The Shetland Islands today owe much of their historical lore and character to Viking occupation, Dutch herring fisheries and, most notoriously, as a centre for gin smuggling on an almost industrial scale from the 1740’s onward.
Remote and anything but readily accessible, only some twenty five of the two hundred islands that comprise the Shetlands are inhabited to this day. Standing hard and fast against the surrounding, storm tossed North Atlantic, their shores were littered with the smashed hulls and cargoes of wrecked trading ships over the course of many centuries.
Today the taut, compact capital of Lerwick presents a proud, no nonsense stance to anyone arriving at the tender anchorage from offshore. Grey granite houses, known as ‘Lodberries’, sit right along the water’s edge, with slipways and waterfront garages standing right on the fringe of the sea itself.
The harbour itself is a beguiling brew of sturdy, brightly coloured trawlers, their masts and decks buzzed by squadrons of wheeling, screeching seabirds, and small, immaculate yachts that rise and fall with almost imperceptible grace on the Atlantic tidal swell. Ashore, row upon row of imposing, slate grey houses and shops loom above narrow, winding, flagstone paved lanes. Between these serried tiers of buildings, rows of brightly coloured pennants wave idly in the summertime breeze.
Above the waterfront, the petrified stone carcass of Fort Charlotte glares balefully out across the harbour, just as it has since the seventeenth century. The upper level of the grey stone battlements is softened by a rolling green carpet, studded with a huddle of ancient cannon, their forever open mouths gaping across the still, silent waters of Bressay Sound.
Strolling along the rugged, jagged sweep of coast, dry stone walls flank a backdrop of gently rolling hills and surging, steel grey Atlantic rollers that flail the series of pebble stone beaches that crouch warily along the coastline. Here and there, the remnants of more recent conflicts rise up from the sea like so many jagged, gaping wounds. A long since abandoned concrete torpedo pillbox here, a windswept, open observation point there.
The whole twisting, tremendous hinterland is studded with idly grazing sheep and cattle that pay the tourists little, if any attention. Those same tourists struggle gamely along the series of footpaths and nature trails that feed through the whole landscape like so many veins through a supine body. The sense of silence and peace here is almost overwhelming.
Back in Lerwick, houses and shops display the stepped roof faces so typical of medieval Denmark, in particular. In fact, the Danish royal yacht- Danneborg- was actually docked next to the fish quay; a trim, tidy white little Faberge egg of a ship, dressed in gold scrolling and with her gangway guarded by a sailor wielding a ceremonial drawn sword.
As a centre for fishing and seafood in general, it seems a bit obvious to say that the fish and chips in Lerwick were delicious, but they truly were. On an overcast but still warm day, Lerwick came across as a sturdy, intriguing little stalwart, suffused with the history of it’s Viking heritage, putting on something of a game face as it welcomed the modern day Vikings that surged ashore from the Marco Polo, these days armed with nothing mote lethal than shopping bags and credit cards.
Lerwick, and the Shetlands in general, has a kind of robust, no nonsense warmth and a palpable sense of pride; one that is well deserved. The islands, while proud of their past, are not backward looking. While conscious of their history and place in the world, they are not overwhelmed or solely defined by it.
Bumbling back out across the Atlantic on the tender, I watched with genuine sadness as the winding, grey tinted facade of Lerwick diminished to toy town size. Directly ahead, the lithe, graceful silhouette of the Marco Polo loomed large, as pristine as a perfectly primped swan.
All too soon, we found ourselves once more cocooned in the warmth and welcome of our rather splendid ship. Beneath our decks, the engines hummed a gentle reassurance. As I nursed a Cape Cod outside on the terrace behind Scott’s Bar, the sun peeped almost shyly out from behind a couple of airship coloured clouds. In our wake, Lerwick vanished from sight like a slowly falling souffle. Ahead, another adventure filled the belatedly brightening horizon with fresh new promise.