A Mystery on Fair Isles

Fair Isle is the setting for a dramatic episode of the series Shetland

A Mystery on Fair Isles

06 October, 2017

Blue Lightning

Walking down the road towards the crofts Dougie saw nothing but a couple of meadow pipits being blown over the double dyke trap and a hooded crow close to the cliff, but he felt his mood lighten. He caught a glimpse of a figure on the hill and for a second assumed it was Angela, not imagining a ghost, but having forgotten she was dead. That was how she’d moved, purposeful as if she could carry on at the same pace all day. Immediately he knew his mind was playing tricks on him. This must be Ben Cathpole, doing the hill survey because Angela wasn’t there. In waterproofs most of the birders looked the same. He raised his binoculars to check, but the figure had disappeared over the horizon.

- Ann Cleeve’s writes about murder in the northern Isles and in Episode 7 of Series 2 of the drama Shetland, based on her novel Blue Lightning, officer Jimmy Perez has to investigate the murder of visiting scientist Anna Blake. Perez is compelled to return to his childhood home of Fair Isle.

It was still dark on the morning Detective Jimmy Perez was called to the Bird Observatory. The storm that had been raging around Fair Isle for days had yet to blow itself out.

Angela's body was slumped over her desk, the ivory handle of a knife protruding through the bloody silk of her blouse. In a macabre touch, her killer had threaded white feathers through her long, black hair, like a garland …

The episode is especially poignant for author Ann Cleeves, who lived on Fair Isle as a cook at the Bird Observatory in 1975, after dropping out of university. Tim, her husband to be, lived and worked there for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and they stayed for two years together on the island.

Fair Isle has long been a mecca for birders seeking rarities hurled across the Atlantic in autumn storms. It’s a place that breeds obsession. But its magnetism for birders and tourists alike, stems from the inescapable significance of its landscape, intertwined with its culture.

Like the strange story of Tom Hyndman (44) and his wife Liz Musser and their son, who emigrated from New York state (population 19.2 million) to start a new life on this small island, (population 73). A few years later and Tom’s marriage fell apart but not before he fell in love with the island and opted to stay.

In his book Birders: Tales of a Tribe, journalist Mark Cocker writes:

... some love affairs need less explanation than others. Is it difficult, for instance, to comprehend a passion for the Orkneys or Shetlands? I don’t think so. You cannot visit Hoy or Fair Isle without being awed by the power of the Atlantic and the dizzying scale of the sea cliffs. It’s easy to be lulled by the harsh poetry of the crofters’ lifestyle, the community’s lilting dialect, their love of music and the aesthetic properties of spun wool. The islander’s tight-knit intimacy with these northern landscapes and their rugged self-sufficiency render them as distinct from those bustling up the Vauxhall Bridge Road as a nomadic tribe from inner Asia. Even if we don’t feel it ourselves, we understand the allure of their environment.

Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, Fair Isle it's one of Britain's most successful small communities, pioneering projects in wildlife tourism, windpower and sustainable management of the environment.

The island is an internationally important seabird breeding site. From April to August the cliffs are busy with the sound (and smell!) of thousands of fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, gannets, shags and puffins, while skuas and terns fiercely defend their nests on the moorland.

Fair Isle is one of the best places in Europe to view seabirds at close range, especially puffins which will waddle to within feet of a quiet observer.

The 70 or so islanders mostly live in traditional crofts on the more fertile and low-lying southern third of the island. The northern part is largely rough grazing and rocky moorland, rising to the 217 metre Ward Hill.


The Scotland in Depth tour visits Fair Isle on day eleven of the trip, departing Glasgow on Sunday 10 June 2018.



Explore Scotland’s heartland harbours, villages and islands. Its history of ages past, whilst making your own history viewing brochs, standing stones and rings. Isles where the wildlife is in abundance. A land where the people are waiting to welcome you to their unique culture – a culture which may reflect threads of your own heritage.

- Simon Mustoe.

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