7 mins

Unearthing the secrets of Shetland

Best-selling crime novelist Ann Cleeves on how to uncover the Shetland island's hidden treasures

Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves is one of the UK's most successful crime novelists. She has won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award for crime fiction, the richest in the world. And her books have been made into successful TV series.

Many of her novels are set in the Shetland islands, including her latest, Dead Water. Ann talks to Peter Moore about what makes the Shetland islands such a great place to set a crime novel – and to visit!

Why did you choose the Shetlands islands to set your murder mysteries?

It wasn’t planned at all. I was in Shetland with my husband between Christmas and New Year to see a rare bird. It had snowed and then frozen on top of the snow and the ravens looked very black against the white landscape. I’m a crime-writer, so I thought if there was blood as well it would make a stunning visual image. The story started from there. 

Of course, for a writer of traditional mysteries Shetland is a brilliant back drop. It has the small enclosed community where everyone knows each other’s secrets, which features in the best Golden Age mysteries.

Is the character of Jimmy Perez based on anyone you met/know?

No, he’s quite fictional. Though I have friends in Shetland who think that he’s based on them.

Do you go back to the Shetlands islands to research each book? Or do you call upon your past experiences there?

I’m in Shetland very often these days, partly because I love it and I like catching up with friends and partly because it does help with the writing to spend time there. I don’t write in dialect, but there’s a certain rhythm to the speech that I try to capture in the dialogue. It’s useful to hear the preoccupations and concerns of locals too. Dead Water is about the development of renewable energy and that’s a very live issue in the islands at the moment.

Your first quartet of books had colours in their titles. They seem to be seasonal as well. Are the Shetland islands very different in each season?

Shetland’s a very long way north so the seasons are quite different. In mid-winter it feels as if it scarcely gets light some days – that’s why the fire festival of Up Helly Aa has such a dramatic impact in Lerwick, the main town on Shetland mainland. In mid-summer it’s light almost all night. Islanders call it the ‘simmer dim’ or summer dusk. It’s a time of parties and spending time outdoors. Autumn is often stormy, with spectacular seas.  That was why I chose to pace the quartet in that way.  It was almost like writing about four different places.

Your new book, Dead Waters, is the first of a new quartet of stories set in the Shetland islands. What are the themes to this set?

The titles of the second quartet are all based around the elements – Shetland is a very elemental place. 

I’m not quite sure what the themes of the books will be yet.  As I said, I don’t plan very far ahead. But I’m just starting work on a novel which will probably be called Thin Air.

In Dead Water, the oil boom and the growth of renewable energy are important themes. What has been the impact of both of these on the Shetland islands?

I first came to Shetland in the mid-70s, just as the first oil was coming ashore. It was a strange time and the place almost had the feel of a gold rush town. People from all over the world were turning up in the islands to find work and earn good money. But Shetlanders have always been hospitable and the incomers were assimilated and the old traditions were maintained. Oil revenue was kept in a trust for the islanders and that has funded fine arts and educational facilities. Now visitors are hardly aware of the terminal at Sullom Voe, but they will appreciate the wonderful museum and the community swimming pools. The debate about renewable energies continues and I’ll be interested to see how that develops.

The BBC has filmed a new two-part series called Shetland, based on your books. How were you involved? Are you pleased with the outcome?

I have no official involvement with the drama, though I know and trust the team who made it because the same people (ITV Studios) made Vera, which is also based on my novels. I took the scriptwriter and editor to Shetland to introduce them to some useful people and show them possible locations. Shetlanders were brilliant about helping – it’s not easy to get all the people and kit for a ten day shoot that far away from base.

The Shetland tourism board have also put together a guide to the various places on the Shetland islands featured in your book – a kind of Jimmy Perez trail. How did that come about? 

Readers have always been interested in where the books were set. I had a very basic map on my website for a while, but Promote Shetland put together something more detailed and attractive. Really it’s a way of encouraging people to explore away from Lerwick and to visit some of the smaller islands.

You obviously have a deep love for the Shetland islands. What do you love most about them?

I love the bleak and wild landscape, the sense that this as far north as you can go and still be in the UK. And I love Shetlanders for their energy and optimism, the fact that although they value their traditional heritage, they’re prepared to take the old skills and move forward. People spin and knit but they develop new textile designs as well as celebrating the old. And young musicians play old tunes, as well as composing their own material. It’s a place where culture matters to everyone.

What were the highlights of your first stay there, as a cook on Fair Isle?

Well, I met my husband there…  and made some of my best friends.

Why do you think people should visit the Shetland islands and where should they go?

It’s worth going to Shetland just for the drama of weather. There can be spells of bright sunshine, and then the long empty beaches are stunningly beautiful. It’s just as lovely in storm-force gales, when the spray hits the dramatic cliffs. This is a landscape of extremes. 

You should visit the museum in Lerwick – it gives a great introduction to the islands and the food in the restaurant is good too. Almost next door is Mareel, the new arts centre. If you’re lucky you’ll come across a group of young musicians playing in the bar. 

Take the inter-island ferries to explore Yell, Unst and Fetlar. Allow plenty of time to talk to people. 

Check out the Promote Shetland website for festivals because there’s something for everyone. For example, Mark Kermode comes north to programme the film festival every year.  

Charter a boat to see the islands from the water or catch fish for supper. My friend Jim will take you out – www.shetlandmarinecharters.com – from Brae, and you’ll get coffee and freshly baked bannocks too. 

If you have time it’s definitely worth taking the little inter-island plane or the mail boat, the Good Shepherd, to Fair Isle. Stay in the newly refurbished bird observatory. You don’t have to be a birder to stay there but if you go at the right time of year you can get close to puffins and watch the staff ring migrants.

Is there a little-known place in the Shetland islands you feel visitors must visit?

In mid-summer take the ferry to the island of Mousa. It has a well-preserved iron-age broch (fortified tower) and is worth visiting at any time. But at mid-summer there are special trips to see the shy and secretive storm petrels. The ferry leaves Sandwick late at night and you arrive just as the light is fading. Then the storm petrels fly into the island. You can see them coming into the nest sites in the boulder beach and the broch. It’s truly magical. You arrive back on Shetland mainland in the early hours of the morning and it’s already getting light again.

If you prefer more sedentary pleasures, then check out one of the Sunday Teas. These are held in community halls throughout Shetland on Sunday afternoons. The aim is to raise funds for local organisations, but they are a very good way for visitors to meet islanders, drink tea and eat fantastic home bakes. Sometimes there are plant or craft stalls and sometimes there’s some live music. The cakes though are always outstanding. You can see details of the teas in the Shetland Times.

Dead WaterAnn's latest novel set in the Shetland islands, Dead Water, is out now and available on Amazon. For more about the new TV series, Shetland, visit the BBC website. For more information about Ann and her books visit her official website. And, if Ann has inspired you to visit the Shetland islands, drop by the Promote Shetland's website.

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