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Life in time with the tides
Lerwick, the port where your MSC cruise ship awaits your return, is very much the focus of Shetland’s commercial life.
All year, its sheltered harbour is busy with ferries and fishing boats, as well as specialized craft including oil-rig supply, seismic survey and naval vessels from all round the North Sea. In summer, the quayside comes alive with visiting yachts, cruise liners, historic vessels such as the restored Swan and the occasional tall ship.
Behind the old harbour is the compact town centre, made up of one long main street, flagstone-clad Commercial Street, whose narrow, winding form, set back one block from the Esplanade, provides shelter from the elements even on the worst days. From here, narrow lanes, known as closses, rise westwards to the late Victorian new town. The northern end of Commercial Street is marked by the towering walls of Fort Charlotte, begun for Charles II in 1665, burnt down by the Dutch fleet in August 1673, and repaired and named in honour of George III’s queen in the 1780s.
Exhibits at the Shetland Museum, in a wonderful purpose-built waterfront building, include replicas of a hoard of Pictish silver found locally, the Monks Stone, thought to show the arrival of Christianity in Shetland, and a block of butter, tax payment for the King of Norway, found preserved in a peat bog.
MSC Northern Europe cruises also offer excursions to Scalloway, once the capital of Shetland, which however waned in importance throughout the eighteenth century as Lerwick grew. Nowadays, Scalloway is fairly sleepy, though its harbour is busy enough.
The town is dominated by the imposing shell of Scalloway Castle, a classic fortified tower house built with forced labour in 1600 by the infamous Earl Patrick Stewart, who held court in the castle and gained a reputation for cruelty and corruption.