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Return to Shetland


Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands is the special town where I was born.   It dates back to the 17th century and derives its name from the Norse ‘Leir-vik’ meaning “muddy bay”. 

I have lived away from the islands since the early sixties and it took a recent visit to make me realise just how intimate this town is to me.   On my walk down the main street, the warmth of the people surrounded me.   Commercial Street is paved with stone flags or concrete slabs as it twists to follow the shoreline.   Corners project revealing shops and offices.   I noticed that some of the old residential areas off the main street were being demolished.   Probably to make way for car parks I thought.   I felt sad to see such wonderful old buildings being destroyed.   In the early 19th century both rich and poor had lived in the close confines of these lanes.   The lanes or “closses” which were steep and overcrowded had provided shelter from the bitter winds for generations.

I remembered my school days in Lerwick and recalled the friendly, tolerant nature of the islanders.   I remembered the Sundays of my childhood when I was hustled off to church twice in the one day.   Interestingly religious tolerance was as evident back then as it is today.   Mum and Dad didn’t care which church I attended as long as I went.   “It’s all one God” Mum would say.   I would sometimes go off with my paternal grandparents who were staunch Methodists or I would attend the Church of Scotland with my parents.   Sometimes, for variety, I would attend the Baptist church with my best friend.   The Shetlanders were, and still are, God fearing, mainly Presbyterian people.   I wondered if that is why Shetland is still one of the most law abiding parts of the United Kingdom.

As I trudged on wrapped warmly in a Shetland wool Fair Isle sweater, “beanie” and gloves, I could hear fiddle music playing in the background as I passed a local pub.   It was the middle of winter and temperatures were below freezing point.   The town is frequented by fishermen from as far afield as Iceland and Scandinavia.  The smell of the sea was everywhere.   High winds sprayed me with salt and I could taste it.   The murderous moods of the sea could splinter boats to matchwood and the resilient islanders depended upon the sea for their very existence.   I recalled the perfume of the heavily-scented sea pinks in the summer months and the pale yellow primroses peeping out at me along the cliff sides.   In my mind’s eye I could see the hills tinted with the purple of the heather in the autumn.   This was the land of the midnight sun where I had once seen the Aurora Borealis.  

But it was winter and winter wove its own magic.   The icy wind brought with it the snow and as I walked I watched the snowflakes settle on the roofs of the buildings transforming everything from granite and sandstone to white.   I could see the town hall’s image transformed from granite to white with the face of the clock completely obliterated.   What a magnificent building I thought remembering that the leading inhabitants of this small community had formed a company to oversee the building of this grand structure back in 1880.   This handsome building, in baronial type, with its unique stained glass windows, still dominated the skyline as I trudged through the snow.   I recalled the scenes from local history; in particular the window portraying Princess Margaret of Denmark.

I walked past the Shetland Times office.   Every household in Lerwick buys the Shetland Times a newspaper which first appeared in 1872.   This cannot be said about the tabloids transported in by air daily from Fleet Street.

No two houses looked the same yet there was a unity from the use of local sandstone.   Eclectic architectural influences were everywhere and the manse next door to the Methodist chapel resembled a dwelling from the Brothers Grimm.   I noticed that many of the streets were named after Norse Kings.   My walk then took me past the North Star Cinema which opened its doors for the first time in 1913.   I saw my first movie in that building – “Rock Around the Clock” – and suddenly I was lost among memories as I strolled down to the harbour.

At the water’s edge the ‘lodberries’ or storehouses still reached out in the sea.   Those buildings would tell a few stories I thought, as I recalled the smuggling stories Dad had told me as a child.   Workmen today have found the secret tunnels under the buildingA few white fish vessels lay in at the pier with their catches of mainly haddock and whiting.   God how cold I felt as I watched the fishermen land their fish on the docks.   Their hands were numb from the cold and they were clad in bright yellow oilskins which restricted their every move.   Further along the pier the smaller vessels equipped for creel-fishing (for shellfish) lay idle.   How did these fishermen eke out a living during the winter months, I wondered.

Norseman, Scots and Germans had helped to make this town what it is today.  The Norse have left their imprint on every aspect of life in Shetland; even my name (Inkster) is Norse in origin.   How privileged I feel to belong to these special islands and how proud I am to know my history and to feel part of such a noble heritage.

A sense of culture and history and belonging is what I carried back to Melbourne with me.   Beautiful Melbourne – I came to visit for a couple of years in 1981 and I never left.

Maureen Inkster, November 2013