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by Ann Cleeves, The Daily Telegraph, November 10, 2016
I love islands. There’s something romantic about the way they reveal themselves slowly as you approach from the sea or the air and they turn from a mysterious smudge on the horizon into a place ready to be discovered. I like the defined boundary that an island provides; you know exactly where you are, and most are small enough for the visitor to get some sense of the place and its people after a short stay. There are always reasons to go back, though – secrets that remain hidden after the first visit – and most island-hoppers have their favourites to which they return year after year.
Islands have been kind to me professionally, as well as providing a texture and a richness to my life. I write traditional crime fiction, and the enclosed community cut off from the outside world was a staple device of Golden Age detective novels – think Agatha Christie with her train stuck in the snow, or boat on the Nile. My first Perez novel changed my career after 20 years of writing, and I’m sure that had more to do with the bleak background of a wintry Shetland than the story itself. So here I’ve chosen my top 10 islands and paired them with the fictional detectives I think most suited to solving their crimes.
There are more than 10 Shetland islands, so I’m classing these as one pick, except for Fair Isle, which is rather special to me and I’ll save that to the end. Go to Shetland in spring when the seabirds are on the cliffs and there are wildflowers everywhere. In June it scarcely gets dark and you can take a boat to the small isle of Mousa to see the storm petrels come in to the Iron Age broch at midnight. Or visit in winter for the famous fire festival of Up Helly Aa (on January 31 2017). My favourite way to travel to Shetland is by overnight ferry from Aberdeen ( northlinkferries.co.uk ; shetland.org ).
And the detective best suited to the place? Jimmy Perez, of course.
Like Shetland, Orkney is an archipelago and there are smaller inhabited islands to explore. Some are drivable and others need a trip on a ferry or one of the inter-island planes. The shortest scheduled flight in the world is from Westray to Papa Westray, and both islands are worth a visit. Hoy is famous for its dramatic sea cliffs, and if you’re a birder, there’s an observatory on North Ronaldsway, with very comfortable accommodation (and a bar). Meet the famous sheep that live off the seaweed on the beach. They spend most of the year outside the stone wall that surrounds the island and that gives the mutton and lamb a very special flavour ( visitorkney.com ).
Scottish crime writer Lin Anderson lived on Orkney and her most recent book, None but the Dead, is set there. Dr Rhona MacLeod, her character, is a forensic scientist.
Bardsey lies a 20-minute boat trip from the tip of the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales, and after a recent stay I’ve decided it’s one of my favourite islands. Rich in history – it was a place of pilgrimage until the Reformation – it still holds a special place in the cultural life of this Welsh-speaking region. There are a number of resident islanders, and a trust manages the place and the holiday homes that are available for rent. Accommodation is also available in Cristin, the bird observatory, and the staff there provide an insight into the wildlife of the island. A mountain runs down the eastern shore and provides spectacular views to the mainland ( bardsey.org ; bbfo.org.uk ).
Bardsey has the atmosphere of an older, gentler age and I can imagine Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey taking Harriet Vane to rest there after a particularly stressful case. On a contemporary note, Mark Billingham has set one of his novels here.
Lundy in the Bristol Channel is the first island I encountered. I grew up in north Devon and could see the twin lighthouses from my parents’ home on the coast. Now the Landmark Trust manages the place and the houses have been beautifully renovated and furnished. The boat brings visitors in to the quay at the bottom of Millcombe, which is as lush and green as the north Devon mainland. This is one of my more civilised islands. There’s a well-stocked shop and a pub that serves meals. Some day-trippers don’t make it any further than the Marisco Tavern at the top of the valley ( landmarktrust.org.uk/lundyisland ; nationaltrust.org.uk/lundy ).
Lundy calls for a detective who understands West Country ways. W J Burley’s Wycliffe would be the person to solve this island’s crime.
My husband and I spent the first four years of our married life on the tidal island of Hilbre. It is a local authority nature reserve and Tim was the warden. Lying in the Dee Estuary between North Wales and the Wirral peninsula, Hilbre seems scarcely more than a lump of sandstone, rising out of the shore, but it’s a real haven away from the conurbation of Merseyside. We were auxiliary coastguards and hoisted a canvas cone to warn local boats that a storm was on its way. Now there are no permanent residents and the garden where we grew vegetables and kept hens is overgrown. It’s accessible on foot and day visitors are welcome, but do check the tide times before you set out on your walk ( deeestuary.co.uk/hilbre ).
Martin Edwards created the Liverpool solicitor and investigator Harry Devlin, and Hilbre would certainly be in his patch.
6. Holy Island
There’s something magical about the way Lindisfarne Castle rises out of the water at the end of Holy Island in Northumberland. Like Hilbre, this is a tidal island, and a noticeboard at each end of the causeway tells drivers when it’s safe to cross the causeway. Another place of pilgrimage, religious people have been visiting for centuries to see the priory home of early Christianity. The island gets very busy during the summer and if you can spare the time it’s worth staying the night in one of the hotels or b&bs. That way you can meet the locals in the pub and experience the special atmosphere of the place before the hordes descend the following morning ( lindisfarne.org.uk ).
A detective for Holy Island? Vera Stanhope, of course. I even wrote a short story set there that features her called “Hector’s Other Woman”.
Islay is the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides and home to eight whisky distilleries and in the winter to thousands of barnacle geese. It’s a fertile island, so the barley needed for distilling grew readily. Though it’s interesting to do at least one whisky tour to see how the famous malt is made, there are other reasons for visiting. There’s a jazz festival in September and a book festival in October, and while you’re there it’s worth making the short hop to Jura, which has a very different character; it’s much wilder and more rugged (islayinfo.com).
Any detective visiting Islay would have to be aware of the importance of a good whisky. Surely Ian Rankin’s John Rebus would be the best man for the job.
8. North Uist
The Outer Hebrides are very different from the Northern Isles, and the people seem to me to be very different too. More relaxed and slightly less organised. North Uist is a beautiful island with white sandy beaches and lots of water. In sunlight it seems insubstantial, shimmering. The RSPB has a reserve at Balranald and I once saw a corncrake walk across the road there, while the birdwatchers in the car were looking in other directions… There’s an arts centre in Lochmaddy, the main village, where local artists and craftspeople exhibit their work ( isle-of-north-uist.co.uk ).
One of the characters in my Shetland novels comes from North Uist – Willow Reeves grew up in a commune. She’d be the person to investigate a murder there.
9. St Agnes, Scilly
St Agnes must be one of the prettiest of Britain’s islands. It’s small, with a population of about 70, and you reach it by boat from the main island of St Mary’s. We had our honeymoon there and even the place names, like Wingletang, Covean and Barnaby Lane, have a certain romance. They remind us of bulb fields and tamarisk hedges. For someone like me, used to the wild open spaces of the Scottish islands, the restricted access can feel a little frustrating, but if you’re happy to stick to roads and footpaths it’s idyllic, and the weather is often gorgeous well into the autumn. The cafés do very good crab sandwiches, pasties and cream teas ( visitislesofscilly.com ).
I think Simenon’s Maigret would enjoy St Agnes. He’d sit outside the pub, the Turk’s Head, smoking his pipe, and unravel the mystery by chatting to the locals.
10. Fair Isle, Shetland
Fair Isle was my first island home and it’s still very special to me. Although it’s only three miles long and a mile and a half wide, the landscape has so much variety that it’s a perfect size for visitors to explore. The north end is wild moorland with steep and dramatic cliffs, while most of the crofts, the school, the shop, the kirk and the small museum lie in the more fertile south. The bird observatory provides full-board luxurious accommodation with en-suite rooms, but there’s a self-catering cottage at Springfield and a number of b&bs. Whether you’re staying in the observatory or further down the island, you’ll be welcome at community events ( fairisle.org.uk ).
Although Jimmy Perez is a Fair Islander by birth, he’s too busy on the mainland to investigate another murder (the first happened in Blue Lightning). The Norse influence on the place would make Henning Mankell’s detective Wallander an ideal investigator.
Fair Isle, Shetland
This article was written by Ann Cleeves from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.