Brochs are exclusive to Scotland. They date from the Iron Age (roughly 2500 years ago) but their exact function is still the subject of debate. Were they purely defensive structures or were they the houses of the most powerful families? There is debate even about whether they were originally roofed!
But they really are most impressive and sophisticated drystone structures, double-walled with a staircase leading upwards between the walls (very narrow steps!). The best-preserved broch stands on the isle of Mousa (see my page) but Clickimin is still a good example.
It lies on an islet in the Loch of Clickimin, to the south-west of Lerwick (but still in the town itself). There is evidence of a Bronze Age farm on the site, later fortified by the addition of a ditch and, even later, by the constructions of a drystone defensive 'blockhouse'.
The broch dates from a little later...perhaps 100BC. It would have originally stood about 12-15 metres high, and is surrounded by various smaller structures. Some of these have hearths, and may have been workshops or storage areas or living areas.
No-one is certain what brochs looked like inside, but it seems possible that they had a least one or two floors within (made of wood). There is an interpretation of a possible interior in the photos below.
Clickimin is well worth a visit. Access is easy and free, the site well-preserved (although overly-reconstructed when first excavated in the mid-1800s) and the loch itself is pretty.
There are several boat-trip operators working out of Lerwick, but I do highly recommend the one I took.
The Seabirds-and-Seals boat trip has been running for 20 seasons (mid-May to mid-September, although it can run at other times by arrangement).
Dr Jonathan Wills is both boatman and and guide and, even after all those years, his enthusiasm and pleasure in taking the trip shines through. He is immensely knowledgeable about Shetland's marine life, be it the birds, the mammals or the underwater creatures.
The boat is fast and comfortable, with interior and exterior seating (including 2 seats right up on the cabin roof, for the very best (and chilliest!) views.
Trips take around 3 hours, first along the Bressay Sound and then around the shores of Bressay and Noss. It moors for a while in a sheltered inlet to allow the underwater camera to explore the kelp 'forests' (there's a TV screen inside and outside the cabin) whilst complimentary tea and coffee (and biscuits) are available if you want them. It's absolutely fascinating to see what is happening beneath the waves...and the Shetland 'fog' and 'snow'.
The onwards (on my trip) to the huge gannet colonies around Noss. A magnificent, if noisy and rather smelly, sight...I could have stayed there for hours, just watching the gannets (adults, young and chicks) and the bonxies who lurked in the water waiting for a young gannet to slip or a parent to drop its catch.
We saw so many other seabirds too, and seals of course, and we even managed to catch a very quick glimpse of an otter.
Weather conditions had been very rough the previous day and my initial booking (for the morning trip) was cancelled. But we were all accommodated on the afternoon trip which, although there was a heavy swell under the gannet colony (making some people feel a bit iffy) I found most exhilarating.
It's not a cheap trip, but the money is very well spent. You will not be disappointed, whatever the weather (remember it's always cold at sea, so do add extra layers and take a hat/scarf).
More photos in my travelogue
There is a lovely, and very scenic, walk along the cliffside to the Knab, a headland which has excellent views of the Bressay sound, small seabird colonies, WW2 relics and well-placed benches to rest your weary legs whilst watching birds and boats.
I walked there in a very strong wind, enjoying the crash of the waves as they battered the shoreline. Very exhilarating! I spent quite a while watching fulmars (adults and young ones) coping with the blasts as they tried to land on their nesting places. It took one poor bird 8 tries before it managed to land, although I suppose it could just have been having fun enjoying the ride!
A definite 'must-do', imo. The path is tarmac all the way (although you can walk onto the grassy clifftop if you want, of course) so the walking is easy, and there is only one steepish part.
If you get to the Knab just before 7am you'll see the Northlink ferry enter the Bressay Sound..you can try waving as it passes, but there's no guarantee any of the passengers will wave back!
The oldest part of Lerwick (although it is not terribly old, to be honest) is a most pleasant place to wander.
Its narrow closses and stone-flagged streets, the occasional imposing building (Victorian pomp, usually) and the variation in building styles make this area interesting to explore. You never quite know what you'll come across next...an unexpected glimpse of the sea, a tiny hidden garden, an obviously very old cottage, a sudden group of trees filled with noisy birds (any trees you come across in Lerwick have been planted...none are native to the islands), yet another tiny harbour.....lots to find.
And, of course, walk the harbourside to spot the birds...I saw both Arctic and Great Skuas (bonxies) there, harassing the herring gulls and causing havoc with their bullying...and spot the boats too. Watch the Bressay ferry on its regular run, perhaps see the Northlink ferry arrive from Aberdeen in the early morning (I waved every day but no-one ever waved back), see which boats have arrived overnight. Maybe you'll even spot a Fisheries Protection vessel, as I did, moored up and looming dimly through the morning haar (sea-mist)...
Yes, there's lost of interest in central Lerwick...
Best when it isn't raining, of course. But if it is (and it may well be) why not pop into some of the little shops on Commercial Street for a while, or visit the rather good Tourist Information Centre, or seek hidden treasures in the charity (thrift) shops (I found an excellent waterproof coat and useful daypack)...maybe have a coffee in the Peerie Shop Cafe or perhaps nip into a bar such as The Lounge or Da Wheel for taste of Viking Ale (try the 'Simmer Dim'..it's lovely!) or a wee dram to warm you up?
Central Lerwick isn't huge but it has more than enough interest to occupy you for a few hours..and it's worth exploring.
The Shetland Museum and Archive is pretty new (2007) and , imo, extremely well-thought out and designed.
It overlooks Hay's Harbour, an old harbour to the north of Lerwick centre. The harbour is named for Shetland's foremost trading company during the late 1800s/early 1900s...Hay & Co...and until 1980 the harbour was the base for Shetland's whitefish fleet.
The museum is set out chronologically, allowing the visitor to explore and understand how Shetland has developed over the millennia. There are wonderful examples of prehistoric, Viking, Pictish and Medieval artefacts although, sadly, the treasure from St Ninian's Isle and several of the carved stones are replicas...the real things are in Edinburgh museum.
Upstairs (passing several suspended boats) there is a ascinating display about wartime Shetland and the 'Shetland Bus', another about Shetland in more recent times (the 10th century), examples of Shetland knitting (and, when I visited, a lady actually knitting...very complicated indeed!).
If your ancestors came from Shetland you can access the archive to help with family history research.
The cafe/restaurant is lovely, with beautiful views over Lerwick Harbour and excellent food. It's open when the museum is open, but also opens in the evening a few days per week. Well worth eating there.
Best of all, the museum is absolutely free!
A visit is unmissable..either at the very start of your visit, to help you understand what you will see or at the end, to put what you have seen into its proper context.
Open Monday - Saturday: 10.00 - 17.00 Sunday: 12.00 - 17.00
About an hours drive from Lerwick is Jarlshof.
This is a truly extraordinary place and walking around it takes you back 4000 years. The various walks take you from the early 17th century AD laird's house through Medieval and Viking times to the prehistory. That really shows that the first dwellers in 2400 BC had the ability to choose a good site otherwise later generations would never have gone on building on the site. Jarlshof lies on the southern tip of Shetland beside a shallow bay known as the West Voe of Sumburgh and on the lower slope of the sandstone promontory of Sumburgh Head. This was an ideal place for sheltered fishing, a good place for boats and it was fertile well-drained land with fresh water springs. A added bonus was the beach which provided good quality building stone for the settlement. It was Sir Walter Scott who gave the laird's house the name Jarlshof. This house was built on top of an artifical mound, the accumulation of earlier centuries. It was a series of severs storms at the end of the 19th century that exposed the Iron Age buildings below and excavations then and later in the 1930s and 1950s showed the extensive buildings that can be seen today. It is likely that there are still more prehistoric houses under the laird's house and the medieval farmhouse and that coastal erosion has destroyed a large part of the prehistoric complex.
The bone and stone tools found here are similar to finds at Skara Brae and they suggest that Neolithic farmers may have settled at Jarlshof around 2400BC. A lovely musuem explains these ruins that sprawl along the sea front and date back 3,000 years. You will find the settlement not far from Shetland airport. Watch out for crossing planes when driving in the area!
This is only a 10 minute drive from Lerwick. It is much smaller than Lerwick, but has a few things to see. There's a museum with information on the Shetland Bus, a daring venture during WWII to help the Norwegian resistance.
The other main attraction is Scalloway castle. It is now just a shell, although fun to explore and there are information boards inside. It might be locked and if so you can ask for the key at the Scalloway hotel.
Lerwick is a picturesque town with some good shopping, cafès, an excellent museum and a kind of nightlife. Eating out options are rather limited but I'll point out some decent ones.
Fort Charlotte is worth a few snaps and offers good vantage points, although there's only an information board and that's about it. The main attraction is the Shetland museum, which is free and very impressive. Donations are welcome and I would allow 2 - 3 hours for a proper visit. There is a cafè that offers lunch; it was very busy when we went and there was a queue so bear this in mind.
The fort was built in 1781. It was named Fort Charlotte after the wife of King George III.
The fort consists of a long seaward-facing side housing guns overlooking Bressay Sound. It was built on a rock that dropped sheer to the shore below. The remaining four sides of the pentagon are punctuated by bastions at the corners.
These days Fort Charlotte has retreated from the sea with the reclamation of land for the harbour and the Esplanade. And more recent building has crowded closely around its landward sides. As a result although the fort has been largely for unchanged in 220 years, it is almost invisible today, and its overall shape can only be seen from the air.
Fort Charlotte never saw action. It housed a garrison throughout the Napoleonic Wars and was later a base for the Royal Naval Reserve in Shetland. It also served as the town jail and courthouse from 1837-75, and later a custom house and a coastguard station. Today it is in the care of Historic Scotland.