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Fort Charlotte

A five-sided artillery fort with bastions projecting from each corner

Fort Charlotte

A five-sided artillery fort with bastions projecting from each corner.

The walls are high and massive. It was built in 1665 to protect the Sound of Bressay from the Dutch, but taken by them and burned in 1673. It was rebuilt in 1781.

Defender of the Realm

Bressay Sound, off Lerwick, was a sheltered anchorage during the 1600s. It was increasingly valued not just by Dutch fishermen but also by Dutch warships, convoying their prized Dutch East Indiamen back to port.

When Britain went to war with Holland in 1652, a fort of sorts was erected at Lerwick, overlooking the sound. It was replaced by a bigger fort during the Second Dutch War in the 1660s, but this was never finished.

It was eventually completed a century later, when the Royal Navy found itself facing the combined forces of Holland, France, Spain and the embryonic American navy during the War of American Independence. It was named Fort Charlotte, after George III’s queen.

Bastions and Barracks

Fort Charlotte was first garrisoned in March 1781, just as the fighting in America was reaching its peak. Soldiers of the Earl of Sutherland’s Regiment formed the first garrison. The fort that they occupied has changed little today, with only a few minor additions and alterations.

The fort’s seaward defences comprised a battery for up to 12 guns. To landward, there were bastioned (projecting) defences for artillery and musketry. These enclosed the garrison buildings.

The main block held a central two-storey barracks, with accommodation for 208 men (equivalent to about three companies). Quarters for their officers were provided in the pavilions at either end.

A second block to its right (north) housed the officers’ kitchen and storerooms on the ground floor, with quarters for the commanding officer above. The men cooked in their barrack rooms. Elsewhere was an artillery and ammunition store, barracks for the gunners, guardrooms, a powder magazine and an underground reservoir.

Not a shot fired

Fort Charlotte never saw any action, and not a single shot was fired in anger from its batteries. When Britain went to war with Revolutionary France in 1793, some 100 men from the newly-formed Orkney and Shetland Fencibles were stationed there. They were disbanded in 1797 and another new formation, the Shetland Fencibles, replaced them. This too was disbanded after 1815.

The guns were finally removed in 1855. After this, the seaward battery was used by the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) for gun drill. The buildings have been variously used  as town jail and courthouse (1837–75), custom house, coastguard station, RNR depot and armoury, and drill hall for the Territorial Army.

Historic Scotland has carried out archaeological excavations on the seaward battery and reconstructed and rearmed it as it would have appeared over 200 years ago.

  • The location – in the heart of Lerwick, with sweeping views over Bressay Sound and the island of Bressay beyond.
  • The bastioned defences – still bristling with heavy guns, albeit modern replicas.
  • The powder magazine and reservoir – left just as they would have looked over 200 years ago.


Region – Shetland

In centre of Lerwick.

Grid reference - HU 475 415.


Keys available from staff on site Monday - Friday. Fort Charlotte is temporarily closed on Saturdays and Sundays.