Leith to Lerwick – days 1 and 2

2 – 3 May 2020. A virtual tour informed by friends and relations, online resources and other kind people who agreed to speak with me or shared their photos and experiences via social media. Please see the Research and Planning post for more details.

Custom Lane on the left, looking towards Leith Docks, Edinburgh

My virtual visit to Shetland began at Leith Docks in Edinburgh. The Aberdeen, Leith and Clyde Shipping Company extended a route from here to Lerwick 83 years ago, enabling Shetlanders to trade their lace and knitted products. Approved of by Queen Victoria herself, it was women who toiled to make these fine stockings and shawls, who were the mainstay of the economy.

 “Women were culturally, economically and demographically predominant in this period,…hundreds of unmarried women … were only able to support themselves through knitting.“

Isobel Cockburn, ‘Fingers as clever as can be yet’: Shetland Lace and Women’s Craft in Victorian Britain.

Nowadays, it is not possible to sail from Leith, so I took a train (approx. 2.5 hours) to Aberdeen which was also the first leg of my 2018 journey to Orkney to walk the St Magnus Way. It was an easy 10 minute walk from the railway station to Jamieson’s Quay, and I had almost an hour before the ferry left at 5pm.

I travelled with Northlink Ferries who have great customer service. Photo Isobel Cockburn
Seeing the sun starting to set, seen from the stern.Photo Isobel Cockburn

It was only 10 degrees when we left and the temperature was dropping steadily during the four hours before sunset, but it was well worth being up on the chilly deck for the spectacle.

Spectacular sunset. Photo Isobel Cockburn

The wind was a light northerly (5.5 miles an hour) and the journey on the Northlink Ferries‘ ship, the MV Hjaltland, took 12 hours, stopping half way at Hatston in Orkney, docking at 11pm and leaving again 45 minutes later. I had elected for a seat rather than one of the cabins (the cheapest) and wiggled in and out of my sleeping bag at 1.30am when it was totally dark (3 degrees – brrr) and again at 6 when it was already quite light an hour after sunrise. Sadly, I saw no cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) although many do during the early hours at the end of this journey.

Lerwick harbour. Photo from the Northlink Ferries site

Lerwick is almost equidistant from Aberdeen on the mainland of Scotland, Bergen in Norway, and Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands. Its name comes from the Norse ‘Leirvik’ meaning muddy or clay bay. It’s a major fishing centre where more fish are landed than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined, despite the, relatively, small population.

As I had had breakfast on the boat, I was ready to explore. Fifteen minutes walk north of Holmsgarth terminal is The Shetland Textile Museum (opens 12noon). Located at the Böd of Gremista, it is only £3 to enter. Fifteen minutes in the other direction is the Shetland Museum and Archives (10am – 4pm) where there are exhibitions, events and the Emma-Louise coffee shop. Remember that, in real life, both are open Tuesday to Saturday. As this was an imaginery trip, I was able to enter on a Sunday! (note: The Co-op food store, if you ned to stock up, is on the Holmsgarth Road 6 minutes from the terminal towards the latter.) If you arrive on a Sunday like I was meant to, you will have to either go somewhere else and come back a few days later, or spend a minimum of 3 days in the town. There is so much to see and do that I can see this would be a delight.

Advertising image from D&G Kay, 1900s. Photo Isobel Cockburn

Right now, during lockdown, there is a vast array of archives available at Shetland Museum and Archives at the click of a mouse.

Traditional croft display with baskets and fish, Shetland Museum and Archives. Photo Isobel Cockburn
The Shetland Museum and Archives is right beside the sea at Gutters Gaet. Photo Isobel Cockburn
Textile Museum, Lerwick. Photo Isobel Cockburn
Looms in the Textile Museum, Lerwick. Photo Isobel Cockburn
Admiring the fabric in the Textile Museum, Lerwick. Photo Isobel Cockburn
Available from The Shetland Times. Photo from their website

There’s a brewery, a town hall, a fort and the bookshop is part of The Shetland Times where you can buy Heirloom Knitting, A Shetland Lace Pattern and Work Book by Sharon Miller, as well as maps and gifts.

The broch at Clickimin Loch, west of Lerwick, Shetland. Photo Wikipedia

What would a hiker do? Why, take a walk along the Knab Road and then right into Hillhead which becomes Scalloway and then South Road, until I meet the roundabout. From there I would drop down onto the track which skirts the Loch of Clickimin almost all the way excepting for Westerloch drive. I would admire the wildfowl and explore the broch, a Pictish fort, which was occupied circa 700BC until about the 6th century. I would camp somewhere if it’s warm enough at night (you can wild camp in Scotland) where I could leave my rucksack so I could climb.

North Staney Hill

Then I’d climb up Staney Hill and get a good old panormaic view of Lerwick and sourrounding landscape.

A Shetland pony. Photo Isobel Cockburn

Shetland Wildlife offer tours from Lerwick around the Noss coast to see the birds and sea mammals.

All photos are copyright Tamsin Grainger unless otherwise stated.