A cunning plan: on the trail of Shetland's first thriller

by Tom Morton -

Malachy Tallack, Anne Cleeves Jenni Colgan, Robert Alan Jamieson: Many decades before any of them were born, a wildly successful, now-forgotten thriller put Shetland on the literary map. And you can trace its locations today. Tom Morton takes The Shetland Plan tour

“But...but...you can’t get there from there!” There has been a degree of spluttering from some Shetlanders at some of the geographical liberties taken by the makers of Shetland-the-TV-series, where characters are forever walking from Eshaness to Sumburgh in seconds, wandering that lonely forest next to the Gilbert Bain Hospital, or squelching through the wild moorland just behind Commercial Street.

It all looks moodily beautiful, of course, and if you haven’t been to Shetland, the fact that in reality it’s a 35 minute drive from Lerwick to Hillswick, not a 10-second bike ride, matters not a whit. It’s the telly, after all.

In print, too, liberties with landscape are often taken by writers who want to employ a particular setting but avoid going into too much detail. Sometimes there are good reasons for that. After all, you don’t want to libel the inhabitant of a particular, identifiable house as a murdering psychopath or a hopeless drunk, do you? Malachy Tallack’s new novel The Valley at the Centre of the World, serialised this week on BBC Radio 4 as a ‘Book at Bedtime’ cleverly takes much of his Fair Isle-gained crofting experience and applies it to a fictional ‘west Shetland mainland’ valley which at least geographically, somewhat resembles a quieter Culswick. Then there is Jenni Colgan’s wildly successful and hugely entertaining Endless Beach books, set on the fictitious island of Mure, which Jenni herself admits owes a great deal to Shetland.

You can't get there from here!

There is delight for readers in being able to inhabit the genuine version of a fictional world. Anne Cleeves has recognised this with her non-fiction Anne Cleeves’ Shetland book and the “book locations” map on her website, and for that matter the shetland.org site which enables prospective fans to stalk the Detective Inspector from Lerwick to Lunna. Fascinating hours can be spent following in Jimmy Perez’s footsteps. It’s fun, and you don’t have to murder anyone.

There are other Shetland-set books offering the possibility of literary tourism, from John Graham’s historical novel about the 19th Century Weisdale clearances, The Shadowed Valley, Robert Alan Jamieson’s classic of the oil era Thin Wealth, Marsali Taylor’s Shetland Sailing Mysteries series, or the riotous brilliance of Frank Renwick’s Unst and Yell epic Noost (not to mention its sequels Grabola and Goofla). But one favourite is long out of print, although it was an enormous success when it was first published 77 years ago.

Henry Taprell Dorling, who was a prolific writer of fiction under the pen name Taffrail, was born in 1883 and had a career as an officer in the Royal Navy which spanned both First and Second World Wars. His first book, Pincher Martin, is probably his best known, but he published dozens of enormously successful novels during a long life which ended in 1968. And in 1939 he published The Shetland Plan.

Angus Johnson in the Shetland Archives found Dorling’s obituary in The Times, which only hints at what was a very colourful Naval career, from The Relief of Peking (Beijing) in 1900 through North Sea destroyer and minelayer action in World War One to staff work for the Commander in Chief (Mediterranean) during World War Two. There is no biographical detail about his time in Shetland, but it’s clear from The Shetland Plan that he spent enough time in the isles, probably during world War One, to amass a great deal of detailed local knowledge.

There is delight in being able to inhabit the genuine version of a fictional world

During World War One, Swarbacks Minn, the deep, sheltered channel bounded by the islands of Muckle Roe, Papa Little and Vementry was the base for the Royal Navy’s 10th Cruiser Squadron - something celebrated in 2015 by the Voe Bakery, which was founded in 1915 specifically to supply the fleet with bread, pies and cakes. You can still see the 10-inch guns which were mounted on Vementry to defend the ships. The Shetland Plan is largely set, both at sea and land, in an area stretching from Papa Stour to Bridge of Walls and on to Voe, with trips to Brae, Lerwick, Scalloway and the mysterious and very isolated house called Jackville at Binna Ness (sold in 2015 and currently being renovated).

Although published after World War Two had started, The Shetland Plan was written in 1937 and 1938, and its plot must have seemed terrifyingly plausible to readers 77 years ago. An author’s note from September 1939 stresses that “this novel was its proof stage before the outbreak of the present war. Needless to say, the events described exist only in my imagination.” But a German plan to land spies, arms and explosive in Shetland by submarine in the run-up to what Taffrail certainly saw as an inevitable war must have at least been considered in Berlin and anticipated in London. Hence the massive build up of troops and defences in the isles almost as soon as war was declared.

The book itself has a very Arthur Ransome feel initially - and is full of a jaunty, upper middle class, jolly-hockey-sticks sense of well-heeled Englishness. The Rivers family (retired Naval officer Andy, teenage son John, 20-something daughter Margaret, a wife referred to only as Mrs (!) Rivers and a dog, Sandy, who is always vomiting) come to Shetland in August for a fishing holiday.

Every stage of their trip north is beautifully described - half the family travel by air from Aberdeen, half take their car aboard the Scalloway Princess. But it’s when they arrive in Shetland that Dorling, with some clear help from the Ordnance Survey, gets down to detail and conjures up what travel in the isles was like nearly eight decades ago.

The road twisted and turned through many right angles, sometimes almost doubling on its tracks. They passed over a little bridge, with the Loch of Strom to the right, and Stromness Voe to the left - through the cluster of houses called Olligarth, and along the east side of the inlet called Wesidale Voe. A sharp turn at the head of it found them climbing a long slope, with the road cut out of the hillside and the voe, with its green foreshore and a little village with a few scattered dwellings, far below. Then, right between the Hill of Sound and Leaskie Knowe, over the Burn of Tactigill and so downhill through the villages of Tresta and Bixter, with views of Tresta Voe, the Firth, the Ness of Bixter and Effirth Voes on the left...

A dog called Sandy, who is always vomiting

This description is early in the novel and prepares you for a glorious set of drives, walks and sea voyages on and around the isles. The family meet a mysterious German refugee called Mr Boomer, the landowner Sir Richard Carmel, his wife, Lady Carmel (who also has a repulsive dog) and their daughter Alice. The Carmels have a 50-foot motor launch called Olna which is crucial to the action. This involves the sighting of a submarine, the discovery of an arms cache at the abandoned whaling station also called Olna (between Voe and Brae), and the pursuit of a gang of German spies who murder one of the main characters. An aircraft carrier, several destroyers and a survey ship are involved. While the book begins in quite a jokey, Swallows and Amazons sort of way, it ends with….well. Let’s just say it gets serious. There is, as you might expect, frequent rampant sexism and gender stereotyping, not to mention some rough attempts at Shetland dialect and misspelled place names. But it has tremendous pace and, as I say, a delight in and sense of place.

I spent a day or two tracing the locations mentioned or hinted at in the book and travelling to them by car. I would love, in summer, to follow the Olna’s marine voyages, especially the high speed trip to Scalloway and back to Bridge of Walls and then Gonfirth and Voe. I was especially interested in the family’s base while in Shetland, “The Bridge of Walls Hotel”. Thanks to Mariane Tarrant and Rose Young, longstanding residents of the West Side, I discovered that the long straggle of (now restored and converted into a single, private residence) old houses just opposite the bus stop at Brig o’Waas had indeed been a former shop and fishing hotel, at a time when angling in Shetland and Orkney was a major tourism attraction. I’d never even given the place a second glance, but sure enough, the description in The Shetland Plan still matches up:

The hotel obviously hadn’t been built as such. It looked more like three cottages knocked into one - a long, two storied house of grey stone, with a row of dormer windows in the slate roof giving light and air to the bedrooms on the second floor. It stood on a terrace overlooking a narrow patch of walled garden, beyond which was Browland Voe.

I had more trouble with Sir Richard and Lady Carmel’s house “near a little village called Gonfirth” reached in the Carmels’ chauffeur-driven Mostyn car by driving

…to the little village of Aith and, twisting and turning, along part of the east shore of Aith Voe, through East Burrafirth, up hill and down again over a tract of wild, undulating moorland, and so to Gonfirth. From here, turning left, the chauffeur came down to low gear to negotiate what was little more than a rough cart track winding through the heather, with view of sea and islands in the distance.

I initially thought Dorling was describing East House, Grobsness, though South Voxter and the abandoned Lea of Gonfirth (home of the legendary cake cupboard) were also possibilities. However, the fact that “Andy recognised the old anchorage of the Tenth Cruiser Squadron...the irreverent used to call them The Muckle Flugga Hussars” also made me think of the Old Haa at Grobsness. In the end, though, I plumped for the most obvious choice: Vementry House, which Dorling would certainly have visited, and perhaps wanted to disguise from just my variety of tourist. Approaching from the sea or the road, Vementry does sort of appear like a row of three or four squat, single-storeyed cottages apparently knocked into one, with some modern looking outbuildings at the far end. They lay within 50 yards of the rock shore of Gonfirth, with a stretch of sloping lawn.

But there is, in Vementry’s case, that inconvenient Georgian manse-like structure at one end. Maybe it’s South Voxter, Cole or as I say, perhaps Dorling was being a little deceptive, for the sake of his hosts’ privacy.

Perhaps he was being deceptive, for the sake of his hosts' privacy

The “derelict whaling station” at Olna still looks very much like a derelict whaling station, its pier littered with scrap. Voe, one of the most beautiful villages in Shetland, still has its bakery, though the shop referred to in The Shetland Plan is now the Pierhead Bar and Restaurant. Souther Hill, crucial to the plot and site of one of the most gruesome scenes is probably best viewed from the steep, almost alpine road to The Lost Valley of Collafirth.

And then there’s the story’s finale, which takes place in two locations I think deliberately made vague, as one is the home of a gang of treacherous spies while the other is the crofthouse of their local collaborator, who shops “in a certain village about seven miles away” from Bridge of Walls.

This is either Voe, Aith or Bixter (with some liberties taken in terms of distance) and as the croft can only be reached by “several miles of trekking over rough ground” with cup-like depressions in the ground and small hummocky hills on the way, my money is on the still rather mysterious community of Tumblin, where the road runs out and you can indeed hike over the hills to Voe or Aith. If you’re feeling adventurous and have a stout pair of hobnailed boots, the right sort of Mackintosh (the coat, not the computer) and a deerstalker hat. Jolly good!

The Shetland Plan always transports me to a different Shetland. One where tweedy, wealthy families rejoiced in ‘plain mutton teas’ and roaring fires, despised mackerel fishing as far too easy and effortlessly patronised the ‘characterful’ Shetlanders. And it was best to bring your own gin and whisky as the islands were dry, with neither pub nor off licence - except in Delting, Northmavine and Yell, which seems entirely appropriate! All of which may seem alienating. But the book actually provides a sense of wonderment, of joy, in a landscape which, as you retrace the Rivers family’s increasingly scary steps, remains very much as it was on the eve of war. As for the weather, some things never change…

It blew like the wrath of God - a roaring, tearing, rampaging gale which flattened growing crops and shrieked through the tough heather. The water from the voes was hidden by a layer of wind-flung spume like dense white smoke. Every little burn was in spate, bursting with miniature waterfalls and rapids. Each loch was a small, wildly agitated ocean stained almost to the colour of deep mahogany, with its lee shore, and the weather faces of its islets, fringed with foam like whipped cream or soapsuds…

The Shetland Plan by Taffrail was originally published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1939. It is widely available second hand.

Each loch was a small, agitated ocean stained almost to the colour of deep mahogany...