Ann Cleeves on Shetland, tunnel visions and the romance of the ferry

Shetland creator Ann Cleeves had already turned down the ferry’s skipper’s well-intentioned offer of a steak. Seasick from the rocking boat hundreds of miles from her family’s home in north Devon, the meaty offering could have turned an already stomach-crunching trip into one she’s since regretted.

Instead, the life-changing 1975 ferry journey to a tiny corner at the very tip of the map is one that Cleeves, whose Shetland and Vera crime creations have captured the hearts of readers and television viewers, warmly recommends.

She has thrown her support behind the news that the aging Good Shepherd ferry, which has served Fair Isle for almost 40 years, is to be replaced following the confirmation of a £27million funding package from the UK Government’s Leveling Up Fund.

The new ferry, which is expected to carry up to a dozen passengers, will replace the current one, which is reaching the end of its lifespan after decades of being a vital lifeline for the island, bringing fresh produce, exporting goods and supporting healthcare and tourism .

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Confirmation of the new ferry came as Shetland authorities floated the idea of ​​underground and under-the-wave tunnels to reduce reliance on their ferry fleet. It is among a range of future transport ideas being investigated in a £600,000 study.

Despite suffering the worst of seasickness on her first visit to Fair Isle in 1975, when she rode the ferry across the waves, the award-winning author is much less excited about tunnel travel.

“I like the romance of the ferry,” she says. “I like being able to leave Aberdeen, travel overnight and arrive in Shetland in the morning.

“I could fly and be there in an hour and a half, but there’s something special about being on a boat.

“And the roll-on-roll-off ferries that travel between the islands are crewed by islanders, they are owned by the islands and have relied on them so much.

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“Of course the Shetlanders have to decide whether they want tunnels or not. I can’t say,” she adds. “But taking the ferry is something I think we need to keep. In addition, tunnels would cost an awful lot.”

Although only an idea at the moment, the provision of toll tunnels linking some of the 16 inhabited islands of the 100 inhabited islands of the Shetland archipelago is being considered amid concerns about the cost of replacing the current aging ferry fleet of 12 ferries drawn oldest, MV Hendra is 40 years old – and to reduce CO2 emissions.

Prompted by Shetland Islands Council and regional transport partnership ZetTrans, fixed links between the islands could cut costs and help encourage people to stay and increase the population.

Though a traditional lifeline for islanders, inter-island ferry trips can take as little as minutes and stretch a little over three miles. While boats are subject to the wild weather, breakdowns and cancellations.

Toll tunnels, on the other hand, are estimated to cost around £400m.

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However, motoring between the islands would increasingly distance tourists drawn to Shetland to visit the places mentioned in Cleeve’s novels from the very characters who inspired them.

“Around 23,000 people live on all the islands, it’s a very small community but one that is very welcoming to cultural tourists, such as the people who want to see Jimmy Perez’s house or go to the violin festival and the jazz festival. to see the textiles and learn about nature,” she says.

“Shetland has welcomed visitors from the beginning, when the Vikings and the Hanseatic League promoted sea trade, whalers and fishermen.

“I was so sick on that first ferry ride. I remember the skipper asking if anyone wanted a piece of steak and the smell of the sheep. But within half an hour of my arrival I was hooked.”

Cleeves, who began her career as a crime writer in 2006 with her Shetland-based novel Raven Black, first traveled to Fair Isle in 1975 to accept a summer job as assistant cook at the famous bird observatory. There she met her future husband Tim.


The couple returned the following year and continued to visit, drawn by the island’s natural and wild beauty.

When the observatory was destroyed by fire in 2019, Cleeves, who was by then a household name thanks to the TV adaptations of her Shetland and Vera novels, pledged royalties from her book Blue Lightning, set on Fair Isle, to help rebuild to help.

She is now preparing to return to Lerwick in June when she will co-direct the Shetland Noir crime festival with Val McDermid and Richard Osman.

“Fair Isle is special,” she added. “The sea life, the puffins, the people – everything is amazing.

“People still come when the ferry arrives to help unload, all the mail comes on the ferry and goods for the shop.

“It’s a community that pulls together. It’s a special place.” Ann Cleeves on Shetland, tunnel visions and the romance of the ferry

Grace Reader

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