With the ferry departing Lerwick at 5pm, we have a leisurely half a day to stroll around the town.
Lerwick, like all of Shetland, is unashamedly Scandinavian, and nowhere more so than at the harbour, where warehouses of red and green timber tower over the marinas. It is a surprisingly busy port, with oil boats going to and fro, tugboats whizzing past long and short range ferries and exclusive visitors, such as the Norwegian tallship Statsraad Lehmkuhl. In one of those coincidences that make you think Jung was right about synchronicity, this is exactly the same ship we’ve seen in Kirkwall five years ago, on our first ever campervan trip.
The sea-side walk takes us towards the Shetland Museum and Archives – a large building made up of several wharf warehouses joined together; the museum admission is free, and the interior is laid out in the shape of a succession of ancient buildings – a cave, a broch, a wheelhouse and so on. The exhibition is extensive, including plenty of Viking gear, Pictish stones, a separate hall filled with historical boats, and a gallery of Fair Isle jumpers. A more unusual for Britain is a small exhibition about Hansa traders – Lerwick had been one of the very few Hanseatic ports in British Isles, and the trade in herring and whale oil (and woolen socks) was a mainstay of its economy until after the Act of Union English wars forced the Dutch and German merchants out of Shetland.
Still further along the harbour we found ourselves in the area of Lerwick we had first seen on arrival to Shetland – the ferry zone; turned out this ugly industrial area wasn’t really Lerwick proper, only its northern outskirts. We were looking for a wool broker‘s warehouse here, and found it on one of the back alleys; the famous Shetland yarn here, filling the tightly packed shelves, was prepared for shipping all over the world, but judging from the labels, most of it was going straight for Japan. The wool of Shetland sheep is naturally colourful – you can get it in any shade of brown or grey here, and it will never fade or wash off.
From the wool broker’s we retraced our steps back to the Victoria harbour, and then ventured into the narrow streets of Lerwick Old Town. As in Peel and Stromness, the main town centre is set along a street separated from the harbour esplanade; it’s filled with the usual array of shops and art galleries, but in keeping with the Nordic vibe, it’s also pocked with designer stores, selling unique design ware from Sweden, Norway and London.
Lerwick doesn’t have many old buildings, having been razed to the ground by several invading armies in its history. Apart from Fort Charlotte – a grim, grey bastion looming over the town, pointing its cast iron cannons at any incoming Dutch (who turned from the chief merchants to sworn enemy after Shetland got involved in England’s wars) – the oldest bit of the town is at the southern edge of the high street, where there’s a small beach, bookended by two pairs of small stone buldings. That’s a lodberry – an old Norse word, meaning a place where a single merchant lived and worked; it consisted of a bit of sandy quay to berth the ship at, a warehouse, just big enough to stock the goods from the one ship, and a house where the merchant and his family lived.
As a further sign of its Nordic connections, Lerwick has something that was seriously lacking in nearer-to-Scotland Orkney: decent coffee. There are two fun-sized (or “peerie” as the locals say) cafes by the harbour, and in one of them – Peerie Shop Cafe – we chose to wait the rest of the day until the arrival of the ferry.
The ferry journey was shorter than expected, but far more bumpy than we could have guessed from the wind back on Shetland. By the time we passed by the lonely mound of Fair Isle, the swell heaved the boat so much it made walking straight a real challenge. Somehow, the car made the nearly four-hour journey through this in one piece – or so we thought.
We trundled up to a campsite in Kirkwall deep into the night; it was closed, and the barrier was down. We were facing a night on the car park. Luckily, a young backpacker open the gate for us. His name was Alexander, and he was another half-Swede we met on Orkney, this time the other half was Russian. What do a half-Russian and two Poles talk about at midnight in Orkney? Politics, of course 🙂
The next day we made our way to yet another ferry – a smallish catamaran from St Margaret’s Hope back to Scotland. Despite a clear blue sky, the swell was still there, made even worse by the small size of our vessel. Apparently, two such journeys in a row proved too much for our little van, and as we rolled off the ferry, we heard the dreaded screeching from the rear wheel. It was time to get serious about fixing it.
Unfortunately, that plan had two major drawbacks: it was Friday, and we wouldn’t find a free garage until Monday; and we were a hundred and fifty miles from the nearest city with specialists who could handle that sort of thing – Inverness.
Like Lerwick, Kirkwall has its own leisure centre and campsite nearby. Due to late arrival and early departure, we were unable to assess the merits of Kirkwall’s centre, but it seems largely similar, with an addition of a cinemaplex in the same set of buildings. The facilities at the campsite were top of the range – I shudder to think of what we may encounter back at the mainland in terms of showers and sinks – and the price similar to that in Lerwick, £15 per night with hookup.