Left: The front (west-facing) elevation. Right: Three-quarter view showing the north gable with its rose window, and the town's war memorial at the side of the building. (These photographs were taken in 2016, during restoration work.)

Town Hall, Hillhead, Lerwick, Shetland. This Category A listed building designed by Alexander Ross (1834-1925) was built 1881-83, with some changes to the original design made in 1882 by the contractor, local engineer/architect John Morgan Aitken (1851/2-1923). Aitken built many schools, houses and lighthouses in the Shetlands (see "John Morgan Aitken"). As far as external appearance goes, his most important "amendment," as John Gifford puts it (490), was to replace Ross's fl├Ęche with a clock-tower. The town hall is built of "stugged, squared and snecked sandstone with ashlar margins" (listing text) with a grey slate roof, in the style of a Flemish town hall but with baronial features, especially the crow-stepped gables and battlemented tower with corner turrets. It occupies a prominent position in this, Shetland's only town, and its main port and capital. (The dignified granite war memorial was by another important Scottish architect, Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer (1864-1929), and installed in the early 1920s; Lorimer also designed the memorial chancel screen in Ross's Inverness Cathedral.)

Left: The south aspect of the town hall, partially hidden by offices on Hill Lane. Right: The main entrance.

Left: Close-up of one of the dolphins on the ornamental lamp-standards near the main entrance. Right: Commemorative plaque and Gothic Revival windows at first floor level (the outside of the hall).

The plaque tells us that the town hall's "clock and chime" were inaugurated on 20 June 1887 in honour of Queen Victoria's Jubilee. From the outside, it is hard to imagine the brilliance of the stained glass windows inside: these are the town hall's most important treasures.

In all, there are fifteen panels around the main hall, which occupies the whole of this first floor. They depict the whole early history of the islands through the major figures involved, from the Norwegian King Harald Harfagri who conquered Shetland in about 870, up to Princess Margaret of Norway and James III of Scotland in 1469: Princess Margaret, shown at the centre of the oriel window here, on the left, brought the islands back to Scotland as part of her dowry. The work of James Ballantine of Edinburgh, and the London firm of Cox & Son, Buckley and Co., the windows are considered to be "important as a set of unaltered secular stained glass which remain highly relevant to their locality. Exceptional in their extent, they are rare both in the quality of workmanship and also in the subject matter" ("Lerwick Town hall, Hillhead and Charlotte Street").

Close-up of the architectural sculpture below the window on the left.

There is some very fine external carving on the town hall as well, with heraldic emblems interspersed with a stylised arrangement of pine-cones and ferns. The lion rampant with axe, in the middle, recalls the historical association of the Shetlands with Norway, which is celebrated in the stained glass too. It is flanked by two coats of arms which both include ships. The Shetlands' arms, shown above right, has a prominent Viking ship, and the motto (in Old Norse) "By law shall the land be built up." The town hall is an important symbol of a place which is proud of its own very distinct history and identity, and Ross has responded well to the need for a compact building with a confident presence.

Photographs, captions and commentary by Jacqueline Banerjee, except for the photograph of the oriel's stained glass, which was taken by Colin Smith, and comes from the Geograph website, where it has kindly been made available on the Creative Commons licence. The perspective has been very slightly corrected. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL, or (in the case of the stained glass image) the Geograph website. Click on the images to enlarge them.]


"Alexander Ross." DSA (Dictionary of Scottish Architects). Web. 31 December 2017.

Gifford, John. Highland and Islands. The Buildings of Scotland. London: Penguin, 1992.

"John Morgan Aitken." DSA (Dictionary of Scottish Architects). Web. 31 December 2017.

"Lerwick Town hall, Hillhead and Charlotte Street, Including Lamp Standards, Gatepiers, Boundary Walls and Railings, Lerwick." Historic Environment, Scotland. Web. 31 December 2017.

"Lerwick Town Hall, Hillhead Street, Lerwick." British Listed Buildings. Web. 31 December 2017.

"Shetland Islands." Heraldry of the World. Web. 31 December 2017.

Created 31 December 2017