Blame game! Why on earth did I spend a week in the Shetland Islands last November? I blame UK author Ann Cleeves. Actually: strike that, I would like to not blame but thank her! Ann created a Shetland Detective Inspector with the unlikely name of Jimmy Perez, and they’re whodunit.
Shetland: Perez the thought
In 2006, Ann published her first Jimmy Perez book, titled “Raven Black”. It promptly won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year. I only discovered Perez a few years later and was absorbed from the start. The advantage of my late discovery was that when I finished it, I did not have to wait for more books!
To date, Ann has written 6 additional books in this fascinating crime fiction series. They all feature Jimmy Perez and are set in Shetland. Having finished the first 6, I had nr 7 titled “Cold Earth” with me on this trip. So cool to read it while right there! But I was dreading finishing it, as there was no next one yet.
Do you want the good news or the bad news first? OK, good news first: number 8 is scheduled for publication in September 2018 and will be titled “Wild Fire”. But then, bad news, I found out it will be the final Jimmy Perez book!
OMG, trepidation, sad, anxious, what to do now? Ann Cleeves herself describes her decision in a facebook post as “bittersweet”. I guess there’s something to be said for going out on a high, rather than milk the success and become formulaic, as happens to some series. Whatever the motivation is: thank you, Ann Cleeves!
Perez, BBC and BAFTA
The BBC made the Perez books into a TV series simply called “Shetland”. Starting in 2013, there are 4 seasons by now. In 2016, the series won Best TV Drama and actor Douglas Henshall, “Jimmy Perez” himself, won the BAFTA Scotland award.
Full disclosure: I haven’t watched the series yet. I’ve got it recorded but when I love books, I’m hesitant to watch someone else’s onscreen interpretation. The characters may not look like I imagined them, the story lines can differ, or they remove or add characters. Happens all the time. I’ll probably watch it after that final book comes out though, as a way to fight my upcoming Perez withdrawal symptoms!
Setting the stage
Perez is from Fair Isle but lives and works in Lerwick, on Shetland’s largest island, called “Mainland”. Must be a northern-Scots thing: Orkney’s largest is also called Mainland (see my 4 Orkney blogs, the first one here featuring the Ring of Brodgar). Shetland’s Mainland is in fact the 3rd largest Scots island and 5th largest in the British Isles.
Fun fact for the OCD folks that need to know: the Big Five in decreasing order are Great Britain, Ireland, Lewis & Harris (one island, double name, Outer Hebrides, see my “Ferry Tales” blog) and Skye (my blog on Skye here).
A peerie bit of history
The Romans knew about Shetland 2,000 years ago, with mentions in 1st century writings. Tacitus describes their conquest of Orkney by Agricola in 98AD and refers to “Thule”, a generic term with “Ultima Thule” for a really far away place – thought to be Shetland, although some think they stumbled onto Iceland. Those Romans sure got around – from town to town, using their real cool heads, and they made real good bread too! If you recognize that wording, give Mike some Love while he still gets around!
For centuries, Shetland was under Scandinavian rule and influence, especially Norwegian. It became Scottish in the 1400s, and then part of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. To this day, you can see Scando influences in architecture, shopping, food and drink, and even the local strong dialect, with roots in Scots and Scandinavian languages, from Old Norse to the later Norn, spoken until into the 1800s.
Wir blyde ta see you!
Fun fact: want to endear yourself to the locals? Say “peerie” instead of “wee” for something small! A feeble effort perhaps but the locals will appreciate it and be “blyde” (happy) about your understanding that they and their language are unique!
While the Shetland archipelago counts about 100 islands, only some 16 are inhabited. The total population is a mere 24,000 or so people, and Lerwick is home to almost 8,000 of them: a third of the population!
Fun fact: what’s in a name? Shetland in Old Norse is “Hjaltland”, Old Norse for Hilt Land. Orkney’s largest island “Mainland” was previously known as “Hrossey”, meaning Horse Island. Appropriately, Northlink Ferries named two ships as such: the Hjaltland and the Hrossey plow the Atlantic between Shetland, Orkney and Aberdeen (also see my first Shetland blog and again that “Ferry Tales” blog about the Outer Hebrides and Orkney ferry routes).
Something fishy about Lerwick
Perez and pals travel between the islands using Shetland’s excellent Council-run ferry system, and I followed suit. More on my outer islands adventures later, but let’s start with lovely Lerwick, Jimmy’s base – and mine, for the week. By the way, the town centre is only a short walk from the ferry terminal, if you’re not renting a car and are able to carry your luggage.
Lerwick has served as Shetland’s Capital since 1708. In Norwegian it’s Leirvik, and the name means as much as Bay of Clay. The town has its origins in the 1600s as a port to trade with the Dutch herring fleet, to this day a fish the Dutch go crazy for. They will salt it, pickle it, dry it, smoke it, boil it etc. Kinda like shrimp!
Making no bones about herring
The Dutch take herring very seriously. Really. Hard to believe these days but in the 1600s Holland was a maritime world power, their “Golden Century. The Dutch fought the rising British Empire for dominance of the seas in 4 Sea Wars, eventually succumbing. Goodbye New Amsterdam, hello New York…. Learn this lesson, Grasshopper: nothing lasts forever!
In 1667, during the Second Dutch-Anglo Sea War, a Dutch fleet was about to attack Lerwick’s brand-new Fort Charlotte but was beaten back, despite the Fort being barely ready and under-equipped.
Ever stubborn, they tried again in the Third Dutch-Anglo War of 1673 and this time they burned the place down. The herring catch was safe.
Fort Charlotte restorations began in subsequent decades and today, the Fort makes for a nice stroll with rewarding views across the “sooth mooth” of Bressay Sound, and the ferry to Bressay.
Time to council Lerwick
From any distance, you’ll see the Town Hall building loom large over Lerwick, making orientation easy – if the skies are clear. The building has a distinctive Clock Tower and is home to the Shetland Islands Council, the ruling body for the islands.
Town Hall construction started in 1882, the year of the first Up Helly Aa, an invented but now-famous winter celebration with lots of Viking history. It features in Ann’s first Perez book, “Raven Black”, complete with its torch light parade and burning of a replica Viking longboat! More Viking stuff in a next Shetland blog about my drive up to Unst.
Goodness gracious, great walls of friars
Lerwick has quite a strong religious past. I also found this in the Outer Hebrides, Lewis and Harris where I visited last year, inspired by yet another UK author, Peter May. Lerwick boasts a bunch of churches, like many houses here built with thick stone walls. The “Big Kirk” is Saint Columba’s, named for the ubiquitous Irish Saint, of Hebridean Isle of Iona burial fame. The Kirk was renovated in 2008, as reported by the Shetland Times.
Fun fact: why all this stone? Isn’t wood cheaper and easier? Well, rock and stone provide solid barriers from any weather, and more relevant: there ain’t no local timber this far north! No chance of getting lost in a forest… (A “The Cure” reference for the fans).
Base Camp at Carina’s
Shetland is in high demand – in summer, when strong tourism gobbles up the available lodging, putting pressure on pricing. Book early! But in November, only the hardier souls venture north – or those unable to take time off during “the season”! Still, Shetland has a hoppin’ oil industry year-round, so I booked my lodging early anyway. I found the perfect spot, right next to the aforementioned Fort Charlotte, another thick stone walls building.
The Fort Charlotte Self Catering Apartments are great. Owner Carina manages 2 same-size units and I had the ground floor unit all to myself. This apartment was only just recently converted and still awaiting some final decorative touches, but the bones of the place were in place and plenty sufficient.
Accessed from the garden, the unit features three bedrooms, sleeping 6 total. It has an open plan living room and a well-appointed kitchen with high quality appliances – and coffee, compliments of Carina! Several other starter items like tea, pepper, salt, sugar etc. were provided too, lovely touch.
Room with a view
Even this ground floor unit has a view, as it sits up on the Fort’s hillside with that garden entrance at the high-side rear. Fort Charlotte Street alongside the apartments slopes down to Commercial Street, Lerwick’s main pedestrianized area. My living room looked out at Harry’s, proudly proclaiming itself as the “largest department store in Shetland”.
No worries about big shopping crowds though: largest here would be considered tiny in most other settings. To Harry’s left is an excellent Chippie, the Fort Café, and beyond that you can just see the water of Bressay Sound.
The apartment has a spacious bathroom with shower, great for me but bathers beware: no bathtub. This is not unusual at all in the UK and Ireland; consider it a word to the wise that a bathroom does not automatically have a bathtub here.
Also, much appreciated by someone who gets rained on and hiker-muddy a lot: there’s a washing machine and large drying rack! Owner Carina even provides detergent. The entry hall has a vestibule to hang wet coats and park your boots, then an internal locking door into a long hallway.
Safety in low numbers
Speaking of locking doors: Shetland feels very safe. Many people still don’t lock their doors. In real life, the crime rate would not sustain Jimmy Perez and his department. I walked around late at night, with pubs emptying and concert revelers abound, and ne’er an iffy moment.
The early bird catches the concert
And speaking of concerts: Ann Cleeves mentions the new multi-cultural centre “The Mareel” in several of her books. The Mareel opened in 2012, providing a space right in town for art shows, exhibits, seminars and workshops, concerts and the like. It also has a café where Jimmy Perez and his team regularly meet and talk with people.
I had checked into Mareel performances for my Shetland week months in advance. The one that caught my eye was an Americana evening featuring the “Stray Birds”, a band from, of all places, Pennsylvania. I promptly purchased tickets online, and was glad I had done so, as the concert was sold out at the door!
Birds of a feather sing together
The Stray Birds were excellent, as Shetland Times reviewer Andrew McQuarrie agrees! And so were their supporting acts, local band Kansa (on Facebook) and the Jellyman’s Daughter, a duo-turned-trio this night, from Edinburgh. Fun! I loved the eclectic mix of folk, Celtic, country, rock and pop – as well as the sheer joy all these musicians seemed to have playing this awesome venue in a stunning location. And, the bar had a worthy local IPA to sample during intermission.
Later that week, I returned for lunch, recommended for sure, and most reasonably priced. Remember Shetland is very remote and what they don’t produce locally has to be shipped or flown in.
Looping around Lerwick
Waterfront to the Lodberries
Starting out on what turned into a 4-mile circuit, I strolled south through the mostly pedestrianized downtown. Lots of neat little shops, with local art, jewelry, clothing, books, wine and real estate. Many of the narrow side streets were renamed a while back, so get a good map or a solid GPS if you want to find something specific.
I walked along the inner harbor waterfront towards a section called The Lodberries. This is Lerwick’s oldest part and consists of old piers and warehouses, many converted into housing and a hotel (the Queen’s Hotel with a decent dining room). I had read that the TV series opens with a shot of the “Perez House”, located in this neighborhood.
The Perez pad
So, not having watched the show yet, I only had a mental picture from Ann’s books of what it was supposed to look like. I was guessing which house exactly, correctly as it turned out, as I ran into the few other tourists around. They had their gloves off, and in between short bursts of sprinkling rain they were excitedly taking selfies.
I was actually pretty lucky with the weather today. Plenty of layers, hat and gloves kept me warm, and my trusty hiking coat kept out those modest sprinkles as well as the ever-serious wind.
From the Perez House, I headed south to the Arthur Anderson Homes for Widows. Anderson, a 19th century wealthy local businessman and politician had these houses allocated to fishermen’s widows in memory of his wife. The main building has a neat Biblical inscription with a Scottish accent: “I was a stranger and ye took me in”.
The nearby High School is named for Anderson too, although the school just moved into new premises this past summer. Ann Cleeves has interesting notes in the Perez books about schooling in the Islands. The new school is located near Clickimin Broch.
The Broch of Clickimin
Leaving Anderson’s, I veered west. Up and down some hills, admiring many stone residences, then along the water, I approached a fascinating contrast: a modern shopping centre across from an ancient structure, Clickimin Broch. The Broch is thousands of years old and sits on a short promontory into Loch Clickimin.
The Broch of Mousa is Shetland’s most famous “broch” or Iron Age tower or fortification. You can see it off of Mainland’s east coast but it requires a shuttle boat to get there. And that boat doesn’t run out of season.
In contrast, Clickimin in Lerwick itself is easily accessible. And free! Settlements here have been dated back as far as 1000BC. Clickimin is well preserved and also restored to a degree, maintained by Historic Scotland. I spent a lucky sunny and dry half hour looking around.
Grounding to a halt
Then, the rain came back and I sprinted to that shopping area, where across from the big store I found the Fjara Coffee House I had read about. What a gem! And the perfect spot to sit out some of the rain too. I agree with the reviews: best coffee I would have all week, and excellent food. I’m a Full Breakfast aficionado and lucky for me, they still served that at lunchtime!
Fjara sits a bit higher up along the bay, offering amazing views. Clouds racing, rainbows coming in and out, gulls and other birds wheeling and screeching. In fact, the coffee was so good that I went back several times during my week – by car, easy and plentiful parking right in front.
Across from Fjara in that large shopping complex is a Tesco where I came back to later by car to load up on groceries for my apartment. And again at the end of the week, to drop off recycling stuff, as there’s a collection centre in their huge parking lot.
For whom the Royal Mail Van tolls
With some regret I left Fjara and walked along the main Sumburgh-Lerwick road to Lerwick’s north side. Here’s another shopping centre called the Toll Clock. It has nice and interesting little shops too, a couple of eateries as well as lots of parking. I just walked through, not needing anything, and was briefly tempted by the Postman Pat ride. Jess was in the bright red van too, looking very black and white!
Walking on, I went by the Mareel again, checking out the announcements, before walking the final bit back along the inner harbor. The rain was back, and I quickly checked out where the Bressay ferry leaves from, for an upcoming car outing.
Rounding up restaurants
Lerwick has a bunch of decent options in town, walking distance. I tried local seafood, Indian, Thai and Chinese among others. I also found some great lunch spots for soups and sandwiches on several islands when out and about. My apartment kitchen did not get much of a workout, except for cooking some nice breakfast fry-ups and the occasional lunch with smoked salmon on great toasted breads!
Last but not least, my apartment was a stone’s throw from — Police HQ! I’m sure they’re a bit annoyed there with folks like me ignoring the signs and walking into the car park.
But hey, how else could I imagine Jimmy Perez heading out with Sandy on his heels, to check into a mysterious disappearance or deal with a landslide. And I didn’t get arrested: I guess the real police here see that developing tourism is a positive aspect of Jimmy’s popularity, for Lerwick and Shetland. Either that, or they stayed in due to the iffy November weather…
Fair Isle knitnacks
This time of year, unless you can afford to get stuck somewhere for a week, forget about visiting Fair Isle, Jimmy’s birth island and ancestral home. Flights get canceled and the small ferry too. Ann’s 4th Perez book “Blue Lightning” tells the tale. But there are plenty items like the famous Fair Isle knitwear and other knickknacks available in the Lerwick shops!
Ginning up more pony plans
A full and rewarding Lerwick day behind me, I settled in on the sofa, popped open an amazing hybrid IPA-Lager and continued reading “Cold Earth”. Soon lost again in the Jimmy Perez story, I finished it far after midnight, forgetting about my noble intention to retire early and my plans to drive out early in the am.
Well heck, I woke up early anyway, sleep is for on boring airplanes! I took several ferries to Unst, Britain’s northernmost inhabited island visiting a distillery, brewery and surviving an amazing hike! Stay tuned for a next blog – and if that’s not enough to whet your appetite: yes there will be more Shetland ponies pictures…
My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
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