Visit the Shetlands with An Island Parish: “There is a lot to take in if you stand and stare”

As the documentary series returns to BBC2, the minister of Unst talks wildlife, reestit mutton and the lively arts scene

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An Island Parish is back but this time we’re on Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Islands. Minister David Cooper looks after around 700 people who are outnumbered 10 to 1 by sheep. We asked him why he made it his home, what visitors should do and whether he’s a fan of Ann Cleeves’s Shetland crime novels…

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When did you first set foot in Shetland?

I am a returnee. My wife Veronica and I first moved here with our infant daughter 35 years ago. It was to an appointment following a first ministry in the Methodist Church on the Northumberland coast.

First impressions?

The vast sea, small fishing boats and small communities were familiar. So were the sheep, though so much smaller than the Cheviots we were used to seeing. The vast oil terminal at Sullom Voe was brand new and state-of-the-art engineering – just beginning to nestle into the sea and landscape. There is a lot to take in if you stand and stare: the sky, the sea, the distant horizon, wild moor, wildflower, wild creature, birds of the sea and of the shore as well as in field or on moor. All part of a fantastic landscape.

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Minister David Cooper outside St John’s Church on Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Islands

Why did you return?

We will retire here and have bought a house in Unst. Where a minister retires after an itinerant working life is always an issue. The last eight years have confirmed that this is the place for us to feel at home. Two of our children have Shetland birth certificates and all the family is glad to visit. We like the sea. I was born on the Durham coast and Veronica is from “Sussex by the Sea”.

Above all, people here are welcoming. The island of Unst in particular has a long history of welcoming strangers and making them friends. It stretches back to the seasonal influx of vast numbers of fisherfolk and more recently RAF personnel and their families. Many young men married local girls and either left the force or returned here later.

Where’s your favourite place?

From the manse, there is a wonderful view of horizons: eastwards to the North Sea and northwards to the Atlantic. And there’s a delightful beach and a ruined church reminding visitors of ancient Christian roots on the west of Unst in Lund.


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What’s your favourite time of year?

Notoriously, you can experience all four seasons in a single morning. A favourite time of year would be when the grass begins to green and there is the promise of so much – lambs on the moorland followed by a host of wild flowers along the roadside and in the fields.

How would you recommend first-timers spend their visit?

First-time visitors need time and patience. This is not a place for whistle-stop tours. You need to walk, to stop, to savour the landscape, the architecture which it hugs, to spot wildlife. Or if the weather is against you, there are museums and local heritage centres that can inform you of the history and traditions of the different districts and islands – from fishing to knitting, story-telling to traditional music.

What wildlife should they look out for?

If there is a sudden influx of small planes or hire-cars full of men in camouflage, there is probably a rare bird to be seen. Most likely a migrant off course. Sit still, even in the car, and there are places where an otter may cross your path as you wait for a ferry. On a ferry-crossing the crew may point out whales. Driving you have to watch out for sheep, ponies, rabbits and hedgehogs on the road.

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Islanders collect pebbles for a stone-skimming competition in episode one

Is it true there’s a thriving arts scene?

The arts scene across the islands is huge. Music predominates. Fiddle and accordion are the tradition, but country and western and folk are also strong.

There are many local bands, ever popular at weddings and charity events. Visiting professionals play at festivals and one-off events in a major arts centre (which also has a multiplex cinema) and scattered around in community halls and leisure centres. Classical music is a minority interest. But we do enjoy the occasional visiting ensemble and small scale opera production. Locally, there is a community orchestra and choral society as well as other singing groups and a brass band.

There are galleries for the visual arts with local and visiting exhibitions. As well as drawing and painting, there is work in glass, ceramics, weaving, knitting, jewellery, woodwork. Many local craftspeople sell to visitors. Local fairs do well at Christmas time. 

What else do Shetlanders get up to?

Less well publicised is the flourishing literary scene. Many books are written and published locally. Much of the material is reminiscence or history – from days of whaling to wartime experiences, or more factual history such as the arrival of piped water and electricity or the story of a boat. There is poetry too, much of it in Shetland dialect which is promoted in schools.


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Are there any culinary delicacies worth trying?

Shetland lamb is well known for its leanness. Less well known beyond the isles is reestit mutton, sometimes in soup. It harks back to pre-refrigeration days when mutton was soaked in brine, dried over a peat fire and served cold with tattie soup or bannocks.

Fish is the biggest contributor to the local economy, not least aquaculture, farmed salmon and mussels which are distributed worldwide. Of course, this is best enjoyed locally, very fresh. And the white fish remains good, too.

Do you have to be a particular kind of person to live there?

You need a certain physical resilience and an independence of spirit to thrive in Shetland. People who come here to escape often have to return whence they came, having brought unresolved troubles with them. And despite needing some independence, you need to be able to get on with other people. There is no hiding and in the end we depend on one another.

Have you read Ann Cleeves’s Shetland books, or watched the adaptation?

I don’t read crime novels. My work is too full of small-scale sin!  But Veronica enjoys reading the books, while I enjoy viewing the scenery on television. The rest is fiction. There is barely a murder once in a generation.

An Island Parish: Shetland begins on Monday 21st March, BBC2 at 8.30pm


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