Exploring Lerwick And The Shetland Islands

Lerwick harbor

Located in the North Sea one hundred fifty miles north of Scotland is the Shetland Islands. The largest island is Shetland Mainland with three additional smaller islands named Yell, Unst and Fetlair. Lerwick, the major town in the archipelago, is located on the east coast of Shetland Mainland. Most of Lerwick’s buildings are made of local stone giving the area the appearance of being from a different era. Narrow alleys and streets don’t appear to have been made with automobiles in mind and alleys with stone staircases are common. The town owes its success to its location, finding shelter in the lee of the island of Bressay across the channel and its good natural harbor. The town takes its name from Norse meaning ‘mud-bay’ and was a safe harbor for Dutch fishermen as recently as the seventeenth century. This town is a good base for exploring the Scandinavian history, beautiful seascapes and wildlife of the Shetland archipelago.

In the mid eighteenth century relations between the British and Dutch deteriorated and the British seized the islands and built Fort Charlotte in 1781 to protect what they believed was Scottish territory. Shortly after that the herring fishing brought a boom to the islands and a building explosion showed off the archipelago’s new wealth. Again in the twentieth century the North Sea oil bonanza gave Lerwick, with its good port location, another economic boom.

Scottish Coat of Arms displayed in Lerwick

“Nemo me impune lacessit” is the motto on the Royal coat of arms of the Kingdom of Scotland and translates to “No one attacks me with impunity”, and has been loosely rendered in Scots as Wha daur meddle wi me? (in Scottish Gaelic – Cha togar m’ fhearg gun dìoladh).

Explore Shetland’s Ancient History – Over 4,000 years of historic development can be found on Shetland Mainland with Clickimin Broch sitting on a promontory facing into the Loch of Clickimin. A broch /ˈbrɒx/ is an Iron Age stone hollow-walled structure found throughout Scotland. Brochs belong to the classification “complex Atlantic roundhouse” and their origin is a matter of some controversy. When sea levels were higher the broch was connected to the mainland by a narrow constructed causeway, built in the later Iron Age. The remains of the causeway can still be found today.

Broch of Clickimin

Clickimin broch shows evidence of having been occupied from at least the Bronze Age, about 1000 BC and remained inhabited to about AD 500. Its main elements are generally believed to be:

  • A late Bronze Age house, outbuilding and enclosure
  • An early Iron Age enclosed site, consisting of a stout wall with a shallow ditch across the isthmus connecting the islet to the mainland
  • A middle Iron Age broch, with later alterations, and a blockhouse with a central passage and cells erected within the ring-fort
  • A late Iron Age circular building, added inside the broch tower, with a constructed causeway leading to the broch.
  • It is also believed that some of the excavations around the broch tower are a Pictish settlement dating back to before 2000 BC.
Broch of Mousa

It’s not known who built the broch, if it was erected as a defensive stronghold, or as a statement of its builder’s status, but it may have fulfilled both functions.

Farther south on Shetland Mainland is the archaeological site of Jarlshof on a headland overlooking the West Voe of Sumburgh, with more than 4,000 years of human settlement found on the site. It includes oval-shaped Bronze Age houses, an Iron Age broch and wheelhouse, Norse long houses, medieval farm buildings, and a laird’s house dating from the 1500s. The Iron Age broch and wheelhouses, which have survived the sea’s best efforts to wash them away, include evidence of a Norse community established here in early medieval times. A visitors center includes collection of artifacts spanning the different eras.

Broch of Mousa requires a boat ride but it is the best preserved example of an Iron Age round tower or broch. It is on the small island of Mousa in Shetland, Scotland and is the tallest broch still standing and amongst the best-preserved prehistoric buildings in Europe.

Fort Charlotte

Fort Charlotte in the centre of Lerwick, Shetland, is a five-sided artillery fort, with bastions on each corner. The grounds and exterior battlements are open to the public and it offers good views of the towns harbor area. Today Fort Charlotte is managed by Historic Scotland, and is the base for Shetland’s Territorial Army. Visitors must call to get the keys to visit.

The Shetland Islands are also home to a large population of puffins, making them an excellent place for puffin-watching as well as other bird watching. Within the Shetland Mainland Island there are a number of places to see puffins, with some requiring only a short hike.

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