I love Shetland so much it’s criminal! Detective writer Ann Cleeves reveals how a chance encounter led to marriage, eight novels and a lifelong passion for the Scottish islands
In 1975 I dropped out of university and found myself, lost and a little miserable, in London where I worked as a childcare officer for Camden Social Services.
After a chance meeting in a pub, I was offered a job as an assistant cook at the bird observatory on Fair Isle. I must admit I wasn’t entirely sure where Fair Isle was, but I was young and it represented an escape from the city.
I arrived on the most remote inhabited island in Shetland – indeed the UK – feeling like an impostor. After all, I knew nothing about birds and I couldn’t cook!
Sanctuary: Beautiful Busta House hotel (above) on the islands that have inspired Ann
Inspiration: Lerwick harbour (above) in the Shetland Islands, Scotland
But I soon fell in love with Fair Isle and its people, the routine of crofting and bird migration, the stories of shipwrecks and storms.
It was here that I met my husband Tim – he came as a visiting birdwatcher, then returned the following year to camp and to work on a friend’s croft in return for food and home-brew. We left as a couple.
Shetland has been my place of sanctuary and inspiration. It’s where I go to spend time with friends, to blow away the anxieties of everyday life and to write, including my series of detective novels which have been turned into the BBC series Shetland.
Dazzling: Up Helly Aa fire festival takes place in Lerwick on the last Tuesday in January
They’re based around Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, who comes from Fair Isle, and is played by Douglas Henshaw in the show.
People ask why a detective named Perez is a native of Fair Isle. He’s fictitious, of course. But truth really can be stranger than fiction.
ANN CLEEVES’ SHETLAND FAVOURITES
Love affair: Ann pictured above
For atmosphere and the look of the place, Busta House, near Brae, is gorgeous. It’s an old laird’s house (it is said to be haunted) and has beautiful gardens leading to the sea. It’s a lovely place and I stay there sometimes. The Scalloway Hotel on the west coast is where the cast of the drama usually stay.
The Scalloway Hotel has the best reputation. The Hay’s Dock cafe in the Shetland Museum at Lerwick is lovely and uses local produce. The Fjara cafe bar is a very popular new place attracting good reviews. Shetland doesn’t really have pubs, but it does have bars. The Arts Centre at Mareel is great. The Pier Head restaurant and bar, overlooking the harbour in the village of Voe, is lovely too.
Loads. I was recently at the Westings Inn near Wormadale which has wonderful views over Whiteness. It’s on the west side and you can see the voe, islands, water and more islands. It’s glorious.
An Atlantic puffin in Shetland (above)
The iconic Shetland bird is the raven. You see them everywhere, including on the galley used in the Up Helly Aa procession. Puffins are tremendous because they’re so comical and they chatter away – it’s like listening to old women gossiping.
Summer, because it is light nearly all night and you can do some fantastic things, such as getting the ferry from Sandwick to the Isle of Mousa, which is uninhabited. It has an almost perfect Iron Age broch (stone tower) at one end. Leave Sandwick at about 11pm, and because it’s midsummer, it’s still ight on Mousa. Make your way to the broch and sit and listen to the tiny, bat-like storm petrels that come in to breed in the stone walls. When you get back into Sandwick at about 2am, it’s just starting to get light again. It’s magical.
I like the ferry – it’s easy to get the train to Aberdeen and then it’s a short walk to get on the ferry. There is something wonderful about going to sleep in one place and waking up somewhere else.
It was here that El Gran Grifon, a vessel in the Spanish Armada, was shipwrecked.
Apparently there were 60 survivors, so it’s not outside the realms of possibility that one of those island survivors was named Perez.
You don’t have to be on Shetland for very long to discover that it is a world on its own. It’s completely different from, say, Orkney – it’s a lot further north for a start. I think Shetland is very Scandinavian in its flavour – after all, it belonged to Norway until the 15th Century.
By contrast, Scotland’s Western Isles are more relaxed – I know Uist quite well. They’re chilled and maybe more Irish in flavour.
The people of Shetland are workers, they’re grafters; they’re very proud of what they’ve made of the islands.
People sometimes say that since my books are about murders on Shetland, the stories of violent death must deter tourists. But Shetland is largely crime-free – murders are thankfully a rarity.
Happily, however, readers are prepared to suspend their disbelief and accept that bad things can happen in beautiful places.
And beautiful Shetland is the star of the TV shows as the production team insisted they would film on the islands, even though it would have been much cheaper to have filmed on the West Coast of Scotland instead.
One of the things I love about Shetland is that while tourism plays an increasingly valuable part in the local economy, it remains very much a working community. Shetland lands more fish than England, Wales and Northern Ireland put together, so it’s a busy place.
While visitors are warmly welcomed, Shetland hasn’t become a folkloric theme park. You find real people, for example, making real knitwear from local wool.
This is what I love. Actually, if you’re heavily into textiles and knitting, there’s Wool Week later this month – it’s a really big deal. And on the last Tuesday in January is Up Helly Aa, an incredible fire festival which takes place in Lerwick, Shetland’s main port.
When North Sea oil was first discovered in the mid-1970s, the islanders were canny and said: ‘Yes, you may bring your oil to our lovely islands, but we’ll take a percentage of every barrel that comes ashore.’ The levy was paid into charitable trusts which support various projects.
There are excellent roads here and local art is amazingly well supported. Each little community has its own swimming pool and leisure centre, and all that came from the oil revenue.
That’s not happening so much now, because interest rates are so low and they’re not making so much from their investments – and in fact there’s not much oil or gas coming ashore.
People ask me if I plan to come and live in Shetland one day. My reply is not now. I think if I were younger and had young children, it would be a great place. But Tim, who died last year, wasn’t up for it. He couldn’t stand the thought of the dark winter days.
This week sees the publication of Wild Fire, the eighth and final book in my Shetland series. It’s being described as ‘the final chapter for Jimmy Perez’ – all very dramatic!
It’s actually a bittersweet moment for me but it’s been good to tie up loose ends and to celebrate my relationship with these extraordinary islands.
I’m proud that Jimmy Perez has helped to drive a mini-tourist boom – one local company is preparing to offer a guided tour, taking visitors to the locations featured in the book.
I hope that I may have encouraged a few people to come to the Shetland Islands and discover what I’ve found – one of the most magical places in the world.
Gripping yarn: A traditional spinning wheel on Foula island
Loganair (loganair.co.uk) offers flights to Shetland from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen. Visit Scotland and Promote Shetland have lots of resources and advice to help you plan your trip to Shetland. See visitscotland.com and shetland.org.