Sophie Whitehead is one of life’s enthusiasts. About running, about her friends, about her jewellery, about Shetland, about life. Her laugh erupts regularly, and almost seismically. Her Instagram feed, the appropriately-named @sophie_sunshine28, is like a paid-for advert for life in Shetland: clifftop walks, kayaking trips, nights in stone bothies and midnight trips to the Broch of Mousa, Scotland’s best-preserved Iron Age broch. Except hers is entirely authentic.
We first meet at Shetland Jewellery, Sophie’s day job, where she designs and makes jewellery inspired by the islands. She’s part of a team of ten, who work in a little pebbledash workshop overlooking the tranquil Hellister Loch near the village of Weisdale.
Shetland Jewellery has been going since 1953, and the team design and hand-make more than 40 ranges of jewellery, which take their cues from everything from Norse mythology to maps of Shetland, Fair Isle knitting patterns or the ‘Simmermal Dance’, the Shetland phrase for the shimmering haze on a hot day. Reflecting Shetland itself, most of the ranges have Celtic or Viking influences.
Sophie’s personal designs include the Peerie Smoorikins (“little kisses”) range, with its silver hearts, and a range of bracelets, pendants and rings inspired by the Mirrie Dancers, the Shetland word for the Northern Lights. “We’re just trying to grasp a little bit of Shetland with our designs,” she says.
Sophie’s accent – Northeast of England, with a few Shetland twangs and phrases – betrays the fact that she isn’t a native. She grew up in Northumberland, and got to know Shetland from coming here with her father, a musician. After an art foundation course in Newcastle, she “hassled” Shetland Jewellery to give her an apprenticeship, and moved up at the age of 19. “It was a culture shock,” she says. “But, despite there not being as much clubbing as I was used to in Newcastle, there was a lot of partying. Every weekend we were out doing something – meeting people, listening to music.”
Fifteen years later, she’s still here, and still in the same job that drew her in the first place. “Doing something creative in such a beautiful place was always the draw,” she says. “And it’s still so inspiring to me being here.”
That inspiration isn’t just Shetland’s bleakly beautiful landscapes, and the occasional simmermal dance, but also an islands-wide culture of making and creating – Shetland’s old Fair Isle knitting traditions have had various high-fashion updates in recent years, and Shetland is home to more than its share of quality artists, from young abstract artist Amy Gear to Ruth Brownlee, an adopted Shetlander known for her moody seascapes and ominous skies. “I always go to the Shetland craft fair in November, and I’m blown away by the quality of the work, and the range of it,” says Sophie. “There are so many creative, crafty people here. There’s something about the landscape, and the light here, that draws creative people.”
But life for Sophie is about far more than work, as her Instagram feed attests. She lives in Lerwick with her husband, Jamie Robertson, who proposed to her in 2015 after she’d just beaten his half marathon time at the Great North Run, as the Red Arrows flew overhead. Sophie started running ten years ago, and initially couldn’t go two minutes without stopping. Now, she’s a marathoner who’s completed the London, Berlin, Chicago and New York races. She’s just got Tokyo and Boston to go to complete the set of the big six.
So, after filming at Shetland Jewellery, we ask Sophie if she’d be up for a run around Eshaness, on the northwestern edge of Shetland’s Mainland. It’s a chilly day anyway, and as we drive over the barren moorland towards the Eshaness lighthouse, looking out at the Middle Earth-like stacks in the grey sea, the clouds start to crack. Sophie isn’t bothered by the rain, though, insisting on a pre-run selfie, then waiting around gamely as we figure out a way to drive our van whilst shooting her running. She seems to get jollier the less things go to plan, and seems impervious to the moist, chilly air. Hence, a potentially nightmarish shoot becomes altogether a good laugh.
We bump into Sophie a few times over our few weeks in Shetland. On a Sunday at Mareel, Lerwick’s airy waterfront arts and culture complex, she appears with her friends Iona Middleton and Kaylee Stevenson, who works for the coastguard and is about to go to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace. They are drinking gin at lunchtime, but then they’ve earned it by spending the morning walking round Bressay, the island just off Lerwick, with Hugo, Kaylee’s large and fluffy Akita, a Japanese breed not dissimilar to Siberian huskies. There’s a lot of laughter.
But perhaps the most telling glimpse of Sophie’s Shetland comes the following week. On the Tuesday night, we ask Sophie if she might be able to gather a few friends for a shoot the following night at St Ninian’s, the beach and island that might be Shetland’s most famous beauty spot.
Expecting just a few folk to turn up, the following evening motorbikes, cars and camper vans converge on the little car park overlooking the beach. At almost no notice, Sophie has gathered a crew of around twenty people, who turn up with bags of firewood, barbecue meat and craft beer from Valhalla Brewery, Britain’s northernmost brewery on the island of Unst. “These are my mates,” she says, proudly gesturing at the crew she’s assembled as they troop down to the beach, ready to build a bonfire. Then she lets out one of her big laughs.
The reason Sophie has stayed so long in Shetland comes down to a lot of things, she says – the scenery, the creativity, the beautiful commute – but most of all it comes down to people, and friendship. “My friends here are just amazing,” she says. “They’re always there for me, and up for going on little adventures.” It’s been that way since she arrived as the new girl from Northumberland. “People here are really welcoming, especially with new people. No one likes you feeling left out, so you’re welcomed into peoples’ homes, invited to weddings, that kind of thing. Everyone just wants you to feel welcome, and wants you to be part of it.”
Sophie’s friends are indeed welcoming and friendly, including Kaylee, who is back from Buckingham Palace with tales of meeting Camilla Parker-Bowles, and being the only member of the coastguard to turn up in a frock rather than her coastguard getup. We’re treated like part of the group, not outsiders.
Sophie describes the vibe amongst her friends as “that cosy Sunday lunch feeling”, and there is something special about sitting around that bonfire, with the summer sun lowering behind the absurdly beautiful St Ninian’s Isle, at the end of the white-sand spit (or tombolo, to use the proper term).
As we drive away to catch the ferry, we see Sophie and a group of her mates head towards the water, splashing around and taking selfies as the sun sets, with the summer’s evening giving way to what locals call the “simmer dim”, when it never gets truly dark. This seems like Sophie’s happy place – and it looks like a pretty nice place to be.
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