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By Toby SkinnerOctober 20th 2020

The author Ann Cleeves on how a chance meeting in a London pub brought her to Fair Isle – and a lifelong love affair.

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!

It was spring, the cliffs were raucous with seabirds and pink with thrift, and from the moment I stepped ashore I was enchanted.

Ann Cleeves
Ann Cleeves

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.

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.

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. That life is a big part of why I keep coming back, and why I hope I always will.

This is an edited extract from the introduction to Shetland, by Ann Cleeves, published by Pan Macmillan (2015).