Shetland at War: Recording Fortress Lerwick

In 2018, Scotland's Urban Past returned to Shetland to work alongside Archaeology Shetland in recording the extensive World War defences which surround the harbour town of Lerwick.

Submitted by Tom on 18-12-2018 12:36:38

Shetland – shaped by the sea, characteristically more Norse than Scottish, and perhaps most famous for annually holding the world’s biggest fire festival, Up Helly Aa – remains a mystery to many, even to the majority of Scots. I assume this is because it’s so far north and is therefore bypassed by the majority of tourists in favour of its more accessible southern cousin, the Orkney Islands. But although it’s bemusing to come to Shetland and visit Britain’s most northerly pub, castle, post office or Tesco’s, from an archaeological perspective the Shetlands are, quite frankly, a treasure trove of goodies.

Take for example the tiny Shetland island of Mousa, upon which stands a type of vernacular architectural form known as a broch; essentially a drystone, hollow-walled roundhouse tower dating to the Middle Scottish Iron Age – think of them as contemporary with the Roman occupation of Southern Britain. These brochs are generally found along the Northern and Western coastlines and islands of Scotland, with the best preserved one standing on this tiny island of Mousa. Even by today’s standards it’s impressive; still standing to its original height after nigh on 2,000 years of North Sea wind. In my mind, it’s one of the most impressive archaeological sites in Britain.

This should be enough to make the visit. But then there’s internationally significant multi-period sites like Old Scatness and Jarlshof – occupied for over 4,000 years and including Bronze Age houses, an Iron Age Broch, Wheelhouses, Norse long houses, a Medieval farmstead and even a laird’s house dating to the 16th century. On Shetland, the Prehistoric, the Medieval and the Modern all sit comfortably side-by-side. So it’s no wonder that when visitors do arrive, they flock to these places. But what few may realise is that around Lerwick lies a hidden gem.

When I’d previously visited Lerwick a few years ago to see the wonderful broch lying in the middle of Clickimin Loch, I’d never have guessed that surrounding the town’s hinterland and harbour are in fact some of the most extensive and well-preserved 20th century defences in Britain, containing the near complete remains of Lerwick’s World War installations. Though many of these defences date to the First World War, the invasion of Norway by the Germans in April 1940 meant Shetland suddenly became Britain’s northern front. As a potential point of entry for a German attack, special attention was therefore given to making Shetland a fortress island, necessitating the reinforcement of the older defences.

In the 21st century, however, development is encroaching upon these remains, and during the last two years, Scotland’s Urban Past has been assisting and training folk at Archaeology Shetland, a volunteer group based in Lerwick, to explore and record this rich archaeological landscape before it disappears.

Travelling to Shetland from Aberdeen, Fiona Watson, Danny Dutton and I were joined by Allan Kilpatrick, one of Historic Environment Scotland’s WW2 experts. And when we arrived, we went straight to work, conducting a walk over survey of the town’s western hinterland. It was full of defensive features here: machine gun posts, foxholes, spigot mortar mountings and dragon’s teeth (i.e. square-pyramidal fortifications of reinforced concrete used to impede the movement of tanks).

But some of Lerwick’s most notable defences lie near the town’s cemetery on the south facing ness known as ‘The Knab’. Here, you’ll get a fantastic view out towards the island of Bressay (which has its own great collection of defences) and also, from here, you’ll realise what an impeccably strategic position this is. So it perhaps comes as no surprise that two anti-aircraft gun platforms were built here, one of which the volunteers at Archaeology Shetland enjoyed plane-table surveying; stopping half way through the day to have a picnic and spot the various ships coming in and out of Lerwick harbour. But there are other military treasures here too.

Venturing below The Knab, down a seaweed strewn and ergo extremely slippery path (yes, having seen my colleague slip, I crawled down on my hands and knees), you’ll spot a torpedo tube platform extending out of the shoreline. Originally this would have had three torpedo tubes fixed to it and would have been able to provide a spread of fire across Bressay Sound. If a seaborne invasion had occurred, this would have been very effective against fast-moving targets such as German ‘Schnellboots’ (fastboats).

On our final day – an incredibly windy day at that! – we worked with volunteers on Staney Hill, the hinterland to the west of Lerwick and where the majority of the remaining defences are to be found. Here, we plane-table surveyed a rare survivor of the Lerwick defensive network: a pillbox. But this one was unusual because it was built out of wet bag cement, something I’ve only seen lining the banks of canals in England. It’s essentially a quick and cheap way of building something. You basically fill hessian sacks with wet concrete and lay them down on top of one another to build your structure. The concrete hardens, the hessian decays away, and you are left with a pretty sturdy construction, albeit with the textile imprint. It’s a unique example and gives you the correct impression that these defences were urgently needed at the time.

In the end however, the invasion of Shetland never occurred and what was left behind is perhaps one of the most compelling WWII landscapes still existing in the UK. Overall, working with Archaeology Shetland on this unique area of trenches, bunkers and pillboxes was a fantastic experience for us, and they are continuing to enhance the National Record so as to bring Shetland’s fantastic 20th century archaeology to the forefront of public consciousness.


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