Tumultuous debates about high schools and wind turbines could be taking place at Fort Charlotte in a few years’ time after the SIC confirmed it has commissioned a study looking at converting part of the buildings there into a new council chamber.
Among the ideas for regenerating the under-used 18th century fort is for the main hall, occupied by the Territorial Army at present, to be transformed into a debating chamber. The study will also look at other uses for the fort, including as a possible tourist attraction, in what is a joint venture between the council’s economic development unit and Shetland Amenity Trust.
The work is being carried out with the help of architecture firm Groves-Raines, which has offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow and has also undertaken work at Scatness for the amenity trust. In a message on internet blogging service Twitter last week, director of the firm Nicholas Groves-Raines wrote: “Just back from Shetland – great new jobs including a feasibility study for a new Shetland council debating chamber in an historic fort.”
Council convener Sandy Cluness told The Shetland Times he was keen to see Fort Charlotte being put to better use as it represents such an important part of the town’s heritage. It is hoped that the various options can be put before councillors for discussion in February 2010.
Mr Cluness said: “Essentially it’s a feasibility study through the amenity trust, with the TA and Historic Scotland, to see, first of all, whether we can make some kind of tourist attraction out of Fort Charlotte.”
He continued: “It is a building that is special and forms such a significant part of Lerwick’s history. Then there are all those peerie buildings around it, a cell for a jail, wash houses – it still leaves the main hall with nothing much happening. It occurred to me that it could be used as some kind of mini-conference centre or even a council chamber. You could make something quite special there that would actually use the building.
“We’d have to find somewhere else for the TA to go, but [the building] is just not suitable for modern army stuff anyhow. It lends itself to some kind of meeting area; hopefully it might be a chamber but maybe a number of other things as well. Historic Scotland are very interested, and it is an area that’s been, not neglected because they’ve maintained it well, but not just terribly well used.”
The fort was manned throughout the Napoleonic wars by a company of local militia and could accommodate a garrison of more than 250 men, but was never involved in any fighting. Since then, it has been used variously as a naval reserve, a jail, a customs house and a coastguard station.
A community-led group formed four years ago came up with a number of different ideas for what has long been considered by many to be a wasted resource in the hands of government agency Historic Scotland. Suggestions at that time included car parking, a picnic area, an outdoor stage and seating for performances and the placing of telescopes for public viewing across the Bressay Sound.
Head of economic development Neil Grant said a debating chamber was one of “a whole series of options” being considered, but he did not want to go into the detail of other possible uses at this stage. He said: “What we are looking at is the fact that it could potentially be a bigger part of the town centre. What we are looking at are possible options, to pull together a project and bring it to the council when it gets to that stage.”
If a new chamber emerges as a feasible option, it is likely to prove popular among many councillors. They currently meet in the cramped former Burgh courtroom in Lerwick Town Hall and have long been searching for a more suitable alternative. One community councillor suggested last year that St Ringan’s Church, where Shetland Library is now located, could be converted into a new chamber when the library eventually moves to bigger premises.
The existing chamber only has room for a handful of folk from the wider community and whenever a particular meeting or debate generates significant interest it has to be moved upstairs to the main hall to accommodate members of the public. That happened earlier this year with a meeting to resolve the location of the new Anderson High School and 18 months ago when councillors reaffirmed their support for cinema and music venue Mareel.
Lerwick South member Gussie Angus said moving to a more suitable location would make sense but any proposal would depend on how much it was going to cost: “The council did approach Historic Scotland to see if they would be willing to lease all or part of the building. I’ve been banging on about the inadequacy of the council chamber, and Slim Jim [Irvine] before me – he always said it was a ‘s***hole’.
“We need to get something that the public can relate to. I don’t know how much Historic Scotland would be willing to lease [but] the sooner we get out of there the better.”
A spokesman for Historic Scotland said: “We work with a number of partners with interests in Fort Charlotte. It is a fantastic property at the heart of Lerwick which is a real asset to Shetland. We are happy to discuss with our partners, including Shetland Islands Council, how we can make the most of Fort Charlotte for the long term benefit of the Shetland community and economy.”