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It would be a CRIME not to visit the amazing Shetland Islands

Lerwick, Shetland
Lerwick, Shetland

Where else, as the Isles’ promoters argue, can you walk on the ocean floor, explore an extinct volcano and stroll across shifting sands all in the space of a single day?

Up Helly Aa, the Viking Festival of Fire in which a torchlit procession culminates in the burning of a galley boat is a world-famous spectacle.

Held on the last Tuesday in January every year, it is celebrated with such enthusiasm the whole population takes a day off to recover.

There are puffins, ponies and all manner of wildlife and birdlife to please nature lovers, plus one of Scotland’s star archaeological attractions, Mousa Broch, the oldest Iron Age fort in existence.

Now there is another boast to add to the list: “Shetland – a great wee place to do someone in.”

That, at least, was the bloodthirsty conclusion at the end of Shetland Noir, the islands’ first crime-writing festival held in Lerwick last month.

For while enjoying the chance to mingle with readers, authors from Scotland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States were all blown away by the possibilities offered for anyone harbouring murderous intent.

“It is the perfect spot for murder,” said Craig Robertson, who put the Faroe Islands to similar use in his 2014 novel, The Last Refuge.

“You have a population the size of Arbroath living in an area equivalent to that of Greater London.

“There are miles and miles of cliff-top walks, vast peat fields in which to stash the bodies plus CCTV isn’t an issue.”

The historic site of Jarlshof in the Shetland Islands.
The historic site of Jarlshof in the Shetland Islands.

Happily, homicide is rare compared to the mainland, though mention as much to locals and you get a smile, an eye roll and a comment along the lines of, “Aye, the ones you hear about.”

It is hard not to mention things to locals – they are all extremely friendly.

On my trip, the chat started in the bars and restaurants on the overnight NorthLink ferry from Aberdeen, which also has its own cinema and carried on pretty much non-stop until returning to the mainland.

Standing in the wind and rain at the taxi rank on arrival in a Lerwick still getting lashed by Storm Abigail, I was asked where I was going by the couple in front.

On answering, I was told to jump in and that I wouldn’t be allowed to contribute any cash for my journey.

The openness is attributed to the sense of community which comes from living in a group of islands only 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

One in which, historically, most men became fishermen, seafarers or whalers.

Today, along with oil, tourism makes a significant contribution to the economy which is evident in the high quality of the food and drink available.

Dinner at my hotel for the stay, The Queens Hotel on Commercial Street, was delicious, while fresh, locally-caught lobster and crab are famed for their quality.

During the Second World War fishing boats were used to help the Norwegian resistance against Nazi occupation, an operation known as the “Shetland Bus”, the story of which is told in the museum in Scalloway.

Another must-see sight away from Lerwick is the Mousa Broch, at 2,000 years old and more than 40 feet tall the finest  surviving Iron Age tower in existence.

Where else can visitors can clamber the staircase of a building that featured in the old Norse Sagas and has a more recent history as a smugglers’ store?

Popular too is the Jarlshof settlement where in the late 19th Century storms ripped into low cliffs revealing some 4,000 years of human history, including a Stone Age fort and a Viking village.

Visitors likewise flock to see the long extinct volcano at Eshaness, where the waves have cut open a cross section all the better for the viewing.

For others, including author Ann Cleeves whose Jimmy Perez novels were dramatized into the Shetland series, it is the bleak beauty of the treeless landscape which is the highlight of any trip to the archipelago.

“The islands are dramatic, changing and energetic,” she said.

And, as holiday destinations go, a simple sale indeed.

The facts:

A cabin on the overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick starts at £100 one way (www.northlinkferries.co.uk).
Flybe from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness (loganair.co.uk).
The Queens Hotel. Room rate £92.00 pppn including breakfast (shetlandhotels.co.uk/queens.htm).
Shetland Noir (shetlandnoir.com)