Monday, May 31, 2010

Shetland Isles

Sights of Lerwick, capital of Shetland

[Maryanne]Shetland; the most northerly islands in the UK.

Fair Isle (between Ornkey and Shetland main Island) is technically part of Shetland, and we didn’t mention on our Fair Isle blog that it is famed for its sweaters. The “traditional” Fair Isle pattern, although relatively modern, was first knitted in the islands (from local wool) and soon taken up by royalty (in the 1920’s), making it rapidly popular world wide. Although a single pattern and garment may contain many, many colours, each kitted row, generally only contains two; that’s hard to realize unless you know and inspect the knit. Pretty cool. Knitting is so part of the Shetland culture, that it is still taught in local schools to all the kids (actually those classes are big news right now as the local education department plan to save costs by stopping the knitting lessons, such politics).

Links to Norway here are strong, in fact the islands were owned by Norway until a ruling king couldn’t find the cash for his daughters dowry and gifted Norway in lieu of funds to Scotland; he thought the gift was a temporary thing (until he could get the fund together) the Scottish thought otherwise and kept it. Given this history, there are lots of Norwegian sounding place names, plenty of Norwegian in the dialect, etc. A relationship not forgotten between the two nations was proven by the amazing support Shetlanders gave German occupied Norway during WWII – just look up the fantastic stories of the “Shetland Bus” for more details.

Gremista Marina and Lerwick town docks

So, we had arrived in Shetland and had only a short time before Kyle had to depart for work. We managed a bright sunny day together to tour Lerwick (the capital). Originally we docked in the town harbour, very convenient but with the boat club currently undergoing major renovation there were no real facilities. Since we had to stay for a while, it was suggested we contact the nearby Gremista marina (a community run facility for the locals) to see if they had space for us. Yes they did and at £15 a week it was a bargain despite being two miles out of town, and without shower or toilet facilities. Those two miles I would know intimately by the time Kyle finally returned from work; all good exercise!

Together we did a basic tour (wander) around Lerwick and managed to get a private tour of the Town Hall with its amazing ball room and stained glass features.

The picturesque “Lodberries” were built in the 17th and 18th century as landing areas for local merchants’ produce, with warehouses and dwellings they provided a (relatively deep draft) and a loading area for supply ships. They were designed to save the need to row produce to and from anchored boats in the bay. They were also heavily associated with smuggling to avoid customs duties, and more recent excavations in the area have discovered a significant number of tell-tale tunnels to support the legend.

As we explored the local fort, we found ourselves intruding on modern day military training for the local cadet force; it was a bit peculiar looking at ancient cannons with real machine guns in the vicinity. As we explored the town, we found ourselves in narrow alley ways, and climbing and descending a multiple of old stone steps, it was fun to explore without any particular aim, and we found ourselves disoriented (lost) several times, although it’s such a small town, that feeling never lasted too long.

We finished our day trip with a visit to the FANTASTIC Shetland museum, only 3 years old, it houses a fantastic collection of artifacts, with great story telling and information all to hand. It is also free, and has plenty of activities for young children to fully enjoy the experience too. To top the day, they have an excellent café/restaurant at which Kyle and I enjoyed a splendid lunch before exploring the museum until it closed. It’s the best museum I’ve been to in a long time and we thoroughly recommend it to any visitors. Some of the display boards included some beautiful poetry, and when I later enquired as to the poet the staff instantly knew who I was talking about and recommended to me a publication that includes his work. [Name: T A Robertson, Most famous work "Vagaland", Died 1959, and you can find his poems and others in a book (no longer published) called Shetland Anthology] Having researched further his work is in a heavy Shetland dialect, although the quotes in the museum didn’t seem to be.

I joined Kyle on his trip to the airport on the South end if the island, only for the pair of us to hang out all day awaiting fog to lift and hoping for space on any of many flights. Eventually we had to give up and Kyle had to return really early the next day, this time making his flights and connections without hassle. With Kyle safely off to work, I set about getting the boat ready for our next leg and 2 weeks in the very expensive Norway… Laundry, grocery shopping, and topping up our Propane and fuel – each requiring a hike of some distance; such fun! Of course it wasn’t all work for me, and I managed to do some exploring of my own, including meeting up with a couple of local gals for a nice Indian curry evening, and some great chat.

Clackimin Broch - Lerwick

Brochs are Iron-age, round, windowless, tall, double walled, dry stone, mutli-floor structures found throughout Scotland, especially on the islands to the west and north (are you following me so far?). The walls are often at least 3m thick and it is assumed these performed a defensive role, i.e. impressive buildings. Shetland is thought to have had 100’s, many in sight of several others, and most remain now as just a few feet high of wall structure (with nearby clear re-use of the original stones), many other grassy mounds are identified as most probably old brochs, but yet to be uncovered. The broch of Mousa (one of the Shetland Islands), is one of the best preserved anywhere and its walls still stand to 13m (44’), not bad for a 2000 year old building! In Lerwick, Clickimin Broch sits almost totally surrounded by a small lake and is open to anyone to wander in and explore, it was also directly in between the place I did the laundry and the Tesco store, so I had plenty of time to enjoy it.

Practically the nearest building to themarina is also a museum, the Gremista Böd (fishing hut), and impressive 2-story stone home used to store and process fish, and house the local record keeper. A local guy called Arthur Anderson was born here in 1792; he became the founder of P&O ferries and with no children of his own granted the Islands of Shetland a million kindnesses, indeed funds from his legacy to Lerwick live on to support modern day elderly. The highlight of the böd tour though is the salty character that is there to give you as much information as you need. Also (temporarily) housed in the böd is the textile museum, so I got to feel inferior all over again by the garments of both the ancient and the modern day knitters and lace makers.

Most of the time Kyle was away was filled with very drizzly days, not pleasant at all. Eventually my chores were finished and Kyle was due home in the late afternoon. I decided I’d head back to the south of the Island to meet with him, and spend some time in the morning exploring its tourist offerings on a rare sunny day.


First I went to Scatness to see another broch. Evidence of the structure was unexpected discovered in 1975 during construction of the new airport access road. It was left until 1995 and was expertly excavated over 12 years revealing medieval, pictish and iron and bronze age structures on the site (even newer structures exist close by as croft houses, so clearly the site has its advantages whatever the era). The site alone is impressive enough, but the £4 ticket price includes an excellent guided tour by an professional and very knowledgeable archeologist (I had a personal tour as the only tourist at that moment), and various “living history” re-enactments of the crafts of those who may have live here long ago set in reconstructed buildings, based on those found at the site. It’s easy to spend a day there, but I was on a schedule.


Jarlshof is another ancient multi period site(Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Pictish, Norse and Medieval eras, right the way through to the 1600s), mostly uncovered after a severe storm. A similar site in Orkney (also discovered after a storm blew away the sand covering it) is Skara Brae, much more famous, but no more impressive than Jarlshof. This site visit comes with a audio tour allowing you to wander around at your own pace, and learn about the various sites (nice, but not as good as the personal tour in Scatness).

Sumburgh Head

The final attraction of the area is the lighthouse and bird observatory at Sumburgh Head (Sumburgh is pronounced sum-borough, just like Edinburgh). The Norse name for the headland translates to "The Head onto the Thunderous Noise", and it’s not sure if that refers to the pounding sea, or the masses of sea-birds that nest there. The Seabirds are so well known it is a bird observatory too, and home to great numbers of puffins, kittiwakes, razor bills and all the usual suspects of the region.

I just about made it to the airport before Kyle landed (it was a long walk and a close call), and since he arrived almost 2 hours before the bus north, I dragged him to just one site, Scatness, to enjoy a tour too. We again got an excellent private tour – such value!

That wraps up our brief tour of Shetland, but if you are still interested there follows a few more random tid-bits about the area and its history

We were not in Shetland at the right time of year, but others may know it for its famous “fire festival” in mid-January, the “Up Helly-Aa”. A pagan/Viking festival to welcome the longer days, a replica longboat is burned, torch processions march through the streets, and old fashioned entertainment abound in this 3 day long festival. Most of the Shetland towns hold a version of it, but Lerwik’s is the most (in)famous, and sexist of the lot – a great reason to visit in the winter.

Lerwick (actually Gremista) is also home to Europe’s largest pelagic fish factories, and there is a busy traffic of GIANT fishing trawlers. The fish processed here are exported all over the world and are (apparently) known as the best available.

Most of the boats visiting Lerwick stop in the town harbour, and the majority seem to be Norwegian. Granted they are relatively close to Norway, but the main attraction is the cheap booze! Norwegian alcohol purchases are heavily taxed and prices are about triple what a Brit (already relatively heavily taxed) might have to pay, for boats that sign a declaration that they are leaving the UK, alcohol is available to purchase duty-free at amazing rates, and this makes a trip to Shetland very attractive for the modern day smuggler (if they go over their limit, that is, which most happily do). We were very tempted by some of the duty-free rates, but also aware that we were already at our legal limit, so had to decline.. We may well regret that decision, ho, hum!

In 1886 Betty Mouat set out to Lerwick to sell knitted items. Roads then were not what they are today, so Betty (like most folks) travelled by boat (50 foot sailing boat, called the Columbine in this case). Unfortunately the skipper fell overboard en route, and the crew, who jumped in to save him, then lost contact with the boat. For eight days Betty Mouat lived on some ships biscuits and a bottle of milk, before the boat ran aground on the coast of Norway. Betty returned home a minor celebrity and was even sent a letter by Queen Victoria. We’d be thinking of Betty a lot on our pending trip to Norway.

The airport is one of only two in Europe where the runway crosses the main road (the other is in Gibraltar).

Lerwick seems unbelievably prosperous compared to the other highland and island towns we’ve visited. Indeed the whole of Shetland has been impacted by the discovery of North Sea oil, and the need for somewhere to bring that piped oil ashore. The Sullom Voe terminal was built in Shetland amid much local protest (the largest building site in Europe, ever! Excavating enough earth to cover London 1m deep). However the islanders were canny, and insisted on a share of the profits, these have been used to fund several separate community trusts (amenity, recreational, charitable). It is as a result of these trusts that Shetland has its great museums, leisure centers, etc. It also has half the unemployment rates of Scotland as a whole.

Still with me? Gees, then enjoy a wee dram and think of us :-) You deserve at least a good drink.


Mommy Dearest said...

Oh yes, with you all the way. Fascinating. Are the stones used to build those structures beneath them, or is there a quarry somewhere? I see the entire areas have been covered over by several inches of soil and now vegetation, but wondered where the stone came from in the first place. A wonderful tour, Maryanne. Thank you!

SV-Footprint said...

Hi Carla. They really are fascinating. The stones are generally quarried nearby (you can see many areas of arena size chunks taken from the hillsides (modern and ancient quarrying.

Most of the older buildings have started to fall, and had the upper stones lost (presumably reuse by subsequent groups) - but the stones that remain have been protected from the elements with the turf laid on top (which you see in so many of the pictures).

I feel so wonderfully inferior and in awe of these ancient predecessors.