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Bressay Sound, the sheltered stretch of water between the Mainland of Shetland and the island of Bressay, now looks an obvious place for a harbour. But until around 1625 there were just a few huts here gathered around a leir-vik, Norse for "muddy bay".
In June of each year from 1602 the Dutch fishing fleet gathered in Bressay Sound in pursuit of migrating herring. Shetlanders set up temporary huts along the shore of the sound to trade with the Dutch. The ensuing annual festival became infamous for drunkenness and immorality. One pious resident of Scalloway, capital of Shetland at the time, commented on "the great abomination and wickedness committed yearly by the Hollanders and country people..." For many years the authorities insisted that the shanty town that sprang up along Bressay Sound each summer was burned down after the Dutch had departed.
But by 1650 the settlement here was becoming more permanent, and the Government was becoming increasingly worried by the interest of the Dutch in Bressay Sound and in Shetland more generally. By the time of the second war between Britain and Holland in 1665, concern had risen enough to warrant the building of a fort overlooking Lerwick harbour. This later became Fort Charlotte. It is now enclosed by the town, and with the reclamation of land and building of new docks, no longer dominating the shoreline as once it did.
Lerwick continued to grow around the fort. At its heart was Commercial Street, parallel to the shore and enclosed by buildings on both sides, like Stromness in Orkney. Access to the sea was via the gaps between the buildings on the seawards side of the street, which led to individual wharves and piers. A sense of how this once looked can be gained at the south east end of Commercial Street. The Lodberrie, the building beyond the Queens Hotel, is little changed since the 1700s.
The wealth the herring brought allowed a major planned expansion of Lerwick, focused on the fine Town Hall. This was built in 1884 on the highest available site, with its back to the harbour and facing the new town. By the time Zetland became a county separate from Orkney, also in 1884, Lerwick was the natural home for the County Buildings, which were built near the Town Hall.
As early as 1736 it was possible to sail from Lerwick to Leith, though the most reliable route was via Hamburg! From 1750s a better service had been established, primarily to export Shetland ponies for use in English coalmines. From 1836 there was a steamer service to Aberdeen, and by 1900 this also linked to Kirkwall and Leith. Until 1901 the population of Shetland relied on the ferry for medical services, being expected to go for any treatment they needed in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
The 1970s were a period of great change for Shetland. At a symbolic level, Zetland County Council became Shetland Islands Council in 1975. And by then Shetland was rapidly becoming the centre of the the North Sea oil boom with a vast terminal under construction at Sullom Voe.
As Shetland's only town - and so Britain's most northerly - Lerwick became the focus of major expansion. The harbour continued to expand northwards, and extensive housing development took place to the west and south west. The most recent development has included new building around part of the shore of the Loch of Clickimin. This brought building in Lerwick full circle, for an island at the southern end of the loch is home to the beautifully preserved Broch of Clickimin, built some 2000 years ago: by a large margin the oldest building in the area.
Today's Lerwick is a fascinating blend of the old and the new. It is a large and busy working port, and the terminus for the NorthLink ferries to Kirkwall and Aberdeen. Ferries to other destinations in Scandinavia, Faroe and Iceland are also regular visitors, and the Bressay Ferry operates from here. At the north end of the port is the Böd of Gremista, a fishing booth from the 1700s now open in Summer as a museum.
Commercial Street and its environs retain a charm seldom seen elsewhere these days. It offers a wide range of fascinating small shops and is also home to Lerwick's Tourist Centre, one of the best run and most helpful you are likely to find anywhere in Scotland. Climbing any of the closses running up the hill from Commercial Street brings you to the new town, while to the south the promontory of The Knab gives excellent views of Bressay and across the southern, newer, parts of Lerwick.