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Visit and the surrounding villages and stay in bed & breakfast accommodation:

Lerwick, Shetland, the capital of the Shetland Islands, is the most northern town in the British Isles, and is the one that to the eye of a newly-arrived visitor looks most foreign. It is in fact geographically nearer to Bergen in Norway than to any considerable town in the United Kingdom.

Lerwick looks foreign in a number of indefinable ways, but mostly because of various houses that are built into the sea rather in the Venetian manner, and because of the large paving-stones that lie between facing houses in the narrower and older streets. Such streets seem all pavement and no thoroughfare or, alternatively, all thoroughfare and no pavement. The effect is odd but attractive.

Scalloway, 64 miles West, was the earlier capital of the islands under the bad old rule of the Scottish Earl Patrick Stewart, in the 17th century. Later, Lerwick imperceptibly drifted, from being a fishing village with a fine harbour, into being the county town of Shetland. It has good comfortable hotels, up-to-date shops, and a few cafés and eating houses. Its port connects it with the Scottish mainland, and buses run regularly to Sumburgh, where there is an airport with daily connections to Glasgow and thence, if necessary, to London. It is easier to get from Lerwick to the main towns of Scotland and England by air than it is from many Scottish or English mainland districts.

Though Lerwick was anciently but a fishing village, its fine harbour, protected by the island of Bressay, made it an important place of call for ships. King Haakon of Norway, when he made his massive attack on Scotland in 1263, which culminated in his defeat at the Battle of Largs, rested his armada at Lerwick. The town and harbour were not, however, heard much of in British history until after the Union of the Crowns in 1603. In the reign of Charles II, it began to be recognized as a fortification base for the British Navy in northern waters. After having been forced by the Dutch during the wars of Charles's time, it was eventually restored and rebuilt in the comparatively peaceful era of George III.

From that period it has steadily grown in size and prosperity. If that prosperity has slightly declined in the years after the Second World War, it is partly because of the difficulties that have arisen in Scottish inshore fishing, and partly because of the centripetal force that is drawing life away from all, or nearly all, outlying places in Britain to the great centres.

Of the old fishing village, little if anything remains. In the centre of Lerwick, and particularly by the harbour, you may, however, see the stout origins of the town that began to arise in the 17th century, and that grew throughout the 18th and the 19th centuries. This town is massively and compactly built in stone, and the word compactly is significant. Mention has already been made of the narrow streets with paving running directly between facing houses. You understand the reason for this compact huddling together of dwelling places in Lerwick if you have ever faced the full fury of a Shetland gale. Under such an assault it used to be necessary for people to pass among each other's houses with as little exposure as possible.

It was the habit of the Scottish lairds in the old days, when they owned land in the countryside of Shetland, to have a town house in Lerwick, mainly to escape from the wind. The lairds of Hayfield, for instance (only a few miles away from Lerwick), felt they could not endure the winter winds alone in their massively built country seat, and had a town house that is now the Queen's Hotel.

There is little of architectural style or beauty in Lerwick (nothing of the faint Regency remains still lingering in Stornoway), but there is a distinct appeal in the practical stolidity of the building in this, Britain's most northern town. It is not only practical; it is original and refreshing to look at.

The sea is ever present in Lerwick, and through the sea the outer world. Maybe, owing to the decline of Scottish inshore fishing, there are fewer native herring-boats, but vessels from all northern European countries use Lerwick as a base during their fishing in the northern seas. You can hear many foreign tongues on the quayside and in the streets of Lerwick, including Russian. Many a foreign vessel in trouble in these sometimes tempestuous seas has owed its rescue to the lifeboat service of Lerwick.

Modern Lerwick has spread well out from the huddled compact harbour, the stone-built town of the 19th century. There are suburbs in the modern manner spreading inward.

One cannot leave the subject of Shetland's capital without mention of the festival of “Up-Helly-Aa” that takes place annually, and is intended, in the dark short days of the northern winter, to celebrate the returning sun that will burgeon in six months into the beneficence of the “simmer dim”. This festival gives the modern Lerwick people the chance to go for a short while (as far as costume is concerned, and to a lesser degree in behaviour) “all Viking again”.

The festival is modern in origin, but ancient in the evocation of Shetland's Norse past. Perhaps some citizens in the future will stage a festival recalling their even remoter ancestors the Picts, or the unnamed builders of Jarlshof who lived in these islands long before the Vikings touched them.

Nearby islands: Island of Hoy, Island of Unst

Nearby cities: Aberdeen

Nearby towns: Banchory, Ellon, Inverurie, Kirkwall, Scalloway, Stonehaven, Stromness, Thurso

Nearby villages: Aith, Birsay, Catfirth, Easter Quarff, Hillswick, Stenness, Tingwall, Twatt, Wester Quarff

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