neighbourhood, and as indicating the worthy sheriff's opinion that there was no need for a town in such a place. But in spite of this, and though the houses then standing were probably destroyed, the natural law of supply and demand was not to be interfered with, and the sultability of the place as the natural centre for the islands was very soon again acknowledged, for in the time of Charles II., during the first Dutch war, a fort was built and a garrison of 300 men stationed here to protect the place against the Hollanders, and probably also to attack, if need be, the Dutch herring-busses. (See Shetland.) On the conclusion of peace, the garrison was withdrawn and the fort dismantled; and when the war was renewed a Dutch frigate very soon visited the bay and took advantage of this defenceless condition by destroying the buildings of the fort, and burning a considerable portion of the town. In 1640 the part of the Sound opposite was the scene of a conflict between 10 Spanish war ships and 4 Dutch ones; and in 1653 and 1665 the fleet of the Commonwealth, consisting of over 90 ships, lay at anchor off the town for several days; while during the continental wars at the beginning of the following century a good deal of damage was done on several occasions by French privateers. Paul Jones was in the bay, but is said to have been frightened away by the sight of the red petticoats of the women going to market on the Nab. The story is very doubtful, but at all events he did no harm. Since then Lerwick has grown slowly, and though vast improvement has taken place since 1850, many of the arrangements are still somewhat old-fashioned. The town, like so many of those on the Scottish coast, consists mainly of one long narrow street, following all the windings of the shore for a distance of about 5 furlongs. This is bounded on the W by a high bank, up which are a number of lanes leading to a road along the ridge towards the docks. At the N end of the town is Fort Charlotte, and further N still is the headland known as North Ness, to the W of which are the docks, where ship-repairing and boat-building are carried on. At the E end of the town are the Widows, Asylum and the Anderson Institute; and on the high ground to the W is the district known as Newtown, occupied by modern houses built within the last twenty years. Though it is no longer true of the main street that it knows nothing of cart or carriage, and is seldom trodden by anything heavier than a shelty laden with turf, yet it is still very narrow and inconvenient; and though the houses are mostly good, in the older part of the town they straggle very much, and present gable or front or corner to the street, just as was most convenient to the builder at the time.

Fort Charlotte is the headquarters of the Royal Naval Reserve for the N, and one of the most important of all the stations on the coast of the United Kingdom, both as regards the number of men and their superior physique. Exercise is engaged in with two 6½ ton guns, and shooting practice is obtained at the North Ness with converted 64 pound Palliser guns. The town-hall and the county buildings stand side by side on the highest part of the ridge above the old town. The former was erected in 1882-83, the foundation-stone being laid by the Duke of Edinburgh on 24 Jan. 1882, and the opening ceremony presided over by Sheriff Thoms on 30 July 1883. The front elevation shows a central gable with turrets at the angles and side wings. In the gable is the chief entrance by an arched doorway; and above the main staircase is a clock and bell tower rising to a height of 72 feet, with battlements and corner turrets. Over the windows are the coats of arms of various peers who are, or have been, connected with the district. Over the lower windows from N to S are the arms of the Earls of Zetland and Morton with a Viking dragon ship in the centre; those of the Earl of Orkney and of Baron Sinclair, with the Norwegian lion in the centre; of the Stewarts and of the Earl of Calthness, with the Scottish lion; of Bothwell, Duke of Orkney, and of Earl Rosslyn, with the Orcadian galley; while over the oriel windows are the arms of the town of Lerwick newly granted by the Lyon King-at-Arms. These are ` Or, ' in a sea proper, a dragon ship vert under sail, oars in action; on a chief gules a battleaxe argent. Above the shield is placed a suitable helmet with a m an tli n g gule s doubled, and on a wreath of the proper liveries is set forth the crest, a raven proper, and in an escrol, over the same, this Seal of Lerwick. motto, ` Dispecta est Thule. ' On the ground floor are the burgh court-room (24 x 30 feet) with magistv.ates' rooms and police cells, and the custom-house and inland revenue offices, etc. Occupying the whole of the front of the first floor is the town-hall, 60 feet long, 30 wide, and 25 high, with timbered ceiling. There is accommodation for 500 persons. In front it is lit by an oriel and mullioned windows, in the S end by mullioned and traceried windows, and in the N end by a large wheel window with lancets below. The windows are of stained glass representing various persons and incidents connected with the history of the Shetlands, and presented by various donors, including the councils of Amsterdam and Hamburg. In the corridor are panels with the arms of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leith, and Aberdeen presented by the respective corporations, and of Dundee and Kirkwall presented respectively by Messrs Strong and Peace. There is also a presentation portrait of Sheriff-substitute Rampini painted in 1883. behind are retiring rooms and a public reading and news room, and on the next story are two smaller halls. The cost, exclusive of gifts, was £4500, and the stained-glass windows alone have cost £1200 more. The old town-hall dated from the end of the 17th century. The new county buildings, close to the town-hall, were erected in 1872. The building occupied by the Commercial Bank was erected in 1871, and that occupied by the Union Bank, which was built in 1872, and is Scottish Baronial in style, contains not only the banking offices and the agent's house but also shops. A sailors' home and institute, opened in 1871, principally through the exertions of Mr Macgregor of Rob Roy fame, was a failure, as the men of the naval reserve for whose use it was mainly intended preferred to lounge on the streets. There are Established, Free, United Presbyterian, Wesleyan Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, and Episcopal churches, but except that the Established church has an organ none of them call for more particular notice. Education is provided by a public school under the parish board, by the Anderson Iustitute-which, as well as the Widows' Institute that stands beside it, was erected and endowed by the late Mr Arthur Anderson, long chairman of the directors of the Peninsular and Oriental Company, and for a short time M.P. for Orkney and Shetland, of the latter of which counties he was a native-and by a school in connection with the Episcopal church. Water and drainage works were carried out in 1871 after plans by Messrs Leslie of Edinburgh at a cost of about £6000. For the former, the level of Sandy Loch was raised 2 feet by means of an embankment, and a reservoir and filter beds were constructed, but notwithstanding this the water is very dark coloured and muddy. A new cemetery has been formed to the SSE at the Nab.

With the exception of woollen knitted goods, which are noted for their softness and warmth, the trade of Lerwick is principally connected with its position as a centre of distribution among the whole group of islands; with the herring and white fishing, for both of which it is a centre, the number of herring boats fishing from it being about 300; and with its being a place of rendezvous and call for the ships sailing from Aberdeen, Dundee, Peterhead, and Hull to the seal and whale fishing. Communication is kept up by steamers from Leith and Aberdeen, which make Lerwick their northern terminus. From 1838 till 1858 there was only a weekly steamer from April to October, but in the latter year it began to ply all the year round, and since 1866 the number of vessels has been increased to two in summer and one in winter. A local steamer sails weekly to Unst, yell, and Dunrossness. The harbour is near the centre of the town on the E, and is at present (1883) being largely extended. The roadstead is excellent, the soundings over a considerable area being 9 fathoms, but the old harbour consisted merely of a quay called the Victoria Wharf, running eastward for 110 feet with a spur to the N at the seaward end. The depth at the point was, however, only 8 feet at high water, so that the steamers of the North of Scotland and Orkney and Shetland Steam Navigation Company could not get alongside, and goods and passengers had to be landed in boats. An act of parliament for the improvement of the pier was obtained in 1877-78, but, the Treasury having refused a loan to carry out the works, nothing was done till 1883, when a fund of £15,000 having been raised partly by loan and partly by subscription, the harbour trustees contracted for new works to cost £12, 700, and the foundation-stone was laid on 2 Aug. with full masonic honours-the first occasion of the sort in Shetland. The new pier, formed of concrete, is to run out 220 feet from the Victoria Wharf, with a width of 55 and a depth of 18 feet at high water at the sea end, and 14 feet at its junction with the present quay, the depths at low water being 4 feet less. Twenty thousand cubic yards of silt are to be removed from the harbour bottom, and an esplanade with a minimum width of 25 feet is to be formed for 120 yards S of Victoria Wharf and 420 to the N of it. At the S end of this a wharf 50 feet long is to be formed for boats and small vessels, and another jetty is to be built to protect the boat harbour. The engineer is Mr W. Dyce Kay, and the works are to be carried out in the manner that was employed with such success at Aberdeen harbour works. The present harbour revenue is about £400, but when the improvements are completed it is expected to rise to £1200. Harbour affairs are managed by a board of 12 trustees.

The following table shows the ships belonging to the port at different periods:—

Sailing Vessels. Steamers.
Year. Number. Tonnage. Number. Tonnage.
1861,. . 74 2722 .. ..
1871,. . 87 3701 1 64
1881,. . 77 3615 1 116
1883,. . 67 2981 1 116

And the trade may be estimated from the tonnage of the vessels entering and clearing (including repeated voyages) with cargoes or in ballast in the same years:—

Entered. Cleared.
Year. British. Foreign. Total. British. Foreign. Total.
1867,. 26,418 2192 28,610 23,145 2161 25,306
1871,. 29,516 2799 32,315 27,054 2408 29,462
1882,. 69,188 3708 72,896 67,058 3599 70,657

In 1882 the British tonnage inwards was carried in 450 vessels, and the foreign in 32. The fishery statistics are given under Shetland.

Lerwick has a head post office, with money order, savings' bank, insurance, and telegraph departments, branches of the Commercial and Union Bauks, agencies of 11 insurance companies, a gas company, a masonic lodge (Morton, No. 89), a choral society; and at an annual regatta in August, one of the most interesting features is a race between boats rowed by girls from the islands of Bressay, Burra, and Trondra. The inhabitants of the islands and of many of the parishes and districts in Orkney or Shetland have ` tee ' or nick names: the epithet applied to the inhabitants of Lerwick is ` Whitings.' The town was visited by the Duke of Edinburgh (then Prince Alfred) in the Raecoon in 1863, and again in 1882, on his tour as inspector of naval reserves. Burghal matters are managed by a senior magistrate, 2 junior magistrates, and 8 commissioners. The sheriff-substitute for the county resides here, and a sheriff court is held every Wednesday during session; while justice of peace, ordinary, and small debt courts are held as required. There is a cattle market in August on the Monday before Kirkwall. Valuation (1883) £9340. Pop. (1831) 2750, (1861) 3061, (1871) 3516, (1881) 4045, of whom 2206 were females, and 3854 were in the police burgh. Houses (1881) 514 inhabited, 5 vacant, 2 building.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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