Sleepless in Shetland: A 19thC Visit

Arriving in Shetland from Orkney aboard the SS St Magnus an American Professor recounted his views of the islands in the local newspaper, The Orkney Herald and Advertiser.

‘I judge the actual population of Lerwick to be between three and four thousand, and fully one tenth of that number crowded the pier. We had to file through a narrow passageway kept open by policemen between two dense throngs. I inquired as soon as I reached the hotel whether some Shetlander long absent were returning to his fatherland, or we had as our fellow traveller, unknown to us, someone of noble birth or wide reputation. “No” was the answer “It is always so on Saturday evenings when the steamer arrives.”

painting of the SS St Magnus and the SS St Nicholas
Leask, William; SS ‘St Magnus’ and SS ‘St Nicholas’; Orkney Islands Council;

‘To bed, but not to sleep; they have a clock tower with musical chimes in Lerwick, and it does not afford you time to fall asleep between its quarter hour rehearsals. At the hour you are favoured with a quadruple portion winding up with a slowly measured annunciation of the hour – whereat another clock, whose hammers strike a cracked bell, with hoarse , hurried, and loud iterations confirms the statement of clock no 1. But I must choose between two evils; for if I take a room with eastern exposure, away from the jargon of the clocks, the day will begin for me at three in the morning. Icelandic experiences however, have made it indifferent to me whether the sun chooses or not to rise at unseemly hours; so, having wrestled vainly with the clocks, I shall yield the field and sleep in the sunlight.’

a beautiful sunrise in the early hours of a May morning over Seatter farm Kirkwall by Kenny Armet
Image credit Kenny Armet

‘My guides and helpers during my sojourn in Lerwick were, as in the Orkneys, wide wake tradesmen with antiquarian tastes. And first I must speak of the antiquities of Shetland. “Standing Stones”, isolated monoliths, occur here and there, but I did not visit any circles corresponding to the Rings of Stenness and Brogar. Nor did I see any chambered mounds. Stone circles, however, exist, five in number, three in Unst, and two in Fetlar (more northern islands) but they are composed of smaller stones laid flat on the ground in concentric rings. Tudor (‘Orkneys and Shetlands’) has no knowledge of the existence of tumuli in the Shetlands corresponding to those found in the more southern archipelago. What Shetland possesses as its especial treasure from the archaeological point of view is the broch, brough, or ‘Picitsh Castle’. Seventy five broch sites are known in Shetland. These structures are also distributed abundantly throughout the Orkneys, seventy sites being known, but they are in a more ruinous condition. The two best preserved specimens of this class of prehistoric structures are ‘The Broch of Mousa’, on an island of the same name, fifteen miles south from Lerwick, and the ‘Broch of Clickimin’, on an island in the loch, near Lerwick. I examine them both with great care.’

We’ll read more from our American Professor in another article.

What of these clocks? Canmore tells us about 32 Commercial Street, Old Tolbooth:

“In 1774 the Rev George Low noted that ‘the most remarkable building [in Lerwick] is a new Town-House, a neat fabrick with a small spire, but no clock’, and that deficiency was remedied in the following decade. In 1784 a new door was installed at the base of the stair and in 1789 various alterations were made to the prison, roof and steeple. A new clock was installed by public subscription in 1825, and the steeple was again repaired in 1844 at the insistence of the parish heritors. The prison inspector in 1836 was appalled by the laxity of conditions in the jail, and the dampness of the basement cells, and it was declared unfit. In 1838 the prisoners were moved to Fort Charlotte, although the tolbooth continued in occasional use as a lock-up.”

Lerwick’s Town Hall  had a clock, designed and manufactured by Potts of Leeds, installed in the tower in 1887.

“The Town Hall has been described as a reliquary, encapsulating Shetland’s history. It expresses the optimism and ambition of the time. Above all, though, it displays remarkable aesthetic sophistication and scholarship, demonstrating that its founders were well acquainted with styles favoured not only in Britain but across northern Europe. It also reflects the outward-looking, internationalist perspective that is, and always has been, integral to Lerwick and Shetland life. It reflects great credit on the promoters.” Lerwick’s fine Victorian Town Hall is reborn

Lerwick Shetland with the old cross and surrounding buildings
Lerwick Shetland
Lerwick harbour today

Fiona Grahame

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