Ann Cleeves on Shetland: “From the moment I stepped ashore I was enchanted”

The remote archipelago has long been a place of sanctuary and inspiration for the author of the bestselling crime novels featuring detective Jimmy Perez


It’s exactly forty years since I first went to Shetland. I’d dropped out of university and found myself, lost and a little miserable, in London. I was working as a childcare officer for Camden Social Services, a job that I enjoyed, but which involved very long hours. I’d grown up in the country, and in London I had few friends and little support. Then, after a chance meeting in a pub, I was offered a job as assistant cook in the bird observatory in Fair Isle. I wasn’t even quite sure where Fair Isle was, but I was young, it sounded like an adventure and, more importantly, it represented escape from the city. I arrived on the most remote inhabited island in Shetland, and the UK, in the wake of gale-force winds, very seasick and feeling like an impostor – after all, I knew nothing about birds and I couldn’t cook!


But it was spring, the cliffs were raucous with seabirds and pink with thrift, and from the moment I stepped ashore I was enchanted. I loved the island and its people, the routine of crofting and bird migration, the stories of shipwrecks and storms. I met my husband there – he came as a visiting birdwatcher and 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 and we’re still together. Since then 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. I’ve set six novels there, and I’m already planning two more, and the BBC’s TV adaptation of my work is airing across the world. Another series is in production.


The new bird observatory was completed in 2010 (image © David Gifford)

My first visit to Shetland was a time of dramatic change in the islands. Oil was being extracted from the North Sea for the first time, and the big terminal at Sullom Voe in North Mainland was under construction. On my rare visits to Shetland Mainland, Lerwick – the islands’ biggest settlement – had the feel of a gold-rush town. There was an influx of people who saw the chance of making money; I bumped into suited executives, contractors and oilmen on their way to the rigs.

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Shetland has a history of people arriving from outside, though, and I think it managed the time of transition well. It still welcomes visitors with grace and hospitality, whether they’re tourists desperate to experience the fire festival of Up Helly Aa or a BBC film crew. I enjoy writing about the islands just because they are dynamic, changing and energetic. Don’t come to Shetland imagining a Viking theme park, a place fixed in the past. History is important here, but the community looks to the future, to developing sustainable energy and becoming as self-sufficient in food as it can manage. Artists and craftspeople use the traditions of spinning and knitting to create new textile designs. Young musicians play old tunes and write their own music. The islands are bleak and beautiful and very alive.


Muckle Flugga Lighthouse (image ©

Shetland is an archipelago of more than a hundred islands that lie at the most northerly point of the United Kingdom. It’s over ninety miles long from Out Stack in the north to Fair Isle in the south. The islands are long and thin and perhaps the shape – a little like the hilt of a sword – provides an explanation of its name in Norse, ‘Hjaltland’. Most of the islands are uninhabited, and approximately one-third of the population of about 22,000 lives in Lerwick. Shetland extends from 59º 51’ north to 61º north, the same line of latitude as Anchorage in Alaska and the southern tip of Greenland. Lerwick is in fact closer to the Arctic Circle than to London. Yet while the winters are often wet and windy, Atlantic currents carrying warm water that originated in the Caribbean mean that they are relatively mild. It was the contrast between the dark days of winter and the light nights of summer that prompted me to use the changing seasons as a background to my first four books.

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The magic of Shetland’s landscape lies in its coastline – it has more than 1,500 miles of shoreline, and wherever one stands the view is of the water. It’s impossible to be more than three miles from the sea. At Mavis Grind in Northmavine the island is so narrow that it would be possible to throw a rock from the North Sea to the Atlantic – if you have a strong arm. There are dramatic sea cliffs at Eshaness in Northmavine, at Hermaness in Unst, in Noss and, most spectacularly, in the island of Foula, where a small population, and a primary school and teacher, still survives.


The island of Foula (image © David Gifford)

There are voes, flooded valleys that were scooped out by glaciers and now cut into the land. These provide space for mussel and salmon farms – the mussel ropes look like strings of jet beads, with each bead as a buoy marking the rope below; and the salmon are farmed in cages. And there are lochs, big ones like Spiggie, separated from the sea only by a line of dunes, and small nameless pools in the hills. It has been estimated that there are 1,600 lochs and pools in the islands. Light is splintered by the water and the weather is reflected in it, so the outlook changes according to the sunlight and cloud and the time of day.

This is an extract from Shetland by Ann Cleeves. In the main picture, Ann is at the Lodeberrie in Lerwick, the location of Jimmy Perez’s house in the book and television show (image © Dave Donaldson). The third series of Shetland murder mysteries begins on Friday 22nd January on BBC1 at 9pm.

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