Lerwick Small Yet Influential

Lerwick, the capital of the beautiful Shetland Islands off north-east Scotland, may be a bit small for the term ‘city’ – but its influence on our ideas on how to exploit our oil resources in harmony with the environment has been considerable.
This article appeared in Vol. 9, No. 5 - 2013


Photo: Richard Bowden Source: Adeliepenguin/ Lerwick, Shetland’s capital, takes its name from the Old Norse Leirvík, meaning ‘muddy bay’. It is situated on a natural harbour on Bressay Sound, on the eastern coast of Shetland Mainland, the largest of the 16 islands which make up the Shetland Archipelago, 600 km north-east of the northern tip of Scotland. It is Shetland’s only town, a bustling, cosmopolitan seaport home to 7,500 inhabitants. The advantages of the port’s strategic proximity to operations in the northern North Sea and Atlantic are complemented by well-developed facilities and services, making it one of Scotland’s leading marine centres for industry.

It was probably founded by Norsemen, who are known to have gathered a huge fleet there in 1263, but it did not become Shetland’s capital until the 17th century, when Dutch herring fleets used it as an unofficial market place. Cromwell tried to oust the Dutch and lay claim to the surrounding fishing grounds by landing troops, who built Fort Charlotte, the first permanent building in the town. Despite attempts to burn down Lerwick through the 17th and early 18th centuries, the area continued as a fishing village, becoming the centre of herring and cod fishing industries, as well as Arctic whaling.

During the First World War, the war’s effect on the herring industry led to mass emigration of islanders to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. However, the Second World War brought a temporary economic boom, as the Shetlands became the base from which operations against Nazi occupation in Norway took place. In particular, Lerwick’s geographical position made it a strategic and important maritime base during this time. However, after the war, many Shetlanders again could not make a living and emigrated, so that by 1971, the total Shetland population had dropped to 17,325, from the 31,670 in 1861.

Oil Reverses Decline

This decline was reversed when the first crude oil was discovered in the North Sea in 1969. Built about 30 km north of Lerwick and completed in 1982, Sullom Voe became the largest terminal in Europe, loading oil onto tankers from pipelines coming from the Brent and Ninian oil fields. The Shetland County Council evolved a policy which restricted all major facilities to a single complex on an area of land in council ownership, so that all oil companies operated within one terminal. This made the council a 50% shareholder, providing a notable influence on Shetland’s economy, while limiting the physical impact on the environment. Because of rigorous control with a long-term programme of environmental monitoring in place, despite the fact that it is one of the largest, Sullom Voe is one of the cleanest oil ports in the world with no discernible effect on the harbour’s abundant marine life.

The money that the Shetland Islands received due to the oil has contributed greatly to the community, being used to improve social care, conserve the environment and promote arts, sport and economic development. The population saw a sustained increase, with more than 22,000 people now living there. As a response to the economy, partly in association with the development of pipeyards, oil supply depots and harbour improvements, the Lerwick population grew in parallel with this, from 6,000 to 7,500.

In 2012, due to recent investments into deep-water infrastructure, larger oil-related ships are now able to reach Lerwick Harbour, with the number of such vessels arriving in the first half of the year up by 43% in comparison to 2011. As well as this, the tonnage has also risen 77% to 1.4 million gross tonnes, and cargo shipped in support of offshore operations by 58% to 65,308 tonnes (Lerwick Port Authority).

Popular Tourist Destinaton

As well as this success in becoming a key part of North Sea oil activities, Lerwick today is also home to one of Europe’s largest pelagic fish factories, Shetland Catch, and frequently sees many cruise liners during the summer season.

It is also growing as a popular tourist destination, providing a choice of eateries, shops, pubs and clubs, as well as a leisure centre and a theatre. Lerwick is also celebrated as a place to sample Shetland’s renowned musical heritage and to enjoy the spectacular scenery of the island on walks in which seals, otters and other wildlife can be spotted in their natural habitats. The Shetlands themselves are a popular destination for geologists, with an incredibly varied geology spanning almost 3 billion years.

In January, the town particularly comes to life, celebrating its chief festival, Up-Helly-Aa annually on the last Tuesday of January. Echoing a long tradition, the day involves a series of marches and visitations, culminating in a mass torchlit procession behind a Viking long boat. This is then subsequently burnt with great ceremony, before a long night of revelry commences, lasting until the morning. Understandably, the following day is a public holiday in Lerwick to allow everyone to recover!


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