The Archaeology of War & Weather: Shetland 1940-now

SUP Learning Officer Fiona talks about our time in Lerwick Shetland, working with two local heritage groups.

Submitted by Fiona on 21-08-2017 15:16:13

Megaliths, epic brochs, Vikings...

...and the opportunity to get an awesome new jumper, are the usual things which leap to mind when you mention the Shetland Isles to an archaeology lover.

But what if I threw concrete, wrinkly tin, polonium and weather balloons into the mix? Over the past year Scotland’s Urban Past has been working with two local heritage groups as they investigate, record and share Lerwick’s more recent past.

We were invited by Archaeology Shetland to help them explore the remains of World War Two defences. Together we’ve been very successful; this July alone we have recorded over 125 sites in and around Lerwick; these include fox holes, trenches, command posts, pill boxes, spigot mortar mountings, observation posts and machine gun positions. To help them identify and process all this fantastic new information SUP brought in the big guns and drafted in Historic Environment Scotland’s resident WW2 expert Allan Kilpatrick and mapping wizard Alistair Wilkie.

Why did so much of this stuff end up in Shetland? Well at the start of WW2 Shetland quickly became Britain’s Northern front in the fight against the Nazis. As a result the population of Shetland doubled in size as 20, 000 troops arrived on the islands. Along with upgrading the islands’ infrastructure with new roads and introducing electricity to rural areas hundreds of new defences were also constructed, to prevent the islands being taken. This flurry of construction, and subsequent lack of large scale development, means that Shetland has, arguably, the best preserved and most diverse collection of WW2 defensive archaeology in Britain.

 After the war the military still had a prescence in the form of the Met Office, locally known as the ‘Observatory.’ Sitting at the back of the town the staff stationed there studied and predicted the weather. Today the Met Office is no longer a part of the military but many local people who lived there still remember those days. Some of them have come together with other interested volunteers to record these memories with their Observatory Project. SUP have been providing training in oral history recording, archiving and supported the first ever recording session which saw retired Met Office staff interviewed. As well as learning about their day to day activities we were given some fantastic meteorological survey tips; for example, always make sure that you hold the right end of a polonium rod and never ever double skin a hydrogen balloon (friction has a habit of making them explode on you). Despite gathering this wealth of information about Lerwick’s observatory life there will be things which remain a mystery, as all the gents have signed the Official Secrets Act!  

The world's most scenic spigot mortar mounting?

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